Wings of Fire

Step by tentative step, Lothar Brandt descended the ladder, his comrade Vera Petrenka following right behind; their visages in crisp living color, their voices coming through as clearly as if they were on the other side of the room from all the billions of people watching live back home on their televisions, on their computers, in their movie palaces, Lothar Brandt finally came to the last step, announcing “I’m at the foot of the ladder”, describing “The Senta’s landing legs only sunk down into the surface by a few centimeters. I wish you could all be with us to see this: the surface is so fine, it’s powdery. I swear it looks just like the packed powder of a spring day on the Matterhorn.”

Taking a pause to gather himself for the historic moment, Lothar announced “I’m going to step off the Senta now.” A step so gentle it was more like a glide, placing the first footprint in virgin soil. Taking care to preserve it for all eternity, Lothar took another few steps as he turned around to face out toward the horizon. Taking in the landscape, he commented “O brave new world.” Vera then stepped off the ladder, and finished “That has such people in it”, as she made footprints of her own, joining Lothar as they became the first man and first woman to set foot on the Moon.

Vera took it all in, the featureless plain that somehow revealed a more subtle and hidden complexity to human eyes: “Sublime view” she said. “Desolate”, apprehended Lothar. Vera went a few steps further, separating from Lothar and spreading her arms out as if to drink in the power of the sky. Scanning the vast rolling plain of grey dust before her, she spotted in the sunlit black sky a sight at once familiar and unfamiliar.

She said “I’m not sure if all the people back home are getting the camera feed from my helmet, or how well it’s imaging everything, but I can see the Earth from here. It’s low in the sky now, a crescent pointing downward and to the left. It’s supposed to be between Virgo and Libra now, but I can’t see any stars, they’re washed out by the sunlight even though the sky is still black. And honestly it’s about the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life. A crescent Moon on Earth has nothing on this.”

Lothar added “So blue. And so much bigger than the Moon looks from Earth. It’s a real privilege to be the first to see this from the lunar surface. And to all of you back home on the mother planet, know we’re here so you may one day follow in our footsteps.”

With that, the cosmonauts settled in and got to work on their appointed tasks for the Artemis 1 mission, heavy on collecting soil samples and rock specimens from all over the parts of the rolling grey plains that were within walking range of their lunar lander, the Senta. Testing out different walking techniques as they went, they found, as Vera put it after trying out everything Mission Control recommended, “You really can’t do walking like you do on Earth; best thing in the one-sixth gravity we have here is to hop a bit. Gotta plan out a few steps ahead, but I’m getting the hang of it now!”

Lothar, meanwhile, almost lost his balance on a short slope and commented “Ooh…the ground’s kinda slippery to walk on. Wasn’t expecting that.” After a while the other four cosmonauts in the Senta made their way out: led by Victor Toth, they were scientists Prospero Vettori, Inigo Sturm, and Adelaide Vogel. As Victor touched lunar soil, he gathered his breath and said “You look up at the Moon from Earth, and it looks like this featureless expanse of grey, but up close in person it’s so much more than that.” He joked “Lothar, you told me it was desolate!”

Prospero Vettori, the next man to climb down, commented “I know all you test pilots are having fun out there, but spare some love for us scientists too!” As Prospero stepped on the Moon for the first time, he said to the global audience “Might not be the first footsteps, but they’re the first footsteps by a scientist!”

He then hopped over to survey the terrain, making way for Adelaide Vogel to touch lunar soil. She said “And these are the first footsteps by a woman scientist!” Examining her boots’ indentations in the soil as she walked, she commented “Wow, as a geologist, this is a dreamscape!”

Inigo Sturm was silent as he descended the ladder, contemplating his first words. As he touched the ground, the last member of the expedition to do so, he reached down and grabbed a handful of lunar soil. Contemplating it through his visor, he finally said “Hello, moondust.” Scattering it as if tossing it into the wind, but in a black sky bereft of wind, and apprehending it as it fell in ballistic trajectories, “What a place this would be to live. Might be dreamland for geologists, but as someone who knows a thing or two about biocosmonautics I can say it’s dreamland for our field too.”

Lothar Brandt then said over the radio “Alright everybody, before we get too settled in here I’d like for all of us to have a picture taken.” Inigo asked “Where should we take it?” Lothar replied “Right in front of the Senta. But not so close as to risk disturbing any of our first footprints.” All six cosmonauts then made their way to the site, and Lothar took out a camera and a stick from one of the LEM’s storage compartments, carried underneath the lander so they would have a place to securely store equipment without having to go in and out of the airlock every time they wanted to fetch something.

Setting the timer, Lothar beat his way back to the group, and all six of them had their photograph taken. Adelaide said “I know the photographs we’re taking and the videos we’re streaming are so crisp and in full color. People can see it instantly, and if they’re on the Web they can even archive it and view it later on their computers.”

Inigo chimed in “You know, this might sound like heresy, but I think it’s a good thing we’re doing this only now. Can you imagine if we did this 20 years ago or even maybe 10 years ago? We’d just be able to transmit a few lines’ worth of black-and-white video, and that would be most of mankind’s memory of the first lunar landing. I don’t know about any of you back on Earth, but I for one find the picture we’re sending back now much more inspirational than that would be.”

After their photograph was taken, the cosmonauts scattered going about accomplishing the objectives Mission Control had set out for them for their first jaunts out on the surface. A while later and Lothar and Vera were heading back in with samples of moon rocks. Even something as simple as that was a perilous moment: nobody had ever brought moon dust in contact with an oxygen-rich atmosphere before, and there had been speculation by scientists that it would explode on contact.

In the airlock as the atmosphere was pressurized Lothar and Vera waited with great anxiety to see whether there would be any smoldering, any fire, any burning, any sign of an explosion as air filled the room. If it did the plan was to stop pressurization, evacuate the Senta of air, and return to their command module in orbit, christened the Flying Dutchman, immediately. But the feared moon-dust fireworks never came, and both cosmonauts breathed a sigh of relief as they opened the door to the Senta’s main cabin, taking off their spacesuits as they set the moon soil samples aside into their designated slots.

Gazing at the rack of plants their biocosmonautician, Inigo Sturm, had brought aboard, Lothar mused “I wonder if those seedlings would grow in lunar soil.” Vera said “I talked to Inigo about that, actually. He said he’d love to do an experiment like that with the extra seeds he brought aboard, but to do it properly he’d need a lot longer than the two days or so we’re going to be down here, so he made the whole rack with Earth soil and instead he’s going to study how their growth patterns change in lunar gravity. He was excited for it; this is the first chance anybody’s gotten to observe one-sixth gravity instead of full Earth gravity or zero gravity.”

After Lothar checked in with Mission Control they recommended he and Vera try to get some sleep. Lothar replied “Alright, we’ll bust out the hammocks, but I’ll be honest, Peenemünde; I don’t think we’re going to get any real sleep.” Vera, who got the same message on her headset, added “It’s all just too exciting.” The point man at Peenemünde replied “Even just some rest should do you good. I know time’s flying up there, but you’ve still got a multi-day mission ahead of you before you rendezvous with the Flying Dutchman.” Vera said “I understand. We’ll try.”

She then became cognizant of an aroma, which she had been sensing before but had been so excited it had eluded her. Sniffing around, she declared “Do you smell that? It’s coming from the soil we brought in.” Lothar sniffed and said “Yes!”, adding “Curious. Smells just like spent charcoal.” Vera said “You’re right. Like burned charcoal that gets rained on a bit on a summer’s day. Same smell. It’s not bad, but it’s strong! Woo. That’ll take some getting used to.”

Lothar added, as he started to set up their hammocks, “Travel a quarter of a million miles to a strange new world, and what do I find? The same smell as the fireplaces in my house. Typical.” Vera giggled at that, as she helped him set everything up for their rest period. Settling in their hammocks, they started to rock themselves back and forth, cracking open some good books, specially chosen to be the first men read on the Moon. Lothar flipped through his Goethe compendium, while Vera chose the Odyssey, splitting her time between reading the myth of a hero past and gazing out the window, as if she couldn’t quite take in that she too was part of a heroic journey that would be remembered for the ages.

Outside the lander, Inigo took the time to dust off the plaque that had been affixed to the lower stage of the Senta, the descent stage intended to stay on the Moon permanently after they lifted off. The top of the plaque contained a map of the Earth, its lands and seas arrayed in a Dymaxion projection, the inscription below reading, in beautiful blackletter type, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon/2 December A.D. 1949/We came in peace for all mankind”. Below those three lines were the signatures of all nine cosmonauts, with a tenth signature at the bottom: that of Wernher von Braun, President of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, the organization which, thanks to a dizzying constellation of patrons, sent them up there.

Gazing at the plaque, Inigo privately mused “How awful it would be if we hoisted a German flag or something, if we were asked to be like the most jingoistic explorers of old hoisting their colors on the first patch of soil we see. No, the VfR has better taste than any of that. And if nothing else remains of mankind, and a hundred million years from now some other race travels here, this will still be here; our testament to eternity.”

Roaming the gentle slopes of the Oceanus Procellarum, the Sea of Storms, the cosmonauts spent hours working, much of the world still glued to their screens as the video and audio of man’s first expedition to another world continued to stream in. All seemed to be perfect, going off without a hitch. But in orbit above them, one little switch changed all that.

In the Flying Dutchman, manned by Anton Jäger, Ruprecht Hellwig, and Carlotta von Frey, life was leisurely as they floated about making circle after circle around the Moon’s equator, getting a rare chance to observe the Moon’s far side; mere minutes earlier Carlotta von Frey started a live video where she posed in front of a window looking out to the far side’s landscape, declaiming to the audience “I’ve heard some say it must be boring, but it never gets boring up here. The Moon, the whole Moon, keeps me company”, leaving the camera running as she gazed out, the landscapes of the near side ever-so-gradually coming back into view.

When they came out of the Moon’s shadow and regained contact with Peenemünde, they had some housekeeping to do, with Anton Jäger at the controls going through their checklist, hovered over by Ruprecht Hellwig. “Stir cryo tanks” was the next item, necessary every so often so their readings would stay accurate in the face of hydrogen and oxygen’s tendency to stratify in zero-g.

As Anton Jäger practically laid his whole body over the console as he floated in the command module, he flicked the switch to give the Flying Dutchman’s tanks a stir.

Then, at once – bang! Ringing throughout the spacecraft, violent shaking smashed the crew against the walls as the Moon and Sun started to spin wildly outside their windows, the computer consoles lit up like Christmas trees in wild flickering patterns, followed within seconds with flames erupting from the control panels, an electrical fire that engulfed both Anton and Ruprecht before they could react.

When she gathered her senses, in full view of millions while doing the live stream, Carlotta’s eyes widened as she went “Oh my god!”, instinctually reaching for the fire extinguisher, firing it furiously at the entire computer display, putting out the raging flames. Through the freezing-cold cloud of carbon-dioxide fumes, she could see the furiously flickering lights of the computer consoles and the obscured outlines of the two men, floating motionless in the cabin.

Carlotta attempted to radio “Peenemünde, can you hear me?”, but no reply came as the computer console and the entire cabin’s lighting system went dark, the ship seeming dead for the longest few seconds of Carlotta’s life, before the computer reset itself and came back online, showing the true readings again, providing only the briefest of consolations to Carlotta as she beheld the electrical power of the Flying Dutchman was draining right before her eyes, as was the oxygen in the tanks.

Looking out the windows on the other side of the ship from where she was floating, she gasped as she saw a white cloud venting out into space from her ship: realizing it was the oxygen, her one source of propellant and most importantly her only source of air in the interplanetary void, thoughts raced through her mind that told her she was finished, wondering if this was the end.

Composing herself, she radioed again, “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman, can you hear me?” Mission Control radioed back, a note of nervousness in the man’s voice, “Flying Dutchman, Peenemünde. We read you.” Carlotta declared “We’ve had a problem. There’s been a large bang just now, I just had to put out an electrical fire that raged over the entirety of the computer console, I’m reading a massive drain of electrical power, and we’re venting large quantities of gas out into space, I believe it’s the oxygen. The gauge is showing rapidly decreasing levels of oxygen in the tanks. Anton and Ruprecht were caught in the fire…I believe…oh my god…” As the fire extinguisher’s cloud started to dissipate and Ruprecht and Anton drifted into view, she described what she saw: “Peenemünde, Anton and Ruprecht are out of it. Both of them have severe burns all over their bodies from the fire.”

As a few moments passed by, Carlotta radioed “Peenemünde, do you read?” and received a response “Flying Dutchman, we copy all that. We’ll get back to you. Stand by.” Beholding the rapidly diminishing gauges with rapt terror, Carlotta wondered what her options would be, if any. She organized her thoughts, and realized the first thing she needed to do was figure out a way to plug the oxygen leak, for that was the prerequisite to making it back home alive, the most immediate threat to her survival.

Knowing that it wasn’t the protocol for spaceflight but drawing on all the times she was alone sailing the seas and reliant only on herself, she took matters into her own hands and shut off the oxygen flows into and out of both of the cryo tanks, not even breathing when she pushed those buttons on the control console – what if there was another explosion? – but breathing a sigh of relief when she saw that number on that gauge start to stabilize.

Panting by that point, Carlotta heard on the radio “Flying Dutchman, Peenemünde; we think you should try shutting off the oxygen flows into or out of both of the tanks. That might plug the leak.” Carlotta laughed nervously and said “Peenemünde, this is Flying Dutchman. I’ve already done so. It’s working.” Her eyes widened and her breathing stopped in its tracks again when she glanced over to the electrical power gauge.

Hearing over the radio “Is it having any effect on the power drain? We think closing up those tanks might help you with that too.” Watching the indicator continue to diminish, Carlotta went “Negative, Mission Control. Electrical power still falling rapidly.” After a few tense silent moments, Peenemünde radioed “We recommend you power down everything you can.”

Scrambling to shut everything off she didn’t absolutely need, Carlotta split her glances between the consoles’ switches and buttons she knew by heart and the power gauge, still falling in a seemingly inevitable course downward to zero. After powering down almost everything except her radio, she breathed a big sigh of relief as she saw the power drain start to slow down, at first a little bit but then drastically, as she said “Mission Control, I think it’s working; the power drain is slowing down a great deal.” After a few moments she reported “The power levels are stable.” Before going “More or less”, as she noticed “No, I think they’re still going down, but we’ve bought ourselves a few minutes to decide what our next move needs to be. I’m now going to assess the condition of Anton and Ruprecht.”

Putting her first-aid training to use, she hesitantly touched Anton, and, dismayed, moved on to Ruprecht, busting out the medicine cabinet and doing what little she could to help his grievous condition. After she helped him, she reported back “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. Anton is dead. Ruprecht is unconscious, but still alive. His wounds are far too severe for anyone to treat up here. He needs to get to an Earth hospital as soon as possible, but I know there are a lot of other factors we need to weigh too. We just need to decide something quickly here; we don’t have much time.”

Meanwhile, Lothar, who had risen to rapt attention as soon as he heard of the accident over the radio, told the four men outside, “Everybody, get back in here now! Quick, quick, quick! Prepare for emergency ascent!” That caused quite a commotion among the four men they had out there, with Adelaide protesting “But we just got here!”, Prospero wondering “What could possibly have happened?” Vera explained to them “The Flying Dutchman has had an accident. We might need to rendezvous and return to Earth immediately, and we don’t want to have to leave without you. Get back in here!”

Meanwhile, floating in the capsule amid a foggy cloud of vented oxygen, Carlotta’s mind raced with thoughts: what if other systems were damaged? What if she lights the engines for a burn and the Flying Dutchman blew up like a firecracker? What if the equipment that permitted rendezvous with the Senta had been damaged and didn’t work? What if she beats it back to Earth and the heat shield was damaged, dooming them all to a fiery death? What if Ruprecht didn’t have the extra time it would take to rendezvous with the Senta and died in the capsule? On the other hand, what if they tried to save Ruprecht and thus the six men on the Moon’s surface were left to die with no way to rescue them?

Was there any way to rescue the crew of the Senta without relying on the Flying Dutchman? Carlotta radioed “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. I was wondering: is there any way to keep the Senta alive down there without an emergency ascent? I’m not sure if the capsule up here could hold up to a rendezvous, and Ruprecht’s condition is critical. I’m also wondering about the heat shield: if there’s any chance of resupply or rescue for those six men on the Moon, they might have better odds of surviving that way than by risking re-entry on a damaged ship.”

Looking at her finger on the console, having pressed the button that also transmitted her message to Mission Control live to the Senta, she said to them “Senta, Flying Dutchman, are you reading all this?” Victor replied “Flying Dutchman, Senta. We copy. We’ll be ready to ascend in a couple minutes, but we’ve got to get our orders from Mission Control first.”

Carlotta giggled and said “Spoken like a true military officer.” Victor asked her “How are you holding up out there?” Carlotta answered “Not very well, to be frank. It’s not every day your company consists of two bloody burned-up bodies. And I’m still reading a power drain in the batteries. It’s slow, but at this point I don’t think I have enough power to make it back home.”

Lothar replied “That’s bad. Do you think we might be able to use the LEM as a lifeboat after we dock?” Carlotta answered “As I told you earlier, I’m not sure rendezvous would be the best idea. We’ll have to risk it if there’s no other way to bring you back home alive, but if Peenemünde can get back to us on the possibility of sending up a rescue mission we’ll have a much better idea what the situation is.”

Adelaide radioed in from the Senta and said “This is Adelaide. If you do run out of electrical power up there, is there any chance of making it back to Earth?” Carlotta answered “If I need to shut down everything I’ll have only the residual oxygen in the cabin to breathe plus the supplemental oxygen we have in the spacesuits. I’m not sure if that’ll be enough; I haven’t run the numbers on that yet. If I had to guess I’d say no. But on the plus side I don’t absolutely need the navigation computer; it’ll be much more difficult to do the calculations on pen and paper, but I can do that manually. No shortage of stars, and I’ve got two big planets out the windows I can use to keep my bearing. The rocket engines have a backup control that’s purely mechanical, so assuming the damage is mild enough that they don’t go up like a firecracker as soon as they’re lit, I can still do burns. Good thing Marina insisted on that when Wernher put out the design specifications.”

Carlotta’s mind then turned to Marina Behrenberg, her mentor, her role model, fellow skydiver, and the first woman to reach space, slated to fly on Artemis 1 before Mission Control thought, erroneously it turned out, based on a blood test, that she was infected by a nasty new strain of cold virus that was making the rounds worldwide that winter; her replacement on the flight was Carlotta von Frey, her star protégé, only recently trained and, at age 20, one of the youngest cosmonauts to venture into space.

Gazing out toward Earth in one of the capsule’s windows, Carlotta sighed and radioed Mission Control: “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. Is there any chance of patching me through to Marina? Marina Behrenberg? I’m feeling kinda lonely up here and I’m starting to get the feeling this is going to be one long, hard trip.”

The reply came through “Flying Dutchman, Peenemünde. Marina is in the simulator right now, trying to work your situation up there. When she comes out we’ll get her on the air for you.” Carlotta replied “Copy that. Any word on what the plan is?” Mission Control replied “We’re still working on that. Stand by.” Carlotta mused under her breath sarcastically “Well, that was helpful”, wondering if they even had a plan or if they were trying to conceal from her that they knew it was hopeless.

For what seemed like an eternity, even though it was only half an hour, there was little but silence from Mission Control, only the occasional check-in about her ever-dwindling power levels. At last, a voice crackled in, none other than Marina Behrenberg’s. “Flying Dutchman, Peenemünde. Do you hear me?” Carlotta broke out in a smile and asked “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. Is that you, Marina?”

Marina answered “Affirmative.” She went on “Senta, are you reading me?” Victor replied “Peenemünde, Senta. We’re reading this.” Marina said “We’ve roused everybody we can who knows anything about the situation, and we believe we can send a resupply mission to the Senta before your life support runs out. The Senta is designed to support six men for two weeks. Senta, is there anything you’re reading up there that disagrees with that figure? Any damage or error or failure or anything like that, in any of your systems?”

After a pause, Inigo replied “Peenemünde, we’ve double-checked. Everything’s nominal here, including all life support systems and supplies.” Marina replied “Very good. We’ve got some extra supplies we were planning to use in a campsite for one of the second-phase missions, but the cargo launcher for that can’t be readied in time. Only thing we’ve got on the pad that can make it before you run out of time is the next lunar orbital surveyor; we can put the supplies you’ll need in the casing we were going to use for that probe. The rocket stage for that spacecraft is designed to go in a lunar orbit, not land, so it doesn’t have enough fuel for a soft landing; we believe we can do a crash landing near your location, and it shouldn’t damage the shipment too much, but that procedure has never been tested, so you should be aware that it’s high risk. Also, the fastest we can get it to you is less than a day before we’ve calculated your life support runs out, so you’ll only have one chance for resupply. Which means we’ll only have one chance to launch it; we’ll do it regardless of weather, since we’ll have no other choice, but be aware that’s high risk too. You’ve all ridden rockets before; you know there’s always a chance something goes wrong with the launch. That’s what we’ve got for you.”

Lothar radioed back “Is that the plan?” Marina replied “That’s the plan. You’re out there, we’re not; it’s your call whether to go with that plan or attempt an emergency rendezvous and return to Earth. We just want you to be aware of your options.” Lothar replied “Peenemünde, Senta. Would you mind giving us a couple minutes to think all that over?” Marina replied “Go ahead.” The Senta then went dark as the cosmonauts huddled and decided what they’d rather do.

Several minutes of silence later, the LEM crackled back in, with Victor going “Peenemünde, Senta. We’ve decided we’d rather do the resupply plan. If you think there’s a good chance we can stay alive down here, we’ll take it; Ruprecht is critically injured, and he needs to get back to Earth as soon as he can. Don’t mean to scare Carlotta, but we don’t like the uncertainty around the heat shield or the fuel tanks either. We think it’s our best shot at maximizing the chance we’ll all come back alive. If that’s what it takes and you can make it work, we’re willing to stay here for a while. Besides, we’ve still got some mission objectives to complete; would be a shame to leave after just a few hours.”

Carlotta said “Flying Dutchman. Copy that, Senta. See you on the other side.” Cutting off her link with the Senta, Carlotta radioed Mission Control “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. Marina, are you there?” Marina said “Affirmative.” Carlotta asked her “You’re my best friend; you can tell me the truth. I know you said the plan can work, but will it work? Can you swear to me, woman to woman, that this will work?”

Marina said “Science might ridicule such notions, but as you’ve always known I believe with every fiber of my being there is a certain destiny in the affairs of men. Destiny wills it to work. Therefore it will work. My dear Carlotta, I promise you, the plan will work.”

Carlotta gathered her breath and said “That’s good enough for me. Let’s do this.” Marina gave her a checklist for getting started with Mission Control’s plan, starting with powering down everything except the radio, her oxygen supply, and her navigation computer; the latter was going to be used as an aid for the last item on her checklist: executing a burn with the manual mechanical backup control for the rockets.

Fearful the rockets might be damaged, possibly to the point where the Flying Dutchman would blow up like a firecracker if she attempted to fire the engines, but knowing it was absolutely necessary for her survival to risk it anyway, she mused to herself “Well, look on the bright side: if I’m wrong, I’ll never know. Let’s light this candle!”

Pushing the button, she felt her heart stop for the instant between that irreversible command and the rocket engines firing. Feeling the thrust, she smiled in triumph, clenching her fists and going “Yes!” Concentrating on executing the burn correctly, she put the Flying Dutchman on course to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere over the intended landing site deep in the Namibian Desert.

Knowing there was still a chance something would go wrong, she watched the controls like a hawk, only truly feeling relieved when the burn ended, and she was at last on her way, telling Ruprecht, even though he was unconscious at the time, “Don’t worry, Ruprecht. You’ll be home soon.”

Her smiles were soon erased, however, when she glanced over and beheld the electrical power gauge, exclaiming “Oh my god” at the readings, showing a great power drain right as the navigation computer seemed to go crazy, flashing and flickering before going dark altogether. She radioed “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. I’ve got a problem here. The navigation computer seems to be dead; not sure the exact cause, but it looks to me like the wires have been fried or something. And I’ve got the power drain coming back.”

A man at Mission Control replied “Copy that, Flying Dutchman. We’re reading your power drain here as well.” Marina got on the radio after a few moments and said “This is Marina. We’ve run the numbers, and to conserve enough power to make it back you need to shut down everything, everything except the oxygen. Even the radio, except for perhaps warming it up to check in every six hours or so.”

Faced with the enormity the situation, Carlotta frantically shut down everything, copying the navigation computer’s course and calculations onto paper with her pen, until she got to the radio, where she paused for a moment and said “I’ve shut down everything but the radio now. Power drain slowing a great deal now. I think it’s working. I’ll warm up the radio and check back in in six hours. Talk to you later, Marina.” With that, Mission Control heard Carlotta crackle out of contact, and the girl was totally alone in that capsule hurtling toward Earth.

It wasn’t too long before the power shutdown started to make itself felt – felt in terms of the temperature. The thermal balance of the Flying Dutchman had assumed up to nine people aboard with all systems running, but with only two left alive and very low power consumption, energy was radiating out into space, cooling the interior of the craft.

In the darkness of the silent deep a chill started to make itself felt all over Carlotta’s body. Knowing this was but the beginning of a multi-day journey and it was only going to get colder, she considered breaking out some emergency hand warmers, but decided to save them for later, when she might really start to need them. She did, however, take a stimulant from the on-board medicine cabinet; she was already starting to feel tired, and she knew she had a long few days ahead of her.

Passing the time, she read some of her favorite books she had on board, which took the edge off everything as she immersed herself into fantasy worlds, as much as she could anyway considering she was in a dark cold space capsule emitting some creepy sounds every so often. It was hours until she realized she hadn’t eaten or drank anything in some time, and the ship would likely become so cold her food would become unpalatable.

Willing herself to eat like there was no tomorrow, she devoured as much of her food reserves as she could stand, feeling a bit better as time came to warm up the radio and check in. Seeing that the power drain was well within the limits she needed to survive the next several days, she sighed in relief and transmitted “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. Do you read me?” Marina’s voice crackled in and said “Flying Dutchman, Peenemünde. How are you holding up out there?”

Carlotta said “Not bad, to be frank. The power drain is well within acceptable limits, and I’ve been passing the time reading one of my favorite books. Only real drawback is that it’s starting to get chilly in here. I figured my food would get frozen eventually, so I chomped down on some of this stuff you send up with us. Cosmonaut food isn’t the best, you know, but it’s all I’ve got. Feel a bit better now that I’ve eaten something.”

Marina said “Copy all that. We’ve been talking to our physicians, and, uh, they recommend you try to get some sleep.” Carlotta and Marina both laughed at that, Carlotta saying “Easy for them to say. They’re not the ones who have to worry if they’ll ever wake up again. I, uh, took one of those pep pills; already started to feel tired. Takes the edge off the cold too.”

Marina said “Just between us, that sounds like a good idea. You’re going to crash at the end of it, but you can afford to stay awake for the few days it’ll take you to get back. How’s Ruprecht holding up?” Carlotta replied “He’s still alive and breathing, but no improvement as far as I can tell.”  After a pause she asked one last question: “How’s the weather in Peenemünde? Warm and sunny I trust?”, that last part coming out with a nervous giggle. Marina replied wryly “I’ll leave the answer to that question to your imagination, but rest assured it’ll be plenty warm and sunny where you’re going to be landing.”

As they concluded the technical details of their check-in, they crackled out of contact as Carlotta wiled away the hours struggling to concentrate against the cold of the cabin and the rising agitation borne from the drugs she was taking to stay awake, but managing to keep reading her book all the same. It wasn’t until time almost came in to check in again that she finally realized she should be checking her course manually with her pen-and-paper calculations and her sextant.

Sighting the Earth, the Moon, and the brightest stars she charted her position against the course she was supposed to be on, and to her relief found she was right on target. During her next call to Mission Control, Carlotta reported “I’ve taken some sightings with my sextant and plotted my course. It looks nominal so far. Right on track.”

Thus became her routine: reading her books interrupted by the occasional round of navigating and plotting her course, all completely by hand, without resort to a computer; but for the high-tech environment she felt like she might as well have been on one of her sailing trips she took in her younger years, where she always used the same methods to find her position and get herself where she wanted to go. What really gave her solace, though, were her check-ins with Marina at Mission Control, her only link left to the rest of mankind save for her gazing at the ever-swelling disk of Earth out the window.

As the days passed by, however, Carlotta felt the effects of the falling temperatures inside the cabin, as interminable as they were relentless. Water had started to condense all over everything, even her books, making the reading experience dank and soggy; as she feared her food had gone so cold it was too unpleasant to stomach anymore.

Swallowing ever-greater quantities of stimulants to stay awake, Carlotta even felt compelled to break out the dinitrophenol, a mitochondrial uncoupler and thermogen with nasty and potentially dangerous side effects, to keep warm as the water that had condensed on every surface in the capsule started to turn to ice, hoar frost starting to grow, encrusting Carlotta’s whole world as if she was being sealed in an icy tomb.

As her mind became flooded with the agitation of the stimulants and the lethargy of the thermogens, she found it ever-more-difficult to concentrate or think, but she managed to, after considerable effort lasting hours, plot her course on the third day of her journey, conforming beyond all doubt something she had started to notice on the second day: that she was starting to veer off course, toward a re-entry that was much too shallow.

Meaning, that if she did nothing Carlotta was on track to bounce right off the Earth’s atmosphere and be flung back out into the black sky never to return again. Hours remained before her check-in with Mission Control, but she knew it would be useless to contact them, as they had no telemetry from her spacecraft and it would take so long for them to check their calculations she’d be out of power to run her radio by the end of the conversation.

Figuring the length of the burn she needed and the orientation of the ship required, she adjusted all of the ice-encrusted controls she needed to, and, grasping the manual backups for the rocket thrusters, pulled the levers to fire the engines. Struggling to keep Earth in the proper position she calculated it needed to be in her window, she held onto the controls with hands that by that point had turned numb, eyes which by that point were so addled she was barely aware which planet she was looking at. But she did it, just barely executing the burn to where she wouldn’t burn up.

Struggling to read her books with fingers that had turned blue and hands that had long gone to sleep, she wiled away the time until her last check-in before she was scheduled to land came around. The shivering audible in her voice as the windows fogged up with every word she spat out of her mouth, she radioed “Peenemünde, Flying Dutchman. Do you read me?”

Marina replied “Flying Dutchman, Peenemünde. I read you. Sounds like you’re having a hard time. But just a few hours to go now. Just gotta hang in there.” Carlotta said “I had to execute a manual burn just now; I did all the calculations myself. I just hope they’re correct. Didn’t have…didn’t have enough radio power to get you to double check it. Would take too long to explain.”

Marina didn’t even bother to reply to all that, aside from “Copy that. Sounds good. The telemetry we’re getting is very limited, but all the people here say you’re reading good for re-entry.” Carlotta said “I just hope…just gotta hope the heat shield holds or else this is going to be one pointless trip.” After a moment her eyes popped open as a disturbing thought came into her head: “Oh my god, I didn’t think of this – what if the parachutes are frozen and they don’t deploy?”

Marina replied “Well, if they don’t…they don’t. You can always use the ejection seat and parachute down to earth yourself.” Carlotta replied “Unless the ejection seat is frozen too and it doesn’t deploy either.” Marina assured her “Well, no sense worrying about that. At least you’ll be warm soon. Oh, and uh, speaking of the weather, I’m afraid I’m going to have to take back that promise about it being warm and sunny. It’s plenty warm out in the Namib, but we’ve got a massive sandstorm building at the landing zone.”

Carlotta replied sarcastically “That sounds fun.” Marina said “Wouldn’t be the most pleasant thing to eject into. Uh, needless to say a frozen ejection seat sending you out into a sandstorm has never been tested, especially if you decide to try to carry Ruprecht with you on the way out. We think we’ll still be able to recover you after you land even with the dust storm, but it’s just another one of those things. Seems like this whole mission’s been cursed.”

Carlotta asked “The whole mission? How’s the Senta holding up, if you don’t mind telling?” Marina laughed a bit and answered “Well, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but they’re having a great time down there. Mission’s gone off without a hitch, aside from being marooned. Just between us, though, I think they’ll end up getting the worst end of it – you’ll be back here safe and sound long before they will.”

Carlotta said “Well, everything looks nominal up here.” Gazing down at her book filled with cosmonaut poetry, she recited a line the best she could as her final words to Mission Control, and to her dear Marina: “May the wings of fire carry me home.”

Before she re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, the world starting to fill her window, the last order of business was to jettison the service module, the part of the Flying Dutchman that had caused so much trouble for the whole Artemis 1 mission. As she reoriented the command module, she trained as many cameras on it as much as she could, so the VfR could better figure out what happened if – no, when – she made it back.

Her eyes widened as she beheld an entire side of the spacecraft blown open, pipes and wiring exposed, damaged as if they were corroded and burnt by some demonic twist of fate. “My god” she uttered, amazed in light of the new revelation that she or Ruprecht had made it at all and hadn’t just blown up like a Roman candle to their deaths, either in the initial explosion or in one of their rocket burns. “That was a close one” she stuttered under her icy breath, trying to bury the upwelling of dread: if the service module was that damaged, chances were the heat shield wasn’t in mint condition either.

But she gritted her teeth and took a deep breath, accepting that win, lose, or draw, descent was inevitable. As time came to re-enter, she closed her eyes, gathered herself, and whispered, as if in prayer, “May the wings of fire carry me home”, over and over again as the Flying Dutchman started to be buffeted by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Before long flaming streams of plasma streamed from the red-hot heat shield in front of her, suffusing the entire capsule in an ambience fit for hell, windows filled with nothing but flame, ship alight with nothing but flame, Carlotta focusing her mind on her mantra as she opened her eyes to glance at the sight before her, ice soon melting off the consoles and pouring a heavy rain of icewater straight down upon her seat, each minute seeming like an eternity as she was shaken in her seat, pelted with cold rain in a rapidly heating capsule, praying the heat shield would hold, the parachutes would open.

As the wings of fire faded away, she beheld the deserts of southern Africa outside her window, approaching deceptively slowly: it seemed motionless, but there would be mere minutes before she was to land. Glancing at her gauges, everything looked nominal, eliciting a sigh of relief. She wasn’t home yet, though; she waited with bated breath to see if the parachutes would open. Nervous anticipation building with every mile, she let out a giggle and practically fell into her chair when she saw all three parachutes deploy, feeling happier than she ever had in her life.

Passing through the dim brown haze of the blowing sandstorm didn’t even fade her elation, as she felt herself plunk down on the ground with the Flying Dutchman. Never doubting she’d be recovered, after just a few minutes she heard the telltale knock at the hatch. Craning her head, she beheld a masked goggled figure in a white desert jumpsuit, dangling from a rope, hooked onto her capsule’s hull. Smiling and giving him a thumbs up, she summoned all the strength she had left to reach over and open the hatch.

As dust poured in, the man gave Carlotta a mask and goggles, which she put on as she was hoisted up onto a second robe that was dangled down, and then lifted up thousands of feet through an opaque cloud of dust that managed to find its way into every part of her body, pelting her in the wind as she felt herself lifted higher, higher, and higher, until at last the sandstorm began to fade as it passed under her, and she could behold the outline of the zeppelin above her, hovering well over the dust storm.

Finally she could behold her destination: the zeppelin’s gondola, the balcony open to the air. There to greet her, to her great surprise, was none other than Marina Behrenberg, who embraced her lightly and, taking her dust mask and goggles off so she could see her face, as tired as she was happy, as shocked as she was elated, said “Welcome home” as she grasped her face with both of her hands, Carlotta reveling in the touch of another man, not even fully cognizant of how she was now on Earth again.

Carlotta joked “You promised me it would be warm and sunny”, both of them breaking out in laughter as they hugged each other in the tightest of embraces. Marina walked her around to the other side of the balcony, full sun shining down upon them, sky baby blue, sandstorm billowing right beneath them, Carlotta’s smile widening as she took in the Sun and breathed in the fresh air of the mother planet.

Marina stretched out Carlotta’s arms to her side so she could drink it all in, then sunk her hands onto her shoulders, massaging her neck as she whispered “Relax, Carlotta. You’re a hero. There’s nothing to worry about anymore: you’re home now.”

Applause erupted across the world and beyond as they got the news of Carlotta von Frey’s return: the crew of the Senta, both inside and outside the lander, cheered over the radio as they heard from a man at Mission Control “Senta, Peenemünde. We’ve recovered Carlotta. She’s alive and well!” A few minutes later, they heard “Senta, Peenemünde. We’ve recovered Ruprecht. Critically wounded, but the doctors on the zeppelin think he’s going to make it.”

A few minutes later, they heard the news about the final crew member: “Senta, Peenemünde. As you know, Anton didn’t make it, but we’ve recovered his body as well.”  Inigo, who was in the middle of taking readings of his plant experiments in the LEM, spoke for the Senta after the cheers died down when he replied “Peenemünde, Senta. That’s great news.”

The man at Mission Control said “Had to recover them in the middle of a sandstorm, but they just flew the zeppelins higher than usual to keep out of it. Nothing too strenuous.” Inigo laughed and replied “Sandstorm, huh? Makes being up here look good.” Prospero chimed in and asked “Oh, yeah? Peenemünde, could you tell us where Carlotta’s next stop is going to be?” Mission Control replied back “Affirmative, Senta. The beaches of the Skeleton Coast.” Victor exclaimed over the radio “I knew it!”

Prospero replied “Well, she gets to live it up while we’re marooned in the Oceanus Procellarum a quarter million miles away from everybody.” Vera added “Already sick of this place after a couple days, Prospero? I think I’m just beginning to make myself at home and really take it in. It hasn’t seemed like any time at all.”

Prospero clarified “Yeah, but it’s all been within walking distance of the landing site. I know as a geologist there’s new discoveries to be made anywhere, and we’re doing a lot more science on this mission than any of us expected, but I was wondering if there’s any word on us possibly getting a vehicle sent up here? Like one of those moon rovers the second-phase missions were supposed to get? It would help us explore a much bigger area.”

Lothar added “That’s an excellent idea. I’m not sure how long exactly we’re going to have to be here, but it’s going to be much greater length of time than we expected. A rover would be a great way to put it to good use. Peenemünde, what do you think the chances of that are?” The man at Mission Control replied “Uh, we’ll have to discuss that with Wernher and everybody, but if you want my opinion as an individual person, I think we’ll be able to swing it. But first things first, we’ve got to get that first resupply module to you so you can stay alive past next week.”

The crew of the Senta spent the rest of the fortnight their life support would last doing what they could on the Moon to pass the time, trying to put the question of their resupply module’s success out of their mind; meanwhile, the ground crew of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt had little else on their mind but scrambling in day-and-night, night-and-day labor to have the rocket and its supplies ready in time for the desperate launch, with plenty of successor launches in the pipeline ready to go if the first mission proved a success.

Christened the Sessrúmnir program, the first launch was scheduled for December 12, a date that could not be changed because it was the first day they’d have it ready in time, and the last day they could hope to resupply the cosmonauts before they ran out of air. It was also a day right in the middle of the season of the “little rains” at Tanga, the only launch site capable of launching the mission. As December 12 dawned with the Indian Ocean astorming, the world watched with bated breath as their worst fears were on the brink of being realized.

Meteorologists watched even more closely than usual the thunderstorm activity, sparing the Tanga Cosmodrome from all but the lightest drizzle’s worth of rain, clouds rolling in and out of the spaceport. When launch time came, everyone assembled at the launch pad beheld a massive cluster of thunderstorms within a mile of the pad, slowly approaching over the waters of the Indian Ocean, dark black clouds billowing, rainshafts linking them with the faraway blue horizon, pumping out lightning like few storms anyone there had ever seen before, deep rolling thunder shaking everyone to the bone who was outside, rattling the windows of even the firing room.

Observing the launch, and the storms, were Marina Behrenberg and Carlotta von Frey; both had gone to Peenemünde for Carlotta’s reunion with Mission Control, but neither could stand to miss the launch of Sessrúmnir 1; that was one launch they both had to see in person. Standing next to the cosmonaut-reserved seats, Carlotta beheld a figure close to the cosmonaut seats but too distant to recognize: “Who’s that?” she asked, trying to take the edge off silently observing the storms coming for the all-important rocket. Marina answered “That’s Wernher. He’s been out here praying all day, ever since I got here.”

Carlotta said “I can see why. Guess his stomach’s turning inside-out now. Look out there: in just a few minutes we could be front-row witnesses to the worst disaster the Verein für Raumschiffahrt has ever experienced; worse than that, the worst disaster in the history of spaceflight! Whether six men live or die all rides on whether one little unmanned rocket gets struck by lightning.”

As if to greet the rocket’s ignition, the lightning started to strike much more brightly, lighting the two girls and the surrounding landscape in bluish-white flashes as their hair started to billow in the gathering wind, a voice over the loudspeaker going “T minus one minute and counting.” The girls and almost everyone else assembled elsewhere at the pad remained silent as the very air seemed to charge up with electricity, the wind gusting, the sun diminishing as the clouds grew larger and darker, the rocket only fully visible as anything other than a near-shadow with the flashes of the lightning over the water.

“T minus 30 seconds and counting.” Even a lightning strike right over the beach that seemed to practically blow their ears out, the thunder was so loud, was not allowed to interrupt the countdown. “T minus 20 seconds and counting.” As lightning coursed through the storm front parallel to the beach, as if challenging the little rocket, the man on the loudspeaker continued “T minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. And liftoff! Liftoff on Sessrúmnir 1!”

The rocket powered up to the sky, letting out a roar more powerful than any lightning nature could conjure that day, as flames shot out its back, arcing ever-so-gradually, for it was foreordained to barrel eastward over the ocean, toward the billowing black storm clouds. So far so good, but everyone’s eyes were transfixed on that rocket as it made its way on its errand of mercy – the most dangerous part of its journey was yet to come, as nerves across the world were shot, everyone watching it finding it hard to even breathe, as at any moment the rocket and its desperate cargo could be struck by lightning, turned into a cloud of vapor as if it never existed.

With each passing second, everyone watched the rocket ascend closer and closer to the gathering electrical storm, sweating every moment as it climbed higher and higher, eastward and eastward. A particularly close lightning strike extending out from the cloud elicited a gasp from Carlotta as she thought for one fretful moment that seemed like an eternity that that was it – the rocket would explode. But the strike missed. Marina remained transfixed, but at peace, smiling as she beheld the rocket’s ascent.

Sessrúmnir 1 then started to move higher and higher, further and further away from the thunderstorms. Reluctantly, cautiously, everyone at the launch site breathed, but, fearful of jinxing it, none dared to even breathe a sigh of relief until the rocket of mercy was well beyond the lightning’s range. Marina, always confident the rocket would make it, uttered “Destiny…” as Sessrúmnir 1 slipped from her sight, cruising to orbit so well it made it look like a walk in the park.

Through its whole journey to the Moon, the rocket of mercy performed flawlessly. But the crew of the Senta weren’t out of the woods yet. Another hard, risky, untried maneuver was ahead: the crash landing of the supplies near what the crew had already dubbed Sentashaven, their landing site and now ineluctable abode.

Despite their efforts to distract themselves by doing some more little experiments and seeing more of the lunar terrain, nerves became frayed, anticipation rose as dusk broke at Sentashaven, the men of Artemis 1 now having spent an entire lunar day there, an unmistakable sign that their fortnight of life the Senta provided them on its own was almost up.

When time came for Sessrúmnir 1 to execute its burn that would put it on course to collide with the Moon, everyone on the surface couldn’t resist the urge to listen to the live updates, some huddling in the Senta itself, others in spacesuits outside in the darkness of the lunar night to witness the Sessrúmnir’s arrival. Adelaide, out there in her spacesuit, smiled as she caught first sight of their savior, a star that grew brighter and brighter as it stood nearly motionless in the sky, a tell-tale sign it was heading straight for them. Vera, also outside, beamed an even bigger smile as she was cognizant of another first in human history: she’d be among the first to ever witness with the naked eye at close range a crash landing of a spacecraft on another world.

Monitoring its progress with bated breath, they knew there was a risk the supplies would be destroyed on impact, there was a risk the supplies might be damaged, there was a risk it might land too far out of range or – perhaps worst of all – too close in range, so close it might kill them on impact, but they put it all out of their mind as they saw the star in the sky grow brighter and brighter, closer and closer, until some motion could be detected. It was going to miss them! But by how much!

Within moments, they could see its progress as it descended increasingly rapidly in view of the naked eye, and for a split second they could behold the form of the Sessrúmnir’s module, the fairing that would – it was hoped – protect their supplies from the force of impact, right before it fell down to earth, splashing up regolith above the horizon, the ejecta raining back down onto the surface, some dust even eventually finding its way to Sentashaven, the Sessrúmnir hitting the Moon so hard the men outside were nearly thrown off balance by the shake of the ground. “Woah!” exclaimed Prospero. Vera said with a note of excitement “Peenemünde, Senta. The Sessrúmnir has landed!”, that declaration at last eliciting cheers from everybody.

Inside the Senta, Inigo just breathed a sigh of relief, saying to his comrades inside the LEM “I wouldn’t have ever admitted this before, and please don’t tell anyone I said this, but I thought it would hit us; I didn’t think we’d make it. But we’re still here!” Lothar pointed out “We’re not out of this yet. I think we should all suit up. We can inspect and bring the supplies here faster with all six men.” That sentence came with an unspoken coda: if there were any usable supplies. But no one on the Moon wanted to even contemplate that possibility, for this was a do-or-die moonwalk.

Waiting for all six men to get suited up and out onto the lunar surface took some time; but when they came out they were all together. A gaze up at the pitch-black sky, darker in the lunar night than any sky possible to see from Earth, gave Inigo an idea. “Hey, before we go to recover the supplies I’d like to have a picture of us taken, longer exposure. We’ve never been photographed all together in the lunar night with the full brilliance of all the stars behind us visible in the picture. This is historic!”

He was also thinking it might be one of their last chances to ever have a picture taken, if those supplies were damaged or destroyed in the crash-landing, but he didn’t tell them that. To his suggestion, Lothar answered “I think it’s a great idea!”, followed by Victor saying “Let’s do it!”, directing everybody to huddle beside the Senta, their backs all perpendicular to the vehicle, exposed to the night sky, as Inigo set up the camera.

Hopping over to the rest of the group as fast as he could, Inigo had them stand there for a couple minutes, motionless, before he pronounced “All done. Let’s go!”, followed by them all making their way to where their instrumentation told them the Sessrúmnir landed, Earthshine lighting their way, illuminating the surface better than a full moon does on the mother planet.

Trying to take the edge off, Adelaide commented “That was one long exposure, Inigo!” Inigo answered “I wanted to take full advantage of the lunar environment with this one.” Adelaide asked, puzzled, “What does that mean?” Vera said “They say you shouldn’t take exposures of more than 20 seconds or so on Earth because the stars blur as they move across the sky. The Moon rotates only once every twenty-nine-and-a-half Earth days, so the movement of the stars across the sky is twenty-nine-and-a-half times slower, so they look crisp even with a longer exposure time.”

Adelaide exclaimed “Oooh…you know, I should have known that. I’m supposed to be one of the scientists. You’re just a test pilot.” Vera laughed and said “A test pilot who’s also an astrophotographer. First got into it after I flew some scientists on one of those experimental supersonic passenger jets for a solar eclipse. November 1, 1948; we took off from Africa, and chased the Moon’s shadow clear across the Indian Ocean. Extended totality to much longer than anyone else saw it; indeed, at Mach 2 we extended it to longer than any solar eclipse could possibly last on the ground. That one was even more special than usual; when the sun got blocked out we saw a bright comet, right there! A new discovery! Hello, comet! That all really got me into the celestial motions of the planets and the stars and how we could see and capture them, and honestly that’s what got me enough into spaceflight to answer the call when the VfR came to recruit me for Artemis 1. No offense, Victor, but everyone knows they wanted civilians to be the first to step on the Moon, and they also wanted a test pilot, and…well, I guess that eclipse flight must have made me more famous than I thought it did!”

Inigo looked up at the quarter-Earth, nestled in between Pisces and Aquarius, and asked “Vera, what do you think was more spectacular: the eclipse flight, or seeing the Earth like this?” Vera answered “I almost hate to say it, but no question about it: it’s the eclipse.”

After a moment she asked “That gets me thinking: when will there be a total solar eclipse here? I know anytime there’s a lunar eclipse on Earth that’s a total solar eclipse on the Moon. That’s why it turns red: there’s no sunlight, just the combined sunrises and sunsets of the Earth. Any chance we’ll see that anytime soon? That would be so much more spectacular than a total solar eclipse on Earth.” Inigo said “Eh, I looked it up. Next lunar eclipse is April 2.” Prospero replied “I hope we won’t have to be here long enough to see that!”.

Step by step in the Earthlight, they made their way closer and closer across the rolling plain to the crash site of Sessrúmnir 1. When they stepped onto the rim of the impact crater it made, their eyes widened at the sight: in the middle was a bullet-like casing, split down the middle from top to bottom, just like it was supposed to after impact so as to make it easier for the cosmonauts to pry it open, providing a tantalizing preview of its innards.

Victor radioed “Peenemünde, Senta. We’ve reached Sessrúmnir 1. Everything looks nominal from the rim of the impact crater, but we won’t know for sure until we open and inspect it. We’re going in.” With that, all six men carefully stepped – hopped, really – down the slope of the hole the ship made, and gathered around the bullet-like container. Victor radioed again “Peenemünde, Senta. We’re at Sessrúmnir 1. So far, so good. We’re going to open the casing now.”

Prying it open with their arms, the Earthshine revealed more and more of the supplies contained within. Tired out and having to take a breather a bit after some prying, the module still wasn’t open completely, but they could behold a lot more of the contents. Lothar asked “Should we, uh, take out the supplies now?” Victor thought it over and said “No, I’d like to pry it open a little more. It’ll make it a lot easier on us later when we’re fetching the parts deeper down in there.” Shrugging under his suit, Lothar joined the others in prying it open more, more, more, putting their backs into it, Prospero even twisting himself up off the ground. “Woo! Gotta be mindful of that one-sixth gravity!” he joked, as he regained his bearings.

Finally, they opened the Sessrúmnir 1 more or less completely, enabling them to see all of its contents. Adelaide peered at it and worried “Some of it looks a bit banged-up…tossed around. Is that bad…or do I even want to know?” Victor and Inigo bent down and looked at those contents closely, and seemed to get more relieved the longer they gazed at them. Looking at each other through their visors, they nodded and stood up again.

Victor said “It looks only superficial. I don’t think any of the insides are damaged.” Inigo added “And besides, I think even just the unblemished stuff alone should last us until Sessrúmnir 2 arrives.” Lothar radioed “Peenemünde, Senta. Aside from some blemishes and warping on some of the goods that looks only superficial, the contents of Sessrúmnir 1 are nominal. We think we’re good for the rest of the lunar night.” Sighs of relief from all six of the men there and even Mission Control were audible over the radio. Lothar added “Even the supplies in mint condition alone can last us until you can get Sessrúmnir 2 to us, but we think we’ll be able to hold out for even longer than that. Congratulations on a job well done. You’ve just saved all our lives up here.”

The men then began the work of unloading everything Sessrúmnir 1 brought to them, requiring many trips walking from Sessrúmnir 1 to the Senta, then to the Senta back to Sessrúmnir 1, then back again. Stocking their cargo containers with all the extra goods – food, water, batteries, oxygen, all the basics – and hooking up what they needed to the works of the Senta, they smiled as all they counted their bounty and their gauges – particularly the oxygen gauge – started to shoot way up to full strength.

After their long hard day’s work, they climbed one by one into their hammocks inside the Senta for another slumber. Vera settled in and doodled some in her sketchbook, but found that her mind was too addled to do anything all that detailed or creative. Sighing as she put her book down on her stomach for a while, she said, turning her head to face the hammock beside her, “You know, it’s a good day’s work and that’s the best kind of fatigue and blah blah blah, but I’m so tired! It was a hard day”, a little pout audible in her voice.

Inigo, in the hammock beside her, turned his head over to face her, and, suppressing a bit of laughter, “I know. I’ve wanted to say it all day, but I guess there’s no chance of jinxing it now: I dare say the hard part of this mission’s over. I really think we’re going to make it now.” Vera wondered, sleepily, “You really think so?” Inigo answered “I know so.”

As he said that he reached his arm out, beckoning Vera to take his hand. Stretching her arm out, they held each other’s hand, eliciting a sigh from Vera. Squeezing her hand lightly, Inigo said “With Werhner von Braun sending us multiple resupply modules a fortnight, our inventory steadily building to well beyond what we need for immediate survival? You don’t become spacemaster of Germany if you don’t run things like a well-oiled machine, and that’s what we’re the beneficiaries of: the longest supply line in human history, and it went off without a hitch. We need not worry now.” With a last squeeze of her hand, he let go, and told her “Try to get some sleep.”

In the event, Vera couldn’t get much sleep, but as the days went by during the seemingly interminable lunar night, more Sessrúmnir modules were delivered to them, crash-landed just like the first one, and with supplies in good condition, just like the first one, and Vera slept better and better. Mission Control was still working on how exactly to bring them home, but the important thing was they were alive and well, exploring the Moon as the mandate of their mission called for, even if it was over a far longer duration than any of them ever would have expected when they made that historic first landing on December 2.

By the time Christmas Day arrived, December 25, an almost morose mood descended on the crew of the Senta, a longing for their families, their friends, or for those cosmonauts bereft of friends or family just the ambience of a white Christmas on the mother planet. The Moon might not have had the sparkle of a fresh snow glittering in the moonlight, but they had whitish dust and they had Earthlight, so the six men made do as much as they could, kicking up moondust in an otherwise undisturbed section near Sentashaven as they hopped along and danced to Christmas songs in their spacesuits.

Aside from such distractions their one consolation was a spectacular event beyond what any men had hitherto witnessed: Earth in quarter phase occulting Saturn, even from the Moon one of the brightest stars in the sky, a sky far darker and clearer than any terrestrial sky, for it was still the lunar night that Christmas day.

After Christmas, Sessrúmnir 5 landed, carrying in addition to the regular supply shipments a very special bit of cargo for a special occasion, leading to giddy anticipation by the Senta’s crew with each passing day, until one Saturday night, they all huddled inside the LEM as not a rocket launch but a very different kind of countdown began. Party hats and party glasses donned, all six of them chanted “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one!”, the zero filled not by their voices but by the pop of a champagne bottle as Inigo poured them all glasses, noisemakers erupting in the most pleasant of cacophonies inside the Senta.

Vera practically shouted “Hello 1950! Not just a brand-new year, it’s a brand-new decade!” Prospero added “Brand-new half century!” Victor, holding his glass, asked “So, who will have the honor of being the first man to ever drink a glass of warm bubbly on another world?” Adelaide immediately started taking a big sip, perturbed by the taste as she swallowed it. Victor looked disappointed, saying “I was gonna nominate Inigo”. Adelaide said “Well, Inigo, you’ve still got a chance to be the first male to drink a glass of warm bubbly on another world.”

Inigo laughed and started to drink his, saying “Hmm…tastes kinda different from how it does on Earth. And I made sure to have them send up one of the varieties I’m most familiar with. Yes, definitely different. Must be the lower gravity. Fascinating. I thought it might have an effect on the bubbles. I see I was right. We’re breaking out into more frontiers of biocosmonautics than I even dreamed I’d be able to do on this trip.”

Vera commented “And just think; there was some controversy about whether they should send us any champagne, because the bottle might explode and kill us all or whatever their lurid fantasy was. Maybe they think the Sessrúmnir missions have been so expensive they must leave nothing to chance now, but really, we’ve done everything the VfR asked us to do on this mission and much more. The least they could do is let us take a few risks we feel are worthwhile.”

Victor added “Carlotta and Marina were both in our camp, telling them ‘send them the champagne, let them enjoy themselves; man does not live on bread alone!’, but I honestly think they were only really persuaded by Ruprecht becoming aware of it and saying ‘for god’s sake, let them have some champagne!’. It’s good in more ways than one that he’s conscious now and can talk to people, even if he has to celebrate the new year in the hospital.”

Lothar said “Yes, and while we’re on the subject, let’s spare a moment for Anton Jäger, the one man on the Flying Dutchman who didn’t make it home. May he rest in peace.” They took a solemn moment of silence, and then got on with the business of the party, even coupling up for dances, to the extent the relatively limited room of the Senta allowed for it. With four gentlemen and just two ladies, it was inevitable the girls would be very busy that night – their first sleep of the 1950s would be a very sound one indeed.

Mid-dancing, Prospero told Adelaide, “You know what I think we really have to celebrate this New Year’s Day?” Adelaide, slightly tipsy from all the champagne – as she put it herself once, “I really like to drink!” – went “What? What is it?” Prospero “Sessrúmnir 6! Our rover is coming very soon! Sentashaven will be a cage no more! We can drive far greater distances, go places no one ever thought would be possible for us to do so early in the Artemis program. And you know what? I’ve already got a destination in mind for a big trip.”

That destination raised a lot of eyebrows at Mission Control as they sent in the embrace of Sessrúmnir 6 the rover – an electric dune-buggy-like vehicle rugged enough to stand up to the Moon’s harsh conditions, together with fold-out solar panels to recharge it in the bright light of the lunar day, and road-trip supplies for the two cosmonauts lucky enough to take a ride. Their intended destination, after much prodding by Prospero and a quickly-converted Adelaide? Kepler crater.

Contemplated as a destination for Artemis 1 by nobody barring perhaps the most starry-eyed space enthusiasts, lunar surveyor probes had shown Kepler crater to be rich in open pits leading into caves, lava tubes carved out by volcanoes as ancient as some of Earth’s oldest rocks left standing, the crater itself additionally being by far the closest spectacular landform to their involuntary abode. An ideal destination, bar one wrinkle – it was a full 150 miles away from Sentashaven.

Perhaps a pleasant day trip for the denizens back home speeding on the Autobahn, but 150 miles on the Moon with the rover was an audacious proposition – the rover had a maximum range of 70 miles before needing to recharge, and even reaching that range at its rated maximum speed of 8 miles per hour, rosy math given the fields of boulders and rolling hills that covered the lunar landscape – would take a full day.

A trip there and back, spending enough time for Prospero and Adelaide to sate their lust for a geological survey of both the crater and its caves in even the quickest feasible fashion, would take over a week; by the end of their trip back they’d be cutting it close with dusk, and the end of available solar power for the next fortnight. Despite misgivings among some, the unique opportunity and compelling scientific value of the proposed site persuaded bolder elements at Peenemünde to go ahead with Prospero’s plan, even packing along space-rated spelunking gear for the two brave cosmonauts.

So, one early January morning, everyone went through their checklist, making sure the men, the vehicle, and all their supplies were in tip-top shape for the first separation of the merry band of six since before they became castaways. All four of their fellow cosmonauts donned spacesuits and exited the Senta to farewell the duo, Vera handing them the ultra-high-resolution 3D camera – so sophisticated that only the most advanced movie palaces could even show it in full glory – Mission Control sent them in Sessrúmnir 6, saying “Everything looks ready. I wish I could go with you!

Prospero said “Sorry, Vera, but we’re the geologists and we’ve just got two seats. At least you’ll be seeing the best pictures possible when we get back!” Vera said “See you next week!” as she climbed aboard the rover. Prospero then started the electric motor and in the silence of vacuum drove them off, heading northeast at a steadily accelerating speed, at first like walking but then well exceeding that speed as he got the hang of it more, the vehicle’s suspension bouncing as it took the gentle hills of the Oceanus Procellarum.

Inigo commented “Ah, another first for mankind” as they saw the intrepid travelers recede into the distance.

Prospero and Adelaide spent all day taking those slopes, hill after hill after hill, driving at what were by that vehicle’s standards breakneck speeds, Prospero figuring out he could get a couple more miles an hour out of her than what the design specifications indicated. Stopping periodically along the way to take in the sights, capture photographs and video, and, most importantly of all, collect some soil and rock samples for later geological analysis, for both of them it had that anticipatory feeling of a road trip, except for the nearest actual road being on another planet.

Taking turns driving, it took a little while longer for Adelaide to get the hang of it, but before too long she could match Prospero’s speed-demon style. Even with all that, the rover’s batteries faded along with their energy; they drank plenty of water, and tried to “eat” some liquid food through the ports in their spacesuits, but the stuff wasn’t very appetizing to either of them, but eventually the strain of a hard day’s work – which didn’t seem like a whole day, since the sun had barely moved at all, but the Moon was a world where the sun moved almost thirty times slower than the Earth, so intuition can lie to you – got to them, and Prospero soon began scouting for a nice scenic slope to spend the night in.

It was Adelaide who spotted the rim of a broad but shallow crater, pointing “There!”, and for want of any site he liked better Prospero drove them right to the top of the ridge. Stepping out of her dune-buggy-style seat for the first time in what felt like forever, a sleepy Adelaide hopped over to the crater’s rim and said “Yes, I’ll set up my hammock right here!”

Fetching the poles on which to mount her hammock from the trunk of the moon buggy, she was relieved to find out she could sink them down pretty deep into the regolith, stringing out her hammock with no trouble at all. Prospero did much the same thing right next to her. Adelaide asked Prospero “How far did we get today?” Prospero answered “Just a little bit over 70 miles.” Adelaide sighed and said “Wow, amazing to think the Senta is all the way back there. We might even be able to see Kepler crater tomorrow! At least from a distance!”

They then got to the next order of business, folding out their solar panels, so that power could be collected over their slumber for their rover to use tomorrow. Covering a whole field’s worth of territory, Prospero and Adelaide were very proud of their hard work when they hooked up the plug to the rover, and saw on the gauges that the batteries were charging.

Plunking themselves in their hammocks, donning opaque black sleep masks to protect themselves from the sun’s glare as they were sleeping, they gradually rocked themselves to sleep, in what was arguably mankind’s first car-camping night on another world.

By the time they woke up the next day, they found the sun having risen a bit in the sky, and their buggy fully charged. Refreshed with a new sense of momentum, as mornings are wont to do for explorers, they folded up their solar panels, packed up their hammocks, checked that everything was in working order, and drove onward, making almost a beeline for distant Kepler crater, giddy with anticipation for the first sighting of the crater’s rim.

It didn’t take too long for the lighter terrain from Kepler’s ray system to become apparent, even if it was subtle, the two geologists taking some time to get out, walk, survey the areas as best they could, and collect samples. It was a frustrating day in the end, because, giddy with them getting closer and closer to the recent-sighted mountain range that formed Kepler’s rim, they ran out of power and had to call it a night. Adelaide slept decidedly less well that night, and Prospero was in the same boat, but nevertheless they did feel better-rested when the rover was at last fully charged again, permitting them to, in the bright daylight of their “morning”, drive the remaining few miles to the rim of Kepler crater.

Stopping their rover near the ridgetop, they went on foot for the remaining distance, making sure to record everything with their camera. At last beholding the full magnificence of Kepler crater, a sight never seen by human eyes before in person, a greyscale vista resembling a flat-bottomed bowl stretched for 20 miles from end to end, the center of the crater 10 miles away, the rim resembling mountains.

Prospero could only utter “Amazing! I never thought in a million years I’d get to see this, yet here we are. We made it!” Adelaide commented “It looks so much like the desert, doesn’t it? Only it’s so, so much better.” Sighing as she tried to drink it all in with her eyes, she said “I don’t think I want to go back. To Earth, I mean. I’d rather live here.” Prospero joked “Well, we’ve all gotta go sometime!”, eliciting a laugh from both of them.

After they were finished admiring the view, Adelaide even grabbing some soil with her spacesuited hands just so she could hold something from such a breathtaking place, Prospero said “Come, let’s collect some samples and go see what we came here for.” Adelaide smiled at that: “Of course. The one sight here that might be even more spectacular than this: the caves!”

As their morning segued into their midday, they had collected some samples and pictures, and were riding around Kepler crater’s rim scouting for where the lunar surveys showed some pits. After hours of driving, Prospero finally spotted one – “There!” he said, turning the wheel to bring them closer to the first pit crater beyond Earth human eyes had ever seen in person.

Approaching it, Adelaide beamed “Definitely a pit crater! Lava tube!” Prospero parked the rover some ways outside the pit, so as to minimize the risk of the ground caving in on them, and they enthusiastically broke out the spelunking gear: ropes, grappling hooks, picks, hammers, and wrist-mounted flashlights, making sure to record everything on their 3D ultra-crisp camera.

Beholding the ultimate sinkhole, they saw that it was indeed a lava tube down there, full of debris from where it caved in. Making sure to stay on the side of it illuminated by the sun from top to bottom, so as to get the best pictures and minimize any unknowns – like craggy rocks – that might be down there, they anchored their line atop the rim of the skylight, and rappelled down into the crater, crossing the several hundred vertical feet until Prospero and Adelaide became the first men to step inside a lunar lava tube.

When they started walking away from their ropes and saw their own footprints in the sunlight Prospero said “Wow, I can’t believe we’re actually here. Inside a cave on the Moon. Get a load of that black sky…in such daylight…viewed from all the way down here.” They stared at that for a while before they started collecting samples, wandering deeper and deeper into the cave so as to “get some purer samples from the lava tube itself” as Prospero put it, but Adelaide knew the real reason: pure unbridled curiosity at what was in there, an environment that became so dark so rapidly they had to turn their wrist-mounted flashlights on to maximum to see much of anything.

One moment, when they shined their lights in opposite directions, both just barely hitting the cave walls, Adelaide remarked with a note of awe to her voice “It’s bigger than I thought it would be. Well, I knew the numbers, but it’s one thing to crunch the numbers in a computer back on Earth from space probe data, but to actually be here experiencing it in person…wow.”

Prospero said, as they continued to make their way deeper in, Adelaide following with her camera all the way, “I’ve heard it suggested that people might make permanent habitats in here, entire cities even, in these lunar lava tubes. Good protection against meteors. Less radiation too.” Adelaide nervously giggled at that, saying “And a lot more creep-out factor. I know I told you I want to live on the Moon, but I’d take a little more radiation if it meant I could live on the rim of Kepler crater or some place like that. A lava tube? I mean, I’m fine with exploring it today, but let me tell you: I wouldn’t want to live here.”

As they made their way deeper and deeper into the dark lava tube, at last a little speck of natural light began to meet their eyes. Walking closer and closer toward it, they discovered that it was a beam of sun emanating from another skylight, only this one far too small to have been picked up by the lunar surveyor probes. “Wow”, Adelaide said, as she stood right under the beam of light, gazing up to the black sky above.

Collecting samples from there, and taking each other’s pictures standing in the middle of the light beam amid the dark cave, they checked the time, and figured that should be their cue to head home; both of them had had about enough of the cave by then, and by the time they made it back they’d probably be getting pretty tired after a full day’s work.

Making their way back to where they had entered, they beheld their rope just as they had left it, only now they’d have the considerably more difficult task of climbing up instead of down. As Adelaide put it, “Luckily that’s not quite as formidable a climb as it looks; we’ve got one-sixth gravity working in our favor.” Leading the way back up, Adelaide demonstrated how easy – to the extent such an activity could ever be described as “easy” – rope-climbing could be if you have a little spring in your step.

Quite tired out, they put their samples with all the others in the back of the rover, and drove out to another section of the rim they hadn’t been to before, setting up there for their slumber. As the solar panels once again sat collecting power, their hammocks cushioning their bodies in their swinging embrace, Prospero asked Adelaide “I was thinking originally that it might take us a while to locate a lava tube, but we hit the jackpot on the first day here at Kepler. Which gets me to thinking about what we’ll do for tomorrow. Got anything in particular you’d like to do here after our stay tonight?”

Adelaide answered “No, not really. Like you said, we hit the jackpot, and, uh, I think I’ve had my fill of this place. Today was just a perfect day – wouldn’t want to spoil those memories by being bored tomorrow, especially since we’ve accomplished all our scientific objectives we had for the trip. And besides, I’d kinda like to surprise that bunch at Sentashaven and see the looks on their faces when we return a day earlier than they expected. Especially Inigo. I know that Inigo; betcha right now he’s thinking we’re never coming back.” Laughing softly, she said “I’ll surprise him…” before trailing off in her sleepiness, dozing off into what was for a change a very contented sleep under the sun, the stars, and the black sky of an airless world.

When they woke up, they packed everything up and took a long time to just gaze at the vast expanse of Kepler crater before them, the flat bottom of the bowl a full two miles under them in altitude. Standing on the very tippy top of the rim, Adelaide blew Kepler some kisses before turning around and saying goodbye, taking the first shift for driving the rover on the long road back home to the Senta.

They tried to take a slightly different track on that fourth day of their journey, but necessity compelled a beeline, so the terrain wasn’t much different from what they encountered on the trip to Kepler; nevertheless, they collected any samples they came across that looked even remotely interesting, geologically.

Passing the time, they discussed sundry topics, most of all what the future of spaceflight was going to look like. “You know”, Adelaide confided to Prospero in a moment of clarity, “Our stay on the Moon wasn’t intentional, so I guess you couldn’t call the Senta a habitat per se, but I honestly think it might be better if the habitat was mobile, a big space colony on wheels. That way instead of having to send out a rover with separate supplies and facilities we could take everything we had with us. Could even use that nuclear power I keep hearing people say is the wave of the future – sure would be a lot better than having to fool around with these solar panels. I know it’s the best we’ve got today – we’re a quarter million miles from the nearest gas station, after all – but I’m excited about the idea of getting something better. When I get home I’ll suggest that to Carlotta and Marina. And everybody else too. Betcha it would do great somewhere like Mars.”

Prospero laughed at that, saying “Haven’t even been on the Moon two months yet and already you’re practically laying in a course for the next planet.” Adelaide retorted “Well, if it wasn’t for people who stood at the top of the mountain, saw a valley, and immediately started thinking of the next one over the horizon, we wouldn’t be here, would we?”

Another slumber, another day, yet another slumber, and part of another day later, the moon buggy approached Sentashaven, with Adelaide gleeful as she spotted a shiny object peeking out over the horizon. “The Senta! It’s the Senta!” Driving up all the way to the very spot they had started the trip, they were greeted right outside the Senta’s door by all four of their fellow cosmonauts, Inigo having a look on his face that Adelaide reveled in seeing. Turning to Prospero, she just gave him a knowing look.

Exuberance followed the sight of their return, with the whole crew of the Senta helping the two intrepid explorers back into the LEM, and their considerable cargo of geological samples, not to mention the precious film of the high-grade movie camera they photographed and videoed everything with. They spent days on and off telling everyone about their adventure to Kepler crater, scarcely even being able to talk about anything else.

At last the excitement of travel subsided in favor of routine, though every day they made a point to take the rover out to a new destination that had yet to be explored. All, however, were much closer to home than Kepler crater; that was a unique trip, an adventure without parallel in the history of spaceflight, belonging alone to Adelaide and Prospero.

As lunar day turned into lunar night again, the crew once again beheld the dark skies that were without any terrestrial comparison – “Never gets old”, Vera said one of those days when out stargazing. One day in late January, however, was their red-letter day – amid the blizzard of ifs, could-bes, and maybes, they hadn’t paid much attention to the speculation of a rescue mission, but finally, Peenemünde sent them a radio message none of them would soon forget: Artemis 2 was to be a rescue mission, and was now definitely scheduled to launch on January 25, with a lunar landing at Sentashaven scheduled for January 29, right after dawn on their part of the Moon. The castaways were to be castaway no more.

That news filled them that lunar night with conflicted emotions. Some among the crew felt grateful to be getting off that rock. Some felt mournful, as if they were losing an old friend. Some didn’t feel much of anything. One day Vera and Adelaide were talking to Inigo about it in the LEM, both the girls that day leaning decidedly into the mournful category, and Inigio gave them a smirk as he sat in front of one of his experiments, telling them “I wouldn’t mourn the Moon too much. I’m sure we’ll be back someday.”

“You really think so?” asked Adelaide. Inigo answered “The Space Race has been joined for what, over ten years now? It’s not just Germany that’s in it. The Russians are right behind us, and even if they give up – which I doubt, considering how Korolev is hell-bent on Mars and the space craze is even bigger over there than it is in middle Europe – they’re not our only competitor. The Americans are right behind them, the British and the Japanese are already jumping in, and there’s even indications China is going to seriously ramp up a program soon. And let’s not forget the Argentines – they’ve managed quite a coup by being the first to launch a space telescope a couple years back. Those pretty pictures are already legend. And it was a smart move for them: at the rate they’re drawing scientists, we might both be working for the Argentines one of these days.” That elicited some laughter from both of them.

Inigo went on “But really, the point is it might seem like we’re moving so fast. Just twenty years ago some people still thought the idea of sending a man into space was far-fetched, and look where we are now. But despite how that might make it appear, it’s really the kind of race like a marathon with twenty men competing, not a sprint with two men, one loser one winner, with the loser packing up his bags and going home, the winner doing…I don’t know what. It would be a terrible situation indeed if there were only two competitors, Germany could declare victory, and that’s a wrap, human spaceflight is over. But notice there’s no sentiment of ‘if Artemis 1 makes it, that’s it, we won!’, because everyone knows there are dozens of companies, societies, associations, governments, you name it, that are right on our tail, and they’re not interested in resting on their laurels, for they have none; they must earn them. That’s why we will go. We will go back to the Moon. We will go on to Mars. We will go to the gas giants. We will go to the outermost reaches of the solar system. We will go to the nearest star. And then on to the next and the next, forever. Even if the Verein für Raumschiffahrt said ‘that’s a wrap’, a dozen more spaceflight societies would rise to take its place. No, I feel good about our future in space, and about your prospects for living on the Moon someday.” Adelaide and Vera smiled at all that, with Vera saying “After that pep talk, so am I.”

Artemis 2’s launch day – January 25, 1950 – was a sunny and calm one at Tanga Cosmodrome, the Komet at last ready to launch men to the Moon a second time, a rapturous crowd assembled at the viewing areas. The countdown went “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero” as the immense rocket motors of the rocket’s three cores – two at each side were boosters, the middle core carrying the upper stages and the spaceship – ignited, at the “zero” the rocket starting its ascent. “Liftoff! Liftoff of Artemis 2!” the loudspeaker went, the noise of the most powerful machine yet built by the mind of man thundering across the beaches as the great pillar of fire carrying four cosmonauts to another world streaked its way over the Indian Ocean.

The launch of Artemis 2 went perfectly, the ship shedding rocket stages as it accelerated in its course to low Earth orbit, and thence to trans-lunar injection, setting them up for the three days’ journey to the Moon. The castaways did whatever they could to wrap up anything they still wanted to do on the Moon, and on January 29 they awaited the arrival of Artemis 2’s LEM, the Isolde.

Much like the Sessrúmnirs, some of the crew trapped on the Moon observed the Isolde’s arrival from outside in their spacesuits, first beholding it as a bright star, not unlike a satellite, growing brighter and brighter as it approached them, only to divert like a meteor as it became clear their descent would miss them. The Isolde managed to land pretty close to the Senta, on a hilltop, so the Senta’s crew had no problem seeing the Isolde land in full view of the naked eye.

Lothar and Vera were outside, and saw the whole thing, Lothar saying to Vera “Wow, to think that’s what we did when we arrived here two months ago. And just look at that – Senta over here, Isolde over there. Two landers right next to each other! You’d think we were an aerodrome or something.” Vera laughed at that, and said “But in all seriousness, that’s some consolation for it being about the last thing we’ll do here. It’s another first: we’re the first to see a Lunar Excursion Module land from the surface of the Moon with the naked eye.” Lothar’s eyebrows perked up at that: “You’re right!”

It wasn’t too long before they saw the two cosmonauts of the Isolde come out, making their way to the center of the other six cosmonauts’ involuntary abode. Lothar and Vera greeted them. Vera exclaimed “Marina! Carlotta!” Carlotta went “Yay! We’re on the Moon! When those silly people at Mission Control thought Marina had that cold, I felt bad about taking her place as pilot in the command-service module. But now, turns out we’re not only both going, we both got to walk on the Moon too!”

Lothar smiled and said “That’s great.” Marina joked “Guess it’s old hat to you now. You’ve been walking out here for two months. But it’s all still so new to me. I can see all those tracks; you’ve made good use of all that time. It’s all so much more magnificent in person, the Moon. Your pictures don’t do it justice!” Vera said “Well, you can’t say we didn’t do our best. We even got a lot of footage with a state-of-the-art movie camera!” Marina patted her spacesuit’s shoulder, replying “I know.”

Carlotta asked “Is everyone ready to depart? I see you’ve got your bags packed”, referring to the vacuum-tight containers Lothar and Vera had next to them, resting on the lunar soil. Lothar replied “We’re ready.” Carlotta asked “What about the rest of your crew?” Lothar answered “I arranged everything so they had all their stuff ready to go as soon as possible after your arrival. With everything they had to get on, they should be coming out…right about now?”

They looked over to the Senta, and within moments the hatch opened, revealing one, two, three, then four astronauts stepping down the LEM’s ladder, all laden with luggage containing their personal effects and the samples they collected over the course of their mission, quite the convoy of men and materiel. Vera said “My god, it is like an aerodrome.” Marina asked “Excuse me?” Vera went “All that luggage. Multitple vehicles coming and going. I dare say Sentashaven is a bit like a space colony already.”

Marina said “I see what you mean. Someday this will be one of man’s most treasured historical sites. You’re all already legends; just a few more steps, and you can sit back and enjoy the ride home.” Beckoning for them to come, the eight cosmonauts left their home of two months behind, Adelaide, the last member in the convoy, taking a moment to turn around, gaze at the receding sight before her, and say “Goodbye, Sentashaven!”.

Loading themselves and everything on the Isolde, Lothar stayed behind so he could be the last man of Artemis 1 to still be on the Moon, making the last footprints. Radioing Earth after he settled in to Artemis 2’s LEM, he reported in for the last time: “Peenemünde, Senta. We look good here. Everybody and everything is snug and sound in the Isolde. This is Artemis 1 signing off.”

Stealing some last glances at the lunar surface, their hands pressed against the LEM’s windows, the crew of the Senta were soon mated with Artemis 2’s command-and-service module, the Tristan. Together with the Tristan’s two cosmonauts, the group of ten spent the next several days on the journey back to Earth, the mother planet looming larger than any of the Senta’s crew had seen for months, until at last, all ten huddled in the Tristan, they returned home on wings of fire, landing atop a dune in the Namibian Desert on a clear calm night, beholding thousands of stars as the six cosmonauts of the Senta stepped out onto the sandy slopes, drinking in the fresh air of Earth as they beheld what looked like thousands of stars.

Lothar beheld twinkling for the first time in what felt like forever, but most striking of all was the nearly full moon. Stretching out his arm, he covered and uncovered the whole world with his thumb, finding it hard to take in how he was actually up there. In that moment, he gazed longingly at Sentashaven, grateful to be back on Earth yet missing the dusty hills and sunny black skies of the Earth’s companion world.

Zeppelins soon drifted over them, landing only a few steps above the sands, all ten cosmonauts easily catching a lift on the big white airship as they jumped up onto the balcony, as men from the other zeppelin swarmed over their capsule to collect their most valuable cargo. Marina and especially Carlotta smiled at the six cosmonauts of the Senta and even their two fellow cosmonauts of Artemis 2 in the Tristan, for when Carlotta came home she had a much harder time than this rather standard recovery. Carlotta felt no envy, for she somehow felt like this was her true return from Artemis 1, that the mission only now was complete.

The zeppelin took them to the Skeleton Coast that night, where, beachside, candles and fire pits ablaze, the entire crew of Artemis 1 – even Ruprecht was there, with Carlotta holding a picture of Anton in memoriam – decided to have portraits made and be interviewed by journalists. Vera took the last interview for all of them that night, the last question from the journalist, broadcasting the interview live on television all over the world: “In light of your experience of two months marooned on the Moon, and being back here on Earth now, what is your fondest wish?”

Vera smiled and spoke from the heart to her audience of millions: “My fondest wish? For men to go back to the Moon as soon as possible. To stay. Permanently. To stand on a new world and look beyond it to the next one. To make colonies for people to live in so everyone watching this tonight can have the same blessings I have enjoyed these past two months, and so much more. Artemis 1 and Artemis 2 might be over, but as far as I’m concerned this not the end; humanity has only begun! It’s on to the next adventure. It’s on to Artemis 3!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.