September 11, 2022 — Launch-Minus-11 Day
Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Cruising stealthily in a black Musk-designed Tesla sedan from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base toward nearby Kennedy Space Center, Nikki stared out the tinted window at the Atlantic Ocean and recalled her last disastrous visit to Florida in August 2019.
It began with her defying The Bridge leadership’s orders in Fort Lauderdale and nearly ended when she was struck by flying debris as Hurricane Felicia raged in Miami Beach.
But she lived.
And now she was back, and free, and here by her own choice.
She was ready to leave Earth on her own terms; saddened by her parents’ objections, but determined to blast her life so far past the ordinary.
Thirty-eight Raptor engines, quietly waiting on iconic Launch Pad 39A, would propel her beyond her imagination and into a cold, beautiful and deadly reality.
Dozens of Space Shuttle liftoffs had cleared that same pad; two missions had ended in explosions, deaths and parental heartbreaks.
But Nikki truly believed she would survive to see Mars up close.
Her extensive training in Antarctica had steeled her spirit for this all-in mission to deep space, and now Musk’s unexpected lifeline after the Red One splashdown only convinced her further that she was destined to actually land there in 2023 at age 26. Wow.
KSC headquarters rose about 10 stories in the foreground with massive American and NASA flags draped down one side. The boxy building was surrounded by sprawling parking lots dotted with palm trees, but Nikki’s eyes initially were drawn to the sleek, futuristic SpaceX sign on an adjacent rectangular building. The left leg of the X in the logo shot up diagonally and arced away, like the trail of rocket smoke.
Beyond all of that, at the edge of the ocean, the stainless steel Super Heavy Starship gleamed as it aimed toward the bright blue sky. From Nikki’s vantage point more than a mile away, it looked like a child’s toy, and in a way it was. Musk had been experimenting with rockets of all sizes since his aloof engineer father literally left Elon to his own devices during a rough South African childhood split from his mother and siblings. In reality, the full SHS stack stood 387 feet, 82 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
This was beyond freedom.
Where this rocket would take her, there would be nothing but red dirt, ice and murderously thin air. No government. No police. No trees or animals. No streets, with or without names. Just a brand new, very old and very empty world, apathetic to the arrival of six human beings, one of whom remained an 11th-hour, L-minus-11 stranger to the other five.
Nikki scrolled through their names on her phone one more time:
1. Commander Xander Vermilyea. Really? Internal rhyme? Nikki still dabbled in poetry, but that name in the email Elon’s assistant sent her sounded more like a Muskian prank.
2. Pilot Jo Guigere. Not Joe. Not Josephine. But female, Nikki presumed. Awesome.
3. Engineer Ulysses Parker. She wondered if his middle name started with an S. like the old Civil War general and president who now graces $50 bills.
4. Dr. Susan Wilkes. Nikki tried to suppress her brain’s urge to stick with the 1800s theme, add “Booth” to her name and charge her as an accomplice in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
5. Specialist Edward Etergino. “E Squared” immediately came to her mind as a possible nickname.
And what would they think of Specialist Nicole Janicek, the late and unexpected wildcard crew member with the red streaks in her hair?
If I can find a way to get along with the person who shot me for six months at South Pole Station, I’ll find a way to get along with these people, Nikki vowed.
But first, she was scheduled to meet face to face with the visionary who designed the car she was riding in and the spaceship that would drive her to Mars.
Jane Rushmore, blonde and personable, ushered Nikki into an eighth-floor suite where Elon Musk, hipster-techno-casual in a black short-sleeved shirt and jeans, quickly looked up from his phone and grinned. The SHS pierced the blue horizon in the massive window behind him.
Still star struck, Nikki hesitated for half a beat before crossing the surprisingly drab, outdated carpet to shake his hand in the large, rectangular room.
“Welcome, Nikki. How was your flight?” he asked, guiding her toward a pair of recliners. “Come relax. Can I get you anything?”
“Good, no, I’m fine,” she replied as they both sat down across from one another.
“Most people I know try to avoid flying on September 11th out of, you know, extremely warranted superstition, but we’re L-minus-11, so …”
“It was no problem,” Nikki said, struggling to form more than simple sentences in this surreal moment.
“How old were you in 2001?” he asked, still grinning.
“Four,” she said, finally allowing herself to exhale.
He nodded as if he already knew that. “Back then I was one year away from launching SpaceX in a California office about the size of this room and look how far we’ve come. I’m still renting space … this time from NASA.”
“But now you’ve got a rocket on that launch pad right there ready to take six people to Mars,” Nikki pointed out while gesturing toward the window.
“Can you believe you’re one of them?”
“No … this all seems like a dream.”
“I’m glad you said dream and not a nightmare.”
“Oh, I’m scared,” she admitted.
“So am I. Perfectly normal. This is gonna be big … truly the start of something monumental in human history. Deep space travel and establishing a human base on Mars.”
“What do you see as my role in this mission … other than trying not to die?” Nikki asked, smiling as she realized she just echoed Thomas’ parting words to her.
Elon fed off her smile and practically bounced in his chair as he talked, with his hands in constant motion.
“I really see you as the link, the communications link between Starship and Earth on the burn to Mars, and then between Colony A and Earth from Sol 1 on,” Musk said, referring in space jargon to the crew’s first day on the Red Planet. “You’re considerably younger, more charismatic and less of a technical person than the rest of the crew, so I really see you as the person to help tell the story of this mission, human to human.”
“Wow,” Nikki beamed.
“It’s an important role … getting on camera, wearing GoPros, shooting videos and sending video emails — v-mails — to interact with especially young people and children in classrooms on Earth,” he continued. “Think of yourself as the first travel guide on Mars, encouraging the next generation to want to help set up a city there some day. Because this mission will be far more effective and inspiring if we maintain that human connection with Earth every mile and every step of the way.”
“What can I say? I’m humbled and amazed to do that,” Nikki said.
“Fantastic. Now when I say interact, as you know, there’s about a 20-minute delay in communications between Mars and Earth, so the videos will be more like a one-way video letter, if you will, and then you’ll receive the reply from Earth.”
“The less glamorous role for you would be to get extremely involved in keeping the common areas and cabins clean aboard ship and in the Martian hab environment …”
“Housekeeping?” Nikki asked with a smirk.
“Your word, not mine,” he replied with a laugh. “But essential either way.”
She nodded, biting her tongue and smiling. “Anything else?”
“Oh, there’ll be many other tasks, I’m sure, but one very real thing to keep in mind is you are the most expendable crew member. I know. I’m shamelessly blunt. But that’s a fact.”
Nikki picked up her jaw, tilted her head and understood.
“I know. I totally get that.”
“It just means that when there are dangerous situations or choices or truck runs to be made, you should be the first to raise your hand.”
Nikki’s eyes met Elon’s and didn’t blink.
“I will do that.”
“Good. Even if any of the other five tries to be the hero and insist, you remind them what I’ve told you here today. This mission is all about sacrifice. It has no chance of succeeding without it.”
“I’m so ready,” Nikki told herself and the leader of SpaceX. “You have no idea how awful it felt to come crashing down and lose that opportunity.”
“On the contrary, I know exactly how it feels. I’ve seen my share of exploding rockets. And that’s why I reached out to you … someone who would appreciate this second chance like no one else.”
Nikki took a deep breath and grinned. “I do appreciate it and I thank you for tracking me down. I’m truly blown away by all of this.”
“You’re welcome,” Elon said, standing up and offering her a hug. “And officially, welcome to the mission.”
Nikki accepted his embrace and smiled.
“Thank you. What’s next?” she asked.
“Dinner with your commander and crew. You better enjoy real Earth food while you can get it. And after that, I have a little surprise movie for all of you. It should be an inspirational and bonding experience.”