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Read a short story in the May issue of Analog magazine that kind of bugged me today. It took me a little while to put my finger on exactly what that was, but I think I’ve gotten it figured out.

The story concerns a manned mission to Mars – but the astronauts (brought in from space agencies all over the world) aren’t supposed to make a landing. Instead, they’re running a mission called “Tele Orbit Rendezvous”, in which they control a rover from the safety and comfort of their orbiting platform. The reason for this is an overly cautious bunch of engineers back on Earth.

However, the young astronauts on the mission are not very happy with this arrangement, and they begin making modifications to the landers in secret, each hoping to secure the glory of landing on Mars first for themselves and their country. The crisis comes to a head after one crashes his lander on entry, while another is stranded on the surface after losing control during the landing.

The first problem that I had was the lazy stereotypes of everyone on the mission. You have the American ‘I’m just coping with the situation father-knows-best’ commander of the mission. You have the stern Russian female second-in-command. You have the young, anime-loving Japanese engineer. You’ve got the brash, man-of-action Australians. You have the hyper-intelligent, good at everything engineer.

So, the story comes to a head when the disciplinarian Russian woman uses all the plans she’s foiled to date to modify her landing craft. The problem is that a wind gust causes the lander wing (lol, Martian air pressure) to clip the ground and tear the lander apart. The commander solves the problem by giving a “let’s do it for her” speech and pools the talent of everyone on the mission to put together a rescue mission – which he of course is the pilot of. The whole story essentially rests on cliche, with the entirety of the plot rushing to a ‘rescue the damsel-in-distress’ situation.

Normally, it’s the type of short story that you just read and forget about, the equivalent of junk food. But there was a line that bothered me in the story, and it took me a while to figure out why it bugged me so much.

Every program wants to find way to be first on Mars, Benjamin. Roscosmos, ESA, JAXA, all of us. None of us want to be second. Grandfather Oleg and LOK were second to Moon, and so never went at all. I lie to Daniel: victors go, victors don’t wait. Only program foolish enough to actually believe in TOR is yours. Rest of us know, without ever discussing: this is our one chance, and you gave it to us with Bradbury Project. After this mission, your commercial interests follow. And they will not apply NASA’s risk protocols. They take the data we gathered, and they find a way down. So if we want to be first – if we want say in future of humanity on Mars – then we have to do it now. Ad for Russia, that is what I do. For Grandfather Oleg.

The main implication here, I think, is that the author believes that international cooperation in space (funded largely by NASA) is essentially a platform for other countries to steal prestige from NASA. Rather than share in the collection of data and advance science, he believes that other nations are simply piggybacking on NASA to claim that they’re the ones to have made the achievement.

I think it boils down to saying something like, Hey, NASA, you were naive to put forward most of the construction on the International Space Station! Those other countries are going to steal our engineering techniques to do something better! Somewhat corollary to that is a feeling that maybe NASA shouldn’t cooperate in any international missions at all. If we can’t come up with the funding, welp, let’s not put together an international consortium to help fund it. You were naive enough to solicit their help, now they’re going to use the opportunity to steal your rightful achievements!

Following that train of thought, the story ends up being horribly anti-intellectual. If you can’t go out, try to learn something new, and not get full credit for being the first to learn it, don’t even bother. The other people, not as clever at coming to a solution as you are, will manage to figure out what you were trying to learn and learn it first!

Bleh, it’s a sentiment I can’t really get behind. It crops up in other areas of American life, though. Take the UN. America contributes a bunch of money to the organization to keep it running, but rather than treat it as an arena to resolve disputes, American taxpayers treat it as if it should be a temple to worship American exceptionalism. If other countries say things we don’t like and the UN governing body lets them say it, well, pull our funding from it. ‘We shouldn’t be paying into a system that lets other countries to say bad things about us!’

I’m not really sure if the story was intentionally trying to go down that route or not, but I think the chain of logic behind it ultimately leads down that road. The rest of the story is full of cliches, too, so why not throw in a bit of nationalist fevor as well.

Anyway, I’ve spent a non-significant time trying to figure out why “Not Close Enough” bothered me so much, and I think I have a handle on it. If anyone else has read the story yet, let me know your thoughts on the matter. Am I overthinking this?

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