It is April Fool’s day today so for this week’s edition of Orbital Inclinations I thought I would lighten things up a bit and share with you a version of one of my favorite space-related jokes, inspired by one I once heard during a previous century at a Space Congress in Cocoa Beach – and which is dedicated to the memory of the late, great Martin Caidin.
In the far future, two astronauts, let’s call them Charley and Jake (names which have nothing to do with the fact that even in Melbourne, Fla., you can get some great local BBQ), have safely landed on an alien planet in another solar system, no doubt originally discovered and cataloged by NASA’s Kepler Observatory.
The landing was not without peril, however. The planet’s gravity was uneven, the atmosphere was filled with some strange gases and strong wind currents, and the ground was covered with exotic vegetation – all of which made it extremely challenging to find a suitable place to touch down.
The heat from re-entry was higher than expected, and that in combination with some extreme turbulence, wreaked havoc with the spacecraft’s various systems. Unfortunately the first thing to fail was the ship’s communication system, leaving the astronauts with no way to stay in touch with Mission Control or call for help if they needed it.
After landing, Charley and Jake assessed the situation, took a sample of the air outside and quickly determined it was OK to open up the hatch, get out and explore this new world without needing the protection of their spacesuits.
Charley was first out and climbed down the ladder in a scene very reminiscent of Apollo. Stepping onto the new planet for the first time, but with no communication system to relay the historic words back to Earth, Charley decided to go for something obscure and quoted Groucho Marx, saying “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
Jake couldn’t believe his ears and just shook his head. Charley was always saying the weirdest things, and Jake wasn’t quite sure if his commander really had his act together. Sometimes Charley would just state the obvious and leave everyone else scratching their heads.
Anyway, Jake quickly joined Charley on the planet’s surface and they began to look around. The sky was a reddish color, while the clouds appeared to have a sort of bluish tint to them. Neither astronaut was quite sure of the chemistry involved that would generate such a thing, but that was what they were there to do, explore a strange new world.
In the days that followed, Charley and Jake settled into a routine and easily went about their business. They found a variety of fruits and vegetables that were safe to eat and which were quite tasty and nutritious. Although they were out of touch with Mission Control, all was going well and the crew looked forward to blasting off for the return trip to home.
It was on the day they were scheduled to blast off that the trouble came. All packed up and ready to go, the countdown clock hit zero and Jake pushed the button to light the engine, and nothing happened. Trained as they were for all sorts of contingencies, Charley and Jake didn’t panic, but their hearts started beating quicker and they both got a healthy rush of adrenaline pumping through their bodies.
As they continued to work through the problem, they encountered more and more difficulties. Nothing was working as it was supposed to. As the situation grew graver, Charley and Jake’s skin suddenly broke out in some kind of a rash, apparently a reaction to their high stress in combination with the alien plants they had been eating and air they had been breathing.
Splotches of a sort of reddish-purple color quickly covered their bodies as they hit the rocket ignition button for one last attempt. Nothing happened and it suddenly began to dawn on Charley and Jake that they were going to be spending a much longer time on this planet.
Charley saw his reflection in one of the cockpit instruments, and then looked over at Jake. The skin of both men had turned a completely different color that reminded Charley of this planet’s purplish sky seen at sunset. There was nothing more to do. The spaceship wouldn’t lift off and they were stuck there.
Charley looked at Jake’s beet-colored face, summed up the situation, and said “Well, it looks like we’ve been marooned.”