P-5A         Phobos             

  a work of fiction

© 2017         David P. Stern


    "This is the land I promised... I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it." (Deuteronomy 34, v. 4)

      Team-mates and friends call me Scott, and right now I'm the only living human in the system of planet Mars.  ISA, the Internat. Space Agency, sent me here as its point man, in a world-wide effort to learn more about Mars and establish a human presence. And I am not on Mars itself, just on its tiny satellite Phobos, orbiting the planet in seven hours and a fraction.

      Landing on Phobos has been much easier than landing on Mars, much less rocket thrust was needed, it was more like the docking a spacecraft onto another. Although this is not the martian surface, it still is a good station for controlling work on the planet itself.

      As controllers of early unmanned rovers have known, controlling a Mars rover from Earth faces long delays. Between sending out a command and observing its response, something like a quarter to half an hour must pass, the exact time depending on the orbital positions of the two planets. From Phobos, however, a rover on Mars can be controlled almost in real time. Mars is so close that radio traffic with it suffers only a brief delay, no more than the delay of sound between a note being played in a large concert hall and it being heard by the audience.

      From here one can operate robotic rovers on Mars itself. and also send orders to two rovers on Phobos. This is a tiny moon, only 23 kilometers across, its gravity is feeble (a tennis ball whacked from the surface may never return) and I feel nearly weightless. I usually work strapped down in my cabin, because I'm too light for sitting down normally.

      If I were to step outside this cabin, Mars would fill the sky above; gravity keeps this side of Phobos permanently facing Mars, just as the same side of our Moon always faces Earth. Before going out I would also have to put on a space suit, pass through an airlock, and probably tether myself to the exit hatch just to make sure I could return.

      It is the weakness of gravity that makes Phobos much more accessible than on Mars itself. Taking off again, or sending a load back to Earth, is easier too. Neither place has a breathable atmosphere, and while Phobos also lacks water and nitrogen (although there could be water of crystallization deep inside this pile of slag), inside the cabin one can recycle what had been brought along, as I had done during the long flight from Earth.

      Indeed, this cabin used to be part of the spaceship that got me here. The ship's rockets are still out on the Phobos surface, as are empty fuel tanks; some day they all might provide metal for building something.

      The cabin only has two small portholes and an airlock, but there is no need to go outside. It's much simpler to place cameras and telescopes, obtain images through a video screen, and remotely operate the rovers behind those cameras.

      Landing me on Phobos also reduced the possibility of my bringing any biological material from Earth to the surface of Mars. If by accident the cabin were breached, I might not survive, but nothing would contaminate the planet itself. A major original goal of this mission was to find if Mars was home to any kind of life, which required making absolutely sure that no organic material discovered there came from Earth. So far none was found and it is pretty much accepted that no native life exists on Mars, though whether it was always so remains uncertain.

      Actually, humans have already visited this neighborhood, but none have survived. Liu-Sin, Marge Gordon and Eli Levy died in their spaceships, which now follow large ellipses between Mars and Earth, either of which they could hit in the far future. John Pillon and Betty Taylor did reach Phobos, and their bodies remain inside cabins on its surface; one day monument may mark those spots, but for now that can wait. Yes, I am likely to meet a similar fate. But until then I am the point man.

Alone on Phobos

      This is a lonely post, and much of what I do follows programs and orders from Earth. Why was I the one sent? Talent matters, of course, and in training on Earth, I demonstrated quick reflexes, good judgement, and familiarity with engineering, physics, astronomy and computers. But I also proved a quick learner, worked well by myself and did not mind isolation: a touch of Asperger's, some have said. Elinor Cabot mastered technology just as well as I did and was even quicker, she was also on the list for Phobos (as were others of the astronaut team), but she led an intense social life and was much involved in society. I was a loner, focused and single-minded, and when she got married I became an obvious candidate.

      It is now the year 2065 and artificial intelligence (AI) has become pretty versatile. However, electronic minds like the ones on Mars rovers still have serious limits and need some guidance. Alex, my AI assistant in this cabin, is quite helpful. I write "he", because this software system has become a virtual companion (and strictly, this is not "written" but dictated to Alex). Regularly updated from Earth and with clever attachments, Alex independently performs many tasks. The rovers outside here and on the surface have their own AI abilities, and a control unit on Mars itself--named Merlin--helps coordinate activities there. The future promises much better tools, but for now the exploration of Mars is best managed from Phobos: my telescopes can resolve about 20 meters on the surface, and for closer views Merlin's video cameras send their images directly.

      The tough challenge is staying alive in this environment. The space agency has spent much ingenuity, effort and funding on providing my life support, and a lot of time, too: I have been with this project for 12 years, member of a tight team of astronauts, engineers, biochemists, computer scientists and capable supporters. In the end I was the one sent here, but others were just as willing to go.

      Members of the team have closely followed my long journey to Mars and Phobos, and we continually stay in touch, helped by relay satellites orbiting above me. They transmit a steady stream of orders and requests, supervise my work, send software to be field-tested and guide my outreach to the public, such as the weekly "Report to Earth," translated and shared all over (speech can be readily sent, it just gets delayed).

     During the long trip out, at times when there was little new to report, I talked mainly about technology and astronomy; more recent reports focus on the work of rovers and on their discoveries and plans. Effectively I can only operate one rover at a time, but they can also carry out some tasks without constant supervision, e.g. travel to new locations. The control team has nine members on Earth--and one here, of course. Do I feel pushed? Sometimes, yes, sometimes we disagree, and sometimes scripts and codes get changed.

      Public interest in Mars has evolved. In early NASA efforts, media often voiced extravagant ideas--for instance, that Mars could become a second Earth, a refuge for earthlings if through our folly Earth stopped being habitable. That was never a serious suggestion and ended long ago. Sober reflection suggested life on Earth was not likely to get endangered; it might get harder, perhaps much harder, but even then would always be easier than life on Mars. These days Earth environment is better managed, and as restrictions take hold, it is slowly healing. The ozone layer of the atmosphere, for instance.

      Also, human flight to Mars has proved harder than what rosy hopes of science fiction had once suggested, and intelligent machinery well might be humanity's best representative here. Human spaceflight has become more of a quest, a demonstration of how we can reach beyond our home planet, even at a time when clever machines have already started competing with our brains.

The Game of Go

      Indeed, science itself this has become somewhat like the intricate Japanese game of Go. In Go competing players face a square board divided into many square cells, and take turns placing "men"--black counters for one player, white ones for the other-- to dominate areas of the board. Counters surrounded by the opposite color are deemed "captured", and the game ends when the losing player is left without access to unclaimed "breathing space." For a few years after computers had bested human champions in chess, a few humans still outplayed computers in Go... but not for long. For astronomy and science in general, "breathing space" consists of unsolved problems and unvisited places, and as ignorance shrinks, less and less of those remain to work on.

      When nothing worth-while is left to explore, what will humanity (or its electronic successors) do? One can hardly venture even a guess: the universe covers distances of light years and megaparsecs, and its time scale is that of the evolution of life and of stars, while human lifespan and human reach are much shorter. But that's for the far future: for now, enough mystery remains, enough squares remain unoccupied, and human intelligence still has its challenges.

Sarah Pryor's Vision

      One such challenge is exploring Mars. Human explorers like me would hardly have done as well, were it not for the vision of Sarah Pryor, though others before her had glimpsed the same ideas. Coming to this project from biochemistry, she realized that the essential ingredient for sustainable life support--in space and on Earth--was an ample supply of energy. Essential materials--oxygen, water, CO2, carbohydrates, also compounds of nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.--could be recycled as long as enough energy was available.

      On Earth and in space, most energy comes from sunlight, but growing food also requires a gaseous atmosphere. Sarah felt that large airtight greenhouses were too risky, the chance of a sudden breach or a gradual leakage was too great. She convinced ISA that only a robust airtight enclosure would do, generating its own light,

      Energy can enter or leave such an enclosure, as electric current from photovoltaic collectors or as heat transmitted through metal plates. And that is what governs my life support. My food comes from hydroponic trays facing a huge number of light-emitting diodes, and optimal temperature is maintained by controlling heat flow back to space. Simple processes, but the devil is in the details: the genetics of algae and of microorganism that produce food and keep my atmosphere breathable needed to be carefully developed on Earth, and are constantly defended agains destructive mutations. Also, waste products need be broken down and returned for re-use by algae and plants, and the performance of electrical and chemical tools managing that eco-system cannot be allowed to be degraded by use.

      Right now one rover is exploring Phobos, more or less independently. Definitely not easy: wheels can readily support the small weight of a rover, but for traction they need long spikey tines, like those of a pitchfork (a lot shorter, though), with some high-traction wheels that can be lowered to dig in. Rovers on Mars itself get their traction from gravity and are different.

      It is possible estimate how long Phobos has been in its orbit--quite long, because its orbit is nearly circular, not elongated as might icome from an an asteroid capture. The larger rover has explored parts of it quite thoroughly--looking for usable minerals, occasionally drilling a hole for deeper understanding. Also trying to determine how it formed: so far we have detailed maps, but no signifivant discovery. It is mostly a slag heap, though there may exist some water, very deep down.

      The one question not answered yet--have any intelligent visitors been here? Because if anyone had visited the Mars system, they probably touched down on Phobos, which would have been quite easy. So far, no sign, and although the rover has uncovered a range of what seem to be meteorites, none appears exceptional. Any signs of visits would probably be small, and quite possibly hidden below the surface. The other side of Phobos, beyond the line of sight, still needs more attention.

      The chemistry of the surface material, too, has yielded no surprises. By Pryor's criteria, such material may not be completely useless: given sufficient energy, it might possibly produce from it some sort of rocket fuel (although "sufficient energy" could be impractically large!). Even this gritty surface was created by some chemical process, and reversing it could perhaps provide fuel for spaceflight. If experiments back on Earth are successful, this could lead (on Mars and Phobos) to a modern version of the black powder rocket, using carbon and oxygen harvested from minerals

      Alex, my AI assistant, is of great help, and handles independently and simultaneously many chores. My own time is tightly controlled since I must report to a large community back on Earth, and Alex manages the schedule, has done so since we left OS-2. His software has had many updates since arrival at Phobos and its AI capabilities are now better than ever. He can handle written messages or use a human voice, which computers on Earth can translate to any language.

      Inevitably, he has taken over more and more of my chores. e.g. the boreholes on Mars and analysis of the material they encounter. He drafts reports to Earth, which by now hardly need any modification, and oversees the "farming" of green plants that keep me fed and breathing, with methods developed in Japan and on OS-2 (also on OS-1) long before this mission took off.

How I got here

      One might well say that I have been on this project all my life. From early age, space exploration and computers fascinated me, perhaps because my father worked on the Mars project. My mother did too, until she refocused her attention on her son and daughter, and on the three children of Julie Werner, of similar age, whom she and Julie raised together with us. She later taught physics and math in high school, giving us five unique inspiration and understanding; in later grades, we sat in the room where she taught older students, absorbing lessons with them. By the time we ourselves reached high school, we were unofficially helping her read and correct student papers.

      At age 12 I invented the "Lunik" computer game, in which players control virtual rovers with adjustable delay times; it was named after a Russian moon rover, whose responses suffered a 2.5-second transmission-time delay. The game offered variable delays, obstacle courses, follow-the-leader races and other competitions; one later version even guided actual rovers (on Earth, of course). It earned a lot of money, although part of that had to go to defending the patents.

      All five of us graduated early from high school. I then enrolled in Virginia Polytech, partnering with the Langley Space Flight Center of ISA, and during vacations worked there as junior partner in the team preparing a trip to Mars. During those years I also regularly placed first or second in regional bicycle races, and my physical fitness may have helped me qualify for the Mars team.

      We started as a fresh scrappy group.... Len, John B, Minerva, Ron, Miguel, Edouardo, Cincona, Oliver, Elinor and others, initially all equal partners in the Phobos mission. Maybe ISA chose me to come here because I was a single-minded loner with a slight touch of Asperger's, understanding what it meant to work alone, isolated on a moonlet. But others had similar skills. There was no plan to bring me back to Earth again.

      ISA taught us many diverse skills, our marks and scores were all posted, and everyone worked hard to score high. A lot involved computer simulations--e.g remote assembly by robots, guided via video. On screen one can readily simulate a zero-g environment, or the weak gravity of Phobos. We also played clever variations of the "Lunik" game, and although I was pretty good at it, Ron and Len were faster and had uncanny intuition for coping with obstacles.

      Other games and exercises challenged us as a team and helped develop close friendships. Learning to act remotely through robots was not easy: just try remotely peeling an orange which you can only see over a screen (and with a delay!). Or replacing circuit boards. Lectures were attended, of course, but time was also given to sports, ball games, and sometimes mountain climbing and learning to team up with robots and rovers.

      In the years closest to the flight, much time was spent in a simulator resembling the cabin I now occupy, or closer to launch time in this cabin itself, when it was attached to OS-2. It became part of the spaceship which brought me here, and on Phobos it was linked to a second unit which had earlier landed under automatic control. Training with it started in a simulator on Earth, inside a concrete building, isolated from light, sound and vibration, even simulating the beastly cold of this place. That's where we learned to interact with independent rovers and to guide their tasks. Their programming was then managed by our support team, while here on Phobos Alex and I control "Rob 1" and big brother "Rob 2" (from the earlier lander); one of their early tasks was laying out the solar arrays which now extend from this cabin. More rovers are on the Mars below us, helping explore its surface and preparing to build a "guesthouse" where humans might stay one day.

Leaving Earth

      I left Earth for space station OS-2 in the company of Cincona, who oversaw most of my preparations, and a third astronaut. A big noisy take-off, followed by a quick transit to the space station. The cabin section of the main mission was already waiting, and I spent much time in it, checking out controls and learning take care of the onboard hydroponic "farm." Earlier I had already practiced such farming in the surface simulator, but plant life, algae and above all water need to be handled differently in a "zero-g" environment like OS-2.

      Before the manned mission took off, a load of materials and hardware had already arrived on Phobos, and another had placed comsats in orbits around Mars, to keep in touch even as the planet rotated below. Because the final approach to landing was slow and deliberate, like the docking of spacecraft, it was possible to choose a precise landing site, near the spot chosen for the later manned landing.

      The spaceship was named Phobos-X. Its actual launch was preceded by a quiet ceremony with Cincona on OS-2 and more elaborate observances on Earth, with the rest of the team, also my parents and sister. It was gently pushed away from OS-2, then given a big boost by auxiliary rockets to make it pass quickly through the radiation belts around Earth. The telescopes of OS-2 followed it for a while, and I too could watch that video. Fifteen minutes or so later the added boosters ran out of fuel and were dropped--still in an Earth orbit and later recovered--and after a few more hours of gentle acceleration, an orbit to Mars was achieved and more rockets and tanks dropped. They were placed in orbits that avoided hitting Mars or Earth in the foreseeable future.

      The ship then coasted; gravity was gone, a perfect "zero-g" environment. It was loosely built, much like an orbiting space station, since landing on Phobos hardly produced any stress. Large solar arrays provided energy and worked well; also aboard was a compact nuclear reactor, turned on briefly as a test and then turned off again, saving it for later times. By then I was busy, and stayed so ever after.

      Phobos-X carried ample food supplies, and over the first few months, they sustained me well, although for the long run a reliable source of renewable food had to be established. Robots usually tended the onboard "farm," also recycled wastes and created my food supply. But they left plenty of work for me.

      Most routine chores were taken care automatically, but I could step in manually in case of failure; the farming in particular creates a persistent smell, and my body also smells, because washing it is hard. The water for doing so has its own tank and it purified after use, it also serves as an emergency supply in case of massive failure of the main system. And any hair that's cut from my face, head or anywhere, is sucked up and converted to usable protein.

      AI dominated the spaceship, and it continues doing so in the cabin on Phobos. Few flashing red lights now demand attention, because Alex takes care of everything; if something really serious occurs (as has happened!) I am immediately told. With redundancies and backups, even if the habitat suddenly lost all electric power, Alex would continue operating and deal with the emergency. Yes, a catastrophe is always possible, especially a puncture and loss of precious air.

      Before ISA decided to land a human on Phobos, many voices (especially engineers and scientists) urged for an all-robot mission. The public however seemed unhappy with exploring Mars without humans, and so here I am, along with the elaborate chemistry needed to sustain organic life. Sooner or later, I know, robots will do this job, with humans just visitors and with Phobos reduced to a spaceport.

Under Way

      After Phobos-X left OS-2, its trip became somewhat routine, and attention shifted to housekeeping. A drop in the growth rate of algae and removal of carbon dioxide caused some concern: it had to do with the cooling of the spacecraft, and using the nuclear reactor, Alex stabilized it. On Phobos that is not a problem--less heat is lost from below and additional solar arrays provide sufficient energy. The protein mix--a thick yogurt-like goop--is not terribly tasty, but by now I am used to it.

      My controllers hardly allowed me even one free moment, any slack was filled by communications with Earth. My sciencecasts for schools and networks continued, helped by team members on Earth. Because Earth moves in a different orbit, delays soon confined two-way exchanges to recorded segments.

      Some callers wanted to know about my mission, about the Phobos habitat and about its technology. One frequent concern was, "Are'nt you afraid you might die?"

      "---Yes, very much. Because if that happened, much of the planned exploration and study would not be realized, and the whole project would suffer."

      or:   "Do you realize you are completely on your own?"

      "---Really, I am not. I can communicate with you, and people like you can reach me. Meanwhile I have a unique opportunity to discover a new world."

      Also: "---I'm in constant touch, as long as the radio link to Earth continues. Yes, I am all by myself, with no plan to return. But other people will follow me into space."

      Actually, all such conversations were a bit of a sham, not just because radio delays were edited out but also because team members on Earth monitored all messages and selected the few queries to be answered. They also sent me suggestions and comments as I planned my replies. Before the public heard any Q&A exchange, the team reassembled it into what seemed like a regular conversation.

      Everything was changed by a spectacular event in the sky, the supernova explosion of the giant star Rho Cassiopeiae. The exploding star brightened enormously and on Earth could be seen even by an unaided eye in the daytime. In northern countries it never set, just circled the pole star once a day, and at its peak was as bright as the full moon. It aroused great fear--panic in some countries, though the gamma ray burst which came with it was almost completely absorbed by the atmosphere and dimmed quickly. Astronauts on OS-2 and OS-1 received a hefty dose of gamma-rays and promptly returned to Earth in emergency pods; none died, though their radiation monitoring badges turned dark gray. Months later the visible light also dimmed, leaving behind a peculiar bright star, still monitored by astronomers and satellites.

      I was actually trying to sleep when Alex shouted "Take shelter! Take Shelter!" louder than I had ever heard him. "Shelter" was a recess surrounded by a water tank and by stored supplies, and I stayed there about thirty hours before venturing out briefly; inside the shelter were food, drinking water and waste bags, and gradually I was allowed to return to the main capsule. Three weeks later conditions were near normal, my health was OK, but the solar cells had lost about 10% of their capacity. Contact with Earth remained unbroken and robots tended the plants, which had also suffered some losses.

      By then Phobos-X was significantly closer to Mars than to Earth, The team and supervisors had worried about my health, but there was no need for concern. Sciencecasts later gave special attention to supernova astronomy, but my main role in them was introducing astronomers and spokespersons expert on the subject.

      On one earlier occasion Alex also sent me to the shelter, with no prior warning. Earth at that time was on the opposite side of the Sun, seamlessly communicating by the several SOLOMON monitoring spacecraft sharing Earth's orbit. Radiation monitors on PHOBOS-X suddenly detected a sharp increase of energetic proton, triggering the alarm, but I only had to stay in the shelter for about a day. Images taken by SOLOMON-2 and SOLOMON-3 later showed a large flare-like disturbance rising from the Sun at that time. My cabin here continues to monitor radiation and keep a shelter area.

Landing on Phobos

      Landing on Phobos was almost an anticlimax, and everything worked as planned. Over the preceding few weeks, an ion rocket very gradually slowed down the spaceship, and contingency rockets were only used twice, adjusting the direction of the spacecraft's drift. I did not feel the gentle deceleration, though one could observe how loose objects collected in the front of the cabin. The final docking was stealthily slow, I watched it by video-as did, one would guess, billions back on Earth; nearly half an hour passed before confirmation reached Earth. Phobos is rather sandy, like an ocean beach, and when all motion ceased, I could feel its feeble gravity telling me which way was "down." It still felt like a zero-g environment, and one still had to take care using one's muscles. Deceleration was so slow that all solar cell arrays landed intact and continued operating.

      Soon afterwards additional solar arrays were rolled out, using the ROB-1 rover. Rolling from the airlock, it trailed a cable for power and signals, as well as a thin but strong line. It was different from rovers set down on Mars, its spiky wheels had to move very slowly to avoid slippage or rebound. They gave an uneven ride, now and then hitting a solid rock.

      About 20 meters out, the rovers stopped and screwed a set of augers into the sand at a moderate slant, easily penetrating some distance. The line was then winched in, and the solar cells at its end slowly followed. Not as easy as it sounds, because anchoring augers--even when slanted in different directions-- tend to pull out. The best strategy was to pull the line a few centimeters, until the sand holding the augers began to shift, then switch on their rotation and let them dig a bit deeper. With a supply of extension rods, the augers could go quite deep, but it was slow going: AI ran most of the process.

      The plants, algae and composting bins landed OK, too. Phobos is rather cold, sunlight being significantly weaker than on Earth, one more reason why more solar power was needed. The solar arrays (including those added later) usually ran at full power, and whatever power was left over from other activities went to warming the cabin.

      Another automatic task was monitoring air pressure, making sure no leaks existed. None was found! Afterwards attention shifted to the supporting payload which had landed earlier (its rocket lay nearby). Being quite close, the rover (with its AI) hooked its line into rings on the payload's body and then, braced by augers, slowly dragged its containers to the airlock. Some of the cargo went inside to be cleaned and used--other parts stayed outside, protected by the cold. Also set up outside were the high-resolution telescope for observing the planet and the large antenna array for the main link with Earth.

      In between I tried to catch up on correspondence, dictating to Alex messages to members of the Phobos team, to my minders (esp. Len and Elinor), my family, and to friends on Earth.

A Lonely Outpost

      What does one feel, alone and so far from human society? What is time spent on?

      There is never enough time! Some of it is spent minding the cabin, the well-being of the microbes, algae and plants which feed me and refresh my air, also one's reserves of food, spores, seeds, air and contingency tools. Alex sets most of of the priorities and scheduling, including exercise time and times set for sleep, he even handles sanitation and makes sure I am never, never idle. My own responsibilities include overseeing the rovers, communication with Earth and some repairs. I feel as if I am constantly treading water.

      Sleep time usually overlaps with night at one of the home bases, Flagstaff or Canberra, depending on season. The sleeping compartment is snug, pillows inside keep me from moving while asleep, and Alex makes sure nothing minor disturbs me. If I wake early he puts me to work, and he allows extra sleep when I seem to need it.

      And some of the time I remotely inhabit a rover on the Mars surface, viewing it through its cameras and those on Phobos or on other rovers, all controlled by Merlin. That role makes one quickly familiar with the physics and chemistry of the Mars surface. The rover even supplies artificial sound, somewhat like the one provided in the "Lunik" game.

      It is a split existence, as a distant member of humanity, also as the mind of a rover on the surface of Mars (and occasionally, of Phobos) and as a lone human inside an airtight box. One can send and read messages, which breaks the loneliness, and I like to listen to voices of those left behind, including team mates, Elinor and her daughter, also my parents and hers, now a close team of their own. I try to stay current about Earth and its cities, still recovering from the shocks of ethnic warfare in first half of the century, trying to keep society stable and perhaps thriving (opinions remain divided) while AI, our offspring, gains a measure of independence.

      World population is shrinking nowadays, fewer people want to raise children, or even to marry. Concern is voiced about where humanity is headed, and few are sure about the future. My own role here may just be to demonstrate that for now, humanity is still expanding its reach. The final settlement on Mars--also on the Moon and maybe Ceres and Vesta-- is rather likely to be robotic, and humans would just be occasional visitors.

The Future ?

      So many possible projects remain! Recycle fuel tanks, cut them up, weld tubes, maybe 3D printing with molten aluminum? Drill near Olympus and Tharsis--to tap heat energy and seek deposits with unusual chemistry? Some day there may be real manufacturing. Chemistry, using energy. Glasses of many kinds, food. Phobos too remains interesting. It contains a core, of sorts. As does Mars!

      When I arrived here no plan existed for returning to Earth, and I accepted that. How long could one survive here? A precarious existence at best, one which could end suddenly at any moment, on any day. Air leak, failure of the food supply, mechanical failure of the elaborate life support: only limited emergency supplies exist. Moderate contingencies of each kind have already occurred, but Alex always quickly remedies them, usually before I am made aware.

      The team and I often wonder, could this program on Mars go on without any human presence? Not now, but soon. The electronic minds of Alex, Merlin and the rovers are more capable than ever, and even now some of my time is spent testing and educating new AI assistants. Their programs arrive from Earth fully developed, and my role here is mainly adapting them for specific tasks.

      And yet.... public opinion and the heads of the International Space Agency are not happy with such a future, and try to postpone it. One faction in ISA has proposed that another astronaut should replace me, and that I return to Earth and share my experience there, to show a two-way trip was possible. The replacement would arrive in a cabin like mine, which I would then use for the return trip. Later astronauts would also land on the surface of Mars itself.

      In the future AI is bound to dominate humanity. Although it is hard to guess how big or small the world's human population will be, it will be a sustainable one. One area may always remain the province of humans: they have a purpose, while machines so far lack any. True, it is a vague and mystical purpose--to extend the grasp of Earth and understand the universe, really a historic analogue to the game of Go. The size of the universe does limit us (as does the size of the board in Go), and I have no idea where the quest can lead.



Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

            This is meant as credible science fiction about a conceivable future. Your comments would be appreciated! Please also alert me to anything contrary to science or observations. ... DPS

Last updated 21 July 2017