Hey guys, Rob here. As you might know, I’m into the whole Mars rover thing, and I was psyched to find out they included an extra little package inside it this time — a helicopter. And even cooler, they fastened an actual swatch of fabric from the original Wright Brothers Flyer to the underside of its solar panel! So that got me thinking: I know they’re super careful about not letting bio material contaminate the moon or Mars, but what if, for this tiny swatch, they sort of forgot to check? What might happen?
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Read the Story (1,400 words / 5-minute read):
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
In March of 2021, NASA landed its most ambitious rover on Mars, the Perseverance. A mobile laboratory, it included all the latest instruments for collecting mineral samples, measuring the chemical composition of the atmosphere, taking photos, video, and audio, among other functions. And it carried something extraordinary in its belly: a helicopter.
Yes, Perseverance housed a small helicopter, the size of a toaster oven. For the first time in history, humans would attempt flight on another planet.
“I know it’s late! But it’s here!”
Tara and Dave, the NASA engineers in charge of last-minute prep checks and such, were too excited to carefully open the case that the courier and his armed guard companion had hand-delivered. Instead, they frantically dialed in the lock combination and flung it open. A gust of air created by the sudden lack of a vacuum lifted the case’s only contents, a tiny plastic bag, out and up, and swirling around, then down toward the floor.
Dave lunged, and just before the bag touched the ground – it was a clean room, there wasn’t a single germ in the whole place, so he wasn’t sure what he was worried about – he caught the bag between his thumb and forefinger.
And they froze like that for a moment, Dave on the floor holding up the bag, and Tara standing, arms out as if to catch something, looking down.
And they smiled.
“Wow. Actual fabric from the original 1903 Wright Flyer. You sure this is legit?”
“Yup. The descendants of Orville and Wilbur Wright were thrilled. Imagine – something from man’s first flight, being part of man’s first flight somewhere other than Earth. They jumped at the opportunity.”
“Well, I don’t know why we’re getting all excited – they didn’t jump fast enough. They took forever. So it’s too late now, you know that, right? Launch is in…” He turned to the countdown clock, “… thirty-six hours.”
“No. Come on, look at it.”
“We have to run it through the bio team, to make sure it’s free of contaminants, and that takes a week, even if we pull every string and rush every step. The process just takes too long. Sorry.”
“It’s nothing. It’s a one-inch-square swatch of muslin. A speck. A fragment. A scintilla. Come on.”
“You signing off on this?”
“There’s nothing to sign off on. Look at the docket, Dave. Item number 34-087b: Fasten Wright Flyer swatch to underside of Ingenuity helicopter solar panel.‘ That’s it. Everything else is checked off. Everything. There’s no ‘Delay 2.9 billion dollar launch for completely unnecessary swatch test’ docket item. You want to be the one to tell them how much it’s going to cost for an unnecessary seven-day delay?”
“But…” and Dave looked at the swatch. Tara was right, of course. It was an innocent, postage-stamp-size scrap of fabric that had been sitting in a dry, cool museum case for a hundred and twenty years. “Okay. But let’s at least run it under the microscope. You know, due diligence.”
And so they did, and they saw nothing that would raise any flags. No dormant microbes, no DNA from Orville Wright left on this exact spot as he sewed two pieces together around the spruce wing.
“Yup. Nothing. Okay, let’s get this thing fastened. And even if there was anything, I mean, what could possibly happen?”
A billion years later…
Humanity is looooong gone. Only twelve years after Perseverance landed on Mars, a medium-size asteroid strayed from its normal course due to aberrant gravitational waves and struck Earth. It took another twelve years for all life on the planet to disappear.
So humans didn’t have time to launch another rover, or any mission at all, in fact. And they weren’t there to watch the small, toaster-oven-size helicopter continue on its years-long exploration of the surface of Mars. So they didn’t see a sudden gust of wind make it crash into an old riverbed, where it exposed a layer of ice just under the surface. And they couldn’t watch, in the super slow motion of evolution, the tiny swatch peel away from the underside of the solar panel, and thousands of microbes – the ones that Tara and Dave the engineers had overlooked – use the moisture to activate, and come alive, and coalesce with the DNA Orville Wright left on this exact spot as he sewed two pieces of fabric together around the spruce wing.
“Daddy? Where did we come from?”
Orf carries Els to the balcony on his shoulders. She likes it up there, feeling taller, getting a better view down past the forest to the valley.
“That’s kind of a big question, honey. Maybe Mom’s the better one to ask.”
“She’s at work.”
He smiles. Els is getting too smart to be put off with the ask-your-mother trick. And she’s right, Ina is down at the launch pad, making sure everything is ready, or whatever engineers did, so he’ll have to wing it. “Uh, we came from single-celled organisms, I think.”
“You know me, honey. Not the sciencey type. But I think if I remember Mommy right, it goes something like a billion or so years ago, something hit the third planet from Sol, and changed the way our planet, the fourth planet, orbits, making the conditions for water and air more probable, so these single-celled organisms could live. Something like that. You know they just make stuff up though, right?”
“And what happened to the third planet from Sol?”
“Um, I think it’s just a rock. Like our moons. Nothing there. But that’s what Mommy and her friends are trying to figure out.”
She suddenly points back inside, trying to turn his head. “Oooh! Daddy! Mommy on the imager!”
“Yikes! We almost forgot!” He rushes to the living space, plopping Els on the big couch, and plops down next to her, pointing his finger at the imager. It springs to life above them and Ina appears, standing behind a podium, speaking into a microphone, a tall, silver ship behind her. The world is watching.
“…to become the first-“
“Daddy! You made me miss it!”
“No. No, honey. She’s just starting. Shhh. Watch. Oh, this is so exciting.”
Ina continues. “…from our humble beginnings, first crawling out of the riverbeds, then swinging in the trees, then walking on three legs instead of six, then mastering the wheel and machine locomotion, then taking to the skies in flight, and now, finally, we reach for the stars!” She points to the silver behemoth over her shoulder. “This first unmanned rover will give us a glimpse at answers to the enduring questions: Where did we come from? Are we the only life in the universe? The third planet is lifeless now, inhospitable, but has it always been so? We are about to find out!” She smiles, that proud smile that Orf and Els both love so much, the one that tells everyone watching that they are a great species, capable of great things.
And then her smile changes, to the other kind of smile that Orf and Els love: the mischievous smile. Orf points to the screen. “Ah! Mommy’s got a surprise! I can tell!”
And they watch as Ina slowly draws a small plastic bag from her vest. “And in the spirit of first flights, we will fasten this swatch of fabric from the very first flight of Ars, over one hundred revolutions ago, to the bottom of the rover.” She laughs. “But don’t worry. It’s been decontaminated. And if it weren’t, I mean, what could possibly happen?”
A billion years later…
I hope you enjoyed that short story. And thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. I’m Rob Dircks, author of the Where the Hell is Tesla? science fiction series, The Wrong Unit, and the #1 Audible Bestselling novel, You’re Going to Mars!
Copyright ©2021 Rob Dircks