So Long Earth
Denver, CO, September 2017
Dr. Thomas Burns could not believe what he was hearing. He was sitting in a restaurant with his eight-year-old son Sam after attending a baseball game. The Colorado Rockies had just defeated the New York Mets by a score of eight to six. They were discussing the various players on the team. That was until the president started talking.
Listening intently to every word President Trump said on CNN, the environmental scientist shook his head several times. He’s appealing to every gawker of developers and brand-loving radicals rolling everything back—radicals who want to de-regulate, de-environment, just de-anything—and it was deflating, thought Dr. Burns. Decades of work falling apart for a new consensus, it seemed. Depressing.
Not only was the president waging a permanent delay of just about everything, while making money for his backers, but he was hoping people were going to do nothing about it. He was buying time for some of his obscenely wealthy investors and developers; that was all. They somehow pinned their losses in the previous years from failed deals and investments on anyone but themselves, despite how their investments were only about money, not about the major concerns of the times everywhere you looked. Having had a great outing with his son only moments ago, Dr. Burns fumed as he sat there.
The president was like the suits many in the rural parts of the Dakotas, Tennessee, and his home state of Colorado worried about. They were all caught up in their excesses, mindless to what life outside their air-conditioned life was like. Who cared how his message on TV was going to benefit neglected areas? He just expected people to deal with it. Except, this time, this suit, staring at Dr. Burns on the high-definition TV screen, was the one barreling his way at anyone who gave him a microphone like a dusted wagon train full of barons with money bags who pulled into town. And he’d be building what he knew best, a wall of heat for struggling people. They were less interested in tackling the daily concerns in their lives, finding no areas of concern in common.
Dr. Burns shook his head again. And the environment was a no-brainer!
Sam looked up at him momentarily, and Dr. Burns gave a half-reassuring smile. Sam returned his attention to his cell phone.
The president was unconcerned about whatever no man’s land was left in his wake of ruin while he doled out skepticism and disparaging comments when people needed reassurances and to feel confidence that the authorities were doing their best to keep them safe and secure. In the old Wild West, they used to blame the Yankee, wondering if somebody up in the skyscrapers meant them more harm than good. They just wanted the top suite.
Dr. Burns couldn’t stop looking from the TV to his son. He felt like he was falling into an abyss when he should have been feeling like he was there to share a moment of joy with his son.
He stood up, and despite his tall stature—he’d almost made it to varsity baseball years ago at six feet, two inches tall—he felt powerless. It was time to put the agreed-upon plan into action—at full speed. First, he gave his son some ice cream and told him to stay seated across from him, take out his Game Boy, and put his ear buds in, as he did not want Sam to be concerned about what he was going to discuss with everyone. He pulled out his phone and dialed a group text number, the specific code setting of a meeting of his peers. Tom raked his hands through his solid black hair, practically pulling strands out as he waited impatiently for everyone involved in the meeting.
Within five minutes, all of his colleagues around the world were on FaceTime. He’d been selective about which colleagues from Russia, Germany, Australia and America he involved in preparing the mission. Several of them had worked with him on projects at Boeing and others he had met at conferences around the world that had brought his attention to the staggeringly slow pace of applied research. He knew immediately what he wanted to say to the thirty people he’d reached. He trusted them. He sat back down as they met and discussed their plans.
Members from these four countries were going to be the first ones involved because they understood that to do nothing would ensure the end of the human race. These thirty people were the most esteemed researchers in their field of expertise. They published nearly 500 research papers researching climate warming and various environmental issues as well as future space travel. Russia as the leader in space travel was an obvious choice. Germany had some of the leading engineers in the world. Australians had suffered a great number of environmental disasters such as a deteriorating Great Barrier Reef and also had a large number of excellent engineers.
Tom, despite his anguish, spoke calmly. “I hope everyone was watching the president’s disgusting speech. Obviously, he is not going to listen to any environmental scientists or reports. We have no choice but to go ahead with our agreed upon plan. It is full steam ahead. We will have to speed everything up. Based on the environmental evidence and facts, the human race probably has 200 years—or less—to live. To survive, we need to find a new planet.”
Several of his colleagues made comments agreeing with Dr. Burns. They all agreed they would go home and start implementing the agreed upon plans.
With that, he ended the FaceTime meeting. He felt a spectrum of emotions including betrayal by the president’s actions and fear for his children’s future and the future of everyone else. He had hoped his family could grow up to lead normal lives, go to college, marry, have children and choose a career for themselves without worrying about the environmental disasters that were sure to take place. He also felt bad for just about everyone alive and every person yet to be born. Most people were going to face terrible hardships just trying to survive. Most of all, he felt determined.
He and Sam walked toward the exit. Tom waved goodbye to the woman behind the counter.
As his son closed the door behind them to the restaurant, Tom felt the cool night air, hoping his son wasn’t too cold given the temperature had fallen quickly. It was September and although it had been a mild seventy-five degrees at Coors Field, they had to walk a block to get to their car. He didn’t want to embarrass his son, so he just put his arm around him to keep him warmer. Sam didn’t protest thankfully.
As they made their way to their car, Tom couldn’t help but look at Sam’s baseball glove that Sam held loosely in his hands. He’d given the glove to Sam after his son refused to use his old worn-out one. Tom had used that glove as a teenager when he was about Sam’s age. He laughed to himself when he remembered Sam’s look on his face as he stared at Tom’s old glove. It seemed so important to him to give it to Sam, but Sam wanted his own glove.
Tom knew that Sam had loved the game that afternoon. Sam had a fantastic baseball card collection and recited stats that baffled Tom, who also felt proud of his son for knowing and memorizing all kinds of stats. Seemed like the type of thing kids should be worried about in high school, not what was weighing on Tom’s mind. Tom shook away a bunch of thoughts. He still wanted to look like he was enjoying himself after he and Sam had watched their favorite team win and ate at their favorite restaurant. But that damn television and the news. He was overcome with concern and resentment, knowing that his son’s future was going to be nothing like his own.
Sam said, “You know my good friend Kory just made varsity, and I heard that there were even some top university recruits watching. I hope when I get to high school, I’ll play that well.”
Tom stared at Sam momentarily, masking the welled-up feeling of regret and sorrow that threatened to silence him, before he said, “Sam, you’re going to play with the best.”
He unlocked the car door, and they headed toward Interstate 70. All the while, Tom was glad that he had reached an agreement with his colleagues that there would be no more delays, no matter what lay ahead.
And so, it began.
Chapter 1 – Far from Routine
Dr. Tom Burns, Boeing Offices, Aurora, Colorado
Tom and his colleagues had decided to hire the best teams to build intergalactic spaceships to find a new planet to live on that was comparable to Earth. It was either that or face the possibility of seeing the end of life. Since it could take years, if not hundreds of years, to reach a destination or planet that was safe for human life, it was necessary to keep humans alive, active and to be able to live as healthy a life as possible.
Tom, who had worked at Boeing for sixteen years, knew there was no way a spaceship would ever be approved by the government. Also, he could not ask a company such as Boeing to build a spaceship that would be necessary to their specifications. It took years for any new program to be developed at a major corporation that was mainly concerned about its stock price and shareholders. There was just too much red tape that Tom wanted to avoid at all costs.
When Tom decided to implement the spaceship project, he knew he had to resign his position with Boeing. By the age of forty-two, Tom had worked on various innovative projects that attempted to help sustain the future of the planet. Under Tom, Boeing had reduced greenhouse emissions and noise created by airplanes. His latest work had been on a hybrid airplane like what was currently available in cars. This would decrease the need for gasoline and carbon emissions. He was sad that he was leaving all these research projects and certainly some of his fellow scientists, but the work had been drawn out too long and time was of the essence.
Tom lived in Colorado with his family near Denver in Aurora. Soon after his meeting with his colleagues on the phone, he decided to meet with his boss, Dr. Frank Sullivan, who supervised his job as an engineer, to let him know he was leaving and explain his reason for resigning.
Frank welcomed Tom to his office. Tom came in, and they shook hands.
Frank said, “What can I do for you, Tom?”
“Well, Frankie, I need to talk to you about something.”
Frankie, as everyone called him, had worked for Boeing for thirty-five years and generally was seen as a terrific boss and person. He had been through all the successes and failures, including a speedy rising stock price as well as a hustle to catch up with Airbus and build successors to their fifty-year old designs.
“Ok. What’s up?”
“Frankie, good to see you. I came here because I wanted to tell you face to face that I will be resigning my position with Boeing and moving on to another job.”
Frankie looked aghast. He said, “Are you going to General Dynamics, Lockheed or any of our competitors? Is it because of your salary or stock options?”
Tom almost wanted to laugh, but since this was a serious discussion, he did not.
“No, I am not going to any of those companies. I will do my best to explain it to you. You are probably going to think I am crazy when I finish. First, I want to say that I have enjoyed the time I have spent working at Boeing. However, as an environmental scientist, I am very concerned that human life on Earth will come to an end soon. I believe in the next two hundred years, with one natural disaster after another occurring, the world will end. People are going to die horrible deaths. Now I know that the government environmental reports and scientific journals have reported that they too believe we are going to have major problems with the environment, but they predict we will survive for quite a long time, although it will become more difficult with all the man-made pollution. I just think these scientists and government workers are not willing to provide the dire warning necessary because it would set off a huge panic in the population. After all, where would everyone go if you knew the world was about to end?”
“You know Boeing’s been in the news for wanting to beat Elon Musk to Mars over the years!” It was almost offhanded. Frankie gave his winning smile. “In addition, Boeing has been working on electric planes using a fuel cell. We were able to successfully fly one in 2008.”
“Jousting news, you know that! I’ve seen the mockups. Look, they’re mock-ups. Design stage stuff! Far from routine. First person to set their foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing-built rocket? Yeah, I saw that. Anyway, if the Earth is uninhabitable, there will be no place on Earth that is safe from the destruction that is sure to come. Electric planes should have been developed a long time ago. I want my family, especially my children and grandchildren to be able to live in a world where they do not have to worry. Why would you even have a baby if you knew the baby would die before they lived to be thirty years old? I have decided with the help of a special group of people from around the world to build a huge spaceship capable of reaching other galaxies in an attempt to find a planet to live on.”
Tom waited for a reaction, which he knew was sure to happen.
“You are kidding me, right? Tell me this is a joke.”
Tom said with a straight face, “No, Frankie, it is no joke.”
Frankie stood up, rubbed his hands over his hair and looked down. Then he said, “Look, actually I agree somewhat with what you are saying. Earth is going to have big problems, and people are going to pay the price for a lot of stupid politicians around the world. But this idea of yours to build a spaceship to reach some far away destination is just pure fantasy. Maybe in a hundred years we will be able to do it, but right now, we do not have a clue. Why don't you stay here and help Boeing keep designing and researching this?”
Frankie looked pained. Tom couldn’t help briefly sharing in his boss’s concerns or even appreciating Frankie’s gesture. In fact, he was proud of his work at Boeing. He’d spent years attempting to improve technologies, finding new ways to build sensors and develop applicable environmental assessments, but it seemed like they were drowning in data. Feeble improvements and politics were going to let politicians sit idly by despite it all and give his kids more explanations of how things really worked. What kind of message was being sent to his kids who hadn’t had the benefit of years of discovery and evidence yet? He didn’t only feel desperate, he felt like he would be shirking the contribution to the world that kept nagging at him, his calling.
“Also, even if you travel at Mach 4, which is the fastest rocket speed we currently have, it will take you an eternity to go anywhere near where you want to be. You will all be dead before you even become close to getting there. Plus, you have no funding. This is going to cost billions—if not trillions—of dollars. No company in the world would undertake such a project right now. They would be bankrupt before it was finished, and there would be no profit at all. What if it exploded right after take-off? Who will be your partners in this endeavor? No one has developed anything close to what you are planning to do, so it is going to take a lot of manpower and brainpower to accomplish this. There are just too many unknowns right now to succeed.”
Tom said, “Your reaction is kind of what I expected, and you have every right to your own opinion, but listen to me. There have been many advances in technology since the last millennia. Just look at Thomas Edison, the wonderful deaf inventor, and the Wright brothers flying for the first time. I bet people thought they were crazy too when they decided to fly a plane. Yet, they succeeded. Their inventions led to generations of discoveries. Unfortunately, each positive invention seems to have an equally negative reaction that affects the environment. The number of positive results, which make our lives easier, seems to have an equal impact on destroying life. We could call our world Man builds, Man destroys.”
“Granted, you might have a point but—” Frankie rubbed the inside of his palms with his fingers frantically.
“Just look at the cellphone, which is used by millions of people. Little did we know that the cell phone would lead to the killing of millions of bees and cause other problems. It is also causing thousands of car accidents. At a certain point, I am certain the only way we could actually survive here is to turn off all the electricity, go back to the horse and buggy, and see what happens. I really doubt that humans would ever accept that choice. Think of politicians and business people without the New York Stock Exchange. They would not know what to do with themselves. Yet, through the years our inventions have been advancing at a very rapid pace. Most of these inventors have also been told they would never succeed, but they do. Steve Jobs is a testimony to that. I have thought long and hard about this project, and I know many people will tell my colleagues that we will never succeed just like they told everyone else who came before us.”
“I’m not saying you’re doomed to fail, I’m just, well, it’s a lonely endeavor without the proper sup—”
“For your information, there will be several other countries joining this endeavor including Russia, Australia and Germany. There will be more than one spaceship. I know it will take many years to complete the building of a huge spaceship, but we will do it. I have faith and truly believe that I will find the right people to succeed at this. If we fail, I believe all humanity fails, as there will be no one able to tell the story of the human race on Earth.”
Frankie had listened intently to the whole speech. He said, “That was a nice speech, but do you really think Russia is going to cooperate with you? They are only doing this to help themselves. Everyone knows they will not allow someone from the United States to beat them on a project like this. You know that is how they think. What about Putin and his puppet, Trump? Do you think they would sign off to a joint project of this magnitude? If you are so serious about this, maybe I can arrange for Boeing to have you lead a group of scientists to develop a project like this. We would not have to involve Russia. Plus, you would have a salary and a pension when you retire. Let me talk to the directors.”
While Tom had thoroughly enjoyed working for Boeing, it was not possible to do both of these two jobs at the same time. Since they were only going to build one ship and it was never coming back to Earth, there would be too many problems to overcome.
Tom said, “First, Boeing would have to approve the project, which could take years. In making this kind of proposal, Boeing would want to know the estimated cost to develop a spaceship like this and how they would profit from it. Patents would have to be filed. Companies—such as Lockheed—might challenge them. The courts could take years to settle a very minor issue, and the building of the spaceship could be delayed indefinitely. Also, there would not be any financial profit for this since we are not returning to Earth. We will have to do this using only private funds. I have scouted a list of wealthy individuals that I hope to meet with to obtain the necessary startup funds for such an endeavor. Several venture capitalists are already invested. I’ve managed to get a global technology stock portfolio percentage figured into several wealth flagship asset and investment management advisors’ pitches to navigate funds into our endeavor through small percentages of their stock choices. They gain, we gain. Additionally, we’ve set up a galactic superfund site.”
“What? Superfund sites are polluted locations set aside for massive cleanup of hazardous material contamination.”
“Exactly. Hope the point is well taken. It’s what we’re dealing with here. This is one big clean up and although the contamination we’re talking about on Earth is going to continue to be administered by the EPA, the contamination we’re looking to focus on has to do with unknown hazardous materials that we might have to address if it ends up posing a risk to human health and/or environment. Not sure if you ever went on a trip overseas after college, but you could always rely on traveler’s insurance that would cover your trip essentials.
“Since we’re not going to be able to get any evacuation by helicopters, we’re going to have to deal with any exposure to hazardous materials that we find or that we end up carrying as a result of the long-term travel. Investors are interested in minimizing our waste-print in the galaxy even if we’ll be living in hazmat suits at some point. What we keep learning is that the waste end of the equation is a constant after-thought in all the projects we’ve seen funded ever since the Industrial Revolution with a whole slew of apologies published as nice PR in front of the cameras and in print. We’re not interested in good PR and apologies. We’re interested in preventing the same kind of serious errors we’ve had in our production streams here on Earth.
“We’ll be working off of some baseline new developments like NASA's trash-to-gas, plasma gasification, implementing research that shows that bacteria can combat dangerous gas leaks, and avoiding all the missteps. We’ve seen problems that are now serious problems for NASA as they try to handle long-term waste generation. We’re shooting for hopefully converting waste into useful gases. Call it the ‘Everything-we-need-to-do-to-not-have-to-have-another-Superfund-Site’ as a national, um, stellar, priority. Stocks are already bringing in massive revenue streams. As is our own Amazon-like platform that allows people to purchase different parts and programs that we’ll be relying on to get the journey accomplished. Which by the way—”
“Stop, Tom. I’m almost ready to buy a few of your parts.”
“Well, you can. For a nominal price, you too may be able to reshape the future of space waste without turning everything into a giant trash pile, helping on the front end of production. We can call the part after you or Boeing or both—Frankie goes to Centaur Wood.”
Both men looked like two metal detectors that had detected the metal in each other’s words and were simultaneously beeping, testing each other’s mettle; neither was willing to believe what the other was willing or unwilling to do given the state of things.
Staring in disbelief, and despite Frankie not having the heart to follow through when the going got tough, Tom was disappointed, but he had to stay focused on the issues he faced. He continued, “The second issue is the government red tape. I could care less what Putin and Trump think about this. First, let me say something about President Trump. He is the main reason I am doing this right now. That man is totally ignorant about what is going to happen to life on this planet. All of his positions on the environment will make things a lot worse for the future of everyone. I admit this is not all the president’s fault. The problem started years ago when we hit the Industrial Age. Also, I don't think Putin cares about the environment. I do know the Russian commander, and so far, he has been fully cooperating with my colleagues and myself. He has flown into space before and is fully confident he can build the Russian spaceship for the journey. I do think you are right in one way. It is not going to be easy to trust the Russians for a long-term project like this. The Russians and Americans have always been adversaries. I am fully aware at some point we may have minor or major conflicts with them, and I am going to have to be prepared to handle whatever problems arise. Our ship will be armed with the latest weapons and have the best personnel available to utilize them.”
Frankie looked at Tom in disbelief. “Tom, all of your ideas are great, but you need the Boeing team to assist you with this. We have some of the greatest minds working here, and I am sure Boeing would be willing to assist you in developing whatever you need. We don’t want to lose a person with your skills and fantastic ideas that may benefit everyone. We have the company that can mass produce whatever is created. I am sure we can come to an agreement that will satisfy everyone including you.”
Tom stood silent for a moment. He looked down at the ground and then started to shake his head with his arms crossed. He then continued, “Thanks for the possible offer, but my colleagues and I have decided to do this without going through all the red tape and decision-making processes. We have already decided what must be done and will begin work soon. I don’t mind staying open to the possibility of you sponsoring some of the technology. Maybe that’ll be beneficial for everyone. Please feel free. I wish you the best of luck.”
“What about the conference tomorrow?”
“I’ll be there and won’t say a thing about my resignation. I’m sure what I have to say, with Boeing’s blessings, since you’ve seen the presentation, will still make the impact we need.”
Tom offered his hand to Frankie who was agitated and angry.
Frankie raised his voice. “What a fool you are, Tom. This dream of an impossible project will surely fail. You will end up broke, and you and your children, and grandchildren will never recover from it. Plus, you are going to drag down all the other people you plan to hire with your con job. Even if you succeed in building a ship like Noah's Ark, it will probably explode or end up not going anywhere, and you will still be broke. What the hell do you think you are going to accomplish with all this nonsense?”
Tom said, “We can only accomplish something if we try. If we try and fail, then we can die knowing we did everything possible to save the human race. If someone else comes along and follows up on this and succeeds in saving the human race, that would be great too.”
With those words, Tom turned in his letter of resignation and walked out of Frankie's office.
He never spoke to Frankie again.