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Stars in the Sky

It seemed as if a star was descending from space, burning in the red sky. Firestar. That was what they used to call Mars, firestar. She could make out some of the details on the lander - its conical shape topping the impossibly bright star. As it turned, Sarah saw sunlight reflected off its battered surface in the red sky. It would probably be the last time she'd ever see this sight.

Sarah remembered herself, decades ago, standing in front of a group of students. She'd been there for at least twenty minutes after her talk, arguing, shouting and finally pleading. It always happened like this, always.

"Don't you understand? You read the newspapers, you watch the television. You can see that while our resources are dwindling, the population is exploding. And it's not getting better. But it's not just that. We, as a race, don't have a cause. We don't have anything to work towards. If we don't go into space, we don't go to Mars, it's the end of history. There's nothing else we can do here on Earth, we explored it, colonised it, civilised it. We're trapped. Wars are escalating, every other country has nuclear weapons. Famine is spreading, and the gap between the east and west is widening, except now the east has nukes. We have to expand - we can use the resources on Mars, the land. Doing this could unite the world. We have to go to Mars - for Earth - for humanity!" She looked towards the audience imploringly.

One student snorted derisively, and stood up. "We don't have to go to Mars," he said condescendingly. "Why should we pay so some people can live on Mars? We've got enough problems here, like you said. Famine, war, resources running out. We should concentrate on that, not throwing away money into space. I think that'd be a far more direct way of helping Earth, and it's a good enough cause for humanity, not your outdated Apollo dreams." He gained a cheer from the students, as they began to stand up and walk out of the auditorium.

She'd never been a particularly good speaker, she'd never been able to articulate her feelings. Sarah just didn't know how to convince these people what Mars meant to her. To them, it was a red star in the sky, an idle curiosity. Earth was what was real. To her, it had the potential of revitalising the human race - damnit, it could be a new world. Students just didn't understand. She smiled grimly to herself. You're a student yourself. But students, children, teenagers, whatever, they were the ones who mattered. They were the ones who would make the decisions of the future, and if you got to them young, you'd have them for life. At this rate, I doubt we'll get any on our side.

It was always the same in these talks she gave. Some perfectly reasonable person would stand up, talking to her as if she was a child, explaining that there was no need to go to Mars, or anywhere in space. They would use her arguments against her, citing the need to fix Earth before even thinking about Mars. Mars was just too expensive, too far away, too irrelevant. What good could a colony on Mars do for Earth? Never mind the fact that it could be done for less than $10 billion and dropping, they simply refused on principle. They clung to the idea that Earth was the be-all and end-all, as if the other planets and stars were in a galaxy far, far away, not only less than a year's travel from us. What made it worse is that they fervently believed that they were right, and she was wrong. Mars would be an investment, she said, a long term investment. It would cost more than the first American colonies did, but it was proportional to the amount of potential Mars had. As soon as the Mars colony became self-sufficient, it'd start paying us back. But by then, people had stopped listening.

Out of the hundreds who attended each talk, there might be a few who would come up to speak to her afterwards. They believed in the dream of going into space, of starting fresh. Bright-eyed, they'd ask what they could do to help. She shook her head. A manned mission to Mars would never take off without the support of the people, never mind a colony. How could they achieve anything with only a few space-crazed enthusiasts?

The lander was a few hundred metres above the Martian surface. It hovered, and slowly translated towards the landing pad. She shielded her eyes from the glare with her hand.

Fifteen years after that talk, she squinted into the blue sky with a million others, following another star rising into the sky. She smiled. They were space-crazed enthusiasts, but they managed to do this. Or maybe they just believed that we could go to Mars. Sarah had never been able to win the support of the public for a manned Mars mission. Instead, all she had was a hard core of supporters. They numbered only a few hundred thousand, but incredibly - impossibly - they had scrounged together enough money for this rocket, and the rest of the Mars Direct project. True, there were more than a few millionaires among their ranks, and even a billionaire, but still… It could have been different. There could have been millions, billions who could have believed that we could go to the stars. Not as some useless jaunt into space, but to help everyone, to help Earth. With Earth behind us, we could have had a colony up by now.

The Ares heavy lift booster, the Beagle, was a mongrel of spacecraft parts, hastily put together. She could clearly see the shuttle rockets seemingly stuck onto the sides. SSTO is what it ain't, she thought sarcastically. Despite her doubts, the star rose perfectly, eventually fading into space. She turned away from the celebrations, troubled. There had to be something she could do to make Earth listen.

Instead of the massive public approval they had expected following the launch of the Beagle, what they got was the complete opposite. The media looked on scornfully at the 'Martians' wasting their money. As a result, across the world government funded space projects suffered crippling funding cuts. To the average person, the Mars mission signified the entire space program - a pointless use of money which did no good to them. People didn't want to believe in space exploration any more. No matter how much cheaper it became, it was always too much. There was always something else funds could be diverted to, some more deserving cause. So the money from NASA, from the ESA, from Japan, from China was drained away into 'voter-friendly' projects, like crime-prevention, education, helping the poor. If you asked anyone if they thought crime was any less, or there were fewer homeless, they would have laughed at you. But if you asked whether they thought the money should be spent on a mission to Mars, they laughed even harder.

Still, the first man on Mars attracted a fair bit of public attention. Some more people became interested in a Martian colony, but it was too little, too late. The follow-up missions continued, fuelled by the constant flow of money from her supporters. Launch vehicles became cheaper, manufacturing techniques streamlined. Every two years, another habitat was added on Mars, and another four people stepped out onto the surface. Another ten years later, they upped the schedule. More, larger, better habitats were launched towards Mars, more people each time. Soon, they began to stay on Mars, connecting the habitats, beginning the frameworks of a base. This freed up their ERVs, their Earth Return Vehicles, so even more people came. Thirty years after the first launch, over two hundred people were living on Mars, completely self sufficient.

The rest of Earth turned a blind eye - the 'Martians' could play with their little spacecrafts as long as they didn't disturb them. The rest of Earth was busy with their own problems. Overpopulation was spiralling, and with it hostilities were growing. Anti-western religious movements were gaining huge support, with entire nations joining regimes such as the Taleban, or even more ultra-extremist organisation. They looked on enviously at the empty spaces in America and in Europe, and then released that now, they had the technology to make them listen. Unreasonable demands for resources were made to the western nations, who simply discontinued diplomatic links. We could have united the world.

Sarah turned away from the lander, looking down on the base. By popular approval, it had been named Eos, the goddess of dawn. It was quite impressive, the bulk being made up of interconnected habitats of different shapes and sizes. She could even see the first ever habitat on the edge of the base. Colonists had started to produce geodesic domes using metals from the regolith, and plans for a second base were underway.

She had been among the last to leave Earth. An old woman now, Sarah climbed into the modified booster, made to accommodate twenty five people. Age hadn't deadened her emotions though, as she stepped aboard, furious that over fifty years ago, they couldn't convince the world go look further, to think of the future. Now, the world was fighting over land and resources. The first punch had been thrown by one of the new eastern countries, with a small cruise missile, which had 'accidentally' hit a highly populated civilian area in America. It could have been so much different, so much better than it is now. Maybe, if the public had approved a manned Mars mission, and NASA and ESA had thrown their weight behind it, maybe they could have shown that there was more to life than just Earth. There was more land, more resources in the solar system than could ever be wanted. They could have had thousands living on Mars, tens of thousands. People could have had hope. Maybe.

The booster climbed ungainly into space, a star of fire, watched by a warring world.

Sarah watched the last lander from Earth touch down. No one else was there, they were all busy working on Project Prometheus. She had been with the Mars Direct project from the beginning, she would see it end. Earth had gone to hell; the first nuclear missile had been fired two months ago. People are dying for shit, for nothing. Millions dead, for a few patches of land and some barrels of oil, when there's limitless amounts in space. They just didn't believe in space, like it was some mythical land. Instead, we're killing ourselves. As the hatch opened, and the crew climbed out, it was the death of a dream. Most likely, these were the last humans born on Earth to ever set foot on Mars. I loved Earth, and going to Mars would have only helped it. It didn't have to be like this!

The others didn't understand why she cared so much for Earth. They scorned the warring people, and anyway, what did it matter to them? Earth was a memory, a blue star in the sky, nothing more. Why should they care, for all Earth had done to them. They were creating a new world, here on Mars. The terraforming Project Prometheus had just begun, and before long life would start growing on the surface. They didn't need Earth anymore. They just didn't understand. No matter where they were, people just thought of the here and now, never mind anyone else.

Sarah wept for Earth.

Adrian Hon 1998

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