The airlocks had yet to open, but already she could see through the hatch, out across that vast, rose-red landscape she had explored thousands of times in dreams. Her survey team lowered the gold-coated visors on their helmets and stood anxiously behind her, waiting for her to open the hatch. Though it was an eight-month journey, for Rhea it had taken a lifetime to get there. Her heart raced as she lowered her hand onto the latch. In that moment she stood on the precipice of what she hoped would at long last truly be a fresh start at a new life.
Billions watched from the crew’s helmet cams, as well as cameras set up in and outside of the spacecraft, and the thought of knowing so many people were watching her every move, and hearing her every word began to heave itself upon her. She arguably carried the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she knew it. This was it. She had always voiced what Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, even heads of NASA had said before her, ‘The survival of our species depends on us establishing colonies on other planets’.
She closed her eyes and took one last, deep breath and with a determined push, the hatch began to open and her eyes opened with it. Crimson light from the distant Sun bled into the airlock chamber where the crew stood in motionless awe. It was as if they were frozen in time, yet with hearts beating at the speed of light. The Gorgon eye of the ancient Sun met their near paralyzed gaze as though to look into their arcane thoughts such that it could read the memoirs of their souls. Their entire lives lived under a golden Sun, yet now it felt as though they were seeing it for the first time.
It was Rhea who took the first step into the sanguine sands of Mars. The first human to have ever set foot on another planet. Her first few steps quivered; overwhelmed by a rush of adrenaline fueled by wonder and perhaps even a little fear. Each step she took was as bold as it was humbling. Nothing she, or her crew had read or trained for could have ever prepared them for these first moments on the red planet. It was a world without a world. A land untouched by human hands. Free of malady and war. A world without history.
And those were the first words Rhea whispered, “Tabula rasa.”
They weren’t her prepared first words however. She had intended to say something along the lines of what Neil Armstrong had said when he first set foot on the moon, but words escaped her. She was lost in the awe of being there.
The other four followed Rhea out onto the rusty plain.
There was no mistaking Zarek’s gravelly voice. He was the lead geologist and most talkative crewmember, which at times could become trying for the others.
“Go ahead Zarek.” Rhea said as she turned around to face the crew.
Zarek stood there holding a small boulder in his raised hand and said sarcastically, yet proudly, “I’ve found our first rock!” As everyone sighed and rolled their eyes in unison, Zarek added, “Oh, and you forgot to say your ‘one giant leap’ speech!”
A cold sweat beaded on Rhea’s forehead as she realized she had forgotten to say the lines she had rehearsed dozens of times prior to landing. She initially felt as though she just bumbled the greatest moment in human history, but then a sudden calm overcame her. She walked over to Zarek and took the rock from his hand, held it up to his helmet cam and repeated the words she had subconsciously thought aloud when she first set foot on Mars...
“Tabula rasa. A new beginning... for us all.” She meant those words as much for herself, as she did for every person watching back on Earth.
“Here we will start anew. We will create a new environment, rather than destroy it.”
In such times, her words were momentous. Even Zarek with all his unseasoned humor felt the impact of those words. If she could see through his golden visor, she would have seen his humbled smile and gentlemanly nod of respect and admiration. The importance of their mission became evermore significant.
Yoko, the team biologist, picked up a rock and tossed it from hand to hand, turned to Rhea and Zarek and said, “Well let’s get started!”
A renewed excitement invigorated the group as they began offloading the landing craft and supplying the habitation quarters, or “the Hab” for short, which was previously assembled by remotely-controlled rovers from the Hab Colony Mission two years earlier.
“The Hab has held up surprisingly well for having sat here empty for so long!” Yoko, the team biologist exclaimed as she carried a crate of freeze-dried food into the Hab’s airlock.
“Let’s get this site up and running asap. I want to be out at the caves by sol 3 to see if they’ll work for us. This Hab won’t protect us from cosmic radiation forever.”
Rhea was all business. Now that she was there, she had become more focused than ever to create a new world. This colony-establishment mission would be the root of the much grander terraforming missions to follow. A new beginning. A fresh start for all, but perhaps, most importantly for Rhea. All her life she had spent fighting for the environment, with only the sharp sting of injustice felt for her tireless efforts. As a girl she went door-to-door to raise money to purchase and plant a tree in the city park, only to be stopped, ticketed, and her parents fined for ‘destruction of public property’ when she tried to plant it.
This sort of inequity had been an ongoing theme in her life. It wasn’t just that she had been arrested for blocking loggers as an undergraduate, or that she had an egg thrown at her face while giving a brave talk to a room full of global warming skeptics who mocked her for pushing a ‘liberal agenda’, despite the fact she was presenting facts from original research she herself had conducted as a PhD student at Cal Tech. It was also that she was a woman of African American descent. Even in that day and age, she had experienced more than her fair share of injustices. But she kept rolling with the punches as they say; never letting them knock her down. She absorbed it all and turned that negative energy into positive, driving force in her life. Like the old cliche’ goes, ‘what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger’. Cliche’ or not, to her these words meant something.
They had to.
The first 100 sols on Mars were difficult, but a lot had been accomplished. Rhea had led her team of international scientists on countless forays deep into the Martian landscape, including a critical Hab relocation mission that had them safely in one of the larger caves on the flank of the long-extinct volcano, Arsia Mons.
“Happy sol 100 everyone!” Zarek proclaimed as he held a rather crude drawing of a cake with a candle sticking in it. Zarek held the ‘cake’ up to Rhea’s face and said, “Here, blow out the candle!”
Rhea raised her eyebrows and tilted her head as if to question Zarek’s sanity.
“Please, please. Blow! Make a wish!” Zarek insisted.
Rhea let out a sigh. “Ok.”
“What will you wish for?” Zarek asked.
Rhea shook her head. Unsure what to wish for exactly. Something meaningful, or something pleasant but superficial just to get it over with. But when she looked up at the tired, yet hopeful eyes of her crew; Yoko, Preeti, Alexander, and Byron, her heart melted like that candle would have if it were real.
“You know. We’ve been here for 100 sols. We have hundreds more to go. We’ve accomplished so much.” Rhea paused to look at Yoko who stood there smiling widely. “Yoko, your genetic work with extremophiles capable of surviving out there has only ever been rivalled by nature herself. I know the colonies you’ve established will continue to survive, and thrive such that this planet will one day support an atmosphere we can all breathe.” In her smile, Yoko pressed her lips tightly together and lowered her eyes in humble gratitude.
Orchestrating the move and reassembly of the Hab to this cave is nothing short of stellar. Truly. We all owe you our lives.”
“Byron. Fortunately none of us have needed you yet.” Rhea half joked. Byron was the team’s only doctor and surgeon. Everyone laughed at her words, but there was a sense of timidity in their laugh.
“I hope my services are never needed as well. I quite prefer watching you all work from the comforts of the Hab.” Byron smiled, despite the fact he always helped out with every task.
“Always humble my friend.” Rhea replied with a smile.
And with that she once again raised her eyebrows and took a deep breath to let out a big sigh to say, “And then there’s you... Zarek.” Everyone chuckled. Though Zarek, the eldest of the group, was always the one cracking jokes, he somehow always ended up being at the butt of them.
“Zarek, Zarek, Zarek. Where do I begin?” Rhea smiled. She put her hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “I have to say it. You can get a little annoying at times.” Again, everyone chuckled. “But you have saved this crew, myself included, from the sometimes crushing feeling that we’re all alone out here.” The room became silent. It had been an underlying feeling they all had, but one that none dared to speak about. As if saying it would make it real. “Your enduring sense of life, of humanity, is the lifeblood of this crew. Despite all the jokes, I see it. I know, because I’ve felt it.” Rhea managed to hold her composure, but tears began to streak down Preeti’s face.
Zarek’s eyes welled, as if he were finally being understood for the first time in his entire life. “Yes, yes, but do I make a good geologist?”
Joking was his self-defense mechanism to hide his true emotions. That, and also to brighten the somber mood that had overcome the room.
“Yes! And you’re not a bad geologist either! You are the first geologist to discover a rock on this planet after all!” Rhea laughed. “Anyway, having said all that, my wish is that we all continue to accomplish our goals as we’ve done so far. And...” Rhea stopped herself. “Well. I guess that’s it. I just wish us all continued successes while we’re here.” Rhea half smiled and turned back to the cake drawing and blew. Hoping no one would ask what she really wanted to say.
As she blew on the piece of paper Zarek threw it over his shoulder and pulled another sheet out he had been concealing behind his back with the drawing of a cake with the candle blown out.
“Hey hey!!” He yelled in celebration. “Tabula rasa!” he laughed proudly.
That was the last time they hear Zarek’s laughter. Later that day while heading out to take core samples from the Martian soil, Zarek was killed when a large boulder fell and cracked his visor wide open. Nothing was the same after that.
In the months that followed, the crew continued to work; conducting experiments, foraying ever deeper into new territories beyond the cave. But their vigor had stymied. The liberating feeling that they had an entire untouched world before them had given way to the weight of loneliness. That same vast expanse of hope was now a vast expanse of emptiness. Unforgiving and dead.
Yoko’s extremophiles, that had survived so well, had all died. Both the air and water purification systems were becoming more and more difficult to keep operating under the strain of unrelenting perchlorate contamination. Toxic perchlorates that are as intrinsic to Martian soil as venom is to a rattlesnake.
It would be another year before the next team of scientists would arrive at the budding colony, and during that time the crew became more and more sluggish. I’ve since learned that part of it was physical. Both Preeti and Yoko suffered fairly extensive bone mass loss which was later attributed to Mars’ weak gravity. Alexander’s vision was severely impaired, as his eyes had literally reshaped under the effects of low gravity.
Byron managed to remain relatively healthy, but required a full year to physically adjust back to life on Earth. As for my mom. As you all are aware. She passed away from cancer. We may never know if it was related to her 2-year mission or not, but knowing its cause is trivial to me now. What is important to me, what I know, is what she imparted to me in her final days. She was that determined young woman who stood up to bullies, loggers, and all those who put their political ideologies ahead of science. Earth is our home. It has always been our home. And if we come together, it can always be our home; ours and the thousands of other species living on it
I hold here my mother’s diary. One she kept while on Mars. There are so many passages I wish to share with you all today, but I’ll only refer to a few. This one dated “Sol 100”. It reads, ‘Today Zarek made the worst drawing of a cake I’ve ever seen. My daughter drew one better when she was in preschool! But I love that man. His heart is pure gold. He asked me to make a wish. I got a little sappy I guess, but it just spilled out from my heart. I meant every word. I nearly said too much though. I nearly blurted out that I hoped we all got home safely, but realized our mission was to make Mars home. I realized in that instant that it could never be my home. And I know everyone here probably feels the same deep down. Earth is home.’
This one dated, “Sol 408”. It reads, ‘As beautiful and exotic as this planet is, it pales in comparison to Earth. That faint blue dot I see in the night sky. I miss the simple things; the smell of fresh cut grass, the smell of the first rains, the gentle fluttering of a butterfly, or the cool refreshing feeling of a dip in the lake. For years I’ve touted the importance of colonizing this planet in order to save the human species.
But now I realize that just by saying we should abandon Earth that I was effectively writing Earth off... as if it were a lost cause. “Oh well, we failed here, let’s try again somewhere new. Someplace where Earth 2.0 can be reborn.” Ya. Tabula rasa I guess. To paraphrase Thoreau, “..born a blank slate...” I wanted it for others, but I wanted it most of all for my daughter. I wonder now if some of my desire to be here wasn’t fueled by the personal injustices I’ve dealt with in the past. I just don’t want that for my daughter. Not for anyone’s daughters. Not for anyone period...”
I’ve decided not to share much of what she wrote about losing Zarek, or about details of various missions and tasks she lead. But there is one more passage I like to read. It’s one I hope reverberates with everyone here today, and anyone watching this at home or wherever you may be in this moment. It’s dated “Sol 700”, near the end of her mission.
“I realize now more than ever that humanity cannot save itself simply by expanding out into the heavens. We must first learn to save ourselves from ourselves, so that we don’t take our same faults and shortcomings with us to wherever we go. We must always look to the heavens and pursue the stars, but we must never convince ourselves that we’re the only species that must survive. Our survival is innate to the survival of every living thing on Earth! We are only as sturdy as the foundation upon which we have risen. That foundation is Earth.
As insignificant as it might be in the grand scheme of the universe, I can say now with conviction, Earth is our most significant planet! I keep looking up at Earth as I write this. There, in the vast expanse... a faint speck. Where wars are fought, lives are lost, and for what? I’m here with an international team of men and women. It was a big deal in the beginning. Now nearing the end, we no longer see each other as being from different nations. I can say wholeheartedly that we only see each other as family. We look out for each other as if we were. And that is enough, because that is everything. I miss Earth. I miss nature. I miss my daughter most of all. If I make it back, I want to tell the world that we don’t have to leave Earth to start anew... explore outward; yes! But every day there brims with opportunities to start fresh. Tabula rasa.”
I know this has been an unorthodox State of the Union address—my first—but this is what my heart wanted to share. It’s what my mother, Rhea, wanted to share with the world and every living thing in it. We will continue our pursuit to the stars, but our shared home will always be Earth. We must care for her as my mother’s crew cared for each other.