For John Woods, it was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream -- being an astronaut on the first manned spacecraft to Mars. But, personally, it resulted in much more than participating in a historic journey into space.
The year is 2012. The spaceship "Red Planet Explorer" is making its way into the vastness of space to deliver four human beings from Planet Earth to explore the mysterious Red Planet, the fourth planet from the sun and Earthís neighbor in planetary space.
Itís the first time scientists have attempted a manned landing on any celestial body beyond Earthís moon. And this voyage is particularly significant because of the likelihood of living things on this planet, now or in the past, as evidenced in previous unmanned voyages to Mars.
It was the mission of this four-man team to spend three days on Marís surface to collect more evidence of this life. It was considered one of the most important of any scientific expedition. It could provide information that could give scientists a new and more accurate perspective on the origins of Earth and the human race.
Strangely, during that five-month trip through space, John Woods found himself thinking more about his personal life on Earth than the great significance of his historic trip. As he monitored the dials and flashing signals on the control panel, he thought about his life while growing up on a large Iowa farm. His father owned the biggest farm in central Iowa. He was a wealthy and highly respected farmer, businessman and community leader.
John also thought of his mother, who died of cancer when he was only 11. It was at the time he was about to enter junior high school. And he thought about his older brother, Ben, three years his senior. In many ways it was a great life, growing up and working on that farm. But a problem developed when John was in his late teens.
Through the years, it was always understood that the two boys would continue to work the farm and eventually inherit it. They would raise their families on this farm, and one day pass it along to their offspring. But John derailed that plan.
As he progressed through high school, John became less interested in farming and more fascinated with scientific pursuits -- particularly space exploration. Finally, he mustered the nerve to tell his father he wanted to take scientific courses at the university instead of agriculture, as planned. He wanted to prepare for a scientific career, aborting the familyís plan to share ownership and operation of the farm with his older brother.
Johnís dream was to become an astronaut -- a member of a scientific team who would land on and explore one or more planets. The news was devastating to his father and older brother. For years, the family had been planning the eventual takeover of the farm by the brothers. What would they do now that one brother has stepped out of that plan?
The father and brother first tried to persuade the younger brother to change his mind. But the more they talked the more John was determined to redirect his future plans starward. The older brother had become so disgusted with his younger brotherís decision he refused to talk to him. The father, also frustrated, wanted to continue to support his son but found it difficult to communicate with him.
While John was attending the university, there was no communication with his brother or father. After graduating and accepting a job with NASA, there was still no communication with his brother, and very little with his father. Even when he learned he was to be one of the astronauts to make the historic first manned visit to Mars, there was still no communication.
As weeks turned into months during the long trip to the Red Planet, John found himself thinking more and more about his life on the farm and his problems with his brother and father. As the planet loomed larger through the spacecraft window, the landing operation required his full attention and concentration. The successful landing was followed by three days of intensive exploration, also successful.
Activity during those few days of exploration was difficult. Conditions were terrible. Temperatures ranged from zero degrees to 100 below. There were several intense dust storms, and the barren landscape and rocky terrain was difficult to traverse. And protection against the high levels of radiation was a constant concern. But the tripís goals were achieved.
After a successful lifting-off from Mars and the return trip to Earth was underway, John again started thinking about his strained relationship with brother and father -- and the great days he enjoyed on the farm while growing up. As millions of miles silently whisked away and Planet Earth loomed larger and larger from the spacecraft window, he became determined to finally take action to reconcile with his family, or at least make an effort to do so.
He sat down at his on-board computer and slowly keyed in an e-mail message to his father.
"I know I was a great disappointment to you when I decided to go for a scientific career instead of our long discussed take-over of the farm. And my lack of communication with you since going off to the university made the situation even worse.
"Traveling to another planet has taught me many things. One of the most important lessons was the value of strong family relationships on Earth. Itís far more important than interplanetary travel for scientific discoveries. And, if you are willing, Iíd like to renew our relationship and again become a member of our family.
"However, due to the depth of your disappointment and length of our separation, I realize you may not want a reunion. I can understand that. But if you would accept my return to the family circle, simply send me the word `farmí via return e-mail. If I see that word, I will go directly to our farm immediately after our landing. If not, Iíll return to my apartment and continue my life as best I can without my family."
After clicking on the "send" button, John dropped off into a deep and much- needed sleep. When he awoke, he noticed Earth appeared much larger from his window. It was now in the last days before entering Earthís atmosphere. He immediately checked all vital gages and made navigational calculations. Everything was in good shape.
Then he remembered his e-mail to his father. He checked his computer for incoming e-mail. There was indeed a message. But it started in a very strange way.
"To read this response to your message, just keep pressing on the scroll-down button," it began. As he held that button down, he saw an image of the American flag waving proudly on his computer screen. When he stopped the scrolling for a closer look, he saw that the image was made from hundreds of strategically positioned small words. That one word was "farm."
At the end of the image was a simple statement: "Youíll be welcomed with open arms. The celebration meal is already being prepared."
STORY: The Prodigal Astronaut ... Destination Mars Author: Jim Woodard Copyright 1997, Jim Woodard