“T -20 minutes and counting.”
It was a typical Florida day at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, hot and muggy.
Although it was only 10 o’clock in the morning, people were already sweating. Many folks held umbrellas to cover themselves from the scorching sun. Others were wearing various kinds of hats and caps, and their shirts and tees were wet with sweat. Their armpits—and wherever else their garments touched the skin—were showing dark patches of sweat. Almost everyone was wearing shorts. They didn’t care whether it suited them or not; they just wanted to be comfortable. The combination of sunscreen and sweat made their skins glisten, and sunglasses covered their eyes. A big crowd had gathered to watch the launch live. All sorts of vehicles were haphazardly parked on the flat meadow. Many had climbed on the rooftops of their RVs to get a better view. Some of them with flatbed trucks had brought lawn chairs with attached umbrellas. Families sitting in the chairs were enjoying chilled beverages. Kids were sitting with cans of soda. Every once in a while, some of them would roll their cold cans over their faces to get some temporary relief from the sweltering heat. Clusters of families had spread their picnic blankets across the green grass and were using coolers as anchors. Spreads of snacks were sprawled across a few of them: cookies, chips, fruits, candies, and assortments of soda. Uniformed cops in shorts were riding on cycles among them, making sure that no one had any alcohol. Some adults had their cans of soda in a soda-cozy to keep the beverage cold. The policemen would stop their bikes near the adults, and ask them to take out the cans from the soda-cozy to ensure that they were not beer cans. Little children were playing not far from them, under the watchful eyes of their parents. Some moms were applying sunscreen on their children before letting them play, and some were rubbing it on their husbands’ backs. Some people were sprawled across the grass, tanning in the sun. Others had brought their dogs with them, and their kids were taking the dogs for a walk on leashes. The dogs were wagging their tails with excitement. They would keep their noses close to the ground, sniffing and panting, stopping every now and then, before being pulled forward by their owners. Dozens of TV vans, belonging to various networks, had their satellite dishes extended high atop their roofs, broadcasting live to the world. News reporters, with microphones in their hands, were standing in front of TV cameras with the shuttle framed in the background. They were the most uncomfortable, as they had to wear a jacket in the scorching Florida sun to look professional. The bright camera lights thrown on their faces were not helping either. The moment they would stop talking to the camera, the camera lights would be turned off; they would then sigh in relief, take off their jackets, and start touching up their faces. At the edge of the ground, a tall flagpole bearing a huge United States flag fluttered lazily when the wind blew. Next to it was an enormous digital clock, counting down. It was a very festive atmosphere, and the air was filled with excitement and anticipation. Every now and then, some folks would glance at the shuttle standing in the distant horizon, with smoke blowing slowly from its base before evaporating. The NASA Test Director had already conducted the final launch team briefings and completed the inertial measurement unit preflight alignments. “T -9 minutes and holding.” “This is the final built-in hold folks,” an announcer on TV said, sounding as if he knew what was going on, but in actuality, he was merely reading from a script given to him by NASA. “This is what it means—there are several things happening. The final launch window is determined, the flight recorders are activated, and the final ‘go/no-go’ launch polls are conducted by NASA Test Director, Mission Management Team, and the launch director.” He was explaining it quite well on TV. Audiences across the world were watching this launch intently. It was a highly publicized launch. After the first manned mission to the moon, Apollo 11, this was the most viewed mission. “This is the last launch to take place before NASA changes its direction. The Last One, as it is dubbed. We know that there is water on this unknown planet, and where there is water, there is life. Without water, no life has ever sustained. We all know how dangerously low we are on our water resources. Sure, we have plenty of seawater. But it has salt, and is not meant for human consumption. A few companies have tried to develop technology to convert it into fresh water by spending billions of dollars on desalination plants. However, it’s way too expensive and not practical. The resources are dwindling, and famine is widespread. This is it folks, it’s now or never. Colonizing this unknown planet is our only option,” he said, trying to sound dramatic. “And by water, I mean liquid water. Water can be in other states too: frozen solid or evaporated into a gas. Take Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn. We have discovered a water-rich plume venting out from its south polar region. It shoots geyser-like jets of water vapor that are about one hundred miles long. Think of it as a volcano, but instead of lava, it’s pouring out steam, a cryovolcanic eruption. So, even though we know it has water, life is not possible for us humans—primitive microbial life may be possible—but not for us. Saturn has 26 million times the water on Earth; yes, you heard it right folks, 26 million. Liquid water is just one of the components required for us to live. There are two more components that a planet needs to have: the right atmosphere and temperature. The planet cannot be too hot or too cold, only just right. Our neighbor, Venus, is around thirty percent closer to the sun and eight hundred degrees hotter. Then there is the atmosphere; it should have the right amount of oxygen to breathe. Of course, making a huge air-conditioned capsule can control these two to a certain degree. But not water. We need natural, liquid water that a planet can produce. Mars is the first planet we have thought of to colonize. And it is natural to look at it first as it is closest to us, only 48 million miles away, a rock’s throw away compared to the astronomical distances from other planets. But as we get to know more about it, we realize how harsh life can be. Here are a few things that encourage us to find out if living on Mars is possible. It has much lower gravity, so you will weigh much less. There is evidence of flowing, liquid water, but it’s all gone now. It has turned from a warmer, wetter planet into a cold, dry one. There have been talks about terraforming, a process to make the planet habitable like Earth. But then you are talking about confining yourself in a large capsule. You can forget about going on treks, scaling the heights of mountains, scuba diving, taking nature walks, and many other things that we take for granted on our Earth. Basically, you won’t be able to open the door and go outside casually. Why am I telling you all this? You can get this from the Internet. There is a reason. Bear with me for a moment. We know our galaxy is about 13.2 billion years old. And our solar system is about 4.5 billion years old. So Earth is around 4.5 billion years old. The sun’s age is estimated to be around 12 billion years. So we are almost half way there. All these are enormous numbers, you’ll say, and I agree. But let’s juxtapose these numbers with our existence. Our ancestors have only existed for 6 million years. And we, the modern form of humans, have been around for only 200,000 years. And civilization, as we know it, is only 6,000 years old. See where I am going with it? Although the life of our solar system is enormous, we have been around for only a fraction of that time. And the resources are already dwindling. Look around you. He paused for a moment to let this sink in. We have to find a way to prolong our existence. I have to repeat the famous words of Neil Armstrong, ‘one small leap for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ because they still hold true. We have come a long way in our understanding of the vast universe, but our basic needs remain the same. We have advanced technologically, but have we evolved? Have we adapted? Are we using fewer resources? Studies after studies tell us that we are not. An average person needs, no, uses more resources. Where do they come from? In this digital age, we all consume more. Use more batteries for our devices, why?Because we have many more devices now than we had ten years ago. Laptops, phones, games, toys, you name it. We eat more and drink more. In this fast moving world of ours, where information is at our fingertips, we have seen the globe shrinking. In addition to getting news of our neighboring villages and cities, we are getting news from our neighboring countries. We are getting more aware of our world, and it doesn’t look good. We can either ignore all the information we have, or we can do something about it. Our population is growing, and our resources are shrinking. It’s not political any more. It’s our survival,” he paused, his voice lowered, almost becoming a hush. “There won’t be any politicians if no one survives.” He stayed silent for a while, knowing that silence on TV was a no-no. But his journalistic instincts told him that it was the right thing to do. He was passionate about this cause, and he had the ear of the world. However, he had to strike the right balance between captivating his audience and depressing them. He didn’t want to be a doomsayer. But at the same time, he wanted to convey the urgency. “This planet, simply called P2, was recently discovered by NASA. Technically, this so called—The Last One—is a misnomer as there can be more flights by NASA. If we find that life is sustainable on this planet, we will have more flights to P2,” he boomed, changing his voice to a deeper baritone. “How far is P2? Farther than the farthest planet in our solar system. In addition to the regular, orange-colored rocket boosters, the space shuttle is also fitted with two giant SEP arms. SEP stands for Solar Electric Propulsion. They will unfurl once the shuttle has reached outer space, after which the shuttle will generate its own energy, drawing it from the sun. You have seen these kinds of shuttles used for traveling to the International Space Station, or for adding a solar panel to a satellite. But this one has been modified to carry more scientific instruments. Once on P2, they will be used extensively to analyze soil samples, rock samples, and other materials that have been collected. After this, NASA is going to divert its resources to explore other things. Congress has decided to cut the budget for such programs. They feel that the funds should be used in more fruitful missions. Is it a wise move? You decide.” The ground was separated by water, and beyond that, the Space Shuttle. Lots of people were peering through their binoculars to feel closer to the launch than they actually were. “T -9 minutes and counting,” the voice boomed on the PA. The automatic ground launch sequencer was started. “We have less than ten minutes to witness a historical moment. Gather everyone around the TV to see this for the last time. It’s been over forty-five years since we landed the first man on the moon. We have learned many things about our space since then,” said the announcer, and then his tone changed. “Let’s all take a moment to consider how tiny we are in the scheme of things. The space is a vast unknown. We want to know as much as we can. The space program is about to change directions in how we gather this information. Whether you agree or not with our government, one thing is for sure—we are the most advanced and powerful nation in the space program. Many of you question the wisdom in dismantling something so hugely successful. So let’s not forget the perks of such programs. NASA has benefited mankind so much. Innumerable inventions exist that have come out of NASA. I can go on and on praising NASA, but let’s get back to what’s happening now.” On the ground where people were waiting patiently for the launch, a few ice cream trucks were selling candies, ice creams, bottled water, sodas, and much more. Little children had gathered around the trucks. “Do you have beer?” asked one man, hoping that the vendor did. “No sir,” replied the vendor, shaking his head vigorously. “We are not allowed to sell beer, and you are not allowed to drink it in a public place. If the cops see you drinking one, they’ll ticket you.” “I know that,” the man glared at him. “Oh,” the vendor replied sheepishly. “Sorry.” “Give me an ice cream,” the man said, shaking his head in disappointment. “What flavor?” “Chocolate,” he replied, and then he added, “in a cone.” The man handed him a ten-dollar bill, and the vendor returned the change. “T -7 minutes and 30 seconds,” the voice on the PA continued. The access arm of the orbiter was slowly retracted. It looked