“What do you think about a mission to Jupiter?” a voice said over the phone.
Before I answered, my memory flooded with images from six months ago, something I’ll never forget.
OKULOUS: “We are breaching the surface now.”
COMMAND: “Copy that. You can expect a good amount of turbulence once you’re through.”
It was the first exploration of its kind. Saturn. No one thought our team of ex-NASA scientists, engineers and programmers would pull it off. And now, after six years of sleepless nights, we were there.
Penetrating the surface of Saturn.
OKULOUS: “Turbulence, no kidding. Pod is holding. I’m in the cloud layer.”
I was at my post on Earth when the descent started. We gave the OKULOUS pod confirmation to descend and the excitement rose from there. My heart raced as we watched any one of the twenty cameras attached to the exterior shell of OKULOUS, seeing nothing but swirling yellow dust and blue gas, waiting to be the first to see the unseen.
COMMAND: “You’ve lost camera six.”
OKULOUS: “Copy that. I saw it go down.”
I need to make a confession: We weren’t ready for Saturn. The planning and construction were rushed. What should have taken twelve years we accomplished in six. COMMAND wanted to beat Russia and China, who were not far behind us. If our private company could beat a government to a new planet, it would be a massive accomplishment for the privately-funded space race.
OKULOUS: “Pressure and temperature rising quickly.”
COMMAND: “You’re almost through the cloud layer. Slow your speed. You’ll hit liquid hydrogen soon and you’ll need to make a softer impact or you’ll breach the hull.”
I had voiced my concerns and worries to COMMAND about the safety of the mission, but they chastised me for it. We needed more time for testing of the newly developed materials used for the OKULOUS shell. I could have pushed back – potentially stopping the project – but there was another part of me wanting more. The need to accomplish became more than my caution, and my concerns were brushed aside.
COMMAND: “What happened?”
I’ll never forget that scream over my headset. I didn’t take a breath for almost a minute as we waited for OKULOUS to respond to us.
Members of the team around me had expressions of worry and twisted guilt on their faces; expressions which mirrored my own.
I worried from the beginning of the mission that something might go wrong. But not like this.
COMMAND: “Okulous. Talk to me.”
OKULOUS: “I’m in the hydrogen layer. [Cough.] We must have hit too fast. I think the impact broke my back.”
No one said anything. The guilty pit in my stomach got heavier. We all knew there was little chance of OKULOUS coming back, but we sent him out there anyway. For the sake of science and discovery. I’m sure he knew also, but it still didn’t feel right.
COMMAND: “Are you alright?”
OKULOUS: “Yes. I’m in a lot of pain, but I think I’m okay.”
I wondered what OKULOUS might be thinking. I tried picturing myself trapped in a small pod, thousands of miles away from Earth with a broken back, surrounded by the gaseous Saturn haze.
COMMAND: “Can you feel your legs?”
I remember looking at OKULOUS’ location on the command monitor. He was moving fast through the liquid hydrogen. Too fast. The pressure readings rose faster than we anticipated. All the math in the world doesn’t solve the problems of sudden reality.
My eyes scanned the video wall of camera feeds, some showing the inside of the pod and others showing the light blue colors of the surrounding liquid hydrogen.
COMMAND: “Hydrogen density is rising. I think we underestimated the radius of the liquid helium rain layer.”
OKULOUS: “It’s smaller?”
COMMAND: “Bigger. You’ll hit it sooner than we thought. You should fire up the thrusters right now.”
I remember feeling the disappointment as I realized we were wrong about the radius. No one thought we would get through Saturn’s miles of hydrogen this quick.
OKULOUS: “Hitting reverse thrusters.”
There was a roar in the background as the thrusters fired. The camera feeds jerked as the OKULOUS pod slowed.
The sound was like a car crash, so loud it caused the speakers in my headphones to distort.
I looked at the camera feeds with disbelief, but not with surprise. All were dead but three. I worried from the beginning of the mission that something might go wrong, but not like this.
OKULOUS: “Did you see that?!”
OKULOUS was screaming. We could barely understand him. He was terrified.
COMMAND: “See what? What happened?”
OKULOUS: “Camera 12! Something hit the pod!”
A black shape passed in front of Camera 12 on the video wall.
My heart jumped inside my rib cage.
“What was that?” I said.
What I saw was terrifying and disturbing.
OKULOUS: “Oh God, how close am I?”
I looked at the OKULOUS pod’s planned trajectory. The dot representing its actual location was far from where it should have been.
OKULOUS was way off course. He was only halfway through Saturn’s radius, just shy of our projected change in the atmosphere to metallic hydrogen and helium.
I remember looking at my commanding partner. His hands were frozen, unable to move his fingers over the keyboard.
“Okulous,” I said. “You’re way off course.”
OKULOUS: “Are you seeing this?! What’s out there?!”
OKULOUS didn’t seem to hear me.
I looked at the feed of Camera 1. It was happening too fast. I couldn’t describe it. What I saw was terrifying and disturbing. Approaching OKULOUS was a hideous…thing.
OKULOUS: “Ohhhhhh my –”
OKULOUS was cut off by another distorting boom. Part of the black mass opened. All the surrounding gaseous colors went dark. The darkness reached around the pod. One by one, the camera feeds were going black. Steel bent and snapped in our headsets as the pod was pulled into something. Or sucked. Crushed.
COMMAND: “Okulous! Can you hear me?!”
OKULOUS was gone. The video wall was black. Our headphones silent.
“What the hell just happened?!” someone screamed.
Silent dread hung in the dark command room like fog. I remember standing quiet for what seemed like hours. None of us knew what to say or do, our minds unable to process what happened in those final moments.
“Jim?” The voice on the phone asked.
The memories of OKULOUS and Saturn faded. I held my breath to slow my breathing. I swallowed, my guilt going down my esophagus to be forgotten like a bad meal as the thrill of a new project returned.
The voice on the phone repeated the question.
“What do you think about Jupiter?”
“Yes,” I replied, but not without caution. While eager to lead the space race to new worlds, I realized sacrifices – like OKULOUS – were sometimes necessary.
A necessary part of the job.
“Great,” the voice said, then the man on the other end cleared his throat. “This time we’d like you to fly the pod.”