July 4th, 2035
"And we have liftoff!"
"Liftoff for Orion, this Fourth of July at Cape Canaveral. And Orion has cleared the tower here at Launchpad 39 on Merritt Island. The astronauts of Ares III are on their way to low Earth orbit, and then on to their rendezvous with Hermes," the cheerful, resonant voice of Brendan Hutch could be heard inside the launch capsule's flight deck, on the com channel, as the craft gained speed and altitude.
It was a midday launch window, a few hours before the fireworks shows were due to start. It was a national holiday; the vast majority of Americans were home and tuned in to the live coverage of the third manned mission to Mars. Mark wondered at times, whether or not Montrose might have actually been the one in charge of selecting today's launch window, for the express purpose of the increased visibility for the Ares program. NASA's very own fireworks show, Mark thought.
Watney grinned at Beck, to his left, as they were pinned to their seats at three times their normal gravity weight. The crew was arranged in a sort of circle, with Commander Lewis and the ship's pilot on opposite ends; between them sat Johanssen and Vogel, and above them, Beck and Watney. Lewis and Martinez had their game faces on as they awaited second stage. Once the all-important second stage had successfully fired, they could really relax and enjoy the rest of the ride as they orbited Earth; it would take about six hours for them to match speed and position with Hermes. Statistically speaking, Mark knew that this was the most dangerous point of the launch. Everything rested, now, on the combined efforts of countless crews that had designed and assembled Orion, all for the lowest contract bid. Mark could see Martinez, the crew's talented pilot, the deep concentration evident on his face, as he cycled through the launch data. Mark suspected, but was not one hundred percent certain, that the silent words that Martinez was mouthing was a prayer for their safety. Mark respected that, but personally was more of a believer in Martinez's skill as a pilot.
Mark had flown with the pilot before, twice actually, on supply and refurb missions to Hermes before Ares II left low Earth orbit. Nothing had gone wrong then, either, he reminded himself. Though it was hard to be completely at ease when you were blazing through the atmosphere strapped on top of a mountain of burning hypergol.
Probably best if he didn't think too hard about it, Mark thought. The vibrations rattled him right to the core as Orion achieved max Q, the moment when the craft was under the greatest amount of stress. He was on very close, personal terms with his flight chair, at this point. The crew were settled deep into the contoured cushions of their flight seating.
There were three cone panels in this pressurized section of Orion, Mark knew. Of course he knew. He'd memorized every facet of the craft. Had been training for this for years, before he'd even made the selection committee's pool of finalists. One of the cone panels, the one opposite his feet, had four small, oblong horizon windows. The horizon windows didn't really offer anything of interest for any of them to look at, during launch. They were just four small rectangles of clear blue skies. Beautiful blue. Gradients of blue, actually, that were ever so slowly fading towards black. Goodbye, blue, he thought. See you in a year.
He was feeling lighthearted and in a good mood, as much as one could while pulling three Gs, anyway; Ares III was finally happening! All the training, the selection process, years of study and striving to be the best, to be the only logical choice for the committee. It had finally paid off. He was going to Mars.
Boo-yah! He felt the shifting gravity pull and a brief shudder went through the craft.
There were smiles all around; the second stage had gone off without a hitch. Henderson, their flight director, came on the com link to congratulate them.
Now came the wait.
They'd practiced that aspect of the flight as much as any other, Mark supposed. Trained themselves to be able to sit quietly without losing focus, for hours on end; it was a talent just as much as any of their other flight skills.
Eventually the crew would be free to talk, read, or listen to music on their devices, but until low Earth orbit was achieved, they were to keep the talking to a minimum, to keep the com channels quiet. Anything that they said was going to be broadcast to a room full of hundreds of people, anyway, so unless he was the type that liked a big audience, and Mark certainly wasn't, it was best to just let his mind wander, as he kept his eyes trained on the blue horizon windows.
Johnson Space Center, Houston
There was a deafening roar throughout the building, as NASA employees cheered and clapped, watching Orion execute another flawless launch, and Mindy couldn't help getting swept up in the excitement of it all. Sure, she'd seen a few launches in her tenure with NASA. But she'd never had this feeling before; it had to be the personal connection, she supposed. It was thrilling to watch.
I know that guy.
Her co-workers would probably never believe her, if she were inclined to talk about it. But it was a fact. A fact that she would probably never be inclined to talk about. Nope. Not if she lived to be a hundred.
I know that guy.
The one that's hurtling his way towards space at this very moment, she thought, awed, watching the blazing firetrail of Orion against the blue sky. The cute one, with the friendly smile and quick sense of humor. Such an utter nerd he was, too, but they'd hit it off from the very moment they'd met, at the pre-launch party.
I know that guy.
She knew he'd probably already forgotten her name; it had just been a casual, fleeting thing, after all, she reminded herself. But it had been real, while it lasted. They'd had a connection, she thought. It was a shame, the bad timing. Over before it had even started.
Wish me luck, he'd said to her. Like he needed it. He'd been chosen for an Ares mission, how lucky can you get? It was an amazing feat, no doubt it had been Watney's lifelong dream. She couldn't help feeling proud of him, happy for him. What would it be like, strapped into Orion, sitting on the launchpad and waiting for the countdown to reach zero? She couldn't even imagine.
His face had been everywhere today; he was the public relations spokesman for the crew. He'd probably be part of Montrose's department, officially, someday when he came back. They'd work in the same building, even.
You never know, she grinned. Maybe their paths would cross again.