The Martian

Page 25

I left Acidalia Planitia behind a long time ago. I’m well into Ares Vallis now. The desert plains are giving way to bumpier terrain, strewn with ejecta that never got buried by sand. It makes driving a chore; I have to pay more attention.

Up till now, I’ve been driving right over the rock-strewn landscape. But as I travel further south, the rocks are getting bigger and more plentiful. I have to go around some of them or risk damage to my suspension. The good news is I don’t have to do it for long. Once I get to Pathfinder, I can turn around and go the other way.

The weather’s been very good. No discernible wind, no storms. I think I got lucky there. There’s a good chance my rover tracks from the past few sols are intact. I should be able to get back to Lewis Valley just by following them.

After setting up the solar panels, I went for a little walk. I never left sight of the rover; the last thing I want to do is get lost on foot. But I couldn’t stomach crawling back into that cramped, smelly rat’s nest. Not right away.

It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!

I’m the first guy to drive long-distance on Mars. The first guy to spend more than 31 sols on Mars. The first guy to grow crops on Mars. First, first, first!

I wasn’t expecting to be first at anything. I was the 5th crewman out of the MDV when we landed, making me the 17th person to set foot on Mars. The egress order had been determined years earlier. A month before launch, we all got tattoos of our “Mars Numbers.” Johanssen almost refused to get her “15” because she was afraid it would hurt. Here’s a woman who had survived the centrifuge, the vomit comet, hard landing drills and 10k runs. A woman who fixed a simulated MDV computer failure while being spun around upside-down. But she was afraid of a tattoo needle.

Man, I miss those guys.

I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.

Ok, enough moping. Tomorrow, I’ll be the first person to recover a Mars probe.


Victory! I found it!

I knew I was in the right area when I spotted Twin Peaks in the distance. The two small hills are under a kilometer from the landing site. Even better, they were on the far side of the site. All I had to do was aim for them until I found the Lander.

And there it was! Right where it was supposed to be!

Pathfinder’s final stage of descent was a balloon-covered tetrahedron. The balloons absorbed the impact of landing. Once it came to rest, they deflated and the tetrahedron unfolded to reveal the probe.

It’s actually two separate components. The Lander itself, and the Sojourner rover. The Lander was immobile, while Sojourner wandered around and got a good look at the local rocks. I’m taking both back with me, but the important part is the Lander. That’s the part that can communicate with Earth.

I excitedly stumbled out and rushed to the site.

I can’t explain how happy I was. It was a lot of work to get here, and I’d succeeded.

The Lander was half buried. With some quick and careful digging, I exposed the bulk of it, though the large tetrahedron and the deflated balloons still lurked below the surface.

After a quick search, I found Sojourner. The little fella was only two meters from the Lander. I vaguely remember it was further away when they last saw it. It probably entered a contingency mode and started circling the Lander, trying to communicate.

I quickly deposited Sojourner in my rover. It’s small, light, and easily fit in the airlock. The Lander was a different story.

I had no hope of getting the whole thing back to the Hab. It was just too big. It was time for me to put on my mechanical engineer hat.

The probe was attached to the central panel of the unfolded tetrahedron. The other three sides were each attached with a metal hinge. As anyone at JPL will tell you, probes are delicate things. Weight is a serious concern, so they’re not made to stand up to much punishment.

When I took a crowbar to the hinges, they popped right off!

Then things got difficult. When I tried to lift the central panel assembly, it didn’t budge.

Just like the other three panels, the central panel had deflated balloons underneath it.

Over the decades, the balloons had ripped and filled with sand.

I could cut off the balloons, but I’d have to dig to get to them. It wouldn’t be hard, it’s just sand. But the other three panels were in the damn way.

I quickly realized I didn’t give a crap about the condition of the other panels. I went back to my rover, cut some strips of Hab material, then braided them in to a primitive but strong rope. I can’t take credit for it being strong. Thank NASA for that. I just made it rope-shaped.

I tied one end to a panel, and the other to the rover. The rover was made for traversing extremely rugged terrain, often at steep angles. It may not be fast, but it has great torque. I towed the panel away like a redneck removing a tree stump.

Now I had a place to dig. As I exposed each balloon, I cut it off. The whole task took an hour.

Then I hoisted the central panel assembly up and carried it confidently to the rover!

At least, that’s what I wanted to do. The damn thing is still heavy as hell. I’m guessing it’s 200kg. Even in Mar's gravity that's a bit much. I could carry it around the Hab easily enough, but lifting it while wearing an awkward EVA suit? Out of the question.

So I dragged it to the rover.

Now for my next feat: Getting it on the roof.

The roof was empty at the moment. Even with mostly-full batteries, I had set up the solar cells when I stopped. Why not? Free energy.

I’d worked it out in advance. On the way here, two stacks of solar panels occupied the whole roof. On the way back, they would be a single stack. It’s a little more dangerous; they might fall over. The main thing it they’ll be a pain in the ass to stack that high.

I can’t just throw a rope over the rover and hoist Pathfinder up the side. I don’t want to break it. I mean, it’s already broken, they lost contact in 1997. But I don’t want to break it more.

I came up with a solution, but I’d done enough physical labor for one day, and I was almost out of daylight.

Now I’m in the rover, looking at Sojourner. It seems all right. No physical damage on the outside. Doesn’t look like anything got too baked by the sunlight. The dense layer of Mars crap all over it protected it from long-term solar damage.

You may think Sojourner isn’t much use to me. It can’t communicate with Earth. Why do I care about it?

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