A Short Story
“She’s going to die soon,” said Maarten. “You can see it in the graph — an hour or two, maybe less.”
Dr. Maarten van der Wal was staring at his laptop in his second-floor office in Darmstadt, Germany. Next to him was his colleague, Emma Davis, an intern from Leiden University. Maarten traced the downward trend of the data for her as it approached zero.
“This is the latest real-time telemetry from Lucy, direct from the Messier orbiter,” explained Maarten. “We should have coverage for the next few hours until Lucy is no longer in the line-of-sight. The graph shows the battery’s state-of-charge. Once it reaches zero, Lucy will be gone.”
Emma had assisted Maarten for the past two months at the European Space Operations Centre. Her parents liked to tell friends back in Delft that Emma had wanted to work here since she was four. Having Maarten as a guide only added to the dream. He was an active mentor, with an open-door policy and endless patience for answering her questions. The only catch was that Emma often found him closer to machine than human.
“When did you first start seeing this power issue?”
“A few weeks back,” said Maarten. “The data showed Lucy’s solar arrays weren’t producing enough power to run the spacecraft and charge the battery. Over time, the solar array production got worse. It dropped to where Lucy was running on battery alone. That’s a death sentence for a spacecraft. A battery charge can only last so long.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Emma had many technical questions but sensed Maarten’s mind was with Lucy, not her.
Finally, she asked, “How long have you been working on this project?”
“About fifteen years. It started with a drawing on a napkin — that’s it framed on the top shelf,” Maarten said, pointing to the top of his bookcase. “I was having lunch at the cafeteria with Dr. Gerald. She and I had worked on many asteroid research projects together, and we decided it was finally time we went to one. That’s when Messier and Lucy were born.”
The path from napkin to launchpad was not smooth — it never is with space missions. Yet the drawing on Maarten’s bookcase bore a remarkable resemblance to the finished product. The image showed two spacecraft, the larger of which was orbiting an asteroid. That probe became Messier, responsible for both collecting orbital science and relaying Lucy’s data. Drawn on the asteroid was tiny Lucy, a small cylindrical device that could hop around the surface making an array of measurements.
“I’m going to miss her. I wouldn’t say she’s like a child to me, but Lucy is darn close. More like a brilliant pet,” he chuckled. “She’s been in my head in some way for fifteen years, and she’s worked longer than any of us expected. I’m not sure what life will be like without her.”
Emma realized Maarten needed his space over the next couple of hours. Besides, the rest of the Messier and Lucy team members were waiting in mission control to share in Lucy’s accomplishments.
“I’m going to head down to operations center. I’ll see you there?” asked Emma.
“Perhaps,” replied Maarten, which meant no. Celebrations were not his thing. That was why he was in his office, watching the data remotely.
As Emma left, Maarten removed his black-rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes. With the room now to himself, he leaned back in his chair and reflected on the mission. He had long wondered what he would feel this day.
Grief? Disappointment? Longing?
Maarten soon realized it was relief. For more than a decade, Lucy had consumed him, making him less of a person. He had missed half of his brother’s wedding while on the phone debugging a failed spacecraft test. When his husband and children had hiked the Dolomites, Maarten was stuck in a clean room in Noordwijk wondering why a magnetometer kept dropping data. He could not recall the last time he ate at the cafeteria instead of his desk, let alone talked to colleagues about new missions.
His thoughts turned to those colleagues — the scientists and engineers currently gathering in the control room for Lucy’s wake. Colleagues all, but friends? A few, but Maarten was not sure they would even know it.
Enough being alone, he thought. It was time to let others back into my world. It was time to be human again.
Maarten stood from his chair, closed the office door, and went to be with his team.
As he walked down the hall, the graph on Maarten’s monitor reached zero. The display switched from green to grey indicating Messier had lost Lucy’s signal.
Her battery had no more power.
The tiny lander had stopped talking — forever silent.