Summer in the Florida marshlands hangs heavy, thick with humidity and anticipation. Sulky purple towers of storm clouds sleep on the horizon, sliced by golden rays of sun late into the evening hours. It is truly a quiet place - unless you know where to listen.
One small island outcropping in particular can always be found teeming with life - of crickets chirping, of vultures squawking, of waves crashing, of engines roaring, of steel soaring.
At sea level, it is the closest place in the world to the heavens.
For over a hundred years, this tiny strip of land has represented many of the finest dreams the human race has dared to dream - to reach for the stars and seek out the mysteries of the great beyond. Millions have dared to dream bigger, to strive toward solving the world’s greatest technical challenges. Thousands have stepped through the gates to the launch causeway and given their all in the name of advancing science. Mere hundreds have had the supreme honor of being tasked with dreaming the next impossible dream.
It is the early hours of dawn in August of 2061 when just three people begin a new journey into the greatest depths of space, yet untouched by humankind, from NASA’s Pad 39-A in Cape Canaveral.
T plus forty-eight seconds.
Crew has passed maximum dynamic pressure.
The flight officer bites her lip and squeezes her eyes shut as the mach cone shockwave finally dissipates around the vehicle, and the shaking stops. It’s her first flight, and nothing has ever looked more terrifying yet more beautiful than the black arc of deep space now coming into view over Earth’s crystal-blue atmosphere.
Main engine cut-off, T plus four minutes and thirty seconds.
Rassilon booster stage separation is a go.
From the ground, a young mission correspondent loses her train of thought mid-sentence, letting her microphone slip from her hand in awe as the crew shuttle becomes a pinprick against the sky.
Seventeen minutes into flight.
Starting second phase coast roll.
The propulsion captain stands arm in arm with his team, cheering and shouting at the sky. The last remnants of red-gold flames lick at the pink dawn, and the ship vanishes from sight.
He’s not sure how long he had been holding his breath, until it all releases at once.
And, thirty-one minutes into flight, we have spacecraft separation.
Harmony, on course for rendezvous with Freedom at lunar orbit. Godspeed.
In mission control, the flight director collapses back into his chair, scrubbing both hands over his tear-streaked face, nervous laughter slowly turning joyful.
There are few days for celebration quite like this one. But the journey is only beginning, with years of flight ahead for the Harmony voyage.
Since the Apollo days, the iconic shape of the crew capsule has been a mainstay of space exploration, its conical silhouette a reassuring constant throughout every space program endeavor.
Never before has a moon of Jupiter been seen from a little capsule window, though. Until now.
The Lunar Gateway gleams in the sunlight as the Harmony ship approaches. Hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, the leader of crew operations shivers in her chair, clutching a fresh cup of coffee to hold her through the 3 am spacecraft-to-spacecraft docking maneuver.
She hardly needs the coffee, but old comforts die hard.
The habitation module and Freedom flight tug vehicle appear motionless as the Harmony ship matches its velocity for rendezvous. The breathtaking metallic dance is one of life or death, hinging on fractions of centimeters far beyond her grasp.
She can’t help but cry when the final sign-off call is sent.
Harmony and Freedom, on course for gravity assist at Mars.
Ten months into flight, how are we feeling on this fine Martian morning?
The message from Houston is crackly with interference from the Bowie Base One operations. The senior flight engineer smiles to herself - she had never once dreamed that she’d be in Martian orbit for her birthday. After the first leg of the journey, a chance to dock with the orbital resupply station is a most welcome change of pace.
Unbuckling from her seat to float a few feet to the capsule window, she imagines that Adelaide Brooke herself is waving from the other porthole, across the rust-red horizon.
Tomorrow, she’ll realize she didn’t have to imagine, and mission control pops a bottle of champagne at the top of the hour to celebrate the milestone with the crew, 55 million kilometers away.
Happy New Years from Earth, Harmony. We have you set for rendezvous with Europa in 5 more sidereal days. The team sends their best wishes!
The flight captain counts asteroid chunks out the window, breathing slowly, deeply. The universe looks so different this far away from home. The colors of Jupiter seem deeper, every photon of light scattering off the faint ring around the massive planet more harshly than any reflection on Earth.
Each second is a gift. He knows better than to take it for granted. Pulling out his sketchpad, he begins to weave a tale of beauty for the media team when they finally receive the message.
In the ice-bitten days of January in 2064, the original launch team finds themselves reunited in a large, mahogany-clad conference room from an age of memories long past. Whispers and murmurs of legends and heroes follow them through the halls.
One astrobiologist skates his fingers across a large framed photo on the wall, filled with a dozen cheery faces, the ghost of a smile on his lips. Family does not end with liftoff, but it does make reunions all the sweeter.
The program manager can’t help but squeeze him into a hug, when she finally pushes her way through the throng of engineers.
“You’ll want to see this,” she whispers.
The flight control room holds their breath as the two make their way to the largest display screen.
“Harmony, this is Cape Canaveral, do you read?”
Loud and clear, control. I hope the cameras are running on your end.
The astrobiologist’s brow is furrowed, his gaze wild and frenzied around the room, daring not hope the moment has finally arrived.
On the crackling broadcast above, three astronauts float gently mid-cabin, each holding a glass vial. It doesn’t need to be high-definition to see their smiles are the brightest in the solar system.
We thought you’d want to be the first to see. You wanted to name them, after all!
The young flight engineer holds her vial up to the lens. Tiny, silvery-green jellyfish-like creatures whirl and float aimlessly in the absence of gravity.
He isn’t able to even speak for the next half an hour, let alone think of a name for the first life found on another world.
His fiancee holds his hand tightly on the thin, winding drive down the island to their hotel.
Words are hardly necessary, but she surprises him when she breaks the silence. She’s always been good at that.
“Do you remember that summer?”
He glances over at her, smiling softly.
“Rose Tyler. How on earth could I forget?”
Tonight, they take a moment to sit at their favorite bar and remember how it all began, so many years ago.