A day with my friend on Earth

Luke Demetrios

I woke up and lay in bed checking social on the ceiling. I thought about people who used to drop their phones on their faces.

I paused for a long time on a photo of Ali Wheeler in a bikini. I realized my friend was awake, lying on the floor, and I asked him if he took any celebrity feeds. He said NerdGirls, which he pays for because that makes him feel better about it. I told him it bored me to look at girls who weren’t famous and who I wasn’t likely to meet. I couldn’t see him, but I imagine he shrugged.

We talked about our options for the day. He suggested going to see a 2D movie called The Blair Witch Project at a revival house, but I said I wanted to see Mars Terror. He said he assumed I wouldn’t want to see that, but I assured him I could separate the faithfully simulated colony from the fictional events that took place there in the movie. We agreed to see it at 1:00.

I went to the kitchen to get breakfast, and I saw that in the living room my dad was playing guitar and watching the California water riots. He was playing one of his country songs and singing quietly. I got toast for myself and cereal for my friend and went back to my room.

We spent the morning reading. I was glad when my friend finished his cereal, because I find his slurping disgusting. I’ve told him this. He was reading a school lesson on physics, and I was reading academic papers on interplanetary life support systems.

At noon we got dressed and walked out to the theater. We stopped at Rumbas Deli and bought falafel and a 200 mL bottle of Bacardi 151. At the theater, we bought a Coke and I went into a toilet stall and poured a lot of the rum into the cup. I wondered whether everyone assumes that’s what you’ve been doing when you emerge from a bathroom stall with a cup of Coke.

After the movie, my friend asked if I was scared. I said no, that an extraterrestrial intelligence was the least plausible plot element with which to try to scare someone who was going to Mars. I told him that a condition that killed you over a period of three to five years due to the buildup of micro-granules of sand in your lungs would have been a much more plausible and frightening plot development, though we agreed that wouldn’t have been as entertaining to simulate.

We walked to Central Park. A community orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and we laid down on a hill where we could hear it distantly. Back where we were, no one was paying attention—they were talking and reading their social and making out. I thought about the crowd near the front, and I imagined someone crying. I also imagined someone extremely bored, and I imagined someone wanting to urinate.

We decided to finish the 151, so we went to a bodega and got another Coke. I looked at a direct from my mom, which said she was ordering pizza. I replied asking if my friend and I could have Cubans, and she said no, she’d already ordered. We walked home, drinking the Coke very quickly, and drunkenly ate pizza with my parents. I had a lot of questions to ask about the neighbors, for some reason. I thought the neighbors were a subject I could safely discuss drunkenly. I believe I was correct.

After dinner we passed out in my room, and when we woke up I checked my invites. There was a party at the apartment of this girl I knew freshman year. My friend agreed that was our best option. I showered, and my friend asked me to give him a wet washcloth so he could take a sponge bath. I told him I didn’t think that would work, but where we were going probably no one would care. We said goodbye to my parents and walked out, stopping at a bodega for some Adderall.

We were early to the party, and the girl hosting the party offered us alcarettes. I said that seemed appropriately freshman, and took one out on the porch. Some guys were about to tap the keg out there, and I looked out at the street and said that a keg in that location didn’t seem sustainable. They agreed, and moved it inside.

The girl hosting the party and I talked about old times, and I realized there was a better-than-expected chance we might hook up later. I backed off and walked around the party, looking for someone to talk to. Some girls were trying to start dancing way too early in the living room, and the keg guys were playing Beirut in the dining room. My friend was hanging on the edges of the dance party, and I asked how he was doing. He said good, and I went to go read the titles on the bookshelf. The books were ordered by color.

I leaned against the wall and watched the dance party. There was no one I wanted to talk to. I was bored. I counted the days until liftoff, and realized that it was fewer than 30. Right then, I was ready to go. I would have packed my bag and left for Mars that night. I knew that I would miss Earth when it was gone, but in that moment, I couldn’t feel sad.

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Photo by Lotus Carroll (Creative Commons)

Things you may not know about how our ship operates

Luke Demetrios

Thus far we haven’t much troubled to provide a detailed account of our ship’s functioning, because we’re aware of what a vast body of data you have available to you. After 16 prior successful missions, with videos and text constantly being transmitted back to Earth, those of you who care to know the workings of the Ibn Battutah can be practically as well-informed as we are. Still, there are some details you may not yet appreciate.

For example, you may not realize how much blood we’ve had floating around in zero-gee—unless, of course, you’ve been watching Scott’s vivid videos. Our small, sound-proof “rooms” provide a welcome escape from social interaction when we so desire (and we all often do), but after a time stopped up in a room, one tends to want to exercise large muscles and bounce about the bubble. As we’ve discovered on multiple occasions, for those still getting their “space legs,” this can be hazardous.

One of the most exhaustively well-documented aspects of the transit ships is their ability to reprocess liquid and solid waste into edible form. What has most surprised me about the system as it actually functions, though, is neither taste nor texture but the seeming inability of my shipmates to refrain from making scatological Captain Picard references while using the device.

There’s also the matter of graffiti. Since upon our arrival the bulk of the Ibn Battutah will be parked in orbit, at the end of a chain of prior transit vessels for potential emergency use only, there’s a sense among its crew that it will—indeed, should—function as a museum dedicated to the memory of our flight. Unsurprisingly given her profession, Amber has taken the lead on “customizing” her room with decorative markings. At Emma’s request, Amber has drawn on the walls of Emma’s room too. It seems inevitable that this practice will eventually spread to the public areas of the ship, though at present Captain Boyle (and NASA policy) forbids it.

Finally, you may be surprised—given the closeness of our quarters, and the several people packed into them—at how possible it is to move about the ship unnoticed. Here in my room, I have little sense of where my shipmates are; I can only presume they are for the most part where they were when I came into my room a short while ago. I can sense through vibrations when my immediate neighbors enter and exit their rooms, but I don’t know if anyone is entering and exiting with them—and I certainly have very little idea as to what’s happening on the other side of the interior stem. When all of us are in our rooms, as is the norm at night, a substantial amount of unobserved activity would be possible.

I’ve experienced this myself when, being unable to sleep, I’ve occasionally ventured out of my room at night to find myself alone in the bubble. With the interior lights deactivated, and my shipmates all stowed away, those have been the only occasions on which I’ve found myself truly enjoying the opportunity to look out onto the stars.

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Photo: NASA

My last morning on Earth

Luke Demetrios

On the day I left, I woke up even earlier than I had to. The sun hadn’t risen, and though I hadn’t felt a particular sense of urgency in the weeks and months leading up to our departure, I suddenly felt a need to escape. I felt as though the atmosphere was pressing down on me, choking me.

I made the bed. I showered and I dressed. I had a small bag packed—a duffle containing everything I’d be allowed to bring. I brought my favorite warm hat, and a painting my uncle did, and a cross my mom wanted me to bring. It was difficult to decide what to put in that bag. If you can’t bring everything, why bring anything?

My dad offered to make whatever I wanted for my last meal on Earth, but I told him to make whatever he would have made anyway. “Remember,” I said, “I’m not dying.”

“I know,” he said. “I know, yes, yes, I know.” He made tofu scramble, with chives.

The TV wasn’t on as usual when we sat down to eat, and I knew it was because my parents were thinking we should have a real conversation over our last breakfast together—as though our small talk would somehow be more meaningful, more worthy of our full attention. I just wanted things to be the same as always, so I turned on the TV. I thought there might be something about our crew on the news, but there wasn’t.

As we drove to the space center, I considered asking my parents if they’d be glad to get back to our apartment after spending six months in an extended-stay hotel. That seemed too broad, though, so I asked if they’d seen our neighbor’s new haircut on Facebook. Mom hadn’t, Dad had. “You’ll hardly recognize her,” I said.

Mission Control has departing crew members arrive at staggered times, so there isn’t one giant scene at the spaceport door. I was the first in my crew, and the sun was just rising as we parked in the slowly filling lot. The orange lights were still buzzing overhead. We climbed out of the car and walked slowly across the lot. My mom took my arm.

When we reached the door, we just stood there for a minute. “Excuse me,” said a custodian who had to get through, and we stood aside.

“Well,” said Dad, “go make a mess on Mars.” He gave me a tight hug, and said, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Dad,” I said.

I turned to my mom. “I love you so, so much, Luke,” she said, “and I’m so proud of you.”

I hugged her, and I could feel her starting to shake. “I love you,” I said, pulling away and looking at them one last time. “I love you both.” At that point it was best to make it quick, so I turned and walked through the door, almost running towards my locker as I listened to hear the door click shut behind me.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo by ClickFlashPhotos (Creative Commons)

Earth is dying

Luke Demetrios

It may seem callous or alienating—so to speak—to detail Earth’s status in a post written from a spaceship flying forever away from it and leaving billions behind, but it’s necessary to establish the reason for our flight.

Though many continue to insist that the Mars colonization is a matter of pure exploration, that’s disingenuous at best. Pure exploration could be much more efficiently accomplished with unmanned craft, and wouldn’t justify the enormous expense of building a colony on another planet.

Too, there are those who continue to insist that the degradation of Earth’s climate is merely cyclical, or reparable by a sort of reverse terraforming—undoing what we’ve done. The latter remains a possibility, but I wouldn’t be on this ship if I were confident that it will succeed.

The vast efforts being exerted in that direction are as likely to backfire and make the situation worse as they are to improve the situation, if and when the global powers allow for their enactment. What I fear to be the most likely outcome of those efforts is a haphazard rollout, with various nations independently pursuing different solutions, the collective result of which will be to accelerate the slide of the planet’s climate into, literally, a hot mess.

To put it baldly, I do not have confidence that Earth will remain inhabitable for the remainder of my natural life. Beyond the direct results of the planet’s warming, continued deforestation and increasing population may strain Earth’s ecosystem to the point where agriculture on the required scale becomes untenable; the air itself may even begin to become unbreathable.

Human efforts to cope with these changes are already making the problem even worse, more rapidly consuming the planet’s natural resources. It’s unsustainable: the only escape is into a completely artificial environment. That may, of course, be built on Earth, but there it will be too dangerous. Everyone will want to get in, and no one will want to leave. Even the strongest powers won’t be able to fortify themselves against the growing hordes, fighting for their very lives.

We’d like to believe that’s merely a dystopian nightmare, but at the turn of the century we wanted to believe that a six-degree temperature rise by mid-century was a wild fantasy. It’s now a reality. Weather is now so severe that if I remained on Earth, it’s my estimation that no matter where I lived, I’d be lucky to survive long enough to starve.

Among the many clamoring to venture to Mars, I was one of the few people with the right qualifications in the right place at the right time. I would have been a fool not to take the opportunity to join the new colony, whatever personal sadness it brings to leave my friends and family behind with little hope of ever seeing them in person again.

The large majority of my life is still ahead of me, and in time, Earth will simply be my hometown—a hometown to which I can never return, and that is a reality I have accepted.

The prospect of helping to settle a new world is inviting, and the opportunities for discovery, both scientific and personal, are undeniable. At this journey’s outset, however, I think it’s important to state clearly that I don’t take this as a mission to Mars: I take it as a flight from Earth.

Unreality House is on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.

Photo: NASA