Maiden Voyage and the first man to Jupiter
Each community volunteered their brightest children to be immersed in the new information at the pre-designed learning modules included in each of the vaults. There were detailed instructions (in each of the three most prevalent local languages) on how to power these modules with the remaining batteries, or by using methods such as solar and wind supplies. Diplomatic exploratory teams were sent around the continent to the other Vault locations as mapped out in the Vault named for the Indian Epic hero, Rama.
By the year 2480 all but the Vaults of the America's had been discovered and preliminary long distance voice communications had been established in each of the seven major population centers, now located near each Vault (or its reported location). The Vault of the Central South America was discovered in 2483 which had recorded unusual tectonic disturbances near Central America. After nearly a decade of searching, the final Vault was discovered in 2492, nearly a mile further underground than previously thought, as a massive cavern had opened during the quake recorded in 2350.
The 26th Century saw unprecedented technological growth and advancement. Each step forward, each new breakthrough, aided by the fountains of knowledge that were the Vaults, brought mankind closer to the heavens – and their eyes were universally cast upward.
They had finally accepted their destiny.
In 2620, the first unmanned science satellite was launched into low earth orbit. The M-0 series rocket had been designed to allow small observational payloads to be thrown into space for fairly cheap. It had taken the engineering teams at each of the seven Houston bases (the name “Houston” was decided upon as the name for all Earth-Based space command centers in homage to the pioneers of extra-planetary exploration) nearly a decade to complete the first acceptable design of the M-0 series rocket.
Naming the craft was a much easier task. In following suit with the First Age of space exploration, they decided to dig into mythology and choose a figure that would best symbolize the splitting of the gulf between near extinction and our return to the infinite; the Moses Class 0 rocket returned the first view of a distant hurricane from space that any living human had ever seen on July 15, 2621.
By 2653, the yearn to reestablish man's physical presence had become to much. The M-1 rocket, originally designed for larger scientific loads, had be refitted for the first human orbit of the Earth in over three hundred and fifty years.
The airlock sealed shut and the quick hiss of the last bits of air escaping the pod echoed in Captain Devin Langshire’s ears for far longer than he had expected. His last moments on the planet Earth were fast approaching, not that he knew.
He checked and rechecked his ship’s systems and fail safes. “Triplet. Check everything in triplets,” he whispered to himself as he went over his pre-launch checklist. His entire life had built to this moment: mans’ return to space. The Great War that dominated the latter half of the 21st century had set back progress into the cosmos almost to the point of starting over from scratch. Entire populations were wiped out between the constant fighting and the coast lines across the globe slowly pulling back as the oceans reclaimed land that had been dry for millennia.
The warm hum of Devin’s radio fizzed to life before the even voice on the other end reiterated the launch angle, mission time and estimate time the pod would crash back into the Indian Ocean after a quick orbit of the Earth. In his mind, Devin went through the checklist of preparation that had been rehearsed to the point of each movement being as natural as breathing.
“Launch angle verified, Houston. Pre-atmospheric ejection process complete – commence countdown,” the Captain called back to the disembodied voice. Time to re-make history, he thought quietly to himself has his heart rate quickened slightly. The cosmos was still patiently waiting, even more than 500 years after man had first tasted her sweet and terrifying glory directly. This time, he continued to himself, this time, we’ll do it right.
A jolt shook him from his musings as the mechanical claws clamping his enclosed reality, his eternal tomb, pulled back to expose the entirety of his craft - poised to slingshot its way through the thin veil of Earth’s atmosphere. “Ten.”
The countdown was thunderous. “Nine.” Each number ticked by like an eternity unwinding slowly before the dawning of everything. “Eight.” Each number thrusting Langshire irreversibly towards his fantastically terrible fate. “Seven.” Each number echoing through time in what would be the last real human language the Captain would ever hear while on Earth. “Six.” History would be made – not only would Devin be the first man to space in several centuries, he would be the first human in history to visit another planet. “Five.”
His heart stopped the moment before launch was declared. His brain screamed “ONE! ONE! ONE! ONE!” over and over at his reality, standing still in the shadow of years of training and preparation for this last inevitable event, yearning for the resolution.
“One,” the deadpan announcer erupted from the mounted speaker in Devin’s helmet, shaking him to his core and catching him at his most unaware in years. He stiffened his body by instinct before he was pushed violently into his seat. The rush of air outside his enclosure roared as the rumbling jets shook his body wildly. With his eyes fixed on the bright blue sky, he found himself fast becoming nauseated from his violently shaking field of view. Pulling himself further into his seat with his arm bars to lessen the vibrating, he forced his eyes closed for the first sixty seconds of thrust to allow his body to adjust to the sudden change in conditions.
He couldn’t move his head to watch the Earth sink below, but the slow purposeful tumble of the ship turned him upside down as he exited the hold of his home’s gravity. The oceans, glistening in the light of the sun, swept together with the massive white clouds that smeared themselves across the surface. Cities and countries faded into a mass of land as the sun was approaching the opposite horizon, preparing to set as he settled into orbit.
His chest heaved as his eyes widened and sweat poured from his brow. The burnt remnants of Sri Lanka struck him from this height, as the scorched black islands made themselves abundantly clear against the deep blue of the Indian Ocean and sweeping greens and browns of India into the white of the Himalayas.
Devin absorbed all he could – the sensations of lift off, the color of the burning plasma, the blue sky fading into the black of space and the great monster of the moon swinging slowly overhead. Briefly, he tore himself from the splendor which no human had seen for almost half a millennium to radio his current position and speed back to Houston. His descent would begin shortly, he reassured himself, time to enjoy the view while I can.
“Houston to Captain Langshire, Houston to Captain Langshire,” the sudden and slightly frantic call rang across the air in the pod. “This is Captain Langshire,” he responded automatically, never dreaming that something could go wrong. “Captain – can you confirm your trajectory?” Devin sighed to himself and checked rechecked his diagnostics to confirm. “Houston, I repeat, we are currently settling in at -17.0 MJ/kg….” He stopped abruptly as the number jumped to -17.1 Mj/kg, then -17.5, eventually to -25.0 Mj/kg. The trajectory of -25.0 Mj/kg seemed to hold steady. “-25.0 Mj/kg,” he announced finally, with an air of absentminded confidence. “Captain…” the voice on the other end start, gravely before trailing off.
The weight of the situation finally dawned on the Captain. I must be wrong, he thought checking again and again. What am I missing? Langshire checked his maps and calculations, he pushed the panic down as he began re-estimating and confirming that his trajectory couldn’t be right – he should be in low earth orbit now, starting his descent – but as it stands he’s going to skip right off the atmosphere and simply drift away.
“Captain,” the trembling voice on the other end of that awful squawking box cut into the deafening ringing in Langshire’s ears bringing him back to his training – to his purpose.
“Houston,” he began somewhat unsteadily before strongly reasserting himself, “my calculations tell me that my orbit will continually widen until I reach the moon. Could I use the reserve landing thruster to go into lunar orbit? My pod's first aid kit contains an emergency biostablizer which should incapacitate my metabolism for up to four days. If we fire the thrusters at the right time, I could slingshot back into Earth orbit and possible re-enter.” The silence in the pod was deafening as the moments seemed to stretch into nothingness as Devin's eye's drifted back longingly towards his home; Earth.
“Captain Langshire,” came a strong voice over the radio minutes later. “Captain Langshire – this is Lead Engineer Gupta of Houston Command.” A surprisingly warm smile forced itself onto Devin's face at the sound of his dear friend Amit Gupta. They had been working together since early in their adolescence when they began their cosmonaut training as one of the thirty match pairs of theoretical and practical learners. “Captain, your calculations are sound. If we time the blast of the emergency reserve engine, you can enter a return course...” his voice trailed off in an unfamiliar fashion.
Something was wrong.
“Devin,” Amit dropped all pretense of professionalism, “We just detected a massive ejection from the Sun. The particles will reach the Earth in a little less than 36 hours. It will reach your craft before you reach the Moon... Your pod has essentially no shielding... Our estimations show that you will die immediately once it reaches you... I'm... I'm so sorry, Devin... we failed...”
The radio transmissions fell silent for many minutes. The fate of the first man to reach space since the Great War sank in across the world. Inside his private pod, his coffin, his tomb, Devin Langshire steadied his nerves and and breathed. “Houston,” he began after more than 15 minutes of almost complete silence. “What went wrong?” He felt oddly calm and detached has his old friend came back with his astonished explanation, “Devin, it seems there was a miscalculation. The M-1 series rocket's science module was replaced with the habitation module as planned.”
Langshire interrupted by habit, “and the mass of each module was calculated to be exactly equal per pound of thrust – how could have there been a mistake?” “Right,” Amit came back with his usual cadence, pretending not to notice the incursion, “but the thrusters calibration didn't account for the extra thrust per pound of fuel – the new, more stable, fuel was too light... We made a mistake. Someone made a mistake...” he continued, his composure again deteriorating into frustration.
“If only -”
“Don't.” Captain Langshire stopped his friend and colleague firmly. “If I use 24 hours of my biostablizer, will you be able to calculate my extended trajectory by the time I revive?”
“I think, Devin, but that would leave you little time, we must try to -”
“Amit,” the previously stoic Captain interrupted once more, finally allowing his affection to show through, “my fate is written. Gupta, you have been my partner for as long as I care to remember, and we have done exactly as we trained for years to do. I hate that I won't see your face again, but this is it. Earth won't be my tomb. But I would like to know where I may be headed...
“I am not the first to die for the noble cause of human exploration. Not the first, and we all know damn well that I won't be the last. My life now belongs to the cosmos – and it's the responsibility of you – of all mankind to ensure none of this was in vain! These stars – they call to us! We must, in the words left to us by the Saganites of Hypatia, not only dip our toes into this cosmic ocean, but navigate it's currents and deserts! Chart its depths! Never stop - never give up in our quest to uncover all of this Universe's secrets! Our survival depends on it!”
Before Lead Engineer Gupta or Earth could respond, Captain Langshire activated exactly 24 hours of biostablizer slipping into a metabolically stable coma.
He awoke, groggily 24 hours later as if no time had passed. He balked at himself for thinking it had really been 24 hours – it was never easy to accept, even after years of training. Three minutes after awaking, the hailing beacon on his radio came suddenly to life, jolting him harshly back into his bizarre reality. He activated the communication module and began transmitting his computer's log back to Earth. The computers had been collecting data dispassionately throughout the crisis.
At least they didn't forget the mission, Devin thought to himself as the data streamed back to Earth, blocking active communication with Houston for at least another seven to eight hours. Despite his bravado in his previous interactions, he was not looking forward to the next conversation. The fact was that it would be the last human voice he would ever hear – the last interaction with his home. He wasn't ready.
After the final bit of data had left his pod, Devin steeled himself. There was no more turning back or delay. This was it.
“Good morning, Captain,” began a strangely familiar voice from the other side of his invisible radio tether with Houston. “This is Prime Minister Talbot III, how are you son?” “Sir!” Captain Langshire responded immediately, saluting and doing is best to sit at 'attention.' “No need for formalities, Devin,” the Prime Minister continued “I wanted to thank you for your sacrifice... and to give you the news.”
Captain Langshire thought he was going to vomit. He looked out towards the Earth – that beautiful blue marble in the black sky. He knew every living person on that planet was looking skyward, towards him. He knew he was, somehow, humanities first emissary to the beyond. With this he breathed in deeply, strongly and rallied his spirits. “Yes, sir, Rufus,” calling the Prime Minister by his rarely used first name. With a smirk he added “What's my heading?”
He could hear the conflicted smile in the Prime Minister's reply: “Congratulations, Captain Devin Langshire. You will be the first human being to ever breach the atmosphere of the gas giant, Jupiter. We have also recalculated the arrival of the radiation... It will arrive at your location in roughly one hour.”
The final words seemed to echo through his pod endlessly. There was no parade, no news interviews, no celebrity, no pomp. His name would be spoken for ages beyond - as the first man to give his life in the second age of man for the sake of reaching the stars. The first man 'entombed' on an alien world. Not that any of that mattered. Soon after he received the news, his radio transmitter failed as the first wave of cosmic rays and magnetic interference destroyed the electronics of is pod.
He looked intently towards the Earth. As every inch of his being stretched for that distant world the light in the cabin brightened blindingly as his consciousness slowly darkened.
Captain Devin Langshire, World Medal of Honor recipient then knew no more.