Chapter 01: Commissioning Day

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 29 (1.1.29)  9:04 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 1 February 2016  10:00 AM PST

Noctis on Mars logoThere was no doubt this was the Auxiliary Command Deck or ACD, but it was odd. It was designed to be functional in a weightless or gravity environment. It was a ten meter diameter section with multiple layers of control stations down its thirty meter length. It looked like a nine-story silo with partial decks reaching out to the center. On each deck there were chairs facing the outside wall.

The walls had video displays that extended up to the ceiling and on each screen were live images of inside sections of the ship, the view around it, data or information vital to ship operations, or personnel on the QE II, Earth Spaceport Prime, or at one of the ESEP Earth-based Centers.

Each deck hung in space. They extended toward the center, but stopped leaving a two meter circular corridor the length of the Command section. In addition, each floor had three gaps with ladder-like rungs protruding out of the wall to allow crew members to easily move between floors.

Only six mission members were in the ACD of the Earth Space Ship (ESS) Carl Sagan, named for the famous scientist who rebooted science in the minds of millions of people.

Eight more managers and directors of Earth Spaceport Prime were also loitering in the ACD. They needed no tour because most of them had been intimately involved with configuring both ships in advance of this first human mission to Mars.

The rest of the crew was on board their sister ship, the ESS Queen Elizabeth II or QE II. In three weeks all 28 crew members would leave Earth orbit for Mars. This ship would be piloted by remote control to meet up with the QE II a few days after it left Earth orbit.

Anna Flores, the First Officer, kept checking her monitor. She was following the progress of the VIP tours being conducted by Captain Ken Hart and Commander Jenna Wade. They were leading six Earth Space Exploration Program (ESEP) executives around the ship in two groups. The ESEP Center Director, Nick Castillo, was with Ken’s group and they were returning down the Quill to the ACD.

Ken and his tour slowly descended down the guide pole in the central corridor into the ACD. Anna quickly turned from her monitor and stood at attention and announced, “CAPTAIN ON DECK!” Immediately the crew moved to the edge of each of their floors and stood at attention.

Ken said, “At ease.” and then he looked at Anna and frowned. “We’re not going to do that all the way to Mars are we?,” he asked. “It is protocol, sir,” she replied.

Ken moved his VIP’s to the Command Floor. Just as they settled in on the Captain’s section Anna announced, “COMMANDER ON DECK!” Again, the crew stood at attention as Commander Jenna Wade and her tour descended to the Commander’s section across from Ken.

Jenna looked at the Ken and said, “That’s going to get old, quick.” Ken replied, “She’s enthusiastic,” and then added, “Today is a day for formality. I’m sure we won’t be ‘announced’ once were underway.” “Good.” Jenna said, “This isn’t the Enterprise.”

Nick interrupted, “I believe it’s time.” Jenna looked at her boss and nodded, then turned back to Ken and said, “Captain.” At that Ken pulled out his tablet and hit the COMM icon and said, “All hands, all ships, this is the Captain, CODE ALERT!” At that all the crew members on both ships stood at attention. Those on the other ship stood watching their monitors. At this moment millions of people around the world were watching history unfold.

Ken then announced, “Crew of the Carl Sagan and Queen Elizabeth II, standby for an announcement by ESEP Director Nick Castillo.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 29 (1.1.29)  9:10 AM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 1 February 2016  10:06 AM PST

Several of the remote-controlled cameras inside the Auxiliary Control Deck, or ACD, were active and broadcasting the scene on the ESS Carl Sagan. One of them zoomed in on a man standing on the sixth deck of the ACD holding a flat object covered in a soft cloth. He was Nick Castillo, the Director of the Earth Space Exploration Program or ESEP. Nick looked at the 21 people in the Command Deck and then began,

Carl Sagan said, ‘Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.’ Today, I stand on the Command Deck of a ship that will take us in search of the incredible. Often space programs justify their existence by explaining that what we learn out there will help us better understand our world. This is true, but the exploration of space elevates us as a species.

Sagan Plaque

We are not merely seeking a better understanding of Earth, but a better understanding of the human being and the context in which we all exist.

The incredible awaits us and now we have Archimedes’ lever that will take us there. This ship, the Earth Space Ship Carl Sagan, is that lever that is big enough to move our world to Mars.

Almost fifty years ago we took a step off our home world and landed on the Moon. The impact of taking that small step has carried humans into a new age of technology and economic success. It is long overdue for us to take the next step.

The Carl Sagan will not take our crew to Mars to touch it and quickly run back home. Almost all of this ship will stay in orbit around Mars, or serve as human’s first habitat on the surface of another planet.

With this ship we honor Carl Sagan for his vision, his brilliance, and his love for humankind. Without people like Carl Sagan we would still be nomadic tribes subject to the whims of nature and superstition.

And so, on behalf of the Earth Space Exploration Program, I commission the Earth Space Ship Carl Sagan. May she take us to the incredible and beyond.

As everyone applauded he uncovered a plaque that had the name of the ship and an image of the man for which it was named. People moved to Nick and shook his hand, then an outbreak of handshaking began all around him.

Ken moved over to Jenna and said, “Do you suppose Carl Sagan ever imagined this?” Wade looked at him and said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he meets us on Mars and offers to show us the sights.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 29 (1.1.29)  1:10 PM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 1 February 2016  2:06 PM PST

Many of the same people present on the Command deck for the commissioning of the ESS Sagan a few hours ago were now present on the Command deck of the ESS Queen Elizabeth II. The main difference was the presence of all 28 members of her crew.

For years engineers, scientist, and crafts people had been thinking, planning, designing, and building on a dream to send humans to Mars. Now the entire program became real. Today, two ships and a crew of 28 would officially become Earth’s first interplanetary ambassadors. 

Commander Jenna Wade began the final Commissioning ceremony with a nod and one word, “Captain.” At that Captain Ken Hart followed the same procedure he had done earlier in the day and broadcast a “Code Alert,” which meant everyone to standby for an important message to the crew.

As the Captain, anyone on his ship, with the exception of Jenna, were subject to his orders. The fifty plus people standing in the Command section, crew and dignitaries both, knew to come to attention at the Captain’s order. Around the world millions of people watched as this group of people orbiting 2,500 kilometers above Earth were witness the event. Today Earth would commission the ships and crew to be committed to take humanity to the fourth planet.

Again, it was Nick Castillo, the Director of the Earth Space Exploration Program or ESEP, that would conduct the ceremony. In his hands he held two cloth-covered plaques. Everyone knew one was the ship’s plaque, but the other object was a mystery.

Nick stepped to the edge of the platform near the center of the Command deck and began,

For over a century we have pretended that we still had ‘frontiers’ on Earth. There are many things we still need to explore and understand on our planet, but no place on Earth is really a frontier. This ship and crew, along with the sister ship the ESS Carl Sagan, are reviving the exploration of a true frontier.

Since 1960, Earth has sent 46 unmanned missions to Mars. Only one-third of them made it. The ones that did make it have given us volumes of data; however, the knowledge we have gained about Mars and interplanetary travel will double within one year after a human sets foot on Mars.

Human exploration is the most efficient way to truly explore a frontier as vast as Mars, and now we are ready to step past the millions of kilometers between Earth and Mars and write the next chapter of human knowledge.

Nick paused as the everyone applauded. He looked around and realized that this was the largest group of people to ever gather in space. At that moment it hit him. His smiled suddenly disappeared. What would happen if the carbon dioxide in the air rose to toxic levels? He briefly considered stopping the ceremony, but then quietly reassured himself that alarms would go off if there was a problem, so he continued and hoped that the ceremony wouldn’t end in an embarrassing scramble for oxygen,

On the 24th Earth day of this month, and the 51st Mars day of Sur One, this ship will lead humans to another world and they will do so on a ship named after one of history’s most constant leaders, Queen Elizabeth II. For over sixty years she has served as Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Today we thank her for service to humankind and name this ship in her honor.

QE II PlaqueNick removed the cloth from one of the covered objects and held it up for the remote cameras to zoom in on while the section was filled with clapping. He then handed to plaque to one of the ESEP VIP’s standing behind him, and then Nick continued,

As the first ship to begin our human journey to Mars it has been designated as the Flagship of Earth’s coming fleet of ships. It will pass this designation to the ESS Carl Sagan once the two ships integrate, but it will retain Flagship status anytime she flies as an independent ship.

It has also been decided that the ESS Queen Elizabeth II will be the first ship to carry back a crew from Mars in April 2017.

He unveiled the second plaque designating the QE II’s Flagship status and again held it up for all to see. After a brief period of applause Nick handed the second plaque to the man behind him and turned to one of the other ESEP VIP’s who looked more serious than the rest and said, “Mr. Duncan, if you please.”

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 29 (1.1.29)  1:29 PM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 1 February 2016  2:25 PM PST

The possibility that carbon dioxide was building up to dangerous levels in the Command deck once again crossed Nick’s mind. He shook off the thought and continued the ceremony. He leaned to Mr. Duncan and quietly gave him a ‘go’ signal. 

Mr. Duncan was a former Special Forces member and he was all business. His function at ESEP was Director of Security. Nick knew he was the person to bring order and dignity to this ceremony. Mr. Duncan marched to the edge of the platform, looked straight ahead and announced, “CAPTAIN HART, REPORT!” Ken, also former military, moved to Nick and stood at attention. Nick began,

Captain Kenneth Hart, you are given the command of the Queen Elizabeth II and of the Carl Sagan. Upon arrival at Mars you will establish and assume command of Mars Spaceport Prime.

However, we have learned we have a problem.

When her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth was briefed on this mission she apparently pointed out an issue we have overlooked. She asked how can one person be Captain of two ships. She is, of course, correct. For this reason ESEP has promoted you to the rank of Commodore effective immediately.

During the enthusiastic applause Nick gave Ken a small box with his Commodore’s new insignia and a folder containing documentation of his new rank and his written orders. Ken was not forewarned that he was being promoted. As he absorbed the announcement he realized that ESEP had solved an issue that he hadn’t thought of before. His status as Commodore would place him in charge of all activity to and from Mars Spaceport Prime, which would be odd for a Captain. Promoting him to Commodore made perfect sense.

Nick reached out and shook Ken’s hand and warmly congratulated him, then leaned into him and quietly asked, “Are we going to have a carbon dioxide issue in here?” Ken smiled and replied, “You mean too many sets of lungs in here?” Trying not to show concern Nick said, “EXACTLY!” Ken leaned into the Director’s ear and said, “No, we’ve upped the air. We’re good.” The Director smiled with relief and said, “Oh thank God, the last thing we need is alarms going off during the ceremony.” Ken became serious and replied, “Oh we turned off the alarms. If there is a problem we’ll all just die.” Ken smiled and backed away. Nick hoped he was joking.

  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sunday, Sol 29 (1.1.29)  1:41 PM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  Monday, 1 February 2016  2:37 PM PST

The promotion of Captain Hart to Commodore presented an interesting problem. Normal navy ranking placed a Commander below the rank of Captain. This had not been an issue as Commander Jenna Wade had been placed as the ranking officer of the Mars Mission and Captain Hart’s orders were to serve that mission.

However, as Commodore, Ken’s rank was two steps over Jenna and the difference would be hard to ignore as both Ken and Jenna were both former naval officers. Jenna was not the type to be concerned with a rank or title, but it did raise the question of what would happen if she and Ken disagreed on an issue?

The crew was aware of this issue as quiet discussions among them continued after the applause died down from the announcement of Ken’s promotion. Nick became aware of this and decided he needed to keep the ceremony moving. The Director of ESEP once again gave Mr. Duncan a signal. Mr. Duncan moved forward to the edge again and then announced, “COMMANDER WADE, REPORT!”

Mr. Duncan’s attempt to bring order to the section didn’t have the effect it should have so the new Commodore stepped forward next to Mr. Duncan and announced, “CODE ALERT!” The crew instantly returned to attention as Mr. Duncan and Ken stepped behind Nick. By this time Jenna had stepped up to the side of the Nick. He glance at her, then smiled and began,

Commander Wade, the Earth Space Exploration Program has designated you as Commander of the Mars Mission. We also designate your crew of 27 astronauts listed in your orders, and any subsequent additional and/or replacement personnel to be under your command until such time as you are relieved of you duties on the Mars Mission.

Unlike Ken’s promotion to the rank of Commodore, this announcement was merely a formality. Jenna had been their leader for the past year and she had already been designated as the Mars Mission Commander. There was polite applause, but it wasn’t the wild applause of the last announcement. Nick quickly waived for the applause to stop and then resumed,

However, in order for you to fulfill your responsibilities we are promoting you to the rank of Rear Admiral in accordance to naval tradition.

The Command deck exploded with applause as Jenna’s new rank was not only deserved, but necessary. Nick was not finished and he continued,

Jenna Wade, ESEP has decided that while the Mars Mission is one of exploration, it is also one that must consider the human and societal aspects of creating a community on another planet. Therefore, on the day that the first plant sprouts in any habitat on Mars, that location will be considered a colony of Earth and you are designated to act as Governor of Mars until such time as relieved of that duty by order of ESEP.

Nick had done it again, but this time surprise was more of shock. All the discussions of ESEP’s mission to Mars had carefully avoided the mention of colonization for fear of reviving memories of disastrous efforts on Earth to colonize less developed countries in past centuries.

However, there was a reality that the ESEP administrators knew had to be addressed. Three more missions would arrive at Mars while Jenna’s team was still there. ESEP would have to determine if each mission have a different command, or would each mission fall under a single Mars command. If under different commands, how would each mission integrate with the priorities established by the first mission? Someone had to be that leader and the highest ranking officer of the first mission was the logical choice.

Jenna’s personality and background also qualified her for the position. The problem was that no one had discussed this with her, and making the announcement to the world at the same time she learned of it was forcing her to accept the decision.

She knew she would be the ranking officer until she returned to Earth and she knew she would have the most information and knowledge of any mission Commander, but Governor of Mars was a more powerful position and it came with more responsibilities that she should be allowed to accept or reject.

The declaration was a smart move for ESEP. It gave them over two years to assess the situation and determine who should be the next Governor of Mars. When she returned to Earth they would have a new Governor in place and the program would move on. With Jenna as Governor, it effectively ended any issues of an arriving Commander conflicting with the established procedures and protocols.

Jenna was caught off guard, which was a rare event for her. She felt flashes of embarrassment, pride, and anger. She knew the public announcement was meant to be a happy surprise, but she also knew that Nick was aware he should have discussed this with her first.

She composed herself and fought to control the emotions. At this moment she must show humility and acceptance of this honor. Later she would take Nick to quiet place and inform him of her displeasure of how this was handled.