There had been notice, of course—666 days of it, to be precise, a number that fueled an endless stream of debate, devotion, and gave birth to more than a few doomsday cults. Armageddon was duly delivered on time by a massive asteroid carrying the number of the beast. Pluto may have been demoted to a planetoid, but the ancient god of the underworld got the last laugh and the benefit of the bargain as he received six plus billion new souls from a once verdant world bludgeoned into a massive extinction event by an errant rock.
The nearly two years of warning were insufficient to avert disaster. Earth simply did not have the technology to destroy or deflect a 113-mile-wide planetoid moving towards it at an orbital velocity of 20 kilometers per second on a previously undiscovered elliptical orbit around the sun that took it into the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune’s orbit. It might have been kinder had humanity been spared the precise date and modality of its demise. But there was no way to hide the truth once it became apparent, and no way to spare the aftermath of that truth or the lawlessness that resulted from the communal despair of people given a death sentence without hope of reprieve. Suffice it to say that humanity’s last two years were not on balance proud ones for a species performing its swan song. If this was, as some claimed, God’s wrath visited upon an unrepentant creation that had learned little from the lessons of the great flood, humanity certainly gave little evidence of being undeserving of the punishment in the months leading to the end.
When it became apparent that disaster could not be avoided and that long-term survival on Earth after the impact would be untenable, both private and public efforts were undertaken in every country to prepare for the end and to ensure that some aspect of humanity might be given a chance to survive. Governments mobilized to expand underground bunkers in an effort to extend life for at least the chosen few, as well as retain a record of humanity’s collective accomplishments in samples of its art, science, and literature. Hardened bunkers built to withstand nuclear strikes might survive the impact for the former players in the deadly game of mutual assured destruction. Existing facilities were expanded to the extent possible in the available time, and stocked with sufficient food, water and oxygen to permit a few thousand people to live underground for up to five years. Technology developed for space and for use in submarines, including air and water reclamation processes, hydroponics gardens growing genetically altered strains of fast-growing wheat and other grains, and small nuclear generators capable of providing the necessary energy to run the equipment that made a self-contained closed environment possible, were utilized and implemented with all due haste. In the U.S., military bunkers from the cold war era were reclaimed and new ones built with a total capacity to house perhaps 250,000 people. No attempt was made to make the selection process of the chosen few democratic or fair. There was not even the pretense of a lottery system that might buy the chance to cheat death for a lucky few. In the end, the survival of the species was of paramount importance and the decisions made were based on the criteria set by a civilian government backed by martial law. Other countries made similar preparations and, even in the poorest countries, some effort was made to provide the chance for survival to a select few. All of these efforts would be largely thwarted on the day of the impact, but they represented a brave effort nonetheless at avoiding defeatism and giving in to despair. Although the record must show that in the final days anarchy ruled the world, perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that humanity did not surrender to its fate or walk quietly into the night like sheep to the slaughter but met its fate fighting to the end for life.
The efforts to provide a sheltered environment that might allow post-impact survival underground for years to await the end of nuclear winter were doomed from the start. The hope was that the atmosphere would eventually cleans itself of the blanket of dust particles from burning forests and cities, and the volcanic ash from the thousands of eruptions wreaked by the incalculable force of the impact transmitted through the earth to existing fault lines and creating new ones to allow the Earth’s mantle to spew forth from beneath the her oceans, through active volcanoes, and through long dead ones. When the dust settled, it had been hoped that plant life could once again find a foothold and begin to turn the heightened levels of carbon dioxide wrought by the uncontrolled fires and restore the depleted oxygen that fueled these, eventually allowing survivors to reclaim a vastly changed surface in a new ice age. But the impact was simply too great, and the devastation it wrought irreversible. Some human beings may have survived in their underground bunkers while the closed eco systems they developed held out, but the massive earthquakes, tidal waves and fast rising of the world’s oceans destroyed most of these within the first six weeks of the impact through cave-ins, floods, and equipment failures when the earth’s unrestrained shuddering devastated equipment whose makers could not have foreseen the forces that would be exerted by the convulsions of a dying world stuck a hard enough blow to shift its axis and crack its crust down to its mantle like an egg struck on the side of a bowl by a chef intent on making a soufflé. Any that remained would die out as equipment failures and other causes intervened in fairly short order. Humanity would never again walk the Earth
But Earth had not put all its eggs in a single basket. Russia, China, Japan, India and the U.S. opted to implement their own fast-track space programs, and the European Space Agency opted to partner with a cadre of technologically advanced countries without the capacity to develop their individual space programs to exponentially expand the International Space Station providing the capacity to house upwards of 1,200 people chosen by a complicated system from each of the partner nations. China, India, and Japan opted to implement variations on a theme of Moon colonies consisting primarily of inflatable habitats that could be created and sent aloft quickly and, once on the Moon, could be easily inflated and attacked via networks of tubes. The largest of these resembled the familiar domed design of indoor tennis courts on college campuses. All three colonies were planned in close proximity to the limited water on the Polar Regions that would be mined and used to extract both water and oxygen for the colonies’ use. Eventually, they would have to find new sources of water or they would perish, but the readily available water above ground would serve the needs of a modest colony of several dozen people for many years, along with the normal water reclamation processes in place that in a closed environment would make close to 100% of the available water reusable. Three different colonies, albeit small ones, competing for a finite resource would certainly create some conflicts that the colonists would have to resolve. But there was simply no alternative. The available resources of each country were put to use with abandon towards launching as many payloads as possible into space in the available time. It would have to be enough.
The U.S. took a different tack, in part to avoid the inevitable conflict it could foresee with a too many colonists fighting for a very limited resource—frozen water. In addition, The U.S. felt that the only type of habitats that could be used and were to be used on the Moon were not sustainable on a long-term basis. They would offer no protection from solar radiation; nor, or course, would the Moon’s nearly non-existent atmosphere. And they would be very vulnerable to even to micro meteorite strikes in the veritable shooting gallery for such objects that was the Moon in comparison to Earth, where these are for the most part either deflected by or burned up in the atmosphere. For these reasons, in part, and perhaps also in part as a final effort to showcase its technical superiority, the U.S. chose to send a crew of twelve-- (six men and six women) to Mars instead. While this choice offered many challenges, it would also provide some practical advantages. As Mars has a significant atmosphere by Moon if not so much by Earth standards, made up primarily of Carbon Dioxide that could be easily reclaimed with existing technology to provide all the oxygen, hydrogen, water and methane needed to fuel all of the energy needs of the colony indefinitely. The reclamation systems could be housed in cylindrical containers about the same size as an ordinary water heater that obtained all of its power from solar cells and a small nuclear-powered generator. One of these could provide enough oxygen, water and methane to meet the daily minimum needs of colonists. They would have three of these as well as the best water and air reclamation systems that money could buy, assuming, of course, that they survived the trip and could be brought down in one piece from Mars orbit. Cost was not an issue. Maximizing the thin chance of survival for the tiny colony was.
If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then no other time in history had ever provided a greater impetus to inventiveness since the dawn of civilization. With less than two years to come up with a plan, a laughably small window to launch even a routine unmanned planetary mission, the options open to the best minds that NASA could muster were limited. Once the decision was made to go to Mars rather than the closer space station or lunar colony options, a plan of action was quickly developed to press into service three of the mothballed space shuttles for one final mission.
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