The Astronaut Who Died on the Moon

 

There once was an astronaut who died on the moon. He used to look at the moon when he was younger and think how incredible it was: man had really walked, even drove, even played golf, on the ghostly surface of that cosmic object. But, he had never in his youth really considered the idea of becoming an astronaut, never thought much about going into space. The space-race was slightly before his time; most of his cultural encounters with the space-world had come from sci-fi films, and there are very few astronauts in sci-fi films. This is because space in these films is, more or less, accommodating to life. But real astronauts do not find space a friendly place. Indeed everything about space, the unfathomable distances, the extreme cold, the vacuum, the cosmic radiation, and the endless darkness, suggests utter indifference, even active hostility to the processes of life. As it is, space, as the name suggests, is, for the most part, an absence, a nothingness, an apathetic void, that which is without. An abyss. And we all know what happens when you stare into the abyss…

So the romance of a small step for man, of magnificent desolation, was the romance of the past. The age of space representing infinite possibilities for the manifestation of life had ended. Space, in the astronaut’s lifetime, came to be treated with the same disinterest that the universe itself has for our own lonely little planet.

 

Well, the astronaut, unlike so many school-boys, had never thought of becoming an astronaut; he had never even thought of becoming a fighter pilot, though fighter pilot training was where he found himself upon leaving university with a degree in engineering. He had been out walking in the purple mountains when a fighter jet zoomed by, down in the valley below him. Behind the jet came the soundwave roaring into his ears and the jet disappeared up and over a alpine peak. He had an epiphany: join the airforce! He researched it a little, and seeing that the salary and pension were excellent, he made the decision to enrol as an engineering officer. He enjoyed the ritualistic life-style, and his discipline soon saw him promoted. A close friend, now a qualified aeronautical engineer, used to talk to him about a childhood dream of flying spacecraft. Due to colourblindness his friend would never fulfil this dream, but his charming enthusiasm began to effect our future astronaut’s mind. As such, he eventually applied for a vacancy in a NASA team which was test-flying new aircraft.

 

There was a global financial crisis at the time. America was losing its dominance as a world superpower; its economy was failing, other countries in previously unappreciated parts of the world were becoming stronger. American people were becoming lacklustre and depressed - they were losing that great quality of boundless hope that so defined them. It was imperative that America should reassert its power, but war would be too costly and too unpopular in the current climate. But what did America have left to impress? Its music, its cinema - these had been pirated by globalisation long ago; its technology - already this was moving to new centres across the world; its glorious past was short-lived too...

It was from this conundrum that the notion of a new moon mission was decided upon. A manned mission to Mars might be more significant, but the available funding was simply not adequate for such an endeavour. The moon was still there though. Nobody had visited it since the early 70s, and no human, other than American humans, had ever touched its dusty surface. America could reawaken the world to what was perhaps mankind’s greatest ever adventure - the landing of American astronauts on a heavenly body, an object of worship in pagan religions, the ageless subject of poetry, art, and early mystic and modern science… Earth’s pale sister, the moon. They would replant the flag with the stars.

 

At first the idea was met by a lukewarm media, but interest began to accumulate after the initial bouts of ironic ridicule. The fact was that well over half the people in the world, everyone under forty, had never witnessed anything quite like a live moon landing, and the younger generations felt that with new HD technology, their moon landing would be the best… ever. The mission was underway: the physicists were making their calculations, the engineers were making their machines, the journalists were selling the story to the public, and our astronaut was selected after a nomination by one of his colleagues who owed him a favour. His appointment as Flight Commander was confirmed when his superiors decided that his good looks were the right image for the mission.

Again, our astronaut had somewhat accidentally fallen into the events that would define his life, as all of us do to some extent, and he was now undergoing the intense training programme to become a space-sailing astronaut, traveller to other worlds.

Unlike Apollo missions preceding it, this mission was to be piloted by two men, as opposed to the usual three. It was felt that with the technology available, one man could now do the work of two in landing the craft and conducting the required scientific experiments; it would be more cost-effective. A highly experienced astronaut named Pilot John Solus, who had spent months working on the space station, was chosen to fly the lunar module and orbit the moon while our astronaut landed the command module and walked on the surface of Earth’s ancient satellite. The two men got along well enough and they both admired each other’s work ethic.

 

The big day came and all was ready for take-off. The blasters blasted and fire resounded across the televisions of Earth: the great explosion of the might of man; moulded metal flying out of the atmosphere which cradles us. The instruments were intact, the calculations exact, and the weather was bracing as the two men huddled together, protected by trust in the scientific method. Up and away they went and their rocket broke apart right on cue, and, with great heat, noise, and tension, they left low-Earth orbit into the silence of space. The people of Earth watched on. The symbolism and magnitude of the event was still able to hold the world at awe. The stars came out on the onboard cameras and the mission, dubbed “Ithaca”, was broadcasting images of space from space.

The radio broadcasts were carefully scripted and choreographed: the astronauts read statements of goodwill to the world and quoted American poets and leaders. They also performed an endearing rendition of:

            Fly me to the moon

            Let me swing among those stars

            Let me see what spring is like

            On Jupiter and Mars.

 

The people of Earth watched the men in space, enchanted by their child-like charisma and simple enthusiasm. People delighted in a joyous comic moment when the two horizontally floating astronauts accidentally headbutted each other in zero gravity.

 

Soon the moon loomed large before them, that object which ancient thinkers believed they could perhaps reach by climbing and bring it down as a prize to Earth; named for measurement of time-cycles, and timeless metaphor for life, death, rebirth and love.

The two men moved into their respective positions, our astronaut into the lunar landing module, and Pilot Solus into the orbiting module. The craft broke in two. The landing module began to descend towards the dusty grey surface of the pock-faced satellite. This stage in the mission was the most technically complex and the ground-crew on Earth were holding their breath while the astronaut was methodically breathing in the pressurised oxygen of the tiny landing craft. Communicated across the radiowaves were numbers and symbols denoting speed, vectors, distance, acceleration, and position. A camera sent images of the craterous surface, magnifying as it approached. Then the image on the camera went dark.

            “Once again, the Eagle has landed,” came the radio-voice across the world.

 

People cheered in the streets of the cities of Earth and families hugged each other smiling in their living rooms. Some protested too. The NASA team were ecstatic, but most of them were simply exhausted, emotionally, mentally, and physically. They leaned back on their chairs in speechless relief.

 

           “Good to hear from you, Eagle. Man has come back to the Moon.”

 

The astronaut stood up in his craft which stood on the moon. He could feel the strange sensation of unusual gravity; not so much a feeling of weightlessness but a feeling of improved physical strength. There were no windows onboard, but the feeling of having landed on solid matter was enough for his senses to light up his imagination. He did not rush: with time and care he lifted the thick spacesuit around and over his body. The globular helmet came on last; air was released around his enclosed head. He was following a routine which he had repeated endless times in training on Earth. He did not need to think; adrenaline was pumping through his brain as his body completed the tasks expertly. He breathed slowly and deliberately, inhaling and exhaling, and moving cautiously in the heavy suit through low gravity.

 

He entered the vacuum chamber. The door sealed. He opened the hatch to the blackness of space. There were no stars, but the sun. It was day on the moon. The sky was as black as blackest night. And beyond him was the bizarre horizon, the Sea of Tranquility, pale and deathly world of the desert moon. Craters large and small shaded the greyscape. “It doesn’t seem real,” he said.

 

The camera was on him, beaming back to the life-planet images of the lonely man carefully descending the ladder to the white ground. One step then another, he leaped the last, and landed with a bumping bounce.

        

     “Step by step, humanity moves through the stars.”

 

The mission continued on successfully with the astronaut bouncing a weightfree dance across the lifeless landscape, setting up the required scientific stations and gathering useful samples and geophysics. He set up the American flag and said: “America has returned to the moon because America will never leave her dreams behind.” He lay a plaque which said: “The people of mankind hereby acknowledge that there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”

 

Before him, the waning Earth curved delicate and blue in the blackness, white brushes of cloud systems across its far, or so far and distant seas. It opened like a child-eye upon the obscure face of the universe. He filmed the earthset as it disappeared silently over the moon’s horizon.

 

His hour long mission complete, the man returned to the landing craft, which stood alien and incongruous on the pale sand. The team on Earth were discussing with enthusiasm the success of the mission and Pilot Solus stood on standby orbiting the dark side of the moon.

 

The astronaut climbed the ladder to the hatch door. The door refused to open. Over the radio, inside the suit, “Is there a problem there, Team Ithaca?”

 

The astronaut laughed. “Yeah, just struggling with this damn door. The latch isn’t letting loose.”

 

The groundteam paused. “Ok. Just let us know when you’re in.”

 

But the door would not open. It tugged stubbornly back to its fixed position. The astronaut pulled at it with every sinew of strength in his body, but his besuited body was unwieldy and the door was stuck fast.

 

He screamed as he heaved and water vapour fogged the inside of his visor. “I can’t open it!”

 

The groundteam told him to wait while they sought a solution. He had about twenty minutes of air left in his suit. He stepped down the ladder and sat on his haunches. He stared towards space. Perhaps the glint of the orbiting module might be visible. It wasn’t. All above was black.

 

The groundteam could not find a solution. He was locked out. Something had obviously went wrong with the door release mechanism, they were certain about that.

 

Scared, but trying to keep his courage, trying to remain rationally minded, the astronaut walked away from the landing craft, and out across the moon. He looked towards the moon-hill over which the Earth had set not long before. A camera from the craft was pointing at him and broadcasting his image to the people of the planet.

He fingered the dry moondust that stretched out all around him. He lay down on his side to conserve energy. He remained stoic. Ground control would take control - he just had to wait. They told him to hold on.

 

He held on. But soon his air flow thinned. His breathing grew heavier and heavier. And then it grew shallower and shallower. And then all his insides tightened. He held on for a few more seconds. And then he suffocated. It was the most public death in the history of his species. His suit-enclosed body lay there - a complex lump of stuff on a pale and empty landscape. More alone than any man has ever been, the astronaut died on the moon.

 

The image was beamed across Earth. Pilot John Solus returned alone. He splashed down in the sea with success. Sadness met his return. Even he, stolid soldier that he was, cried tears as the men plucked him from the ocean.

 

...

 

They could not retrieve the body. It would be too complicated, too expensive. It could not be done. People looked at the moon at night and knew that a man’s body lay there, dead, unburied. Never to rot. It would remain there intact. Uncorrupted forever. Or for at least as long as the moon will orbit, round and around, in this vacuous solar system.

 

A campaign was started to raise support and funding for a mission to retrieve the dead body. Unfortunately, the campaign failed. The reality was that such a mission was beyond the means of the people of Earth.

And so the astronaut had died on the moon. His pristine corpse protected by a NASA woven suit. And people would look at Earth’s satellite, that spectral companion, and remember him - the man on the moon.