I lied to meet an astronaut.
Or my dad did, which is the same thing. I was supposed to be at least eight years old to attend, and I was only six but the tallest in my class. So I got to meet the astronaut that August day, instead of going to the beach, or playing in somebody’s backyard and running barefoot to the ice cream truck when we heard its roving song.
He was the third man on the moon, and at home I still have the framed and autographed NASA black-and-white of him, young and serious in his spacesuit. It used to be one of the pictures on his Wikipedia page, a piece of my memories out there on the internet for everybody to see. It’s probably the same promo photo he used for years; I wonder how many other kids kept theirs? Thinking of it like that makes him seem still alive, like as long as all those pictures are out there, he can’t possibly be gone.
I remember him writing his name on the glossy page with a black pen. I remember feeling very important; this was a real autograph, not like the one I got from Mickey Mouse and friends at Disney World in February. He gave some kind of talk, I’m sure. There were a lot of kids there, and I wonder if any of us appreciated it. This man walked on the moon.
Probably, we lied so my dad could meet the astronaut. When I was six, my dad was still kind of a kid himself, just twenty five. I thought of this when I was sixteen and we rented a houseboat on a Florida vacation, so we’d be out in the Gulf and away from light pollution when a shuttle launched at Cape Canaveral. We got up at three in the morning and looked to the north-east for a light in the sky that never came, and we went back to bed. After that, I started to think about maybe being an astronaut. My dad never talked about what he wanted to be.
Every kid who went to see the astronaut was given a mylar balloon that looked like an astronaut in a spacesuit. I don’t remember the food, if there was cake or even astronaut ice cream, but that balloon made me happy. It was the kind of balloon that kept its air for a really long time, and I played with it and even talked to it while we were still at the event. It bobbed on its red ribbon behind me as we crossed the parking lot, the sky white with clouds and ready to pour the way it only does in August, leaving the asphalt steaming afterwards and everything hotter and greener and newer.
The car was an oven from our time inside and I put my window down as we drove off. The astronaut was sucked out—red ribbon burning through my fingers—pulled up into the white sky, then too far away to see, just like that. My dad looked back when I started to cry and said “Houston, we have a problem here,” but I didn’t know what that meant, and didn’t get the joke, I just knew my astronaut balloon was gone and I’d never have another one. The idea of gone terrified and offended me; it’s why I never used stickers, hoarding them instead. It’s probably why I used to be afraid of the dark, the yawning darkness that replaced the normal world, that anything could come out of without warning.
Gone was gone, though, and traffic had started to move, so my dad drove on, scanning through the radio stations. I continued to cry, but the watching-what-will-happen-next kind, not the surely-this-will-produce-results kind, and then he stopped on a song and turned it up. “Werewolves of London” always made me smile, and sing along.
We stopped at the liquor store, which sounds like a terrible thing, my dad brought me to the liquor store when I was six. But the liquor store had a seven foot tall werewolf cutout that talked when you stood in front of it, and that’s why I liked it there. My dad would never in his life buy that kind of beer, but the radio and that werewolf cutout made losing my astronaut balloon not so bad.
And now I’m grown, older than my dad was that day and, impossibly, my dad is gone too. He and the astronaut both died in the same way: motorcycle accidents. And now I have my own “Houston, I have a problem here,” a real one, not just a little girl who’s lost her balloon. I’m not crying now because I’ve trained for this. Years of training, pushing stress levels, staying sharp, staying calm. Plus excess moisture in the cabin would play hell on the equipment, tiny globes salty like the Gulf on that vacation, catching fish that croaked in the air, looking at the night sky. The shuttles are gone now too, mothballed in museums or parked in one of those airplane graveyards in Arizona or New Mexico, safe and dry and dreaming of the sky.
It will take thirteen minutes and forty-eight seconds for Houston to hear my voice and learn my problem. The moon I orbit isn’t Earth’s moon but one of Mars’ mismatched pair, Phobos. My problem isn’t going to be fixed with duct tape. My problem is unlikely to be fixed. But I knew the risks, and there wasn’t a single step along the way here that was without risk. That’s probably why I did it. Six months in a tin can by myself and I had a lot to think about. Like the choices that brought me here. Like the choices that could’ve kept me home. Would I have joined the Navy in the first place, or been tapped for NASA, if my dad hadn’t taken me to see that astronaut? Would I have applied for this mission specifically, if he had lived?
I can listen to “Werewolves of London” almost eight times before I’ll hear back from Houston, and they’ll probably just say “Copy, Suzanne” while staring at all of their screens, trying to figure out how fucked I am. I never even knew what my dad’s favorite song was, just that he hated Bruce Springsteen’s “Sandy” and I don’t.
It was a perfect sunny day when I got the call. He was already gone; there had been an accident, a terrible accident, and they weren’t going to be able to save him. I couldn’t get there in time. I couldn’t do anything in time. We hadn’t talked for awhile, actually, and I’d been thinking about calling him. And then I could no longer call him, I could only go through my saved voicemails in the hopes that one from him was there so I could hear him say my name one last time, but I didn’t even get that. I wasn’t an astronaut yet, when my dad was still alive. I wasn’t on my way to Mars, or to Phobos. I’d hardly logged any flight hours.
I have a laminated picture of me and him on my control panel, from the day I met the astronaut. I’m in a party dress, white frilly ankle socks, black patent leather shoes. My hair in swinging ponytails. I had a particular camera face when I was a kid, a certain smile. When I got older, I didn’t even want to look at the camera. After my dad died, I had to relearn how to smile. Judging from internet comments after some of my interviews, I didn’t really succeed.
I’m the most alone a human being has ever been. Unless you believe those stories about the Russians, that they accidentally put cosmonauts past the moon, and that amateur radio operators listened in until they couldn’t hear them anymore. Gone, like my balloon in the infinite sky. Ghosts on the radio waves, just one example on a list of supposed accidents hidden behind the Iron Curtain. I don’t think it really happened. But in my long days which might as well have been nights, it seems far more plausible, and I wonder. I imagine how they might have felt. The differences between us aren’t so big, and of course my radio channels are open and waiting at any hour of the day.
I don’t say, Oh, thanks for getting back to me, Houston. I wait.
Pretty much my mission is a there and back again. Was. Liftoff from 39A at Cape Canaveral six months ago, the shortest time of the year to get to Mars. Settle into Phobos orbit. Deploy some cubesats, takes some pictures. Tool around in a little rover that I leave on the planet-facing side of the moon, to see how shielded from the radiation it will really be. See if the water shielding in my little craft was worth believing in, though of course it must have been or they would never have sent me. Everything five-by-five until I was back on board and some space junk pinged off my service module, putting me into a spin I had to correct manually. Then my power took a heart-stopping dip and when it came back, one of my thrusters was a dented tin can. I pulled an emergency EVA to seal the hemorrhaging fuel tank. My solar array was like an umbrella turned inside-out on a windy day.
In the balance of energy and propulsion, fuel and solar and inertia, there’s wiggle room. But not that much wiggle room, not enough to get back home in my lifetime. Fuel conservation and automated systems is one reason my mission is a solo one, and not a duo or trio. And there isn’t anybody to come get me, that isn’t how any of this works. I orbit Phobos, I will continue to orbit Phobos, even after my power is gone entirely and I am gone too. When Phobos spirals to the Martian surface, which it will, then I’ll be along for the ride. I’m not sure they really considered this when they picked Mars for the next step of humanity, rather than our own moon. An impact that large would be catastrophic on Earth; how different will it be on Mars, if we’ve been able to install life there? Though Earth’s moon is drifting away by infinitesimal amounts, I’m not so sure that’s better, or even if it will take longer.
When he was a kid, six or eight or ten, my dad wrote a short story about astronauts who were army guys sent to a different planet, and it turned out there were dinosaurs there. That was popular in science fiction for a really long time, still-living dinosaurs hidden right under our noses. In the middle of the Antarctic, which would also be mysteriously tropical. On the moon, or on Venus. In the sublevels of a department store. No dinosaurs on Mars, though, maybe because our dreams of Mars were consumed, always, by the canals. We know now there weren’t canals, but the stories take a certain significance, like we knew water was here somehow and we only just had to keep looking, keep looking.
There is always a chance something like this might happen. There are so many steps along the way where situation normal can suddenly become so very bad. There is the litany of those who have gone before in our bid for the stars. It’s amazing there haven’t been more, as we strap ourselves into tin cans and fling our fragile, flammable selves into the void. As we compete for the privilege, pushing every last limit. As we return, changed, in every way that might mean. Maybe I thought, if I couldn’t do it myself, maybe the universe would do it for me.
At the beach once, when I swam out just a little too far, the current was just a little too strong. I wasn’t in any real danger, not like now, but in danger enough, pulled towards the jetty’s big black rocks. My dad beat the lifeguard getting to me, and as he got close all I could think of to say was “I’m okay, Dad, I’m okay,” possessed of bold, confident calm even at that age. “No you aren’t,” he said. We sat on the hot sand afterwards, in our towels, and he pretended to be bothered about whether his watch worked. He hadn’t had the time to take it off. That watch still works though; still ticking, it hangs around my wrist, one of my few non-essential weight allowances. I never got the band adjusted and by some fluke it doesn’t quite fly off on its own if I make a gesture. I don’t gesture much in my tin can. I listen to the watch tick, like when an animal is born very small and weak and gets wrapped up with a clock to simulate its mother’s heartbeat.
After the funeral I brought my dad’s CDs home and listened to them one by one. When I got to Wish You Were Here, the case was empty.
“Suzanne?” There’s a pause, but they have a captive audience and they know it. “You have a couple of options.” And I feel a surge of hope, like every time I change the radio station and in that empty static moment I expect “Werewolves of London”. Like when I was too close to the rocks and my dad was there. Like maybe I came to the sky to get my balloon back. But I know this isn’t how it works. Being here is impossible, my dad being dead is impossible, and now, so is my return, no matter how gently Houston confirms what I’ve already accepted. I just hope he would’ve been proud of me.