menu

UNTHINKABLE

by

Sean McMullen


How does one think through the unthinkable? Andrews was the sort who analysed the situation in the most minute detail possible. His supervisor, Westall, was so shocked that he could do no more than stare at a thin cone of light on one of the monitors in the helicopter's cabin.

"You have to give them credit for sheer guts," said Andrews, looking up from the screen of his lapcom.

"17th March 2018, the worst day of my life," replied Westall morosely.

The light on the screen winked out, and the broadcast switched to NASA's command centre in Houston.

"Albatross has successfully achieved transfer orbit after a burn of --" began an official.

Westall hit the mute key on his remote. "I almost wish they'd lose it," he admitted softly.

"There's a long way to go," Andrews began.

"Where the hell did Carrington get all that stuff?" Westall suddenly shouted. "The last NASA estimate was around seven trillion dollars for a manned Mars expedition."

"His crew is actually one woman," Andrews pointed out, then immediately thought the better of it. "And, ah, Carrington is taking risks that NASA would not. The basic idea is in the name. The albatross is a bird that flies incredible distances with very little wing movement. It can fly around the world on less than a millionth of the energy that an aircraft needs."

Westall glared at him, then rested his chin between his hands and shook his head. A clean shaven man of about forty in a neat suit was being interviewed on the silent screen. Westall shut his eyes.

"How?" he asked simply. "How could he develop something like that in secret? Who backed him? The Arabs? The Chinese?"

"Dreamweaver Movie Finance, Leading Edge Funding, Peterson Investment --" Andrews began reading after tapping a few keys.

"They're American companies."

"There are thirty finance companies involved, and twenty seven are American. The project manager sold it as a movie on Mars, and they bought it on the strength of his reputation. Carrington is a superb movie director, project manager, and quite a visionary and dreamer too."

"Why isn't he working for NASA, ESA or NASDA?"

"Would you have hired him?"

"How did my strategic planners miss the fact that space technology had become cheap enough to do something like this? How did everyone else miss it?"

"With respect, sir, idea has been building up for over twenty years. I recall an item called The Artemis Project in Analog magazine back in the 1990s. It involved a movie company setting up a lunar colony."

"I don't recall seeing it in my technical abstracts register."

"That may be because Analog is a science fiction magazine."

"Science fiction? Neither I nor my planners share your interest in escapist dreams."

"With respect, sir, that appears to be the trouble. In fact, I believe there's a company trying to do it."

"Sounds like they're going nowhere."

Andrews tapped at his keys. "Interesting, that company's among Carrington's backers! This should give their colony project quite a boost."

Westall's face reddened, then he shook his head. None of the world's large, national space agencies would have funded something as unlikely as Albatross. Andrews tapped in silence for a minute, then sat back and stared at his lapcom in satisfaction. In the two hours since the engine of Albatross had been fired and the announcement made to an incredulous world, he had tracked down, analysed and costed all the components of the first human expedition to Mars.

"Nothing new was developed," he announced. "I've sourced the major components. Try to guess what it cost. Go on, try."

"I'm in no mood for games," responded Westall ominously. "Suppose you tell me what you found before I'm overcome by the urge to push that hatch open and drop you two thousand feet onto suburban Washington."

"Okay, okay. For starters, Albatross is 100% known tech, and cost about $90 million."

"That's impossible!"

"Not so. The core hardware is very light, and doesn't need much grunt to move it. Sky Shells of Seattle sold Carrington the LP-10 Getaway environment shell for $8 million. Their share price has gone over the moon in two hours."

"Power plant?"

"A Vostok Industries ion cavitation engine."

"NASA's version of the ICE is seven times more efficient."

"And costs $400 million per year to lease. The Russian ICE was a steal at just $1.5 million per month, linked to an indexed percentage of their share price. Their shares have gone up 3000% in the last two hours, so --"

"So Carrington gets the damn engine free."

"Effectively."

On the screen a window cut to the helmeted face of the astronaut, Heather Willis. Her image was clear, coming from a state-of-the-art but off-the-shelf camera-transceiver by ActionCam of Canada. The distinctive logo of her British Technowear space suit was just above the visor.

"Lease on one Technowear space suit for the duration of the journey, $75,380 per month plus an offset from a publicity A/D clause," said Andrews, bringing up a new suite of figures.

"A/D clause?"

"Appreciation/Depreciation."

"Yeah, yeah, clever, so they'll get it for free. If she gets back the Brits will have the first space suit used on Mars, which will be worth several times its weight in gold."

Westall's cell phone rang. He glanced at the number on the display, then thumbed the key and closed his eyes.

"Westall. Yes I am watching it sir. I realise that sir. I suppose he would be, sir. We're working on it, sir. About $90 million, sir. Yes, I know the toilet on NASA's design cost more than that, sir. I'll have it when I land, sir. Ten minutes, sir."

Westall lowered the cellphone and sat staring blankly at the screen.

"The president?" asked Andrews.

"No, the head of NASA, who has just been watching the head of the CIA being kicked around the Oval Office by the very, very angry president. The president is currently broadcasting his good wishes to Heather Willis. Next it's our turn in to face him."

"I'm onto it, you'll have a brief in ten --"

"We, not me. We are going to help our boss answer the most awkward presidential questions since Sputnik, Lunik, Vostok, Challenger and the Hubble Space Telescope, so hurry up and finish your walkthrough."

"Okay then, the descent stage has a commercial thermal shield by Airbus Industries, the chute, cabin and landing gear are by Hispano Custom Ballooning of Spain, and the solid fuel ascent engines are by Tsein Reaction Technologies, China. The Sunwing company of Australia did the inflatable solar panels, the collapsible Mars Flyer was by All-American Recreational Ultralights --"

"What?"

"With a modified hydrogen-inflated airfoil coated with solar cells, also by Sunwing, as a supplement to the hybrid electro-catalytic engine from Nissan. Now that last item was non-standard, cost $21 million and took two years to develop."

"Don't tell me, Carrington has shares in the patent."

"Er ... yes. United Airlines lifted their astronaut to Novatel Spatiale, the French orbital hotel. A Boeing orbital robot assembler was leased to snap the modules together. The assembler also ferried Willis to Albatross."

"Something just doesn't add up. To reach Mars you need an enormous volume of propellant."

"That came from Novatel Spatiale's stores. Remember that load of contaminated water kept in an old Space Shuttle tank? Guess who bought it cheap?"

"But it was tainted with hydrocarbons."

"Sure. You can't drink it, but you can use it in a Russian ion cavitation engine powered by an inflatable Australian solar array the size of a football field."

"And behind it all was a movie producer!" muttered Westall.

"It makes sense. Carrington's spent his life using other people's money to fund big budget productions, and always turned in a profit. His last two movies were shot in orbit under pretty tight secrecy, so people assumed that this was just another movie. In a sense it is, too. With all this publicity even the raw footage will be the biggest box office draw since Star Wars. Carrington will make a profit from Albatross."

"There are plenty of others who want that sort of publicity. What's next? Disney comedies on Venus? Lucasfilm epics on Io? Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials on Phobos?"

"In terms of capital investment all three of those organisations could probably finance --"

"This can't be! Our experts said seven trillion to reach Mars."

"But that was for a crew of five. They were to be awake the whole time, so food, fluids, artificial gravity and other overheads raised the weight and cost. Albatross carries one female geologist who weighs ninety pounds in her briefs and sportsbra -- both made by Sportsgirl, by the way. Her hobby is ultralight flying, and she won the Scotland to Newfoundland ultralight race in 2015. She's light, bright, brave, tough and resourceful."

"Pilot, technician and scientist all in one," sighed Westall.

"She will be in deep hibernation for most of the trip, cutting bone calcium loss and muscle decline to below 2%. Hibernation chamber by Hyber-Dyne of Scotland. It's a lightweight, portable model for shutting down seriously injured patients in remote areas until they reach a hospital. Costs $270,000 and weighs 310 pounds. When she's awake there's food concentrates by Orbital Epicure of London. The plan is to have her awake for a total of two weeks in space and four on Mars."

"That's cutting it fine."

"Maybe so, but there she is," he said with a gesture to the screen.

Westall restored the sound. Willis gave a farewell message to all of Earth, then the coverage cut to Carrington. He began explaining that they considered the Hitachi orbital navigation computer to be so reliable that they neither included a backup, nor used a second computer for the landing stage. One plug-in module did everything. Andrews typed at his laptop and figures reeled across his lapcom. $47,000 for the navigation computer and $6,740 for the Microsoft software.

"Mr Carrington, what we all want to know is how you got the idea?" asked an interviewer.

"Six years ago I saw the wreck of an old Dutch sailing ship in an Australian museum. Did you know that the Dutch first reached Australia in 1606, but it was not until1770 that the British discovered the fertile east coast? The sensible, cost-conscious Dutch merchants from the Spice Islands saw a red desert on the west coast, so in 164 years they didn't bother to fit out a single ship to check the entire coastline. That night I saw Mars in the sky and I thought, well, there's another red desert, and unless someone fits out a ship to go there we might wait another 164 years to discover the good bits on Mars. Did you know that NASA had the technology to land humans on Mars in the 1970s --"

"Yes, yes, and my father told a Senate committee so at the time!" Westall shouted at the screen, "Do you think his sensible, cost-conscious political masters listened? Did they listen forty years later, when I told them -- again?"

He snatched up the remote and killed the screen. The helicopter was descending now, to a White House lawn teeming with journalists, police, officials and the national guard.

"Ready?" asked Andrews.

"To explain the unthinkable? Never."

"What do you think he might ask?"

"Why will a country with a population smaller than that of Washington beat the United States, Russia, Europe, China, and Japan to Mars?"

"That's easy. Albatross was globally outsourced, the whole world helped build it."

"I'm afraid the whole world is not seeing it that way."

"We just need to put the right spin on the story, hype up the global contribution. After all, 90% of the venture capital was American. Creative PR can explain that. Carrington's country provided nothing but the project manager and logo."

"Maybe so, but I say that all the hype, spin and creative PR in the world will never, never explain why the words on that logo are 'Made in New Zealand'."