Star of Fire, a sci-fi novel, is a fictional or alternate history of man’s exploration of Mars. The Mandarin characters for fire and star represent the fourth planet in our solar system, Mars. NASA’s approach of a quicker, faster and cheaper expedition to Mars outsources the manufacture, integration and testing of its Earth return vehicle to the Chinese and the launch and heavy lift launch vehicle to the Russians. The American-led international effort to colonize Mars includes two married American couples, aggressive US military personnel, two rogue Russian pilots and mysterious Chinese women. Corporate partners who are more interested in their bottom line than in scientific exploration aggravate tensions between the astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts. Support for the Mars expedition is eroded by conflict, corporate scandal and political corruption on Earth compounded by natural disasters and terrorist activity.
Dedicated to my mother Rose, who scared us kids into going to bed with threats of Martian bogeymen.
“the starry sky above and the moral law within”. – Immanuel Kant.
The Road Runner, November 2014
The crew of the Mars-bound Road Runner habitat/laboratory had been picked for psychological stability and compatibility; nevertheless, there had been signs of tension during the four months of crew training in Antarctica. The Commander, Marine Colonel Elton Hollis, had commanded a squadron of F-18 Hornets during Iraqi Freedom before being selected for astronaut training. He was less comfortable with a command that was half female and 100% family. Hollis had been grumpy since the aborted launch a week earlier.
The Pentagon Rule established five as being the optimal number of members for a small isolated crew. Church groups weighed in with a second criterion, advocating sending only married men on missionary missions.Under the influence of these recommendations, two married couples, the Lawrences and the Bradleys, were selected to become Hollis’ crew. To Hollis the members of his command were zoomies or blue suits (Air Force). The women retained their maiden names so as not to be confused with their husbands, who held the same military rank.
Bucky Lawrence and his wife Aggie were the first couple selected and were glamorized by the press as the first family to go to Mars. Aggie became the focal point of the group because of her extroverted personality and natural good looks. Aggie’s husband Bucky, on the other hand, was taciturn except when he was surrounded by his pilot friends. Reggie Bradley and his wife Sonja were ordinary by comparison with the Lawrences, an in-flight tanker jock and a family doctor from the Midwest. The couples formed the crew and the commander became an aloof outsider, isolated from social obligations and bound ever tightly to the male warrior caste. He attended the annual naval aviator Tail Hook Association conference without his Air Force crew.
Kids’ dreams are the business plans of tomorrow. – Burt Rutan, designer of SpaceShipOne, winner of the $10,000,000 Ansari X Prize.
The backup crew scheduled for the next habitat was a mixture of male test pilot/astronauts from all of the military services. Navy Captain Robert Leavitt had settled for the position of backup commander, because of politics, he thought. Backup crew to a jarhead commander, Mr. and Mrs. Wonderful, and a tanker toad and his midwife. Four zoomies. The damn program office is controlled by the blue suits. Air Force “Sam” Watanabe, from San Francisco, was selected to be the pilot. Marine Major “Arthur” Chriskus, Air Force Major Dieter “Chico” Thiessen and Army Captain Francis “Fran” Belanger filled out the five-man crew. The backup crew and other astronauts would function as Capcoms (Capsule Communicators, a term from the Apollo era), supporting the Road Runner mission to Mars. Commander Bob Leavitt served as the Capcom during the launch of the Road Runner. Bob was all smiles and conciliation during the launch – the press had blown up the rivalry between the crews to the extent that it was eclipsing the significance of the flight.
Reports from Kazakhstan that the Chinese were preparing a manned launch to Mars were met by skepticism at NASA. After all, the Chinese had no prepositioned assets on Mars. Russian assistance could make a Chinese flight possible – the threat of a real space race could not be dismissed and added urgency to the mission. It would be just like the Chinese to launch a crew to Mars without a means of returning them to the Earth, thought Commander Leavitt.
What a ridiculous name – Road Runner. A Road Runner flew about as well as the Spruce Goose. My habitat will have a proper name – the Peregrine [Falcon]. Now that’s a name worthy of flying in space. The Chinese will have a harder time pronouncing the name than they had with the Road Runner’s. Reportedly, the Chinese were calling their habitat the Penguin! The damn thing probably runs on free Red Flag Linux software. The crew of the Road Runner ate their last meal of steak and eggs, except for Bucky, who only drank three bottles of juice. The three men ran over to the 205-foot altitude urinal before entering the Road Runner while the two women would have to suffer through the two-hour prelaunch count-down or wet their MAGs (diapers). With five crewmembers and more room, the availability of enough time to potty wasn’t as critical as it had been with the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo or Soyuz capsules. It was only later in space that the women in the flight crew would dwell on the lack of fairness in the assignment of urinary nozzles. Pulse rates and blood pressure started creeping up, on the spacecraft and among the spectators.
The view of the highways surrounding the launch site from the gantry was spectacular, a continuous line of headlights bringing the spectators to their viewing sites. Over half of the spectators in the approaching cars wouldn’t make it to the launch area in time and would have to view the launch from the highway. NASA had prepared a bleacher area for 30,000 VIPs including 5,000 reporters, only three miles from the gleaming, white Ares V. The VIPs were joined by about a hundred turkey buzzards, which appeared to be looking hungrily at the Ares V launch vehicle as it sat on the newly refurbished Pad 39-A, glowing in the spray from brilliant, white lights. The crew was sitting on the equivalent of an atomic bomb, which, if it exploded, would destroy both the 39-A and 39-B launch pads. The nearby blister-shaped blockhouses were windowless.
Reverend Adolph Valencia commanded 100,000 protesters among the two million civilians surrounding the Cape. There were billions of starving people on the Earth and only a few hungry corporations. Two and a half billion Earthlings watched the liftoff of the Ares V real-time on television.
Public Affairs Officer: The target for the Road Runner astronauts, Mars. Mars is presently 45 million miles from Kennedy Space Center. Launch Control: This is Ares-Road Runner Launch Control. All report they are GO for the mission. We’re minus 6 minutes, 25 seconds and counting. KSC Public Affairs Officer: LIFT OFF. We have lift-off, 12 minutes past the hour. Lift-off for the Ares. Kennedy Launch Control: Tower clear. Johnson Space Center in Houston took control of the Ares V as it left pad 39-A in accordance with a political decision made during the 60s.
Capcom Bob Leavitt: Road Runner, Thrust is GO all engines. You are looking good. Hollis: Roger. Hear you loud and clear, Houston. All engines GO. Capcom: This is Houston, you are GO for staging. The temperature on engine #4 started to creep upwards and a yellow caution light for engine #4 lit up. The Ares was below the altitude that would allow an abort to orbit with a single engine failure. The shaking continued.
Commander Hollis’ voice over the open mike was garbled but intelligible: Damn United Vehicle Alliance can’t even get us into orbit. Capcom: Solid rocket booster separation. Hollis: Houston. Solid rocket booster separation. Capcom: SRB separation confirmed. Public Affairs Officer: Commander Hollis confirming solid rocket booster separation. #4 engine shut itself down due to overheating. Separation of the Road Runner at this altitude was not a good option. The first-stage engines exhausted their fuel and the Ares V discarded its first stage like a Bostonian discards an empty Styrofoam coffee cup.
Hollis: First stage separation confirmed.
Capcom: Road Runner is cleared to jettison LES.
Hollis: Launch Escape System jettison activated. The LES was jettisoned into the Atlantic.
Commander Hollis released his grip on the abort handle.
The Centaur II placed the command module in an elliptical orbit.
Capcom: Centaurinboard cutoff confirmed. The Road Runner crew checked out the systems of their spacecraft for two Earth days. They could return to Kennedy or have the Atlantis shuttle provide some essential part while they were in orbit; they would be on their own except for communication with Houston once they left orbit. There was little time for final farewells to family and friends and for television reports to the American public.
Capcom Leavitt: Road Runner,you are cleared for Centaur TMI burn. Hollis: Roger, cleared for Centaur transorbital burn. Public Affairs Officer: The Road Runner is cleared to depart to Mars. PAO: Centaur final burn complete. The Centaur II performed its final task of inserting the spacecraft into a transitional orbit to Mars and was also discarded.
Hollis: Centaur TMI separation. Capcom: Centaur TMI separation confirmed. Public Affairs Officer: Commander Hollis has confirmed Centaur separation. Commander Hollis: Goodbye Earth. See ya all later. The Road Runner drifted towards Mars.
The first trillionaires will be made in space. – Dr. Patrick, professor of economics at Aziba University in Japan.
Operation Enduring Liberty
The Exalted Overseer of Existence on Machias for Life decided that a preventive strike on the Mufad power plant on Cruces would establish a new balance of power or stalemate in the Melvin Octant. The first attack on the sentry sensors would have to achieve tactical surprise or the main force might be destroyed in detail as it converged on the target. The Mufads were rumored to have agents among the dominant species on one of the planets orbiting the initial point reference star that could give the alarm even though the planet’s primitive technology was still limited to the speed of light. The electromagnetic sensor being monitored by the agents of Mufad would have to be destroyed.
Peti 6 and Gerant 13 turned on the dislocator beam, which would slowly weaken the structure of the antenna by randomizing its crystalline structure. It seemed that the process was taking forever, but Peti and Gerant had been selected for their abilities of stealth and patience. Covert Watzan warriors are the part of history that is never written.
A West Virginian named John, unobserved by the operatives, went to a specialized room beneath the antenna to eliminate some processed nutritives from his system. John interrupted the ritual when the antenna collapsed and ran directly to the position where Peti and Gerant were concealed. Peti and Gerant were vaporized from the ship before they could be discovered and their flitter recovered from the planet’s surface without anybody in the ship’s crew looking back. Peti and Gerant were glorified as the first casualties of the disastrous Operation Enduring Liberty.
The antenna was replaced by a newer model, which was the largest moveable structure on land on the planet when it was constructed. Everybody soon forgot the old antenna except John, who worked with the new antenna. John will almost go into a rage any time somebody suggests that little green menhad destroyed his antenna.
Gnasa, Eighth Eon
La terre est platte. – Mary Robichaud.
Gnasa looked at his children. Oronons were allowed two children and he had selected a boy and a girl; his estranged wife Pemaquid had wanted two girls because of their greater value to society. Pema was a medical doctor but preferred the study of Oronon society as well as abnormal psychology. Gnasa knew his wife considered him to be a deviant because of his illegal experiments which could lead to the creation of new universes – how else could he test his cosmological theories? Pema reported him and his experiments to the other members of the Cosmos Council. Theoretically a created universe would be in another dimension, but how could that be proven when only one universe could be known with eighth eon science? The universe was two billion light years across - an Oronon probe had flown across the finite known universe and returned generations ago resolving the dilemma caused by gravitational lensing. Oronons rarely traveled beyond the strand of the three closest local galaxies. Gnasa had been to twenty as part of his doctoral thesis on galaxy evolution. Now Gnasa was focused on the first nanoseconds of the universe, an interest triggered by his study of the Byron II binary black holes. His friends at NIT laughed at his theory of bipolar branes. Space seemed to be coming from the diverging neutral points between the Byron II isogons. The intense gravitational field in the area appeared to seed the creation of space - a zero energy point with the usual amount of primordial radiation, relativistic matter and dark energy, inertial matter and antimatter. Gnasa wanted to try to magnify the Adam Effect by causing a graviton reactor to go critical, an experiment that wouldn’t be approved by the chicken-livered Cosmos Council. The ancient crystals proscribed galaxy creation although the reckless Nays were rumored to have generated embryonic galaxies.
Gnasa loaded the reactor and his children in his vacation van and flew to Byron II. He set the controls on the graviton reactor to critical and ejected it towards the larger Byron II black hole. The reactor fell below the event horizon, descending to the point where captured matter returned to primordial light. The van got caught in the expanding shockwave caused by the ensuing graviton tsunami from the star quake.
The ensuing universe was huge and strange. Millions of nulltics later Gnasa could see that his new universe was developing structure. Time was faster than in the old universe and its stars. Now he had to modify one of the points of light into a suitable home for his family. Sometimes he wondered if his wife and Orono still existed.
The Great American Blackout of 2003
Jerry Littlefield, a dropout engineering student and industrialist wannabe, stood on the roof next to the large telescopes of the Boston University Astronomy Department looking at the half moon sailing through the summer sky above Boston. The BU graduate students were using small portable telescopes for their weekly open house. Overcast skies and rain had characterized the Boston weather and there had been no traditional astronomy Wednesday open house for weeks. Tonight, there was only a light cloud cover and Jerry hoped to see Mars, which was about two weeks from opposition.
The International Space Station came overhead on schedule. A female graduate student named Melissa informed the visitors that because of the lack of funding the ISS only had two tenants at the present time. The ISS life support systems and environmental sensors were only working marginally. Many congressmen were suggesting that the astronauts be brought home and the lights on the ISS turned off because of the risk to the astronauts. Later in the year, Michael Foule became the commander of the ISS and was accompanied by the Russian cosmonaut, Alexander Kaleri. Mike and Alex wished the gravity-bound inhabitants of the Earth a Merry Christmas on Christmas Eve, 2003.
The major reference stars Vega and Sirius shined through the light-polluted skies of Boston, allowing the calibration of the automatic positioning systems of the telescopes. Jerry viewed the Ring Nebula, the Dumbbell Nebula, the half moon and various double and triple stars through the telescopes. The Milky Way was invisible to the naked eye. Sadly there would be no observation of Mars tonight – Mars was low on the horizon in the direction of the Green Monster, Fenway Park. The brilliant field lights told the ever-wishful baseball fans of Boston that the (Red) Sox were in town. Jerry would be able to see Mars at his house in Maine, but he had hoped to see its red face smiling through a telescope. [The lights at the rest stop entering West Texas near the Guadalupe National Park are so bright that I could only see a Lone Star, which is where the expression comes from.] He wished that the lights would go out…, if only for a little while.
Two weeks later, the city folks of the eastern seaboard and Times Square in particular looked up at the sky that Jerry saw every clear night at his home in Trenton, Maine. They gazed at man’s lost legacy – the Milky Way, Polaris, the Big Dipper, O’Ryan, hundreds of billions of billions of stars forming billions of galaxies and of course, the Red Planet.