Saturday, March 19, 2050

First Steps

During the planning phase of the Pluto mission, the scientists at the International Space Agency wanted to the make the Pluto lander as easy as possible for me to see from a distance, so they conducted a study to determine what color would be most clearly visible against the white and yellow-brown background of the Plutonian landscape. They came up with the most hideous shade of green imaginable. I told them I didn't care how visible that color made the lander look, I'd have to live in the wretched thing for the rest of my life, and there was no way I was going to live in a station that was that horrible shade of green. In the end, we compromised on baby blue. Baby blue I could live with.

They continued the color scheme with the spacesuit, even though nobody would ever see it except me, and I'd be wearing it. After staring out at the landscape for a good long while, I decided to go out for a walk, and I began putting the spacesuit on. It wasn't the first time I had worn it, of course. Apart from all the test runs on Earth, I spent at least half of the outbound trip from Earth spacewalking outside the Hades. I read an old story once about a group of Martian colonists making a months-long trip to Saturn, and they found that they liked spacewalking so much that they had arguments over whose turn it was. It turned out that the story was right -- you could spend hours just floating serenely out in space. It helped the trip from Earth to Pluto pass surprisingly quickly.

The spacesuit itself was pretty simple. Most of it was a skintight leotard that was kept stored inside-out. You just slipped it on over your body. The neck of the leotard was sealed to a collar with a breathing mask and oxygen tanks. You strapped the oxy tanks to your body and the breathing mask to your face. (The tanks were red, btw, rather than blue. There's some sort of tradition among chemists that oxygen tanks always have to be red.) On top of the collar went a clear plastic fishbowl helmet. Then there were the insulated boots and the insulated gauntlets, and you were ready to go out onto the surface.

I had insisted that the lander be as low-tech as possible. No automatic sliding doors; no automatic sliding anything, if they could help it. That's why all the hatches and port covers were operated by hand cranks or wheels. The station airlock, for example, was opened and closed with a hand crank. The airlock was located in the exact center of the station, and opened out onto the surface directly below. After putting on the spacesuit, I cranked open the airlock door, stepped inside, and cranked it shut again. I pressed the button that pumped the air out, and when that was done, I undogged the hatch in the floor and opened it. By design, there was three meters of space between the floor of the station and the surface of Pluto. I rolled out a flexible plastic ladder that reached within half a meter of the surface, and climbed down.

I stepped down onto the surface of Pluto.

I didn't feel like making some Armstrongesque "one small step" statement, so I didn't. I just looked around. Above me was the lower hull of the station, with its three landing legs splayed out, resting on their insulated pads. Below me was the nitrogen ice surface of Pluto, looking about how you'd expect ice to look. The footing was firm -- at 40 Kelvins, nitrogen ice has lost all its slipperiness and is as easy to walk on as dirt. It was dark under the station; at this time of the year on Pluto, the Sun was always about two-thirds of the way up in the sky, so the only light was a bright yellow spotlight from the airlock and a dim bluish glow from Charon sitting parked along the horizon to my left.

I looked at the locator strapped to my right wrist. I had programmed it to show me the way to the south pole, and it was pointing behind me. I turned around and started walking. As I emerged from the shadow of the station I looked up at the Sun. From six billion kilometers away, it was too small to show a visible disk, and dim enough to safely look at directly. It wasn't quite bright enough to wash out all of the other stars; I could see maybe a dozen of the brightest ones.

I continued walking, weaving my way around surface irregularities. I had to detour around a furrow that one of the engines had gouged out during the landing. A hundred meters away from the station, the irregularities in the ice became more pronounced, and I had to pick my way among them. I glanced at my locator from time to time, correcting my course when necessary, then came to a stop when it started flashing. I looked down. I was standing on the exact location of the south pole of Pluto. I looked back at the station, a baby blue dome with various bits sticking out from it, standing on three legs. I looked at the upper half of Charon protruding above the horizon. I sighed a contented sigh. So much room. Room to breathe!

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