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Projects > Story-of-the-Day > curiosity

February 6th, 2017

I was stuck working the night shift at NASA's Deep Space Network lab. Normally this place is buzzing 24 hours a day, but I'm supposed to be just get a status update from the Opportunity today.

I take my bag of Doritos out of my backpack, and open the log book. We're about to be in position, so I quickly check that the antenna is positioned correctly. A minute later we're getting signal and I'm leaning back while stuffing chips in my mouth. As I'm signing the logbook showing everything is nominal, I notice that the data coming in has an audio channel. I pipe it over to the speakers, and hear a voice:

"NASA, this is Commander Tom from Atlantis. Please report."

Hmm, that's not usual. I look up the relay time and there's a four minute delay for radio to get from Mars to Earth right now. I pick up the receiver, "Roger, Commander Tom. This is NASA. Could you please report your location. Over." I'm not sure what's going on, but it seems better to start this slow conversation.

I spend the next 7-1/2 minutes going through my mission report to see if human contact was expected. I definitely wasn't prepped for this. Usually I just sign the log book and sit here and wait for the transmission to complete. Just as I turn the last page of the mission report, I hear the crackle of the radio turn on.

"Roger, NASA. Repeat, this is Commander Tom from Atlantis. I am currently located at the Endeavour Crater. I am with the rover. Requesting location and timing of return flight. Please be advised that I have two days of life support available."

"Please standby, Commander Tom." Ok, this is either a prank or I missed a few important meetings about a manned flight to Mars. I walk over to the operations control center and find somebody who looks dressed up and in charge. "Hey, I have an issue, can you help?"

He puts up a finger and finishes writing something on a clipboard. He then looks up and inspects me carefully, "What do you need?"

"Um, I was getting telemetry data from Curiosity and a Commander Tom patched in asking for an exit flight."

He squinted, and stared at me for a few seconds, then said, "What the hell are you talking about? Are you supposed to be in here?" He scanned me over again, pausing at my badge. I guess that confirmed I worked here. "There's no people on Mars. You're just picking up an Earth-based signal. It's probably some nerdy teenagers playing a prank." He turned and walked away.

I settled back in my chair, grabbed a chip and started playing Candy Crush on my phone. That was enough excitement for today. Then I heard the radio.

"NASA, please be advised. Life support is now showing 36 hours remaining. I suspect I have a leak in my suit. I've turned the rover camera on for visual inspection. Please advise."

I flipped the video screen on and watched a man in a space suit walk away from the rover. He held his arms up and slowly rotated. There was a small gash in his back with air escaping.