Mankind’s First Moments on Mars
“That’s one small step for a man .. one giant leap for mankind.”
The iconic words of Neil Armstrong played over in his mind as he felt the transition from weightlessness to Martian gravity. He took a deep breath and braced himself against a bulkhead for stability. At this point, he wasn’t sure if the churning in his stomach was from the sudden onset of gravity after a year of weightlessness, the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything for the last twenty-four hours, or that he would soon make history as the first human to set foot on the surface of Mars. It was probably all of the above.
Of course, the others would make history of their own as they joined him on the surface minutes after the pivotal moment, but he had drawn the short straw - chosen by a game of chance to be the next great name in humanity’s exploration of space. His would be the name plastered over every headline and textbook for the next hundred years. He’d probably get more than a few schools, maybe even towns, and possibly future settlements on the Red Planet named after him, and why not? After all, he had completed his low gravity training for this mission during his stay at Fort Armstrong, part of the Luna Prime colony.
They would be on the surface soon, so he figured he’d better get his speech underway. Pressing a few buttons on his computerized wristband brought the file up on his in-helmet heads-up display. It was transparent enough to allow him to read the text without having to sacrifice the situational awareness he’d need to make the descent. After having survived a year in space without much of anything going wrong except the occasional fit of near-terminal boredom, he figured this part would be easy.
“Five minutes to touchdown, everyone,” reported the pilot, adding, “hold onto your butts!”
“All right,” he whispered to himself, “this is it.”
He waited for the visual countdown from the commander .. 3 fingers, 2 .. one .. go, then keyed his microphone and began to read his historic words.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “in a few short minutes, history will be made ... ”
“For the first time, a manned spacecraft will land on the surface of the planet Mars, and, as fate would have it, I will become the first of our species - the first of any living species as far as we know, to set foot on the Red Planet. That small step, much like the ‘one small step’ made so many years ago, will represent another giant leap for mankind. However, I want to make it clear that the part I play in this has been relatively easy. The honor of placing the first human footprint on Mars would be impossible if it weren’t for all the brave men and women who sacrificed so much, some even their own lives, to get us here. Names like Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Christa McAuliffe, Ilan Ramon, and so many others come to mind. Not to mention the countless scientists, engineers, college students, and their families who all worked together to build this hollow metal tube and fling it into space with a few people crazy enough to take the chance on board. Those people are the ones who truly accomplished this historic feat - they are the ones responsible for the success of this mission so far. They had the hard job. All I have to do is climb down a ladder without falling off! I know they’ll all be watching - some from their homes and offices on Earth, and some from the Great Unknown .. and I hope we all make them proud.”
The craft vibrated slightly as the landing thrusters guided it into its resting place on the Martian surface just as he finished his last sentence. The timing was perfect, just like they’d rehearsed, but he had decided that he would leave the most important part of his speech - the words he’d speak after descending the ladder, that would actually be the first words spoken by a human standing on the surface of another planet - unscripted and unrehearsed. After all, who could really prepare for a moment like that?
“E.N.V. suit pressurization looks good .. CO2 scrubber is online and functioning normally .. personal climate control is optimal ... “ He waited as the mission commander continued through the checklist. “Wait … dammit, put your sunscreen down!”
“Right,” he said, “sunscreen,” tapping another button on his computer which caused the face shield on his helmet to darken. “Check,” he added, indicating that it, too, was functioning as expected.
“Don’t need my eyes burned out first thing,” he quipped, knowing full well what direct Martian sunlight could do to a person’s face.
During certain times of the day, the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere had the potential to create a natural laser. The suit was designed to withstand it, but the adjustable visor turned out to be the best way to mitigate the risk to the wearer’s vision in a way that wouldn’t compromise his situational awareness. After a few moments, the computer would be able to detect the threat and adjust automatically - but it was protocol to start out with maximum protection. Meanwhile, he’d be safe enough relying on his external POV camera that provided a first-person display on the inside of the helmet.
Everything was ready. He stepped into the small airlock chamber and sealed the door behind him. The indicator lights on the panel shifted from red to green to indicate a good seal. He turned around and waited a few seconds for the chamber to adjust to the external atmospheric pressure, noting that his suit seemed to be protecting him from it without any trouble. His training kicked in as he relayed that fact back to the mission commander almost instinctively. Finally, the indicator lamp near the exit hatch switched from green to red, indicating the seal was broken. There was a slight whoosh as the remaining pressure differentials harmlessly sorted themselves out.
“Opening the hatch,” the report crackled in his ear as the blast-proof metal door slowly inched itself upward, revealing nothing between him and the rusty surface but the five rungs on a narrow ladder.
“Good luck,” added the commander as he took a breath and began his descent from the small craft into history.
On the third rung, he glanced up at the craft, away from his feet, and that was all it took. He missed the fourth rung entirely, then tried to compensate. But, the difference in gravity was like nothing he’d experienced in his training. His adjustment was too forceful, and, instead of salvaging the situation, he unceremoniously hurled himself off the ladder through the thin Martian air.
Panic was the best way to describe what overtook him as he completely forgot about the historical significance of this moment. Instead, his mind flashed back to every childhood accident he’d ever had, every time he’d fallen off a bicycle, the near miss on third street when he’d had far too much alcohol in his system to be driving, that one time he narrowly escaped his disintegrating fighter jet, ejecting over the Indian Ocean at the last second ... The images flashed in his mind until they were suddenly interrupted by the sensation of landing flat on his back in the red dirt and dust, raising a rusty cloud that immediately began to settle back down onto him.
He’d landed a lot farther from the spacecraft than he expected because of Mars’s slightly lower gravity, which he found unsettling when he realized it. Laying flat on his back, covered in bits of Martian soil that stuck to his visor and most of his spacesuit, with the wind knocked out of him, and his only hope for a return home appearing a lot farther away from him than he’d like at the moment, he simply couldn’t help it. Instinct had taken over completely as he uttered the very first words ever spoken from Mars. In about 20 minutes, when the signal finally reached Earth, the whole world would hear them via live broadcast ... and there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.
“Oww, FUCK!” he exclaimed.