At first, she thought the missile had struck the space station’s stern, for they were all thrown toward the outer wall with the roar of igniting fuel. She instinctively grabbed the zero-gravity bar jutting out from the wall, and braced for depressurization and the inevitable catastrophic vacuum that would bring annihilation. Then she saw the pursuing star-fighter careen out of control behind them into the gravity well. The pilot never got the shot off but, in trying, missed the small window needed to accelerate and save himself from the intense pull. Escape was now impossible as the fighter spun and gyrated wildly, descending deep into the well before exploding on the surface of the Moon.
The whole thing had been visible from the space station’s observation deck.
No, she suddenly realized, releasing her grip on the bar while her grimace turned to a nervous smile. The explosive push was not due to the starfighter’s aborted missile, but from the execution of the “slingshot effect” as part of the planned swingby around the Moon. They had, in effect, achieved their objective and were now skimming the outer reaches of the lunar well, riding gravity like a breaking wave until the sudden violent acceleration of the space station’s jerry-rigged thrusters caught the crest like a pe’ahi surfer about to shoot the curl, and catapulted the USSS Armstrong into interplanetary space…
Arizona was not the Moon, but it was close enough.
Shortly after John McCabe had his coffee in the cool breeze of predawn, the brief respite from yesterday’s infernal heat vaporized in the cruel ascension of the morning’s sun; the aurora’s benevolence bled out as the new day broke on the bleak desert landscape. With the temperature beginning its incessant climb to the top of the thermometer, McCabe took the first look of the day at his newly transplanted “Dandy-of-a-Nettle,” with its bluish green leaves that formed tentacles and radiated from the central yellow flower, reminiscent of a dandelion. It would soon be unbearably hot, but this plant would survive, even thrive. It grew close to the ground and looked like an extraterrestrial starfish hugging the Earth. He was especially proud of having bred the sting out of the nettle; still, he touched it gingerly, just to be sure.
No bite there, he thought. But dare I eat it?
He was 30 and shedding the vestiges of youth. His profile was angular and his face was tan and lightly freckled; his blue eyes shone of naïveté. He had a practical mind and a driving optimism and enthusiasm for just about everything, especially his passion. The last nine months had been spent on a one-acre plot in the middle of the Arizona desert beyond Picacho Peak, 40 kilometers from another human being. The few people who knew him in the little town that skirted the peak called him the Virginian for his soft Shenandoah Valley accent, a region where nearly everything grew with little aid from man.
He was tall, and knelt rather than bent over another sprout peering out of the cinnamon-colored dirt. This one had a slightly different linage of nettle, wed to a type of sunflower.
“Hi, guy," he spoke aloud.
The satisfaction of germination and bud-break never eluded him, no matter how many times he brought it about. Transplants and grafts were approached with surgical preci-sion and were an unending source of pride. His father, a physician, wanted John to follow in his footsteps, but a BA in biology from Cornell, with emphasis in botany, was all the schooling he wanted. The rest he learned on his own by researching libraries and running endless experiments.
Arizona was not a destination he had ever planned to make any more permanent than the occasional visit to the Grand Canyon, and that was only a winter’s side trip on his annual pilgrimage to ski country in Colorado and Utah. The Southwest had always mesmerized him, though, and he had spent time outside of Santa Fe in several earthship biospheres; yet he was inevitably drawn back east, to his tireless experimentations on his small farm south of Winchester. And recent social turmoil, resulting in bloodshed and the polariza-tion of the country, had kept him even closer to home for the two years prior to setting up out west.
Nonetheless, after generations of political stalemate and spasmodic outbreaks of violence and chaos, a national synthe-sis was reached during those last two years. The emergent president of the United States, an independent without party affiliations, set forth the challenge of colonizing the Moon before her second term expired, which everyone conceded was assured although she had only taken the helm a mere 18 months earlier following the 2064 election.
McCabe was intrigued by the presidential dare, and he could not sleep easily for wondering how his bountiful fields of Virginia could be recreated on the surface of the Moon. It was hard for him to imagine a greater contrast from the orchards and vineyards to which he was accustomed, to the airless, sunburned and freeze-dried lunar South Pole.
Sure, he thought, vegetables could be grown on the Moon indoors with multiple shields of protection, but just how far could one go in encouraging new species to grow with as little protection as possible?
He was no geneticist, and would leave the new species to the experts, but he knew growing methods, and he had faith in his ability to improvise ad nauseam, until trial and error rendered a viable product.
He said as much in a letter to the head of NASA, but wasn’t surprised when he got no reply. Truth was, NASA only maintained a figurehead role in the Moon initiative. The agency had long since paled in technological and engineering innovation when compared to private enterprise. Global Transport, and People, Places and Freight were the leaders in aerospace technology, and both GT and PPF had already won substantial grants to begin work on an initial moon base and to reinforce the two space stations in anticipation of massive cargo flights to the Moon in the coming year. No one, however, had given real consideration as to how the colony would survive beyond establishing the first base. It was largely assumed that after the first base was established, a second and third would be built until a complex of bases formed the colony. The bases were a beginning point, and they would require a constant lifeline from Earth to replenish supplies. Plans for the colony to become self-sustaining were discussed, but kicked down the road in order to meet the timeline of establishing the colony by 2069, in commemoration of the arrival of the first man on the Moon one hundred years earlier.
McCabe inspected his rows of transplants under the dog days of summer: drought-resistant cultivars grafted onto one of the most exotic rootstock ever dug up. In fact, he dug it up himself on a trip only months ago to northern Africa. He had run hundreds of trials since, always changing variables methodically and systematically, and he had achieved a lettuce-like nettle capable of retaining 98% of its water content for four weeks in the blazing sun without a single drop of irrigation. It was, in fact, a modified nettle, with none of the sting. The graft to a sub-Saharan bush with a five-foot taproot posed problems at first, but eventually the root took to the nettle surprisingly well. While the nettle tasted of chalk, it was edible with a little vinaigrette, and eminently digestible.
McCabe cleaned his implements next to the faucet of a 500-gallon cistern, but dared not use water to do so. He knew geophysicists were working on extracting oxygen from moonrocks, but the process would be expensive, and so he worked on recycling every drop of water as though he were depending on it in a lunar landscape. The cumbersome technology needed to generate water on the Moon would be obviated by an eventual base on Mars, near the Korolev Crater and its nearly 2,200 cubic kilometers of ice. Yet, a Mars base was too far down the road to contemplate. It was nearly 20 years since the first and only manned flight set foot on Mars, and a viable moon base would need to be established before a return to Mars made sense.
McCabe took one last look at his new sprouts. “One day you guys will be heroes,” he said out loud.
He returned to the shack he had built shortly after moving onto the land in a tent. The shack had electricity for cooking from solar panels on the tin roof, but no other conveniences. Notwithstanding the spartan accommodations, he was at home in the lean-to, if not exactly comfortable at mid-day when the only relief from the heat came as he ate lunch and put his feet into a trough while water drawn from the shaded cistern dripped, a drop at a time, down his ankles to the bottoms of his feet.
He had dug a six-foot-deep hole the size of the eight-foot square building before he proceeded to construct the shack on it. He built flooring over the hole before adding a trapdoor. Now that the canicular heat reached its maximum, he retired to his basement bedroom to take a two-hour siesta.
It was good to be making progress with the experiments, and to be kept busy. Still, the isolation was always present, and grew more intense during downtime.
“I’ve got to get myself a dog,” he said as he rolled over and fell asleep.