by Elizabeth Gomez
I remember when the Beatitudo landed on Mars. I was six years old and sitting on the stained carpet of my father’s family room. The CRT TV crackled with faint images of the red planet; the voices of the astronauts hissed through its speakers.
Delora Bates, a young astronaut from the middle of nowhere, emerged from the space shuttle. Dust and a silver space helmet obscured her large grin. I could barely see her—the large pixels of the TV could only convey so much of the scene—yet I knew she was smiling. I knew that when she placed her feet onto the dusty ground of Mars, an intense emotion of peace meandered through her body. I knew she understood that feeling of otherness—of being out of place. I knew she had found her home. I knew I had found my home. We both held that connection with a planet fifty-two million miles away from our middles of nowhere.
I trained to become Delora. I studied astronomy and astrophysics in the early hours of the morning, so I might fly in a space shuttle. I pushed my body to its physical and emotional limits, so I might press my feet into the dusty ground of Mars. I motivated myself with the soreness of my body, the exhaustion of my mind, the hopelessness of my soul, and the prospect of looking up into the butterscotch sky of the red planet.
Eventually, NASA announced its second mission to Mars in the space shuttle Libitina. I was selected to be on the team of astronauts. We called ourselves the Heirs: the six of us were the heirs to the red planet, heirs to the exploration of space, and heirs to discovery.
We launched on a misty Sunday morning. The orange Florida sun barely peaked over the palm tree horizon. The air smelled of dew and exhaust. The sounds of trucks speeding around the launch site and distant applause vibrated in the humid air.
Libitina violently vibrated as its rockets pushed us away from Earth’s surface. I felt the weight of an elephant against my chest and heard the loud bursting of the exhaust plume. The shaking never stopped.
As each minute passed, the more the shuttle shuddered. Our heads slammed against the headrests, and our arms flew in every direction.
I heard the faint crackle of yells from Mission Control. I could barely hear my name called before the fuel tank of Libitina exploded. I remember the screams, bursting of metal panels, and fire. An intense heat burned through my suit and scorched my skin. I could not scream—I did not have the time to. The frayed seat belts allowed the vacuum of space to suck my body into an abyss.
. . .
I am floating away from the wreckage.
Metal debris and the cold universe engulf my still body.
All I can do is stare at Earth’s blue horizon becoming ever more distant.