Dr Suresh Venkita, our Group Medical Director, a senior cardiologist and an avid writer, has yet again shared this lovely story from his desk.
Deep in outer space, there was absolute silence. Not an atom stirred.
The ship seemed to hang in space and was stationary.
Inside, only one member of the team of astronauts was unhurt, conscious, and in full command of her faculties. She was the mission commander; her name was Atma Rajan. She was 35 years of age.
But her ship was in serious trouble after being hit by a freak firestorm, which gave almost no warning. It had appeared at the speed of light, and the ship had sailed headlong into it, encountering very heavy and sustained turbulence and electrical disturbance. The crew was severely hurt in the process and all the others were unconscious. Significant structural and functional damage was likely.
Her planet was in an even more dire predicament, which was why she was up there, deep in space.
Earth had become red hot, so hot that Mars was cold.
Cooling, and thus saving planet Earth, was the objective of the interplanetary mission Parjanya (rain cloud), which was under her command.
Her spaceship was the Varsha(rain). Her flight crew were former test pilots drawn from the Indian Air Force. They were propelled into space by Brahmashirsha, the most powerful rocket ever designed. The name had its origin in Indian mythology; Brahmashirsha was a powerful arrow created by Brahma who had earlier created the Brahmastra. They were launched into space several months earlier from Balasore Spacedrome, on the Coromandel coast, a beach from where the Indian Air Force had launched and tested their missiles ever since the seventies. It was an ambitious and prestigious project of Indian science to salvage a world in dire distress.
Billions of kilometers below, global warming had relentlessly heated planet Earth and stoked not just forest fires in California or Australia but a raging inferno that was consuming continents. Earth was all set to grab from Mars the epithet of the Red Planet. Oxygen levels in the air fell while levels of carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and other toxic gases rose.The ozone layer had so many holes in it that it was more like a giant sieve placed over the Earth, permitting cosmic radiation to enter and shower the atmosphere and the land below.Rains had failed; monsoons were a phenomenon of the distant past. Oceans were rising from the melting of large masses of icebergs in the Arctic and glaciers at the poles. Freshwater sources were drying. Animals were the first to start dying, and strange zoonotic viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, were crossing over to humans, growing from outbreaks to epidemics. Apocalypse had arrived on Earth!
Heat and fire, and thirst and hunger, were the demons unleashed on humankind by short-sighted and ignorant global populations and their governments which treated the natural resources and treasures of a unique planet with little understanding, scant respect and callous disdain.
Fire did not restrict its reach to just forests, lands, buildings, and objects on Earth.
A firestorm from the heavens had descended on and crippled Atma’s space ship, whose mission was to turn down the heat and put out the fire on Earth.
The firestorm killed the lights and knocked the ship deep into space. Somehow, the instruments were still alive, but there was no crew to read them. Far below a red crescent shone, the edge of the red planet silhouetted by the curve of a wing. It would be a lonely trip. She gazed through the porthole at the wavering stars.
“What just happened?” was the only question that occupied Atma’s mind at that moment. Damage control could come later.
A firestorm in space was a phenomenon well described by the Hubble.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute, both in Maryland, USA, managed its operations.
Hubble's panchromatic vision, stretching from ultraviolet through near-infrared wavelengths, picks up young starsthat often collide and merge with stars from another galaxy. The resulting shockwaves cause hydrogen gas clouds to compress, triggering a firestorm of new star formation.
Firestorms also occur when a dying star undergoes a monstrous explosion asit is living out its final moments. When a star nears the end of its lifecycle, it will run out of the nuclear fuel needed to sustain itself. At that point, the star’s outer mass will flood into its core. The center becomes too heavy and collapses under the pressure of its gravity; the collapsing core results in an explosion, the firestorm.
The firestorm that caught the spaceship by surprise was the latter.
But it did not deter her from taking action. She was an extraordinary space scientist, and this new challenge only ignited her brain to explore innovative solutions.
In a way, shewas the outcome of an exciting family experiment that was somewhat on the lines of a “programmed cell birth” in contrast to the phenomenon well known to medical science as apoptosis or “programmed cell death.”
Indian mythology believes that the fetus listens and understands. Atma’s mother was a gifted mathematician, and her father, a renowned physicist. They discussed their subjects and the related research right through the pregnancy. Every evening, beside a brightly burning oil lamp in front of the family deities, the grandmother regularly recited to the fetus India’s epics- Bhagavatham, Narayaneeyam, Bhagawad Gita, and the Sundara Kaandam (literally- the glorious chapter) from the Ramayana.
Atma arrived as an exceptionally primed infant. She took off on a steep trajectory and never looked back. At school she excelled in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, following which she studied Engineering and then did her doctorate in Astrophysics and Robotics. She interned at NASA’s John F Kennedy Space Center in the U.S.A and Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome at Kazakhstan.
On return, she joined India’s space agency and went through her paces in space flight. Flying through space is a unique skill, far different from conventional flying. It waswell beyond the Dream Liner 787 technology of “Fly by wire” and the “Glass Cockpit.” You flew a space ship neither by your hands nor by sight, you flew it by your brain-by your intellect.
That was how she reached this point in her life but was now lost in deep space, alone.
There was a reason why she emerged as the lone survivor from the mishap that struck the Varsha. Luckily for her,she was all suited up to go for a walk in space. All that padding and insulation, and the zero-gravity conditions cushioned the impact. She was shaken but not broken.
She took stock of the situation. The instrument/information panel had recovered from the shock and the avionics had become functional. The GPS seemed to be working, which was a good thing as navigation was possible.
But there were several other vital systems on board that required to be checked out for malfunction, reset if necessary, or switched from default to alternative modes.
Those tasks required some extra pairs of eyes and hands and even legs! She could not have done it alone.
So, she decided to “call out the troops.”
The Flight Commander, Wg. Cdr. Mallikarjun Sinha, Air Force fighter pilot and crack test pilot, would have been aghast had he known that, behind his back, she had stowed away on board some unauthorized passengers! However,she had the permission of the Base Commander at the launch station. Had the captain queried her, she would have reasoned out that stowaways are people, and these passengers did not qualify for that label. But now the Wg. Cdr. would never know. She had no occasion to tell him that her stowaways were robots, her little band of genies who, while others were sleeping, could do extraordinary things.
These robots were her innovation, like many other novel features, they were also onboard the ship. They were multi-tasking, versatile, and highly adaptive tools- they could be nano one moment and macro or even mega the next moment, depending on the complexity and magnitude of the task. If they had to get into a micro-component to do their work, they could choose to switch to the Nano mode and travel through tiny tubes, channels, and cables, carrying their Nanotools and attend to a malfunction. They could also get macro, do a walk-in space, clamber on to the superstructure of the ship and repair a power pack, a radar, telescope, or a communication console. They were the ultimate in robotics and potentially invaluable for future space odysseys to the remotest planets in distant galaxies millions of light-years away. They would be the space travelers of the future.
She decided to assign them their work, which was to thoroughly check out the space ship for damages and undertake the necessary rectification. While they were at it, she found time to reflect on the feasibility of her urgent brief to cool the planet.
Planet Earth was getting hot and bone dry, with toxic gases hanging low over it. The sun, bright and warm as ever, wasn’t helpful. The moon, gentle and soothing, was just that, and not effective in lowering the temperature. Time was running out for Earth. The questions were only two. Should Earth be abandoned as unsalvageable, and if so where could do earthlings migrate?
Elon Musk proposed Mars, had offered to build a shelter and an environment, and also design a transport system that would permit to and fro shuttling. Still, the logistics of transporting a planet’s entire population to another world was formidably complicated and its scale unimaginable.
Meanwhile, the infinitely capable robots had crawled all over the interior and exterior, checked all systems, identified all malfunctions, and rectified them. They returned to report that “all systems good to go!”
That was a great relief to her. Her ship was not crippled anymore.
Manned flights had seen many mishaps, the most painful of which were three.
On January 27, 1967 a flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a launch rehearsal test. The three men inside, Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, perished.
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard including an American sweetheart, Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher.
On February 1, 2003, space shuttle Columbia broke up as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board.
Just for a moment, Atma wondered whether her mission would be remembered as the mission that lost its crew!
But her scientific and disciplined temperament pulled her out of such dismal contemplation.
Instead she let her mind focus on the mission.
How do you cool the Earth before it is too late?
Her mission was to head to Neptune, the coolest, but also the farthest planet in the solar system and deflect the atmosphere back to Earth through a complicated system of “cold transfer” using a relay of space station labs already positioned in space. It was the most ambitious “remote climate control (RCC)” system ever devised and placed in orbit. The RCC was to cool the infernal heat, bring in an unimaginable amount of moisture into the atmosphere, “seed” those clouds and provoke torrential, lifesaving and life-sustaining rain. It would drench the fires,quench the great thirst of the planet, render inert the toxic gases in the atmosphere and seal the holes in the ozone layer. It was a complete solution to a vexing problem.
Atma was among the principal designers of that incredibly complex system, and this was to be the “proving” flight.
But the catastrophic impact had pushed her entirely off course, and she and her robots were not quite sure where they were in deep space.
She walked up to the bridge and looked at the information panel.
That confirmed her worst suspicions; she was displaced and was in another galaxy.
A travel from there to Neptune and back to Earth in time was a mission impossible.
She decided to call the one person back on Earth who just might know a solution.
“Anju, I am lost, I need help.”
Anju’s voice came through the ether. “Yes, I know. I have been calculating to find out where you are.”
She was relieved - “What do I do?”
“Give me a second,” was the answer.
“I have no time!” She was sorry to sound so desperate.
Anju came back online after precisely a second, which seemed like a millennium.
“Realizing your predicament I have been working on the feasibility of time traveling. Iam uploading to you a program that updates all previous protocols on teleportation. Run that on your ship’s mainframe, activate, and you will be in Neptune in 136 nanoseconds.” She continued, “When you have finished your work, you will find waiting for you an app that will teleport you back to a cool and wet Earth in 342 Nanoseconds.”
“Thanks, darling, I love you" said Atma.
“I love you too, Amma. Come home, I miss you.”
Anju is five years of age.
Dr. Venkita S Suresh,
Group Medical Director and Dean of Studies,
DNB and other post graduate training programs.