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Moon MaintenanceI am an Astrotech, recently returned from a tour of duty on the moon. It's good to be home, to walk under a blue sky and breathe plentiful amounts of clean, sweet air. When not in uniform most people pass me by without a second glance, but the children of the neighborhood know who I am and follow me down the street. I overhear their comments and have to smile to myself; yes, I have been to the moon, but my duties there are not too dissimilar to changing light bulbs in an apartment building. An Astrotech is essentially a Maintenance Man - who happens to work in a very exotic setting.
The original Astronauts are the true heroes: Shepard, Glenn, Armstrong, and the rest. They pushed the envelope and tested the limits on behalf of all mankind. They shot off into space not knowing if there was some invisible barrier that might swat them back to Earth again. I honor these pioneers with deep reverence. For the rest of their lives, grey haired and long retired, they walked with a well deserved swagger.
The next generation that went into space came to be called Orbiters. They were the researchers and scientists who manned the space stations and studied the universe from beyond the atmosphere. They conducted their experiments and discovered their breakthroughs in the zero gravity of the vacuum. Orbiters have served in space ever since.
But I am an Astrotech, who makes his rounds on Luna herself. It is a hazardous but well-paid occupation, and one that I love, though it asks for some personal sacrifices, as well. I think the thing I miss most while I'm on duty is a decent cup of coffee. But let me start from the beginning. Come with me on a tour and experience for yourself what being an Astrotech is all about.
Each shift is rocketed to the moon for a nine-month tour. Of course, a great deal of testing and preparation whittles down each class until less than a quarter of the original applicants make it through to lift-off. We live in a base called "20-10," which received its unimaginative name from its coordinates, but the residents fondly prefer to associate the base's name to Arthur C. Clark's classic novel "2010," the sequel to his groundbreaking novel "2001: A Space Odyssey." It is right in the center of the crater named after the pioneer astronomer, Copernicus. You will recognize it when you look up at the moon at night: it lies to the left of center, and looks like someone splashed a huge clot of cream on the lunar surface.
As you approach the base from space, 20-10 looks like a tight cluster of domes and interconnecting tubes, which, in fact, it is. It was cleverly constructed, with the economy of transporting the materials from Earth to moon governing every design.
In flight the pre-formed domes fit one into the other, like Russian nesting dolls, each doll fitting nicely into another that is slightly larger than the next in line, and the interconnecting tubes expand to many times their original length, like giant telescopes.
Even the shuttles are designed with efficient transport in mind: they are perfect cubes, and are stacked and stored one next to the other seamlessly. On the airless moon we have no need for the shuttles to be aerodynamic.
My shift begins when I check out a shuttle. I'll be out for several days and I always make sure it is supplied with adequate fuel, oxygen, provisions and climate controls. This little gold cube will be my home away from home until I return to base. I pop in a music stick, wait through the decompression cycle, pass through the airlock and I'm on my way!
I direct my shuttle to the southwest, to one of the breaks in the crater wall. (I have supplied a map of my journey so you can follow along with me - go ahead, take a look. Click on the map for a close-up, click again and it reverts to the over-all view.)
All of our directions are relative to a plotting system that was first configured on Earth several centuries ago. Our "North Pole" is on the coordinates 0-0, which, when viewed from Earth, appears to be in the exact center of the lunar disk. Longitude and latitude lines are marked off in a grid from this point outward. The first Astrotechs who established the base at 20-10 also built a transmitter on the 0-0 coordinates. Regular radio pulses beamed from this unmanned transmitter keep our shuttles oriented as we scurry over the empty landscape.
When we travel towards the transmitter we are heading "north" and when we travel away from the transmitter we are heading "south." It may seem a little lopsided when viewed from Earth, but on the surface of the moon it feels perfectly natural. The break in the wall of Copernicus is therefore southwest of the base, in relation to the transmitter in Central Bay.
Once I set my direction there is nothing more I need to do but listen to the music and look at the stars. I can dim or clear the top half of my cube as I wish. The stars don't twinkle here as they do on Earth, and that takes a little getting used to. They are so resolute! They stare down at you relentlessly, like hard, fixed lamps pinned to the velvet black.
The surface is usually perfectly smooth and clear of obstacles - no steering required, most of the time. I race along at 300 kilometers per hour on three bulbous wheels that peek out from the undercarriage, flying over the vast barren landscape as my destination slowly grows larger in the distance.
I understand they once had considered hover craft, but the cost of transporting rocket fuel was prohibitively expensive and the idea was promptly scrapped. Instead, I run on battery power, continually charged by solar panels built into my shuttle. I go around obstacles, instead of over them. I can also refuel at selected points throughout our light farms.
And that, of course, is why we work on the moon: the famous lunar light farms. The largest, most audacious building project ever attempted by humankind, and an overwhelming success - the fruits of which are shared equally by the entire planet. They changed the course of history, and united the nations of Earth as never before. But of course, you know all about this. We all enjoy the benefits of free, unlimited energy; and this has revolutionized the world.
And I am proud to service the enormous fields of solar panels that provide this boon for the whole human race.
Without doubt, it was a daring and expensive gamble. The best brains around the globe pooled their knowledge, and their governments contributed enormous resources to the project. The project alone was an experiment in international cooperation. But the huge investment returned an even greater dividend, one that continues to pay to this very day, and will for centuries beyond. The reliable energy of the sun itself is collected, stored and broadcast back to the mother planet using Tesla's ultraviolet energy beam to fuel our industries and our homes and our vehicles. When the nations no longer had to compete for resources, and with the lessons learned through international cooperation, there was peace.
An hour of travel brings me to the exit from Copernicus. A stray meteor had smashed down the side of the crater when the second Ramses was Pharaoh of Egypt. I steer around some debris and plot my next destination: the crater of Eratoshenes, west northwest. I intend to circle around the south side of the crater and continue on to Autolycus, a crater far to the west as we measure direction, but near the top of the Moon as seen from the Earth.
Even though I am flying over the landscape, it feels like I am creeping along, like an ant on a long white tablecloth. The photosensitive shuttle allows me a full 360 degree view of the heavens, and when I tire of the landscape I turn to the stars, and our home world, hanging big and blue in the heavens. I sometimes feel like a travelling salesman staring out a train window, thinking of home that always remains just beyond the horizon. Nine months is long time to be away from home, to be sure, but the physical gulf that lies between me and our mother planet is too enormous to contemplate. Home is very, very far away indeed. And so I turn my thoughts away from such madness, and change the music to a more cheerful tune, and open a fresh canister of instant coffee and remember some of the incredible vistas this hunk of lunar rock has to offer.
Twelve hours to the south lies the Bay of Rainbows, on the far side of the Sea of Rains. It is a wonderful place to a man starved for colors. The dust clouds drape in long streamers from the Jura Mountains, like Spanish moss hanging from a willow back home, and as I approach from the plains below I watch the refracted light shimmer and arc in pure rainbow colors, ruby red shifting to a deep violet in seconds, and changing again through the spectrum to scarlet again. The rainbow waterfall extends to the right and left as far as the eye can see. It flows anew every four weeks, when the long night yields to daylight, and the extreme temperature flux draws forth a fresh cascade of dust from the long mountain ridge.
On any given point the sun will shine for 14 straight days, as days are measured on Earth, followed by another 14 day period of dark and cold, where the temperature falls to minus 250 degrees. The shuttle is designed to absorb most of the 215 degree sunshine, but nothing can withstand that frigid cold. We schedule our tours in the periods of sunshine, and always return to 20-10 before the night sets in. But twice in our history an Astrotech never made it back in time, and we found his lifeless body in the next cycle of light.
I have skirted the southern flank of Eratoshenes and am now speeding along in the direction of Autolycus, with Seething Bay on the left - due to underground stress fractures caused by the extreme temperature flux - and the Apennine Mountains running along my right. I will follow this route for another four hours. Beyond Seething Bay to the south is a permanent cloud of dust that stands fifteen meters high, the Sea of Vapors. But my course takes me west, past the great crater Archimedes and the misnamed Marsh of Decay. Eventually I come up to Autolycus and swing sharply to the northwest, slipping into North Valley and beyond, into the Sea of Serenity, where my work will really begin.
I am taken with the notion that ancient man populated the lunar landscape with names familiar to him. Nine hours to the south one will find the Alps, Alpine Valley, and Birmingham. I imagine if we someday establish a colony on this rock, we will probably name it Philadelphia, or Rome, or Syracuse. Will anyone still remember the ancients who first owned these names?
As I travel across the Sea of Serenity I roll over a smooth, flat surface composed entirely of solar panels. They are quite durable and easily support the weight of my shuttle. At length I come to an indicator box and extend my wand. The shuttle's wand is positioned at the height required to plug directly into the indicator box and contains a number of contacts that take a variety of readings. When the transfer is complete I now have a display indicating which panels need replacement. That, in a nutshell, is my job: to replace solar panels damaged by meteorites or other space debris.
Replacement panels are stored in a cave we found in the crater Plinus. I simply put on my helmet, eject the atmosphere in my cube, and step onto the lunar surface. It thrills me every time I see my footsteps left in the dust behind me. Thanks to the low gravity, I can easily handle the panels and soon I have a pile of twenty or more loaded on the top of my cube. And then I make my rounds, replacing damaged panels with new ones, just like changing light bulbs at home.
Fortunately, the side of the moon that faces the Earth is not subject to too much pounding. It is the far side of the moon, the so-called "Dark Side," that receives the majority of punishment. That side too enjoys 14 days of sunshine in each cycle, but we have never explored that hemisphere. Officially, we boycott that side because of the increased chance of damage to our panels and our crew, but unofficially it is more abstract and much more emotional: on the Dark Side of the Moon, you never see the Earth, and no one should have to endure that degree of isolation and loneliness. During the long cycle of darkness, that big blue ball in the sky is all we have. And so the six great light farms remain within the view of Earth, on the Sea of Clouds, the Sea of Moisture, the Ocean of Storms, the Sea of Rains, the Sea of Tranquility, plus here on the Sea of Serenity.
Before I move into the Sea of Tranquility I pause to refresh myself. I eat a very good self-heating meal, and then I adjust the photosensitive shuttle to twilight, and put on some nature sounds: ocean waves and sea birds and the occasional rumble of distant thunder. I can imagine I am home in bed, and drift off to sleep.
When I awake I connect with a Sea of Tranquility indicator box, but fortunately there are few panels to replace on this tour, and I am soon finished. With my duties complete, I allow myself a short side-trip to visit the Shrine of Apollo 11, which remains just as it was left, and time disturbs nothing here on the moon. There is the bottom half of the Lunar Excursion Module, after Aldrin and Armstrong had blasted off in the top half to connect with the Command Module in orbit. Nearby is the flag and the camera they left behind. Their footprints are all around, and I take care not to add too many of mine to the mix. The solar panels surround the shrine in a great hoop, the old and the new together; on a world that will never change.
Now it is time to head for home. For variety, I decide to take the northern route back to 20-10. I follow a tract for two hours that is composed of smooth, rolling ripples, and I rock up and over each bump like a sailing ship braving the ocean waves, up and down and up and down. For some reason this region was given the name of Julius Caesar, long long ago. Unseen on my left is the awesome Hyginus Cleft, a crevice that easily dwarfs the Grand Canyon of Arizona. It would take three hours to follow its entire length, but fortunately there is a land bridge just south of Triesnecker over the canyon, and I use this bridge to cross from west to east. Now I head due north, to the transmitter at 0-0 in Central Bay, and from there I travel south again to Copernicus, and home. Behind me the transmitter sends out its steady pulse, a homing signal for a half dozen other shuttles scuttling about the surface like gold insects, attending to their duties just like me.
While the kilometers pass I change my music to a sweet saxophone solo, and I am reminded of my old friend Charlie, the maintenance man for our apartment building. He used play a soulful sax in the stairwell, taking full advantage of the echo chamber, surrounded by most of the boys of the neighborhood looking for some summer fun while the parents were all at work. His music spoke of many things he had known and loved, and sometimes of loss. He was a good and kind man, and he carried himself with a quiet dignity.
And I pondered how my job is not very different from old Charlie's. He changed light bulbs in the hallway, and I change solar panels on the moon. And though I will return to Earth one day and proudly wear the uniform of an Astrotech, and the children of the neighborhood will walk in step behind me and their parents point and smile, I will smile to myself and think of Charlie, and know myself to really be a maintenance man like him. And if I carry myself with quiet dignity it will be with him in mind, and not the moon above.