Shane dropped through the hatch into the lander. The lander had an elongated hexagonal shape, with the rear flattened. A single pilot seat sat at the front of the lander, and three more sat behind it for Shane and the other two members of his drilling crew. Further back was a closed hatch that led into the storage compartment of the lander that held all their equipment. In addition to the lander’s maneuvering thrusters on its outside hull were four more powerful thrusters. The purpose of these was intended to adjust the rotation of an asteroid if the need presented itself. Though their current objective possessed a far higher mass than that of the lander, a perfectly timed burn could influence its rotation to slow its spin. This would potentially allow the Midas to safely match the rotation of XJ and continue with the operation.
Duncan was already seated in the pilot chair going through his preflight checklist when Shane floated into the lander. Kula and Archie entered right behind him. They seated themselves, and Shane checked their restraints before buckling himself into a chair.
“All secure back here,” Shane called out.
“Roger,” Duncan said. “Flight, all passengers are secure, and checklist is green.”
“Copy,” Janice said. “Lander, you are good for departure. Good luck.”
“Thanks, flight,” Duncan said. “Separation in, Three…Two…One, separation.”
A loud whooshing sound echoed through the lander, and the vehicle moved away from the Midas. There was no sense of motion, and Shane couldn’t tell if they were even pulling any G’s.
“Crew,” Duncan said a few minutes later. “We’re coming up on XJ now. Prepare for contact with its surface.” Shane tightened his grip on his chair harness. Kula and Archie did the same. “Matching rotational velocity.” Several hissing noises sounded from the lander’s maneuvering thrusters. “Beginning final descent.” There were more hissing noises. Soon, the gray-brown shape of asteroid XJ slipped into the lander’s window. It steadily grew in size as they came closer. “Contact in five.” Shane braced for impact. He felt a sharp upward jolt. “Contact!”
“Lander, status?” Janice said.
“All systems show green,” Duncan said. “We appear to be in one piece.”
“Good copy. Give us a moment to check your landing position.”
“Roger, we’ll be here.” Duncan turned in his chair to look back at the drilling crew. “Everyone good?”
“I’m physically okay, but I think I’m gonna be sick,” Archie said.
“I wouldn’t throw up with your helmet sealed,” Kula warned. “It’ll make a mess you won’t soon forget.”
Shane shook his head in disbelief and gave Duncan a thumbs up. “We’re still good.”
Duncan returned the thumbs up and turned back to his controls.
“Okay, lander,” Janice said. “You’re about 10 meters off target, but it’s well within mission parameters. Good job. You’re free to deploy anchors.”
“Roger, Flight, deploying anchors.” There were several popping noises followed by metallic clicks. “Anchors have a solid hold.”
“Good copy. XJ has an unsafe rotation for Midas to match. It’ll have to be corrected. Enter these figures into the computer for correction burn.” Flight control fed the numbers to Duncan, and he entered them into the computer. After double checking the figures, he initiated the correction burn. A much louder hiss roared through the lander. Besides the near-deafening sound, Shane was unable to discern any movement.
“Stop burn in, Three…Two…One, stop burn.”
Shane felt a mild pull in two different directions simultaneously that lasted a mere moment.
“Lander, everything looks good. Nice job.”
“Thank you, Flight,” Duncan said.
“Now, we’re moving closer to synchronize our orbital position. Keep an eye on us from down there and alert us to any problem you spot.”
Duncan unbuckled himself from his seat and floated to the top of the lander before moving closer to the cockpit window to watch the Midas. He looked back to the drilling crew before returning his attention to the Midas. “No harm in moving around now; this is out of our control.”
Shane undid his harness. He floated forward and very slowly descended toward the floor. It had been nearly a month since he felt any sort of gravity pulling him down, and he had almost forgotten what it felt like not to drift from the slightest push. He looked over to see Archie and Kula having a similar experience. He moved to the back of the pilot seat and craned his neck to try and watch the Midas.
“Commencing synchronization maneuvers,” Janice said.
Shane caught glimpses of the Midas drawing closer.
“Your positioning looks good from down here,” Duncan said.
“You’re green, from what I can tell.”
“Computer confirms. Commencing ship rotation.” Shane watched the Midas slowly turn, so its top faced the lander. Janice spoke again after a long pause. “Rotation complete. Lander, prepare to receive the umbilical? We’ll hold until you can confirm.”
“Copy.” Duncan turned to face the drilling crew. “Okay, boys, that’s on you. You’re clear to exit the lander.”
“Okay, you heard him,” Shane said. He moved carefully toward the back of the lander until he equated himself for walking in microgravity. He opened the hatch and stepped into the storage compartment. Inside he found his crew’s drilling equipment and two small rover-like vehicles made for hauling the equipment to drilling sites across XJ, as well as mined ore. The cargo bay had two airlocks, one in the back corner only big enough for crew members, and a much larger ramp at the center that folded down to the asteroid’s surface. Archie closed the hatch behind them.
“Activating ramp,” Shane said. He hit a button on the wall, and the ramp descended to XJ’s surface. When he came down the ramp, he was greeted by an uneven, lumpy gray landscape silhouetted by the blackness of space. He reached down and tapped the button on his leg that activated the magnets on his boot. The magnets only exerted a mild magnetic field that was attracted to the high iron content in the asteroid’s metallic surface. It wouldn’t keep him from flying off the asteroid if something hit him hard enough, but it would give him some traction. The traction would prevent a light impact or a simple mistake from sending him spinning off into the endless darkness.
He grabbed the edge of the ramp and tentatively stepped onto the surface of XJ. His foot landed and pushed through a thin layer of powdery silica before hitting something solid. To his relief, he felt the magnetism of his boots take hold. He was now the first human ever to set foot on an asteroid.
This would’ve seemed a momentous occasion anyone would have jumped at, but he and the other members of the drilling crew had drawn straws to see who would be the one to do it. The reason for their reluctance was if the magnets were too weak to give any traction, whoever was the first to step onto an asteroid might not come back. Such a misfortune would make that person the first to step onto an asteroid and also the first to die on one.
Shane breathed a sigh of relief; it worked!
“Congratulations, Shane,” John’s voice came across the comms. “You’re now the first person in history to set foot on an asteroid.”
Shane laughed in relief. “Thank you, John,” he said happily. “Let’s just make sure those are the only kinds of firsts we have on this trip.”
“That’s a Roger,” Janice said.
Shane walked out from under the lander and to the back of it. He was taken aback at the looming shape of the Midas hovering above his head. It almost seemed close enough for him to touch. The close proximity of the ship also brought to his mind that any mistakes in the calculation of its position could crush the four of them in an instant. He still had a hard time wrapping his mind around the concept that, even though the ship seemed to be above him, from the perspective of the ship, XJ was above it.
“Flight, we’re prepared to receive the umbilical,” Shane said.
“Copy, drill team,” Janice said. “Sending umbilical.”
Shane watched as a strip of metal slowly extended toward the lander from the Midas. In simplest terms, the umbilical was a conveyor belt designed to transfer material to and from the lander. A robotic arm on the Midas loaded empty containers onto the conveyor belt, and another arm on the lander would offload them. Conversely, the process worked the same in reverse.
Shane took a step back as the umbilical came near the back of the lander. To his surprise, it came within inches of the lander’s hull without so much as scraping the paint. The conveyor belt extended past the lander and stopped when it came into contact with XJ’s surface. Shane and his crew attached supports to the conveyor belt to give it extra stability and help it hold the weight of the mined ore.
“Ready to receive the second umbilical,” Shane said.
“Sending second umbilical,” Janice reported.
A metal tube moved from the Midas alongside the conveyor belt toward the lander. The metal tube contained a power conduit. Though the lander possessed enough battery energy to last its own systems unassisted for weeks, it was insufficient to power the drilling equipment.
When the second umbilical was fully extended, Shane and his crew hooked it up to the lander. “Lander, power status,” Shane said.
There was a long pause before Duncan responded. “Power from the umbilical is at full available capacity, Drill Master,” he said.
“Everything’s still green up here,” Janice said. “Good job down there.”
Shane and his crew thrust a celebratory fist above their heads.
“Well, my job is done for now,” Duncan said satisfactorily. “I’ll be in here watching a movie on my tablet. Scream at me if there’s a horrific accident.”
“Can we just scream at you for the heck of it?” Archie joked. Duncan didn’t respond.
Shane used a display on his arm to check the oxygen level of his suit, as well as the level of Kula and Archie. He was a little surprised at how low the levels of reserve air in their suits were. It hadn’t seemed like they were outside the lander for that long. Still, the levels weren’t a concern yet. They could get a little more work done before they had to return to the lander.
“Kula, Archie,” Shane said. “Load the seismic imaging device and a seismic charge onto a rover, and bring it out here.” They acknowledged him over the comms and went back into the lander.
He moved a few meters from the lander to scout a suitable location for the imaging device. He spotted a level area, then the rover rolled down the lander’s ramp and came over to him. Like their boots, the wheels of the rover generated a magnetic field, so what would be an irrelevant bump on earth wouldn’t send it hurtling into space.
Shane indicated the level area. “Set it down right there,” he said. His crew pulled the rover up beside the area, and with the assistance of a robotic arm attached to the vehicle, they unloaded a bowl-shaped device. They inserted a tiny rectangle of what was essentially C4 plastic explosive beneath the device. Detonating the charge would send vibrations throughout the asteroid, and the seismic imaging device would measure how the vibrations bounced back. The way they bounced back would tell the crew what metals were inside the asteroid and, by extension, where they should drill.
Though the charge was weak, there was considerable danger in using explosives on an object as small as XJ. If the blast was too powerful, there was a chance the resulting shockwave would sheer off part of the asteroid or shake it apart. The resulting storm of rock would certainly kill everyone on the asteroid and probably destroy the Midas. That’s why drilling was the preferred method of extraction of the metals on the asteroid.
“Midas and Lander, be advised, detonating seismic charge,” Shane said. He felt a thunk through his boots, and a cloud of white dust floated away from the imaging device. The crew and he glanced around to make sure the asteroid wasn’t falling apart.
“We’ve got good waves,” Kula said.
“Alright, drilling team, good job,” Janice said. “Your O2 levels are getting low, and it will take a while for the computer to sort through the data, return to the lander.”
“You heard her,” Shane said. “Pack it up.”