“You ok, Venk?” came a voice from the doorway.
Venkat swiveled around. “Guess so,” he said.
“You could have given a speech.”
“I didn’t want to. You know that.”
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t want to, either. But I’m the director of NASA. It’s kind of expected. You sure you’re ok?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Good,” Teddy said, walking in. “Let’s get back to work, then.”
“Sure,” Venkat shrugged. “Let’s start with you authorizing my satellite time.”
Teddy leaned against the wall with a sigh. “This again.”
“Yes,” Venkat said. “This again. What is the problem?”
“Ok, run me through it. What, exactly, are you after?”
Venkat leaned forward. “Ares 3 was a failure, but we can salvage something from it. We’re funded for five Ares missions. I think we can get Congress to fund a sixth.”
“I don’t know, Venk…”
“It’s simple, Teddy,” Venkat pressed on. “They evac’d after six sols. There’s almost an entire mission worth of supplies up there. It would only cost a fraction of a normal mission. It normally takes 14 presupply probes to prep a site. We might be able to send what’s missing in three. Maybe two.”
“Venk, the site got hit by a 175 km/h sandstorm. It’ll be in really bad shape.”
“That’s why I want imagery,” Venkat explained. “I just need a couple of shots of the site. We could learn a lot.”
“Like what? You think we’d send people to Mars without being sure everything was in perfect working order?”
“Everything doesn’t have to be perfect,” Venkat said quickly. “Whatever’s broken, we’d send replacements for. The only thing that needs to work is the MAV. And we’d have to send a fresh one anyway.”
“How will we know from imagery what’s broken?”
“It’s just a first step. They evac’d because the wind was a threat to the MAV, but the Hab can withstand a lot more punishment. It might still be in one piece.
“And it’ll be really obvious. If it popped, it’d completely blow out and collapse. If it’s still standing, then everything inside will be fine. And the rovers are solid. They can take any sandstorm Mars has to offer. Just let me take a look, Teddy, that’s all I want.”
Teddy looked down, “You’re not the only guy who wants satellite time, you know. We have Ares 4 supply missions coming up. We need to concentrate on Schiaparelli Crater.”
“I don't get it, Teddy. What's the problem here?” Venkat asked. “I’m talking about securing us another mission. We have 12 satellites in orbit around Mars, I’m sure you can spare one or two for a couple of hours. I can give you the windows for each one when they’ll be at the right angle for Ares 3 shots-“
“It’s not about satellite time, Venk,” Teddy interrupted.
Venkat froze. “Then… but… what…”
Teddy looked down. “We’re a public domain organization. There’s no such thing as secret or secure information here.”
“Any imagery we take goes directly to the public.”
“Mark Watney’s body will be within a twenty meters of the Hab. Maybe partially buried in sand, but still very visible, and with a comm antenna sticking out of his chest. Any images we take will show that.”
Venkat stared. Then glared. “This is why you denied my imagery requests for two months?”
“Venk, come on-“
“Really, Teddy?” he said. “You’re afraid of a PR problem?”
“The media’s obsession with Watney’s death is finally starting to taper off,” Teddy said evenly. “It’s been bad press after bad press for two months. Today’s memorial gives people closure, and the media can move on to some other story. The last thing we want to do is dredge everything back up.”
“So what do we do, then? He’s not going to decompose. He’ll be there forever.”
“Not forever,” Teddy said. “Within a year, he’ll be covered in sand from normal weather activity.”
“A year?” Venkat said, rising to his feet. “That’s ludicrous. We can’t wait a year for this.”
“Why not? Ares 5 won’t even launch for another five years. Plenty of time.”
Venkat took a deep breath and thought for a moment.
“Ok, consider this,” he said. “Sympathy for Watney’s family is really high. Ares 6 could bring the body back. We don’t say that’s the purpose of the mission, but we make it clear that would be part of it. If we framed it that way, we’d get more support in Congress. But not if we wait a year. In a year, people won’t care any more.”
Teddy rubbed his chin. “Hmm…”
Mindy stared at the ceiling. She had little else to do. The 3am shift was pretty dull. Only a constant stream of coffee kept her awake.
Monitoring the status of satellites around Mars sounded like an exciting proposition when she took the transfer. But the satellites tended to take care of themselves. Her job turned out to be sending emails as imagery became available.
“Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering,” she grumbled to herself. “And I’m working in an all-night photo booth.”
She sipped her coffee.
A flicker on her screen announced another set of images were ready for dispatch. She checked the name on the work order. Venkat Kapoor.
Posting the data directly to internal servers, she composed an email to Dr. Kapoor. As she entered the latitude and longitude of the image, she recognized the numbers.
“31.2°N, 28.5°W… Acidalia Planitia… Ares 3?”
Out of curiosity, she brought up the first of the 17 images.
As she suspected, it was the Ares 3 site. She’d heard they were going to image it. Slightly ashamed of herself, she scoured the image for any sign on Mark Watney’s dead body. After a minute of fruitless searching, she was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
She moved on to perusing the rest of the image. The Hab was intact; Dr. Kapoor would be happy to see that.
She brought the coffee mug to her lips, then froze.
“Um…” she mumbled to herself. “Uhhh…”
Quickly bringing up the NASA intranet, she navigated through the site to the specifics of the Ares missions. After some quick research, she picked up her phone.