Private Eye

by E.S. Strout


Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Mars exploratory rover Opportunity finds definite evidence that water once existed in large quantities on the Martian surface. — NASA website

I want to believe. — Poster in Fox Mulder’s FBI office.

1

NASA/JPL Budget Conference, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Subject: Funding request for third Mars Rover.

“What’s so special, Scott?”

“Something new. Or so I’m told, Dr. Truex.” The young man aimed a laser pointer at the wall screen image. “This is a blowup of a photo taken by Mars rover Opportunity seven years ago,” said Scott Adkins, Jet Propulsion Laboratories Chief Financial Officer.

He tapped a computer key. A second photo appeared alongside the first. “And this one the same day.”

“Professor Franklin is here from Extraterrestrial Geology. He believes he’s found an oddity in the bedrock outcroppings of Meridiani Planum.”

Forty-eight year old JPL sublight propulsion consultant Professor Ann Elizabeth Truex nibbled at a Krispy Kreme she held in a paper napkin. “These are seven year-old old Mars photos. I see the same bedrock slabs and mineral deposits as before. We know that Mars had an ocean or salt lake. What’s different?”

“Something unusual, Dr. Truex,” Dr. Emory Franklin, a tall black man with a closely shaved scalp and trim mustache explained. “We’ve cleaned up some of the old CD images with new technology.”

She washed down a bite of doughnut with a slug of tepid milk-laced coffee. “Please show me.”

He took the pointer from Scott. “There’s a discrepancy here. This shot was taken at 0800 hours Mars time, Thursday, February 26th, 2004. “There’s a separation between these two rock faces.” A tap of the pointer. “This second one was taken at 2100 hours, same day. The gap has disappeared.”

Dr. Truex’s hazel eyes widened in surprise. “Can you get us closer?”

Franklin gave a single negative head shake. “Sorry Prof. Our new procedures are good but we couldn’t overcome Opportunity’s cameras original lack of closeup high resolution.”

“Fiscal miscalculations and cost overruns,” Dr. Truex said in commiseration. “I’d have preferred a fiberoptic lens probe but JPL funding back then wouldn’t cover it. Same today.”

She massaged her abdomen with one hand and gave CFO Adcock a venom-laden glare. “Budget proceedings are giving me an ulcer, Scott.”

“It’s my job, Dr. Truex,” Adcck protested as he mopped his brow with a shirtsleeve. “I’m just here to run the numbers, make an evaluation.”

“What do you think this vanishing space means, Emory?” Dr. Truex asked, ignoring Adcock’s sulk.

“Contraction and expansion in response to drastic Martian temperature variations,” he replied. “Plus 9° Fahrenheit during daylight hours to minus 111° after sunset.”

“Could it be due to a tectonic shift?”

“Negative. No seismic activity was recorded by Opportunity’s sensors on that date.”

“So put it all together for me, Professor.”

“We have a five to ten centimeter space which expands and contracts. Also, the space is too dark for any detail. If that blackness represents basaltic rock formation it could prove a theory I have about prior Martian volcanic activity,” Dr. Franklin argued.

“Could be significant,” Ann agreed as she finished the Krispy Kreme with another swig of coffee.

“It’s worth investigating,” Emory insisted.

“Just a sec, guys. JPL and NASA are committed to a rover program for Jupiter’s moon Europa,” Mr. Adcock wailed. “Old story. No money for other projects.”

Ann twisted a strand of Lady Clairol enhanced auburn hair around an index finger, gave the lace collar of her blouse a nervous tug. “If you don’t mind, Scott, I’ll go lean on those pencil pushers at Space Appropriations.”

“Good luck,” Adcock grumped with a contemptuous huff.

“I’ll get back to you, Professor Franklin.”

2

One month later. JPL/NASA Administrative Office

“What have you got for me, Dr. Truex?” Professor Franklin asked with a skeptical raised eyebrow. “Took you long enough.”

“Ever watch a glacier advance, Professor? Bureaucracy in action,” Ann Elizabeth said. Then a faint grin. “I do have some good news though.”

“Lay it on me.”

“One, they’ve backed off the Europa project for a couple of years and approved a third rover mission. It will be named Fortune. And two...”

“Will they provide funds for fiberoptic lenses?” Scott asked. “I sure don’t have any.”

“I believe we have a promising alternative, Mr. Adcock.”

“And that would be, Professor Truex?” Emory asked with a skeptical single eyelid squint.

“Let me preface by saying JPL likes the idea and so does NASA’s Special Projects Director.”

Franklin rocked back in his chair and emitted a groan of impatience. “Come on, Prof. You’re hedging. Can we get to it, please?”

A sigh of repressed aggravation. “Of course, Emory. Dr. Lynch put me in contact with some folks at Stanford. Former classmates of hers. They’re involved with genetic research and have cloned a human eyeball.”

“Junk science instead of a fiberoptic camera? That’s not much consolation,” Franklin exploded. “This is nuts.”

Dr. Truex chewed antacid tablets, swallowed, gagged. “Do you want to go back to Mars or not, Emory?” she asked in a calm but ice-crusted voice. “I can recommend they reinstate the Europa mission if you’re not interested.”

“Let’s cool it, people,” Scott said, raising his voice over the cacophony. “I’d like to know where the money’s coming from, Dr. Truex.”

“Dr. Alvarez is here at my invitation. She’s Director of Stanford’s genetics lab and may have your answer, Mr. Adcock,” Ann said as she massaged a throbbing temporal artery with a fingertip. “May I introduce her?”

“Please,” Scott acquiesced.

3

Dr. Jacqueline Alvarez, a cachectic, hyperactive dark haired Colombian woman wore a brilliant multicolored silk scarf at her throat. She touched a key on her laptop’s keyboard. A blown-up image of a human chromosome appeared on the conference room’s screen. Segments of its arms were marked with tiny red arrows “We have isolated the genetic areas responsible for optic reproduction.”

“English translation please,” Emory protested.

Alvarez exhaled a groan of futility. “Please pay attention, sir. As Dr. Truex explained earlier, a human eyeball. We obtained DNA from Madeleine Story. She piloted the first Mars flyby mission.”

“What’s her consultation fee?” Scott asked.

“Irrelevant. I’ll continue if you don’t mind,” Dr. Alvarez muttered in an acid-laced monotone, “Captain Story’s eyesight is the best NASA has ever seen. Twenty-ten vision and no astigmatism, color blindness or other inherited defects. Am I boring anyone?”

“Please continue,” Emory said in an abashed whisper.

“Thank you. We’ve made a few modifications, Professor Franklin. The rod component of the retina has been increased to give a sharper image on night videos. Also, we decreased the number of retinal red cone receptors to provide better contrast in the reddish-brown Martian daylight atmosphere.”

“That air is thin but harsh, Jacqueline. Sand, dust, increased ultraviolet assault,” Ann Elizabeth said. “Could be brutal to organic tissue.”

“At last, a pertinent observation. Some external changes were necessary, Ann,” Dr. Alvarez agreed. “Ultraviolet corneal shield and a tough clear plastic reinforced lens cover to counteract wind-blown sand.”

“And most important, a system for maintaining the Eye with electrolyte solutions and nutrients. It’s designed to simulate human blood flow.”

“Sounds like you’ve got everything covered,” Dr. Truex said.

“Optic nerve replaced by carbon filament wiring. Computer-simulated occipital lobe visual cortex.” Dr. Alvarez gave them a self-satisfied grin. ”Everything but lids and eyelashes. Questions?”

“The price tag?” Scott iterated.

“I was getting to that, Mr. Adcock,” Dr. Alvarez said with a half-lidded glare. “Stanford University’s Bioscience Division will spring for the scientific payload. Saves the two point five million a fiberoptic camera setup would have cost. You will be responsible only for the vehicle.”

“What about field testing, Dr. Alvarez?” Emory asked.

“Eons ahead of you, Prof. 108-degree heat in Death Valley, minus-thirty degree temps in Canada’s Yukon Territory, thin atmosphere wind tunnel with added sandblasting. The Eye aced every exam.”

“What about effects of the hard landing?” Ann Elizabeth asked. “Spirit and Opportunity did lose some of their more delicate components.”

“We’ll be using retrorockets, Ann,” Emory said. “Spirit got tangled up in the airbags when they deflated. Took days to get it to the surface,” Professor Franklin explained. “This is better.”

Ann Elizabeth brushed a film of moisture from her forehead with a sleeve. “I don’t suppose anyone here’s got a cigarette.”

“Meet me outside,” Dr. Alvarez said with a conspiratorial wink.

4

JPL/NASA mission control, four months later

Fortune’s soft landing at Meridiani Planum was celebrated with endless champagne toasts by mission staff and technicians. The next morning’s hangovers were dispelled in part by aspirin, black coffee and tabasco-laden V-8 juice.

“Picture’s out of focus,” Dr. Truex noted as she ingested a double dose of DeTox capsules. “What are we looking at, Emory?”

“Can’t tell yet, Prof,” he groaned. “It will take me a while to get the rover oriented.”

“Can Dr. Alvarez help?”

“Not now. Please. Don’t call her yet,” Emory pleaded. “I can only take so much of that woman.”

“I think the feeling is mutual,” Ann said with a perceptive grin.

Dr. Truex tapped instructions on the computer. “I’ve got no picture, just a brown haze.”

“Damn. I know what this is.” Emory brought up another page. “Local Martian weather conditions.”

“Wind velocities 60-75 mph,” Dr. Truex read from the screen. “Gale force.”

Fortune is stuck in a Martian sandstorm,” Emory continued. “These can last hours or days.”

“We’re in luck,” CFO Scott said. “We can wait this out in JPL’s executive lounge.”

“I could use a drink,” Professor Franklin said.

“A big icy Stoli on the rocks would be helpful,” Ann Elizabeth agreed.

A sad head shake by Scott. “Soft drinks only, guys. Sorry. Liquor’s not included in our budget.”

“This discrepancy will be mentioned in detail when I make my next progress report,” Dr. Truex said as Emory gave a hearty nod.

“Why don’t we just send out for pizza? JPL will buy.”

“Damn considerate of them, Mr. Adcock, ” Emory said.

5

“The technicians have been here 24-7, Scott. They appreciated the pizza. I’m staying, too,” Dr. Truex said as she washed down the last bite of a pepperoni-laden slice with a slug of Diet Pepsi. “There’s a La-Z-Boy in Mission Control. What about you, Emory?”

A muffled snore emanated from the geologist’s nasopharynx as he lay curled up on a well-used lounge sofa.

“I’ll be grabbing some sack time at the Hyatt, Scott said.”

“Executive suite, right?“ Ann Elizabeth mocked. “I’ll need your cell phone number.”

He scratched with a pencil on a pocket note pad and handed Ann the sheet. “Be back at 0700.”

6

0330 hours

Scott awakened with a start at the shrill beep of his cell phone.

“The tech’s just woke me. Wind died down five minutes ago. Get your ass in gear,” Dr. Truex commanded. “I owe you a buck fifty for the call. Grab Emory on your way.”

“Halfway there,” he stammered as he grabbed for his trousers.

“What am I looking at, Ann?” Dr. Franklin asked, grimacing as he swallowed day-old coffee. “The screen’s black.”

Ann tapped a clear-polished fingernail. “See the little white dots, Emory? Stars.”

“Oh hell,” he breathed. “Fortune is looking at the sky. Blown over in the gale.”

“Another billion down the rathole,” Dr. Truex groaned as she tore open more antacid packs.

“Not yet. There’s a backup system,” Emory said. He typed with furious strokes. “I’m activating the hydraulic jacks.”

Questioning raised eyebrows from Dr. Truex. “Say what?”

Franklin smiled. “Ever watched open-wheel auto racing, Ann? The Indy 500?”

“Not lately.”

A grin crossed Emory’s face. “Pit stops. Hydraulic jacks raise the car high enough for quick replacement of new tires and fuel. And those on Fortune have a unique twist. They can be rotated sideways to raise a capsized rover to upright position.”

“We’d better hope it works.”

“You and me both,” Emory agreed. “The theory is good.”

Minutes passed as the signal was bounced from JPL transmitters to the surface of Meridiani Planum and the capsized rover.

7

“It’s moving!” Dr. Truex exclaimed.

“Oh no. Wrong direction,” Professor Franklin voiced in a dismayed groan as he assaulted the keyboard. “Gotta fix it before Fortune flips over and crushes all the camera equipment.”

There was a sharp tap at the door and Jacqueline Alvarez poked her head in. “What’s happening with the Eye? My project?”

Scott’s face and neck reddened in an embarrassed blush. “Many apologies, Doctor. My fault. We’ve had some...”

“Problems,” Ann continued. “We’ve had our hands full.”

“I can see that.” She grabbed a Styrofoam cup. “Good. You saved me some coffee. Pour, Mr. Adcock.”

Alvarez took a sip, made a face. “Yech. How old is this crap? What problems?”

“Sandstorms and an overturned Fortune rover, Dr. Alvarez,” Emory said. “Situation is iffy. I’m trying to fix it now.”

“This place is an insane asylum.” Dr. Truex concluded. “Screw lung cancer,” she muttered as she lit up one of Dr. Alvarez’s donated Marlboros.

8

“Look here, people. 0400 hours local Mars time and Fortune is upright,” geologist Franklin announced with glee. “Just south of the Meridiani Planum anomaly by star sightings. You agree, Dr. Truex?”

“We’ll need GPS and visual confirmation, Emory.”

“We need to extend the Eye,” Dr. Alvarez demanded. “Now.”

“Couldn’t it be damaged by this rough terrain?” Dr. Truex asked.

“Not a chance. The support structures are quite sturdy. There’s a flexible tubular telescoping arm, like a gastropod or crab eyestalk.”

Emory raised a triumphant fist. “Fortune is moving forward. Now, Dr. Truex. Make it happen.”

She assumed a seat at the computer, tapped keys. “Anomaly in sight. Moving five degrees left. Little more. Good. Adjusting focus and contrast. There. Fine tuning when we get closer.”

“Time to target?” Dr. Alvarez asked.

“Couple of hours,” Emory estimated. “Martian sunrise.”

9

0600 hours, Martian time

“Check the color contrast and tint,” Dr. Alvarez exulted. “Better clarity and sharpness that I could ever have expected.”

“You were right about decreasing the number of retinal red cones, Jacqueline,” Dr. Truex said. “The picture has normal Earth tones. Bright and clear.”

“Am I good or what?”

“Three-foot rise to the anomaly. Ten minutes,” Emory told them.

“There’s the separation between the rock faces. We’ll need to track left another two degrees, please,” Dr. Alvarez requested.

Ann mopped perspiration from her forehead with the sleeve of her lab coat. She tweaked the keyboard. “I’m on it.”

Dr. Franklin viewed metric distances scrolling down the left screen margin. “Five-centimeter gap confirmed. We’re there. It’s your show, Dr. Alvarez.”

“Always was.” She replaced Ann at the computer, tapped keys. “Checking parameters now. UV and lens protector shields engaged and in place. Extending the Eye. Twenty centimeters. Ten...”

“Black in there,” Emory observed. “Basalt. I was right. Result of volcanic activity.”

Then a puzzled frown grooved his brow. “Something odd, though. Basalt doesn’t have a reflective surface.”

“Sodium chloride crystals?” Ann asked. “We know there’s an evaporated salt lake or ocean.”

“How odd,” Dr. Alvarez said, “I’m seeing a mirror image of the Eye.”

“Iris color’s a little off, Jacqueline,” Dr. Truex observed.

“Adjusting it now.” Dr. Alvarez punched keys, then recoiled from the screen, a gasp of disbelief stuck in her throat. “Madre de Dios!”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s not a reflection, Ann.”

“How can you tell?”

“It blinked.”


Copyright © 2006 by E. S. Strout

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