Not long before the NASA spacecraft Hobbes passed the moon, heavy ceramic shields rose silently and firmly into place, blocking the views from the windows, even the cockpit’s great forward screen. The shields were supposed to help protect the crew from the dangers of radiation in deep space. Privately, Flight Engineer Kent Dudenhoeffer suspected that the shields were an insidious plot to make five months flight time even more tedious.
Dudenhoeffer’s suspicions grew as the heavy shields remained in place for three weeks longer than was strictly necessary. The Mission Commander, Jon Wroblewski, liked to claim that safety trumped all, but Dudenhoeffer suspected that the man simply had a flair for the dramatic, because when the shields were lowered at last and the golden majesty of Saturn with its shimmering belts of rings filled the cockpit’s window, he’d gaped like an idiot and had to wipe away a tear, despite his training, because it was without question the most beautiful and numinous moment he had ever experienced. For an astronaut, that was the equivalent of weeping openly and unashamed. No one saw. He made sure he didn’t see any of them, either.
The next day, when he woke and experienced that view again, now closer, he caught himself wiping away another tear. It was okay; this time he’d been alone and his back had been to the mission camera that recorded every moment for history.
After three weeks in orbit around the moon Enceladus, though, even that stunning view had become tedious.
In fact, everything about the mission had dimmed to tedium. The novelty of weightlessness? That had floated away before they’d even left Earth orbit. The food? Please. It wasn’t bad, not really, but variety wasn’t exactly NASA’s specialty. Being one of the first human beings to explore a new world? By now, he thought he had every square mile of the icy surface of Enceladus memorized. He saw it in his dreams. The sheer adventure of just being in outer space, away from low Earth orbit? That had dulled soon after they’d passed the moon. Now, that faded elation wasn’t even a memory.
Plus, while the air filters still performed dutifully, the place was getting a little … stale. That’ll happen when five human bodies live in a tight, confined space for months on end.
Worse, if they didn’t find a landing spot soon, all of it, tedium and beauty alike, would be for nothing. The mission would fail. They’d head back to Earth with only a few thousand pictures and a few tons of rock to show. The big questions? Yeah. Those would remain unanswered. Maybe till the next mission, maybe forever. Which meant probably forever, because failure didn’t exactly inspire the politicians to increase the old budgets. The men and women who wrote checks liked to tout victories in front of a waving American flag. Dudenhoeffer didn’t blame them.
Dudenhoeffer unzipped his flight suit. At least the showers still worked.
“Kent!” Dudenhoeffer spun around. The voice was Wroblewski’s. He wasn’t even bothering with the comm. He was shouting. Shouting! All the way from the cockpit. “Get up here!” Wroblewski called. “Fast! Fast!”
Dudenhoeffer re-zipped his flight suit. He pulled himself along until be floated out of the inflatable habitat module and into the main body of the spacecraft.
Beneath him, a sound. A scrape, metal on metal. Wait. Wait. Was that the hatch to the lander?
Whoa. Whoa. If the Mission Specialists were manning the lander—
Dudenhoeffer grabbed a handhold and pulled, launching himself down the main tube toward the cockpit. Wroblewski sat in the tight confines of the port science station nook. The telescopes and spectrographs were online. Dudenhoeffer felt his eyes widen. “Did you—?”
Wroblewski nodded at the other science station. “Sit down. Tell me what you see.”
Dudenhoeffer floated across the deck to a seat, squeezed himself into the alcove, and strapped himself in. The scopes showed what Wroblewski saw. Dudenhoeffer chewed his lower lip. If the landing party was in the Calvin, Wroblewski must have spotted a potential landing site.
It would have to be a spot with exposed rock, ideally. Short of that, they’d have to find a point where the ice was thick enough to hold the lander’s weight, even after a blast from the descent rockets, but thin enough that a drill could reach through to tap the liquid water below. Such a spot had proved elusive.
Dudenhoeffer felt his pulse quicken and he pursed is lips. Whoa, whoa. Could this be it? Really? After all these weeks? He took a deep breath and calmed himself, just like they’d been tried. He studied his monitors and made a few subtle adjustments.
After a long moment, Dudenhoeffer looked up from his instruments and met Wroblewski’s gaze. Slowly, a smile spread across his face. Wroblewski beamed. Dudenhoeffer nodded once, still grinning like a jackass.
Wroblewski hit the control button on the main comm. “Houston,” he said, “we confirm liquid water within drilling distance of the surface.” Then he leaned back and waited for the answer.
# # #
In the cramped cabin of the Calvin, Mission Pilot Katy Hinman kept her hands on the controls, fingers twitching, ready, waiting. Through the tiny windows, she could see the great mass of the Hobbes stretching out above, with its big, powerful cone engines and thrusters, its eccentric, almost organic design, its name painted proudly on the hull above the famous NASA logo and the American flag.
Hinman loved the Hobbes, but the tiny Calvin, that was her passion. The spidery little lander had the good old Apollo Lunar Module is in its DNA. It ought to; they’d run all its test landings on the moon. But they hadn’t landed her on ice yet. Not yet.
Nobody had piloted a lander out this far. Nobody.
Hinman was going to be the first.
She checked the seals on her helmet and gloves again. All good. She clenched and unclenched her fingers. After all these months, after all the endless hours of training and all the countless drills, these last seconds of waiting were the hardest.
The Mission Specialists, Michael Dural and Daryl Burnet, would be the first out, the first human beings to set foot on a world in the Saturn system. That was okay. They were scientists; it was their moment. Let ’em have it. The decent and landing, though, that was all hers.
Hinman started her section of the preflight checklist. While she worked, she tried to calculate how long it would take Wroblewski’s signal to reach Mission Control in Houston, and how long for the go order to come back. About eighty four minutes each way. Shouldn’t it be here by now?
She wondered what Burnet would say when her boot touched the surface for the first time. Hinman had no doubt she’d been planning her own “that’s one small step for man…” speech for months. Years, probably. Hinman wondered if she’d be able to keep a straight face when Burnet recited it out loud at last. She wondered if she’d be able to make Burnet crack up. She knew she shouldn’t try. This was, after all, history, one of the great and shining moments in human achievement. She knew she’d try anyway.
She finished her section of the preflight and passed it on. She checked the seals on her helmet and gloves one last time. Still good.
And then … from above, a loud and echoing twa-thump of metal moving against metal and the hum of demagnetized couplings — the telltale sound that meant the docking clamps were unlocked. Hinman looked around. Burnet and Dural were grinning like idiots, and then quickly making efforts to hide it. This was history; the cameras would be on, capturing every moment for posterity.
She hoped her own grin was at least a little more dignified. She doubted it.
Mission Commander Wroblewski’s voice came over the comm speaker. “Crack the plates and tighten up the screws, people. You are go for landing.”
This was it.
“Roger that,” said Hinman. “Go for docking clamp release in t minus six seconds. Purging the link pods now.”
“We confirm purge, Calvin,” said Wroblewski. “We’re retracting the connection tubes and docking links.”
Hinman heard more loud metallic thumps. She checked her display screen and nodded. “Confirm retraction. Switching power to onboard cells. All green.” The computer completed its final pre-check.
Six seconds and a thousand heartbeats passed. “Calvin, you are go. Ms. Himan, the lander is yours.”
“Hold on tight, kids,” Hinman said. “The lady’s driving.”
Hinman hit the controls that released the final docking clamps on the lander side and touched the maneuvering thrusters. Above, the Hobbes seemed to spin away, already shrinking in the black distance. It looked hopelessly tiny and fragile.
Hinman checked at the heads up display on the windshield. Two-hundred kilometers and dropping. Steady on, steady on. That’s my girl.
The thirty-second Descent Orbit Insertion burn fired on schedule. The drop was easy, smooth as good, 50-year-old Irish whiskey.
One hundred kilometers. Pressure was good; the fuel tanks read normal. “All systems go,” said Hinman.
“We copy that, Calvin,” said Wroblewski. “All systems go.”
Seventy-five kilometers. Thrusters were responding normally; life support was still in the green. In the windows, the frozen, blue-green surface of Enceladus flashed with streaks of gold when the ice caught the soft glow of Saturn’s reflection.
“Fifty kilometers,” Hinman said.
“Roger that, Calvin,” said Wroblewski. “We copy you at fifty kilometers. Burn shows go.”
At fifteen kilometers, Hinman initiated the final Powered Descent Initiation burn. They were going down.
At five kilometers, Hinman turned off the automated landing system and switched the controls to full manual. There wasn’t anything wrong with the automated system; she switched it off because she could, because any self-respecting pilot would have done the same thing. Hinman wouldn’t be the first person out, or even the second. This, this was her moment, the landing, her one single heartbeat on the grand stage of human history. No way a computer was getting credit for the first manned landing on Enceladus. Besides, she had five years as an Air Force combat and test pilot under her belt, not to mention seven years with NASA. No way the computer could match that.
Her fingers danced across the controls, adjusting pitch and yaw, letting the blue-green icy surface float past the windshield, the golden majesty of ringed Saturn peaking over the horizon.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had landed the Eagle on the moon for the first time — could that really be almost a hundred and fifty years ago? — they’d had a hell of a time finding a landing spot on the rocky, crater-pocked surface. When they finally touched down, they’d had only about twenty-five seconds worth of fuel left, at least according to the history books. Hell of a close shave.
Hinman was a little disappointed; her landing wouldn’t make anywhere near as good a story. She found a perfect spot to set the Calvin down almost right way — the ground read solid, and less than a hundred meters away from the drill site. Barely even a stroll, even with the heavy drill equipment.
She started down. There was more steam than she’d anticipated; the surface ice was melting faster than anticipated. Nothing to worry about, really, but better to be safe. Besides, it would keep her fingers on the controls that much longer. Hinman hit the thrusters and drifted back a bit, away from the ice and back toward a shelf of exposed rock. The site wasn’t perfectly level but it was close enough. The Calvin’s hydraulic legs and flexible landing pads would adjust.
Hinman moved the joystick and turned the Calvin, just to give them all a good view, drifted a few meters, initiated the final descent burn, and set the lander down with barely a jolt.
“Contact light,” said Dural. Just he spoke, a geyser erupted, a little over three-hundred meters away, sending hundreds of pounds of water into space. The pale light of the distant, rising sun gleamed through it, a miracle of light and color, spilling a blue rainbow on the icy surface toward them like a road or a promise. A round of applause from Enceladus herself.
“The Calvin has landed,” said Hinman. Then, less than a second later, “Engines off.”
“We copy you down, Calvin,” Wroblewski’s voice crackled over the comm. Despite the burst of digital static, Hinman could hear relief and exuberance in his voice.
Twenty minutes later, when the checks were done and the airlocks were flushed, Daryl Burnet became the first human being to set foot on the surface of Enceladus. “Now,” she said solemnly, “the human race is this much larger, because the frontier of human experience is this much wider. We come in peace for all mankind.”
Hinman didn’t laugh, or even crack a smile. Something must have gotten in her eye, dammit, even with the helmet on, because damned if there wasn’t a tear rolling down her cheek.
# # #
By the time Hinman joined Burnet and Dural on the surface, they already had the drill set up. She danced across the ice toward them. Every step was a leap. She felt like a gazelle, like a goddess. She was only a few meters away when she saw Dural look up from the drill. A slow smile was creeping across his face.
“Hobbes,” said Dural, “we have liquid water.” Then, just a few seconds later, “We’re sending a probe down.”
# # #
In the Hobbes, Dudenhoeffer and Wroblewski huddled close to the display monitors on their control panels, hardly daring even to blink. They watched the countdown on their heads up displays. It had been more than three hours since the team had confirmed liquid water.
“The probe should be through,” Dudenhoeffer said. Jesus, why was he whispering? And why were his palms so damn sweaty?
And why in the name of heaven, hell, and everything in between wasn’t the ground team transmitting results?
Wroblewski hit the mike button on his comm control. “Are you reading methane or formaldehyde?”
Wroblewski hit the control again. “I repeat. Are you reading methane or formaldehyde?”
“Calvin, are you reading any biochemical signatures?”
Still nothing. Dudenhoeffer looked over his shoulder. Wroblewski smiled and shrugged, but his eyes were darting: excited, nervous.
Wroblewski hit the comm again. “Calvin, this is the Hobbes. Please respond. Did you find anything that might be a sign of life?”
Dudenhoeffer counted ten heartbeats, then ten more, then twenty. Nothing. Then, finally, a burst of digital static followed by Mike Dural’s voice crackling over the comm. “Uh, no, Hobbes. Something … uh, something … else.”
Dudenhoeffer whirled in his seat, aware that his mouth was falling open. Wroblewski’s eyes were wider then softballs.
“Calvin, please clarify,” said Wroblewski.
“Hobbes,” said Dural, “we’re sending you a visual. Okay? Tell me … tell me if you see what we’re seeing.”
In the tight confines of the flight deck, Wroblewski and Dudenhoeffer, Mission Commander and Flight Engineer alike, watched their screens. When the image resolved at last, Dudenhoeffer felt his jaw drop wider. He tried to speak, but there were no words.
After a time, somewhere between seconds and eternity, Wroblewski was the first to find his voice.
“Oh … oh my God!”