I was taken out of school a month before the launch and made to attend SPACE X launch classes. The major theme running through the series of classes was something called OpSec, short for operational security. It was repeatedly drilled into us how important it was for us to keep anything we knew about the colony to ourselves. We were told that our primary responsibility as colonists was the secrecy and security of the colony. Anything mentioned to off-world friends or relatives could potentially jeopardize security. Thus, it was of utmost importance for us to not mention anything about the goings-on of the colony – even how the bathrooms work, or what we were going to eat for dinner.
SPACE X owned the Martian surface in every sense of the word. Musk was essentially a Martian dictator; his word was the law on Mars. Some would argue that his word was the law on Earth as well, but that is not relevant to this story. The reason why it was so difficult to return to Earth from Mars had nothing to do with the mechanics of returning – it had to do with the law. Musk had pressured the government into passing laws that would prevent anyone who returned from entering back into Earth society. If you decided that you couldn’t live on Mars any longer you were allowed to return to Earth; as long you agreed to spend the rest of your life in an isolated return colony, never again able to rejoin your friends or family. They could come visit you at the return settlement, but all your communications were carefully monitored and controlled. Almost no one asked to be returned to Earth.
Colony secrecy was so important that all communication from the colony was filtered assiduously — any mention of anything regarding the colony could result in imprisonment or, in extreme cases, execution. Because of this no one on Earth knew anything about the colony. When asked, Musk would respond that the base was used for: “research that isn’t possible in the atmosphere on Earth.” No one was sure whether he was talking about the air or the political climate but, because Musk owned Mars, there was nothing anyone could do.
I was told that I could bring exactly 2.4 kilograms of personal belongings for the trip. I spent the last week before the launch deciding exactly how to pack my life into one small bag. I felt that I was being expected to reduce my existence to a limited menu of physical objects of small size and weight. The decision wasn’t easy, but I eventually decided to bring my mother’s urn, and a USB drive containing all the AI enhancements I had developed for Star Commander. I didn’t want to transmit them over the net; I, childishly, feared that someone might intercept them.
Everyone suggested I should leave my mom behind, there were many other things I should bring instead. But I wasn’t going to budge, my mom was coming with me to Mars, my family was going to be complete again. What, of all the things I own, would I need on Mars? My interface? My clothing? All of these things would be replaced upon my arrival, my mother was irreplaceable.
Jessica drove me to the launch pad before the sun came up on the morning of my departure. “Ryan, you know we’re all going to miss you. That your mother loved you more than anything in the world, right?”
I didn’t know what to say. I merely nodded, gave Jessica a hug and walked through the airlock into the quarantine area. The rest of my launch had already arrived and were getting ready for take-off. I wish that I had said something to Jessica, but at the time I was in shock about what was going on around me. I couldn’t decide on what to say so I didn’t say anything.
The ground crew helped me into my launch suit silently. We had practised getting into the 60-pound suit dozens of times and had it down to a well-rehearsed dance. I stayed away from the rest of my launch, I was in a daze, unwilling to accept that what I had spent the last month training for was about to happen. I was scared of letting anyone see how distressed I was.
The days of massive ground fired rockets were long gone. Musk’s Hyperloop was now used to launch a crew capsule along a near-vacuum tube until reaching the velocity necessary to escape the earths gravity. The tube gradually climbed an 80-kilometre long ramp from the ground to the stratosphere, twenty kilometres up. Using magnetic levitation, the Hyperloop was capable of pushing the Atlas crew capsule to a speed of 3,100 meters per second – about Mach nine. After leaving the Hyperloop, other rockets took over, completing the capsules trip into orbit.
The combination of speed and height allowed something to be placed into a low-orbit without the expenditure of massive amounts of fuel. With the Hyperloop space travel had become somewhat common – moon tourism was becoming a booming industry.
The Atlas crew capsule was twenty feet in diameter and one-hundred feet long, it looked like a huge, stretched out forty-five calibre bullet held fast in the launch tube by magnets. The interior of the capsule was quite cramped, every inch of space was utilized to capacity. I located my seat, a perfectly moulded replica of my back and behind, and started strapping myself in.
“Hey kid,” the man sitting next to me said, “my name’s Scott. You’re Ryan, right?”
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to sound brave.
“It’s okay Ryan,” Scott reached over and took my shaking hands away from my straps, “we’re all scared. Just remember your training. Do the breathing exercises, like they showed us.”
I smiled and Scott released my hands, “thanks.” I said, calmed slightly by Scott’s words.
I finished with my buckles and the flight steward came over to check my straps. “It’s gonna be okay, kid,” she said, “You’re buckled in nice and tight.” The steward checked everyone else’s straps and left through the porthole at the rear of the cabin. I remember the feeling of finality that the loud click-hiss of the airlock closing brought over me.
“Launch in 10, 9…” the mechanical voice of the flight computer buzzed through the headphones in my helmet. My heart raced in fearful anticipation. Was it too late for me to turn back? Jessica would take me in. I didn’t really need to go through with this, did I?
It was too late.
“You ready kid?” Scott asked, reaching over to take my hand, he interrupted my panicked thoughts. I’m not sure if he was trying to comfort himself or me; he was gripping my hand so hard it hurt.
I didn’t reply, I just stared at the seat in front of me and practised my breathing.
The launch was terrible. I felt like my insides were going to squeeze out through the bottoms of my feet. If it wasn’t for the ultra-tight g pants in our launch suits and the halting breathing exercises we practised in class, I think my legs would’ve exploded and I would have bled out before we left the atmosphere.
The first moments of zero gravity were giddy. I remember laughing from over stimulation and relief that the sounds and stresses of the launch were finally over. Everyone on the ship was cheering and high-fiving as though we had just successfully conquered an alien planet. My eyes were glued to the window, drinking in their first look at Sagan’s pale blue dot against the endless sea of space.