Per Ardua ad Astra
Chapter 2

Once the exobiologists confirmed the initial results from Hermes, the Mars terraforming project went into overdrive. The centerpiece was a crash project to send humans to set up a small base to do intensive scientific research on Europa to gather the bacteria and begin testing. There was just no substitute for on-site human ingenuity to uncover – and solve – problems a robot probe would not know how to deal with.

It took five years just to make sure the ship to carry the people would take anything the universe could throw at it, and begin setting up the process to weed out the millions of applicants for the crew.

Five hard, long, expensive years.

Only the most assiduous political maneuverings had allowed the Secretary-General to cover the seemingly-endless red ink that marked the Martian Colonization Budget; even with a world population of ten billion (plus a few hundred people on the moon and perhaps forty on Mars) there was only so much brainpower and human capability that could be drawn upon; only so much money that could be spent; even so, the Europa Project moved forward with a momentum only matched by the Apollo Project in the United States in the long-ago race to the moon.

And now, at a meeting of the entire United Nations General Assembly (still headquartered in New York, but having been considerably remodelled since 1945) with the Division Heads seated on either side of him at the long solid table that overlooked the central lectern and faced the semicircular assembly seats, Qi Song looked around him at the representatives. They had been repeatedly cajoled and persuaded to direct funding to the project – and the UN, in turn, had reached the limit of what the member nations would pay in dues, which meant the unprecedented act of borrowing money from practically anyone who would lend the cash. Borrowing from member nations. Borrowing on the open market. Borrowing against the most uncertain of futures on a gamble that might give humanity the break Qi Song was looking for.

If Mars could be speedily terraformed, it inevitably followed that the population pressure to colonize it would increase tenfold, a hundred-fold. The fledgling Russian-European mining consortium working in partnership with the UN to test the feasibility of mining the asteroids could get the funds to sponsor wholesale ore processing by the ton lot, shipping the raw material back to Earth, or the Moon, for shipbuilding. Once the ships were built, it would only be a matter of time before transit to Mars might be almost-routine, instead of needing to be a carefully-planned adventure once every year or so.

But the session—

He banged his gavel twice.

The assembled representatives fell silent.

"I call this meeting to order. We have only one item on today's agenda. The United Nations Science Division Head, Janna Rudolf, will now address you," he said with an air of finality.

Janna, seated on his right, smiled briefly at him as she stood up and walked to the lectern.

"Today, I would first like to announce the successful test flight of the Isis, our manned spacecraft intended for our mission to Europa."

Pleased murmurs and applause suffused the chamber, subsiding quickly as Janna prepared to continue.

"It has not been an easy road, ladies and gentlemen." She pushed a button at her console; the lights dimmed and a holographic representation of the ship appeared in the chamber above the assembled representatives' heads.

It was graceful, thought Qi. It was somewhat hexagonal, but elongated forward and back. It was a uniform white in color, and looked as though it could soar through the air, or swiftly dart about underwater. The engines were visible, but not in a way that drew the eye away from the ship itself.

"The work of many intelligent, dedicated, committed people has been brought to bear on every aspect of this project. The result, Members of the General Assembly, is our custom-designed ship, Isis." noted Janna. The hologram began shifting, changing as she spoke, showing the interior and the skeleton of the ship. "The engines you see are ion drives, capable of the long journey in each direction. A microfusion generator can power the ship virtually indefinitely. She was fabricated in parts here on Earth, and assembled on the Moon, where she will launch after an intensive period of training the best and brightest crew humanity has to offer. Our test crew has successfully taken it off the Mare Imbrium launch pad, orbited the moon, and landed safely.

"The ship has been designed to maximize the availability of personal space for crew, as well as maximize recycling and consumable capacity. The ship itself is designed to be at once a vessel as well as a scientific research base. Once it touches down on Europa, Isis will function as the most remote frontier of human exploration and the quest for knowledge. We already know there are bacteria on Europa capable of functioning at temperatures unheard-of on Earth except under extreme conditions.

"There are two reasons for sending a manned mission to Europa instead of using Hermes to bring them back home. The first is that Hermes is not easily repurposed to lift off of Europa, and with its limited exobiology functions, we have quickly wrung out all the useful data we could get on the Europan bacteria. We know enough to know there may be more than one species, and that they have some unusual metabolic features compared to Earth bacteria. Beyond that – we just don't know. But these bacteria do produce oxygen and manage to do it under conditions Earth bacteria aren't adapted to.

"Second, gene-sequencing Earth bacteria to withstand the harsh conditions of Mars, while not impossible, has proven to be extraordinarily slow going. Even now, fifteen years after the first human colonists touched down on Mars, our Artemis colony exobiologists have been unable to develop bacteria that can long withstand the freezing nights and barely-warm days. Our shortcut lies on that moon of Jupiter. Find the right bacterial species on Europa, and Mars, ladies and gentlemen, will be ours within a generation, not three centuries!"

Thunderous cheers and applause reverberated through the chamber, hope and excitement showing on all the faces of the representatives present. Secretary-General Qi Song finally allowed himself to relax, and he knew humanity on Earth had its safety valve.


January 1, 2077

Janna Rudolf sat in the starkly-lined mission briefing room.

More test flights of the Isis, checking and re-checking its systems, testing them as well as they could without actually taking it to Jupiter and back.

More weeding-out of people, winnowing out those who attended the training programs but failed one or another of a seemingly endless battery of tests and qualification examinations.

All to get down to six people who might bring home the holy grail: actual samples of the first known life besides that on Earth, life forms believed to be viable on Mars to aid the creation of the oxygenated atmosphere so needed for widespread human population.

Six of the best that Earth had to offer were about to enter the room and get their full taste of the reality of their mission to Europa.

Oh, everybody knew in their heads it would be a long mission: anyone armed with an orbital mechanics textbook and a computer could calculate that.

But the reality – the harsh, unforgiving reality of six people crammed into a volume perhaps the size of half of a submarine and forced to remain in close quarters for the neighborhood of three-quarters of a decade – that reality hadn't really sunk into anyone's minds yet. It was one thing to abstractly conceive of the idea, calculate numbers and just talk of it.

It was another to confront it head-on, and this Janna would do today. She sat alone (for now) in the room, her small desk currently covered with papers and data modules. Six chairs were situated, equally spaced in a rectangular arrangement, facing her. Those six seats would soon be filled by the people who had passed not only the technical examinations required of them, but the all-important psychological stability tests. Nobody wanted the riskiest-ever multimillion-terra project to be compromised either mechanically or through human error, or worst of all, deliberate action.

The first person in was Marcus Taylor, the youngest, at 21. He was the tallest, as well, Janna noted. He had a pleasant expression, close-cropped hair, and he had dark brown eyes. He was from North America – African-American, as she recalled. From the Combined North American Defence Forces.

He had passed all the spaceflight and communications examinations with flying colors. Notations in his file indicated that any personally pilotable craft – airworthy, seaworthy or spaceworthy – he was capable of handling without error and without issue. While all crew were required to understand basic communications hardware and techniques, it was Lieutenant (j.g.) Taylor who would need to be most familiar, particularly as pertained to interfacing with the remote probe Hermes, still stationary on Europa and recording basic temperature data for the last several years while the long-lived alpha-emitter battery continued to function within it.

Lt. Taylor smiled uncertainly and took the leftmost seat, farthest away from the door (and Janna).

Next in was Branko Perović, a medium-height, black-haired, blue-eyed Serb from the European Union. He seated himself next to Taylor, then nodded at the other man. They shook hands and exchanged smiles, Branko's less unforced than Marcus's. Janna recalled the man was 23. He was the Science Officer, seconded from the EU's Collective Defence. After taking his degree in Biology, with a specialty in genetics, he had gone into military service. He held the rank of full Lieutenant. He would work with the civilian exobiologist.

Svetlana Ziegler strode swiftly into the room not long after Lt. Perović.

She sat in front of Marcus, at the far left. She was 26. Brown hair, hazel eyes. She had a serious look on her face that didn't break even when the men smiled and greeted her. She was the same height as the woman who entered almost directly behind her. She was the one civilian the project had vetted as being psychologically stable enough, as well as technically skilled enough, to examine the all-important bacteria and determine which species they must take back with them to the Martian Terraforming Authority.

She had taken her doctorate at the Humboldt University in Berlin, and had been doing research on extraterrestrial bacteria, being at the forefront of the civilian-sector research on the results from the Hermes probe, already in charge of the Exobiology branch of the UN Science Division. From the letters in her file, it was clear that she might one day replace Janna as UN Science Division Head.

Kara Viljoen, on Svetlana's heels, was a study in contrasts to the serious Russian-German woman. She grinned widely and shook hands all around before the blond-haired, brown-eyed seated herself in the middle, right in front of Dr. Ziegler. She was also a Lieutenant, and was reported to be able to fix anything mechanical or electronic, as long as it drove some kind of vehicle. The 25-year-old Lieutenant Commander from South Africa had distinguished herself in the African Forces, and if the stories were true, she could probably rebuild a fusion power generator from a decommissioned twentieth-century battleship's scrap.

Next in was Commander Adrian Alvaro, who had served previous tours with the current vetted mission commander. He would be the all-important second-in-command, a necessary function if the captain should ever be unable to do her job. He was 33 and tall, muscular, dark-skinned, reportedly easy-going man who had served in the South American Air Force before transferring to the Space Defence Forces.

And speaking of the mission commander – Hailey Goldman entered the room, and seated herself on the front right, her second-in-command directly behind her.

A thirty-five-year-old brown-haired, brown-eyed Captain in the as-yet fledgling Space Defence Forces. Her file indicated she had already distinguished herself in understanding military tactics in space, as well as an unblemished record of captaining crewed vessels to and from Mars.

If all else failed, it was going to be up to her to get things under control. She, of the six, had the best understanding of the psychological isolation space could bring on, being surrounded by the same people day in and day out not just on ships, but on bases as well. She had done a year's stint on Mars, babying along the Athena colony there. While the individual major national groupings held responsibility for army, navy and air force defence on Earth, the UN had (grudgingly) been given the responsibility for the collective military defence of Earth in space, which meant the UN was (at least nominally) in charge of the three bases on the Moon plus the one on Mars. As such the usual military policy of rotating commanding officers once per year meant that Captain Goldman had ended up rotating among all four bases plus her service record of ship-captaining in between.

Yes, she knew people and was a capable commander. But would even she be up to this challenge?

Author Notes: Incidentally, Janna Rudolf is based on Felicity Smoak from the 2012 TV series "Arrow". :) Kara Viljoen is based on Kaylee Frye from Firefly, as well. :)

This chapter: 2190 words, 46412 to go.