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Scientists at work — on Mars

Rescue Mode by Ben Bova and Les Johnson

Kirk Smith 15 February 2015

Out of bounds: detail from the cover

Rescue Mode is a perfect example to clarify what defines lab lit and makes it different from science fiction

“We have the technology now to get people to Mars and bring them safely back to Earth."
- Les Johnson in the Preface, p. 3

A recent essay raises a question that has puzzled me since I first discovered What defines lab lit and makes it different from science fiction? Why, for example, is a movie like Gravity promoted as science fiction? It “…references technology we know and use… ‘Gravity’ doesn’t fit the classical description of science fiction, but the story does include both science and fictional elements [emphasis added].” A subsequent exchange on the LabLiteral blog expanded this discussion.

Rescue Mode by Ben Bova and Les Johnson is a perfect example of lab lit, but you’ll find it on the science-fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries. Moreover, Bova is the author of many successful novels in this genre, won the Hugo Award six times and served as editor of Analog Magazine as well as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Yet the science so integral to the story is far from fiction, the scientist characters are realistic individuals, not caricatures, and what they do much of the time is pursue geology and biology in a very realistic way given the unusual venue.

The second author is well-versed in the science and technology underlying a story about the first exploration of Mars. He participated in the lengthy discussions of various options for robotic explorations of the surface of Mars at a 2012 NASA conference on Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration. In the preface he offers a firsthand account of why we can and should eventually send people to Mars. At one point in the conference, Buzz Aldrin, the second Apollo astronaut to walk on the Moon, asked for a show of hands: “How many of [the participants] would sign up for a one-way trip to the surface of Mars? [my emphasis]” More than 50% of those present raised their hands. The scientists and engineers were there to discuss unmanned missions to the planet, but if a manned mission were in the offing, many of their basic research projects on board the next robotic mission to Mars would be replaced by others related to a future manned mission. Clearly, there is a deep emotional desire to set foot on the Red Planet among scientists and engineers of many specialties.

In the first 50 pages Bova and Johnson artfully introduce us to the major players in the drama and outline the ambitious program for humankind’s first manned mission to Mars. They succeed in part by using the official NASA TV reporter as a stalking horse for the elaborate background and backstories needed to get their narrative underway. Another device they use to good effect to shorten the pages needed to set the stage is to assume that 3D simulations have been refined to the point that TV broadcasts can follow the mission in virtual reality. The reporter can appear to accompany the mission, sometimes “standing” in space outside the spaceship to explain components and functions, at other times, interviewing the crew inside the spaceship, and even virtually standing on Mars itself.

The mission plan is to use ten conventional rockets to lift the components of an interplanetary spaceship dubbed the Arrow into Earth orbit for assembly in space. Simultaneously, a “habitat” module to house the astronauts on the surface of Mars for a 30-day period of scientific exploration will be assembled and launched. The blueprint for the latter mission, named for the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, calls for the module to land on Mars before the crew leaves for Earth orbit and a rendezvous with the Arrow. The outbound trip, which is expected to take 178 days, uses a newly developed nuclear powered rocket for propulsion.

Once on its way to Mars orbit, the Arrow is to be put into a rotating motion that creates one-third gravity, simulating the gravity of the destination planet and preventing the muscle and bone atrophy associated with extended periods of zero gravity. Once the Arrow is inserted into Mars's orbit, a lander vehicle will take the crew to the surface and later bring them back to their mother ship for the return trip with the samples they have collected. I’ve described the details of their fictional mission to make it clear that the technology is contemporary and realistic, and that what isn’t, is based on very plausible extrapolation.

There are many dangers facing the crew members during the two-year journey. Even in the 2030’s a trip to Earth orbit and back is not as safe and routine as flying on a commercial airliner, but it will be the least hazardous part of the trip. Once aboard the Arrow, the astronauts’ lives will depend on a very complicated collection of machinery. Only so much redundancy can be built into such systems within the space and weight limitations on the overall mission. These factors play into one of the greatest dangers of travel in interplanetary space. There are a good many asteroids in eccentric orbits that pass through the space between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Even a relatively small one could destroy the entire vessel, knock it off course or wipe out a critical system and its backups. Among the latter are the radiation shielding and the supplies of oxygen, water and food aboard.

Other factors might lead to partial or complete failure, even if all the crew members are returned safely to the Earth. The communication delay between Earth and the vicinity of Mars is 30 minutes, making it difficult or impossible for ground control to assist in emergency operations. Unexpected health problems including injuries will be a worry throughout the mission. Perhaps the least predictable eventualities lie in social and psychological developments among the crew members in the confined quarters of the spacecraft during its long voyage and month-long stay on Mars. Even developments back home on the Earth could have a significant impact on their performance, especially during mission-critical tasks.

Suffice it to say that the crew of the Arrow encounter most of these hazards and other lesser ones in the course of their fictional foray into interplanetary space.

As the three-year sequence of preparations unfolds, the authors introduce the major characters. Among the four men and four women who are members of the crew, two men are professional astronauts, two women are mission support personnel, and the remaining four are scientists. The command pilot is a Canadian, the crew physician is Japanese and the communication specialist is from the US. The scientists are a French geologist, a second geologist from the US, a biologist also from the US, and a Russian meteorologist. (The four US crew members also include an African American and a Latina.) All the women are single, and two are attractive enough to attract male attention in public; only one of the men is single, but two of the others are already having marital difficulties before the mission leaves. Clearly, the crew composition is both realistic, given the international funding of the project, and a wonderful starting place for a novel as well.

A political conflict forms a dramatic backdrop for the unfolding story of the astronauts’ adventure. The authors stipulate that the Chinese have just successfully sent a robot to the surface of Mars and returned samples of Martian soil containing organic chemicals that strongly suggest life may have existed on Mars at one time. Two politicians back on Earth are vivid protagonists of a long-standing debate, both in public and within the space science community. On one side the US President argues that, because of the profound implications of finding life someplace in the universe, only the unique perception and insight of human scientists on the ground can maximize the chances of finding more specific and convincing evidence. On the other side of the debate is a US senator who has chosen the manned Mars mission as an issue in the upcoming presidential election. He argues that much less expensive robots can achieve the goal without risk to human astronauts, and he is mounting a political campaign to cut funding for the manned Mars program even as the astronauts approach the planet.

Rescue Mode is a perfect example to clarify what defines lab lit and makes it different from science fiction. I think this novel fits the definition of lab lit better than many of the titles on the Lab Lit List. Although most of the book is about the expedition and its setbacks, readers are frequently reminded that the primary justification for the risks and hardships is the scientific mission: the search for evidence of life on Mars in the past and possibly the present. Thus, the novel fulfils what I consider the hard core of lab lit storytelling: a plot in which scientific research plays a central role. What the project’s biologist, Amanda Lyn, finds during her stay on Mars is indeed the core of the novel’s plot.

The book’s 421 pages are actually very concise for what could have been a sprawling thousand-page novel—a tribute to Bova and Johnson’s story-telling skill. For all the drama of the journey to Mars, the novel shows plausible scientists at work in spite of daunting obstacles. For the many reasons I’ve already discussed and the sheer pleasure of a story well told, I can recommend Rescue Mode to science fiction fans and lab lit aficionados alike.