The One-Way Quest
“Does a flower blooming in an uninhabited wood have no value?”
—Lyle L. Simpson (2011)
At embarkation, the Jovian Explorer had a crew of ten. Three months into the journey, the crew was reduced to one after an explosion in a fuel cell killed the other nine members and incapacitated the ship’s navigation and communications systems.
It was supposed to be a round trip—the first journey of men and women from Earth to Europa, the sixth closest moon to the planet Jupiter, and back. But it wasn’t.
The Explorer was headed out of the solar system at 50,000 miles per hour. At this point, there was no planned destination and no ability to change direction. If the ship stayed on its expected trajectory, it would reach Sirius A (the Dog Star in the constellation Canis Major) in about 115,000 years—a distance of 8.6 light years. The Explorer was a prototype, and the Space Agency did not have additional ships that could mount a rescue.
The ship’s life support system was still functioning and had backups. The food supply that would have supported a crew of ten for five years could support a crew of one for fifty years if the sterile, vacuum-packed food remained edible. A green house and hydroponic garden on the lower deck of the 100-meter ship provided fresh food.
The sole survivor was John Nansen, age forty-four, an astronomer and chief science officer for the ship. He was physically fit—5 feet, 10 inches, 180 pounds—although in a near-zero-gravity environment, he had to exercise two and a half hours per day to avoid excessive muscle atrophy and bone loss. John figured he had a long time to live. In his current circumstances, he wondered to what purpose.
John spent the first weeks after the explosion cleaning up, mourning colleagues, and trying without success to repair the navigation and communication systems. He cremated the remains of his colleagues in a high-temperature oven connected to the ship’s heating system and spread their ashes in the ship’s garden.
As John used a trowel to mix the ashes with the soil, he thought of his childhood in Pennsylvania, during which he occasionally helped his parents with a garden. In John’s early years his parents took him to Sunday services at a Protestant church. That gave him points of reference about the purpose of life. But when he was thirteen years old John declined to be confirmed in the church, concluding the tenets of the faith required too much magical thinking to serve as a foundation for his life, although he did enjoy the majestic music he heard in church.
John’s music collection, which he brought with him on the ship, included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as well as Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Frideric Handel, Gioachino Rossini, Carl Orff, and Gunild Keetman. His music files also included the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” and the freedom anthem “Wavin’ Flag” when he wanted to inject extra energy in his environment.
John looked out the viewport at the stern of the Explorer. With the telescope he could see a small blue globe surrounded by wisps of clouds. He missed Earth. He thought of autumn days and his walks on a forest path near his home—hearing the crunch of dry leaves and pebbles under his feet—and feeling the force of gravity. He recalled the sounds of cars in the distance…airplanes overhead…hellos from persons passing him on the path. A breeze embraced his face as he absorbed the autumn colors on his mental walk.
Now all was quiet, except for the almost imperceptible hum of the ship’s ventilation system. As he stepped back from the telescope and looked out the viewport, John took in an infinite sea of black with a few dots of white. It reminded him of scuba diving at night, floating weightless fifty feet below the surface of the ocean and turning off his underwater light—a sensation he used to enjoy for a minute or two but was then glad to turn the light back on in order to see what was around him.
Time on the ship was almost an elusive concept since the level of light outside the ship did not change. John set the automatic interior lighting to match his old rhythms on Earth. When he awoke in the “morning,” he sometimes wished he had something to pray to. He looked out the viewport and around the ship. Nominees for his potential worship included: the plants that gave him nourishment—as well as light, water, nutrients for the garden, seeds—and perhaps the random fluctuation in the quantum vacuum 13.8 billion years ago that brought the universe into existence, or at least John’s part of it.
“No,” he thought to himself. “Those are not things I pray to. They don’t care, and they’re not listening. But, I can still be grateful for them.”
When John looked in his bedroom mirror, he sometimes felt like he was living in a Salvador Dali painting. John assumed he still existed in the human form he had occupied for the last forty-four years, but his certainty about that was not 100 percent.
A Latin phrase came to mind—“Cogito ergo sum”—“I think, therefore I am.” Credit: René Descartes, 1644. “A reasonable foundation,” he thought.
To anchor his existence, there was comfort in routines: waking, bathing, dressing, exercising, breakfast at a table near by the viewport, checking the ship’s systems. With those tasks complete, John would turn to measuring and cataloging photons from celestial objects—recording their mass, charge, spin, wavelength, and luminosity. He figured he wouldn’t run out of objects to check.
In the late morning and late afternoon, John took breaks from his cataloging. The main activity for those breaks was reading. The first break usually focused on philosophers of the last 2,500 years; the second break shifted between contemporary and classical literature, depending on his mood and desire for escape. He would not run out of reading material either. The ship’s library held five petabytes of information—more than enough to store the Library of Congress.
If John were home on Earth, a daily activity would include reading the New York Times. He wondered what the Times had to say today. He wished there was an interstellar edition, but there wasn’t. In any case, he could not receive transmissions.
John recalled that when at home on Earth, he periodically wished to unplug from day-to-day distractions. “Well, I got my wish,” he thought, “at a level I never imagined.” John missed—although not greatly—Chris, his companion of three years. They had been engaged for twenty months but decided to put the engagement on hold when John signed up for the journey to Europa.
John felt an odd sense of unity in his past and present—sort of as if he had been here before. The sensation was like a flicker, detected from the corner of his eye. It might be real; it might not; there was insufficient evidence to be sure.
In the meantime, his quest was for something akin to purification—to add to order, knowledge, clarity of expression. His domain and influence did not seem to reach very far, but he did have control of himself. He could learn more. Think more. Record more. He might be able to repair the radio and broadcast his distillations, although it was an open question if any broadcasts he made would be received. If that didn’t work, the ship’s computer still could store his research and distillation of thoughts. Perhaps they would be found at a later date…or perhaps not.
In the absence of companions, John had conversations with himself. That was helpful for a time, but he needed more. So, on the ship’s video screens, he displayed pictures of family, friends, and colleagues from work, and engaged in conversations with them, taking time to reflect on topics they would care about and how they would respond to different questions.
When those conversations seemed to return to the same subjects for the third time, John shifted to conversations with scientists and mathematicians he admired. His first group was Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Emmy Noether, Marie Sktodowska-Curie, Richard Feynman, Edwin Hubble, and Charles Darwin. John researched their professional and personal lives to decide how they would respond. John’s favorite dialogs made it to his journal.
Since time was something John had in abundance, he also added an “Autobiography” section to his journal, making revisions as more memories came to him and as he considered better transitions and word choices. He didn’t need to concern himself with deadlines from a publisher. When in the mood for company of more animated humans, he watched movies and documentaries.
As the months stretched into years, John decided to further expand his repertoire. Herbs and spices took up a larger portion of the ship’s soil garden and hydroponics. The variety of flavors for his meals expanded accordingly. Sage and ginger were welcome additions to tofu, seitan, beans, and vegetables. The ship’s library provided instructions on how to make wine and whiskey. John was glad that a few of the cargo containers were made of oak. He converted oak boards into chips, toasted the chips in the oven, and placed the chips in stainless steel containers of wine and whiskey. The results didn’t provide major competition to the better producers of Bordeaux, Napa Valley, or Kentucky, but he enjoyed his creations.
John added a dream-log to his journal. One recurring dream: He was a child, playing by himself on a small prairie near his old family home. He looked for others to play with, but no one was there. After throwing a tennis ball in the air and catching it twenty times, he tired of that activity. He sat down, looked at the horizon, and then at the ground. He noticed two different types of rocks next to each other and decided he would make a line of rocks with as many different types of rocks as he could find. He walked back and forth on the prairie and came up with thirty-five different types of rocks. He looked around for someone to whom to show his new collection, but no one was there. That was ok. He didn’t feel anxiety or fear. But he did feel empty. And then John woke up.
In Year Ten of his journey John fixed the radio transmitter. He programmed the computer and transmitter to broadcast his research results and journal every three days on variable frequencies. He tried fixing the receiver, but didn’t obtain any intelligible messages.
There were days when John lay in bed and thought, “It wouldn’t be all bad if a space rock collided with the ship and put an end to this interminable existence.” John would close his eyes, pull the strap on his blanket a little tighter, and let the thought linger. Then would get up, bathe, and shave. On some days, he moved his head close to the bathroom mirror and took extra care to remove all whiskers. He thought: “There are still things I want to learn…. And maybe I can make next year’s cabernet better than this year’s.” If the melancholy mood continued, he would log onto the computer’s medical program and follow advice on which pharmaceuticals to take.
By Year Twenty, John’s analysis of radiation from the accretion disks of black holes was the most complete that had even been assembled by an astronomer from Earth, at least as of the time that John had left Earth. He hoped his results would reach his former colleagues back home.
In his thirtieth year on the ship, at age seventy-four, John’s energy and health were fading. His longevity had been helped along by the ship’s medical computer and pharmacy, but there were limits to what they could do.
On his final night of life, John’s vision dimmed and his respiration grew more shallow. He lay in bed and thought of a book from his childhood, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. John said, “Goodnight”—and “Thank you”—to the plants, light, water, nutrients, equipment, and forces that had been part of his journey.
The Jovian Explorer continued its trajectory—every three days broadcasting the final edition of John’s journal and research until Earth-Year 117,036, when the broadcasts ceased as the Explorer entered the corona of Sirius A.