Luminosity / by Adeene Denton

On my birthday for the past two years, I've written a piece about my goal of becoming an astronaut. However, this year I'd like to instead share with you a work of fiction that I wrote which was born out of that dream, and one that was actually nominated for an award a while back. I like to think and write about humans in space, and about what humanity might change (and not change) about itself to survive in space long-term. So, if you're interested in my vision for a bold, human future of spaceflight, maybe give this tiny short story a read. 

With that, I present to you... a near-future sci-fi short story nominated for the Canopus Award for Original Short-Form Fiction, and a story near and dear to my heart.


For Kelsey

It was black outside the window.  It was always black outside the window, dotted with flecks of light to remind her that just because she was finally on a spacecraft making its merry way through space didn’t really mean the stars were any closer.  Or at least, not closer in a way that the human mind could understand.

Tess Wilson, NASA geologist and spacecraft engineer, shook her head vigorously to clear it and kept walking from her sleeping quarters to her lab to check on her experiments.

Tess didn’t know why she had spent so much time staring out the porthole lately.  Nor could she identify why she couldn’t seem to give her experiments the same excitement and focus she’d had in the first months after their spacecraft (her spacecraft, her ship) had successfully cleared the Earth’s gravity.  During the two loops around Venus to set the Bard on its trajectory to Uranus, Tess had been busy making sure their fuel was being rationed correctly, reviewing the orbital parameters to see if they were on course (though that was technically Kreslavsky’s job), and checking and rechecking all of their on-board equipment for signs of weakening or failure.  But eighty-seven days later, she dreaded seeing her list of objectives in the daily “recommended and mandatory activities” prepared for each crewmember by NASA.  The regiment of sleep, exercise, experiments/check-ups on the main spacecraft systems and “team time” with the crew was starting to make the days feel interminable.  When she stared into the black of space and visualized the 731 Earth days that lay ahead of her, Tess Wilson wondered, not for the first time, if she was a shitty astronaut.

Equipment was easy, Tess mused as she reached her lab door.  People, on the other hand, were hard.  One hundred and fifty years since the first human left the Earth’s gravity, sitting on what was effectively a missile, and scientists still couldn’t really figure out what made people happy, or what could keep them happy on a three-year mission in space.

Tess was torn out of her thoughts when she entered her lab, stumbling at the sight of Commander Mittal standing next to the microscope with her usual perfect posture and flipping through one of Tess’s research notebooks as though she had nowhere else to be.

 “Commander!” She snapped to attention, feet together and back straight. “What brings you to the Rock Jock Lair today?”

“Looking for you,” Mittal replied without looking up from the notebook, as though this was completely obvious. “Kreslavsky says you haven’t bothered him with physics questions in over three days.”

She frowned. “I thought he’d appreciate the kind gesture of me leaving him to his work for a change. Plus, I’ve been wanting to do a thorough examination of the Bard’s thermal systems to make sure we won’t freeze to death once we get past Saturn.”

“Sure, Wilson,” Mittal replied evenly, “But I know that you know that we have 395 days until we make our Saturnian flyby.  You’re a good engineer, but I can recognize overkill when I see it.”

Tess bristled. “Commander, why are you really here? Or did you just come to criticize my workflow?”

Commander Mittal took her time setting the notebook down (open to one of her doodles of the crew that was definitely not supposed to be in an official NASA notebook, oh god) and looking her in the face.  Tess straightened under her gaze, refusing to back down in front of the commander, who always managed to make her feel small despite being at least five inches shorter.  Maybe it was all the military-based competence – at team bonding, Mittal was a constant, calm presence, always aware of everything her crew did and checking in on their progress with an efficiency that baffled Tess’s mind.  On her good days, Tess was a decent astronaut.  Commander Mittal, on the other hand, was an amazing one.

“Wilson, sit down. I’m here to talk, and I don’t want have you looming nervously over me while I do it.”  Face inscrutable, she indicated the smooth, white plastic chair beside the counter. Like most other things in the lab, its back was embossed with the NASA logo as a reminder of which space agency had funded the “science part” of their space voyage.

Tess sat, staring at the Commander.

“How are you, Wilson?

She blinked. “Fine, Commander. Another day in paradise, in fact.” She gestured vaguely at the stacks of reinforced plastic sample bags from the OCEANUS sample return mission. “My moon rocks and I are doing great.”

Mittal snorted. “Okay, Wilson. Whatever helps you sleep during your rest hours, I suppose. But I’m here to tell you that I’m scared.”

Her words hung in the tense air of the lab as Tess struggled to catch up.

 “Wait, what?” Shocked, she stared at the commander, who never showed anything but professional competence in front of the crew.

“You heard me, Wilson.” Mittal sighed. “We’re traveling farther than humans have ever traveled, on the longest mission in the history of spaceflight. It’s going to take years before we get to our destination. And once we get there, the signal delay between Mission Control and us means there’s no one to help out if we have any fuck-ups on the descent to Miranda. Wilson, I think all of the crew is scared about what we’re doing, myself included. When it comes time to make the first descent in Herschel, I’ve got six lives in my hands, and you all trust me to make the right decision.  And sometimes that scares the crap out of me.”

Tess frowned, looking down at her knees. “But, Commander… We can’t afford to be scared.  This is the exoplanet analogue mission, and our success or failure determines whether the Association of Space Agencies decides to really go for Proxima Centauri in the next fifty years.”   She was rambling, and to Commander Mittal no less, but the words kept coming. “We have to be ready. The Bard has to be ready to go into orbit without burning too much fuel or we won’t make it home.  Herschel needs its stabilizers and landing gear to unfold properly or we won’t be able to return to the Bard. And if all that works, I have to be ready to be the first geologist to look at the surface of a moon that no one’s ever seen before, and correctly identify the features I’m looking at.  I have to produce the mapping and formation theories for every geologist waiting back on Earth.  If I’m wrong, I’ve screwed up planetary science for I don’t know how long, since who knows how we’re coming back.” 

Tess’s heart was pounding and she knew she was being unprofessional, but she had to speak.  “You’re an amazing astronaut, Commander, and an incredible leader for this crew. I trust you with my life… I’m just not sure if I trust myself with the future of science.”

Her chest felt too loose and too tight at the same time, and her head was spinning with the release of thoughts she’d refused to let herself admit she had.  Astronauts weren’t supposed to have insecurities; astronauts were supposed to be the best and brightest that mankind had to offer.  Tess closed her eyes and took two deep breaths, before starting at the feeling of Commander Mittal’s hand on her shoulder.

When she looked up at the commander, Mittal was smiling at her.  It was a small smile, but a smile nonetheless, and Tess wasn’t sure how to feel about it.  “Wilson, you’re a good engineer.” Tess opened her mouth to dispute that, but the commander continued. “And you’re a great geologist. But if you let the expectations of the folks back home weigh on you, you’ll start making mistakes. You’ll make mistakes because you haven’t been sleeping right, or overthinking routine check-ups, or doubting your capabilities.  I need a crew of humans, not stressed out would-be robots.”

“But Commander, I need to be the best at what I do. That’s why I’m here.”

“No, Wilson,” Mittal shook her head. “You’re here because you’re the kind of crazy person who wants to spend three years in a glorified tin can, hurtling through the void of space for the sake of exploration and furthering the state of humanity.  We’re the people the Association of Space Agencies needs to blaze the trail for the rest of the world, and we’re in short supply.  You were accepted into the astronaut corps because you’re a good geologist and spacecraft engineer, sure, but you’re here on the Bard with the rest of the crew because the exploration of space means nothing without humans at the controls.”

The commander stood, gesturing for Tess to follow her out the door.  They remained silent, Tess a few paces behind her as they retread the path that the scientist had followed earlier. Back to the porthole.

Mittal gazed out the window, and Tess watched the quiet of space reflected in the calm of her commander’s eyes.  “Wilson, what do you see when you look out that window?”

“Stars, Commander.  I see the stars,” She paused, looking further, “And somewhere, the planet that we’re going to reach.”

“Really?” Commander Mittal drawled, making the word sound like a challenge.

“Yes!” Tess growled at her, frustrated. “Are you messing with me?”

“No, Wilson. But don’t you see the blackness in between those lovely stars? The dark void of space in which no human can live?”

Taken aback by the wording, Tess stared at Mittal. “I didn’t know they taught philosophy at the Air Force Academy, Commander.”

“I think space travel makes philosophers of us all, eventually.  You’ll get there too.” She waved her hand, dismissing the thought.  “Answer the question, Wilson.”

Tess spoke slowly, thinking of how best to answer the commander, what answer she even wanted, before going with her gut. “Of course I see the void, Commander.  Space is terrifying!  All of us are trusting the Bard with our lives, assuming that we can make a journey that takes up most of a decade without having a single malfunction that’s too severe for me to fix, that this spacecraft can hold up on the course of a voyage longer than any human-housing spacecraft has ever experienced.  I look at the engines, thermal systems, communications, life support, and fuel supply every day – and making sure this ship won’t spill us out into space is part of my job.”

She paused, looking back out the porthole.  “I know how dangerous this job is, Commander. I think about it every day.  I know that in between us and our goal is hundreds of days in an environment that is, invariably, lethal.  I know that once we get to Uranus, the dangers aren’t over, either.  But… for some reason whenever I look out the window, I still see the stars.”

Beside her, Mittal chuckled.  “That’s what I’m talking about, you know.  We’ve sent plenty of robotic spacecraft out to explore for us, Wilson.  They’re certainly more efficient than us.  They use less fuel, and they don’t need to sleep.  But for some reason, the Association of Space Agencies agrees that, in the end, we have to send people.  ASA knows, deep down, that humans need to explore the universe themselves, not through robotic proxies – that if humans don’t go ourselves, all that data is meaningless.  We’ll happily hurl ourselves into the void in the name of progress or science, to see what lies beyond that most distant star. And I think that’s more important than you realize.  Look at me, Wilson.”

Tess turned, staring down into her commander’s calm, confident face.

“Do you think you’re a good astronaut?”

She flinched, looking down.

“Wilson, look at me. Do you think you’re a good astronaut?”

“I don’t know!” Tess yelled. “I don’t know if I am. Maybe when we started I felt like I was part of humanity’s best and brightest with you and Jiang and Okamura and Weiss and Guerra, and I guess Kreslavsky counts in there, too.  But now I feel like maybe ASA chose wrong, because I’m scared, and the crazy explorer person that you said ASA needs wouldn’t get scared like I have.”

Worn out, her voice fell to a whisper. “I see all the stars, but I feel like a child.”

Steady as always, Mittal met her gaze.  “That’s normal, you know.  We’re not perfect, Wilson. I’m not perfect.  ASA didn’t pick us because we’re flawless.  But each of us is brilliant when it counts.  You know this ship better than anyone alive, Wilson, and you know a damned lot about geology.  You deserve to be here.” 

She paused to let Tess digest that, before continuing.  “You’re here for the same reason the rest of us are.  Because in a universe that is terrifyingly vast, on a journey that could kill us all in a myriad of ways, you see the stars.”  Mittal smiled softly. “The space program doesn’t just need unflappable professionals. It’s riddled with incurable romantics, and it’s that way for a reason.”

They stood in silence looking into the black, caught in the gaze of the universe spreading itself out before them.

Then Mittal patted her shoulder, breaking the trance. “Let’s go to Uranus, Wilson.”

Breathing in, Tess nodded at her before looking out the porthole one last time.  “Certainly, Commander.  I’ll make sure the Bard gets us there in one piece.”

The commander was grinning at her! Honestly grinning! “I know you will, Wilson. Now let’s get to team bonding, because it’s 0900 and Kreslavsky’s been worried about you.”

Tess felt a laugh bubbling up from somewhere in her chest. “Careful, Commander.  I’m starting to think you actually like me.”

Mittal raised an eyebrow. “I like all of my crew, Wilson.  Even when you’re being a pain in the ass and not following protocol by re-naming your lab the Rock Jock Lair.”

She started walking away towards the crew common space, and Tess hurried after her. “But it’s a great name, Commander! Even Okamura said she likes it. Just ask her at team bonding.”

The commander turned and looked back at her, and her eyes seemed to see right through Tess’s jokes to the insecurities that sourced them. She always knew somehow, Tess mused, which is probably why she was made commander and Tess was a professional science geek. “You’re a good astronaut, Tess. I’m proud to explore the stars with you. Now, let’s get to work.”

Tess snapped a salute. “Aye, aye, sir.”

“And don’t call me sir.”

And with that, two astronauts on a three-year journey to an ice giant walked on down the hallway, thinking about the future.

“Are you sure you don’t want Kreslavsky to direct us to the second star on the right and straight on till morning, Commander?”

“Wilson, you have 731 more days to try to make a funny joke in my presence.”   

“I promise I’ll make you proud, Commander.”

It was black outside the window, but it was also full of stars.