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“Today, you will go to the Moon.”

Commander Zota addressed them from the front of the room, looking as formal and serious as if he were briefing the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the White House. A close-up of the cratered lunar surface appeared behind him.

Dyl gave a nervous half-laugh. “So we’ll be back for lunch then?”

Simultaneously, JJ said, “I’m in!”

Song-Ye merely said, “Pfft. You don’t have to treat us like little kids. We know the difference between pretend and reality.”

King politely raised his hand and waited for Commander Zota to nod at him. “Sir? When I was here with my scout troop, we had eighteen guys to run all the stations, split up between Mission Control and the space simulation. Don’t we need more than just four of us?”

JJ leaned toward him and whispered, “Website says they can fly a mission with only five to a side.” She was disappointed to hear that they were going to run the Moon simulation, which she and Dyl had done with their class a few days ago. She had hoped for one of the other simulated adventures—Space Station, Comet, or Mars. Well, at least she would get more hands-on experience this time. Maybe she’d get to do more than one job.

Zota pressed his hands palm to palm at waist level in a position that seemed to enhance his concentration. “Due to the special nature of this particular mission, I have made some … adjustments to the protocols. You four will be assigned to the moonbase. I will handle operations in Mission Control, once you are on your way.”

JJ nodded slowly. Good. This would definitely be different.

“This particular scenario will take place farther in the future,” Zota continued. “Therefore, both the moonbase and Mission Control are more complex than in any mission you’ve done previously. More high-tech, if you will.”

“Oh, I will,” Dyl said, rubbing his hands gleefully together. “You’d better believe I will!” He whipped out a pencil and note cards, and started taking notes.

Under his breath, King started humming Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“What are the job assignments?” JJ asked. She was already familiar with the communications station, but she hoped for something more challenging. She brightened hopefully. “Need a pilot?”

“I’d rather be taking my ballet lesson right now,” Song-Ye said.

“Oh, that may come later,” Commander Zota replied cryptically, and JJ wasn’t sure what he meant. He paced around in front of them, very serious now. “Let me explain what we’re doing here, and why it’s important. Space programs in the United States and around the world have had incredible triumphs that it would take me all day to list, but they have also faced tragedies. In 1967, a terrible fire occurred on the Apollo 1 launchpad, killing all three astronauts aboard.”

JJ felt as if someone had whacked her in the stomach with a sledgehammer. A fire. She had heard of the Apollo 1 disaster years ago, but hadn’t thought about it since before their father’s death. A fire! Her hands clenched into fists, and she forgot how to breathe. She saw Dyl swallow hard and turn pale. He flashed a glance at JJ to see how she was reacting, then looked back down at his index cards and kept taking notes.

JJ told herself to snap out of it. Jet pilots, firefighters, astronauts—all of them knew what they were risking to do their jobs. And that was exactly the type of job she planned to have, so she might as well start accepting the risks right now. She would just have to do her best not to think about fires. She forced herself to relax and start breathing normally, hoping no one but Dyl had noticed.

Zota slowly nodded. “The Challenger Centers were created to honor the brave crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986. One of the purposes of the Challenger mission was to teach students—from orbit—how valuable space programs really are. Soviet cosmonauts, astronaut trainees, test pilots, pioneers of rocketry … so many people gave their lives to help move the human race forward. Progress is not easy, nor is it free. These people are all heroes, visionaries who saw a better tomorrow and refused to let things stay as they were.

“The Challenger Centers are designed to teach students the importance of pressing forward and striving to do things that haven’t been done before, to look for new frontiers. Explorers and pioneers know that they will face danger and hardship when they set off across new landscapes. But they go anyway—to discover the unknown. What they are doing is crucial, not just for themselves, but for humanity as a whole. That is the sort of spirit I need from you cadets today.”

Song-Ye just rolled her eyes, but JJ found the commander’s speech inspirational.

King asked, “You want us to be pioneers?”

“Do we get extra credit?” Dyl quipped.

Zota gave them a faint smile. JJ wondered what the man had seen in his life to make his gray eyes look so ancient. And what had caused his scar? “Bear in mind that you four have a comfortable life because someone else took risks or tried something new. They worked hard to make their ideas a reality. The future is your choice. You can’t just sit at home and expect someone else to take care of it for you. If we allow ourselves to become too complacent, the human race will not be prepared for crises we might face in the future. The human spirit needs challenges. For the sake of our future, humanity needs brave people like you to reach your full potential, and make your lives count.”

After giving them a brief summary of the scenario, Commander Zota said, “For today’s mission, you will all need to double-up on job assignments.” JJ grinned as the commander continued, “At the moonbase, you will be setting up a new solar-power array. There are supplemental missions to use the lunar telescope to perform astronomical readings and to process resources mined from the lunar soil. Because there are so few of you, it is imperative that you cadets learn to work as a team to solve complex problems.”

Dyl sighed. “Don’t tell me—I’ll be the team water boy, right?”

Song-Ye glanced at his note card. “Double-up is hyphenated, Junior.”

Dyl erased something on the card, blushing bright red.

“Each of you will be given significant responsibility,” Zota said. “Before we continue, I would like to familiarize you with the communications set-up here, since it is similar to the one you’ll find on the moonbase.”

Zota showed them how to activate the comm console, how to select the proper frequencies, and how to speak into the slender microphone pickup or use the headset. JJ was familiar with the basics from her earlier exercise during the field trip, but this seemed even more real—like an actual, working system.

“Also,” the commander pointed out, “the Moon is nearly a quarter of a million miles from Earth, while the speed of our signal—the speed of light—is a mere 186,282 miles per second. Therefore it takes 1.3 seconds for a message to travel from Earth to the Moon, which will produce a noticeable lag when you talk to anyone at Moonbase Magellan.”

“That doesn’t sound like much,” JJ said. “Would you even notice it in a conversation?”

“It does interrupt the flow. Remember that if the person on the other end responds, it takes another 1.3 seconds after they speak for their message to reach you. That means it is important to remember to say ‘over’ when you finish what you’re saying, so the other person knows it is safe for them to speak.”

“We’ll remember,” Dyl said. “Over.”

JJ elbowed him.

“If it’s so high-tech, why isn’t the system just voice-activated?” Song-Ye asked.

Mr. Zota considered her question, his face serious. “We have that technology, of course, but only the human mind has the discretion to know which words are important to share, and which are not. It is not necessary—and sometimes not even wise—to transmit every comment.”

“Makes sense,” JJ said. “In the movies The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, there were plenty of things going on that Mission Control didn’t tell the astronauts about—especially the problems.”

“If there were problems affecting me, I’d rather know about them right away,” Song-Ye argued.

King shrugged. “I saw those movies too. The guys in Mission Control waited until they had a solution to a problem before they turned on the mic to tell the astronauts about it.”

“Most often, the reasons for not turning on the mic are quite simple,” Commander Zota said.

“Right. The people in Mission Control might be talking about what to have for lunch,” King said. “The astronauts wouldn’t need to hear that stuff.”

“Or,” Dyl added, “they might just have to sneeze or burp or make some other embarrassing bodily noise.”

Song-Ye raised both hands in mock surrender, as if someone were holding a gun to her back. “Got it. I withdraw the question!”

After her acquiescence, Commander Zota gestured the Korean girl to take the seat at the comm console. “Now, if you would, Cadet Park, we should be receiving a message from the moonbase right about now. Please make sure we’re ready to receive it.”

Accepting the instructions with a pfft sound, Song-Ye bent, flicked a switch and pushed the Receive button. JJ thought she saw a flicker of real interest, maybe even a hint of a smile, on the other girl’s face and wondered how much of the Korean girl’s stick-in-the-mud attitude was just for show.

The comm console became active, and static blasted from the speakers. Dyl quickly reached over to adjust the tuning, as Commander Zota had shown them, and the static resolved into crystal-clear sound. A picture of a woman’s face appeared on the viewscreen above the communication console. She looked young and confident. Behind her was a high-tech room with other stations and several oblong windows that showed a swath of stars and a desolate cratered landscape.

“Cadets, this is Chief Noor Ansari of Moonbase Magellan. Welcome to the moonbase, and thank you for taking part in our Virtual Visitor program.” Her golden-brown eyes seemed to look right through the screen at all of them. Her chestnut brown hair was pulled back to reveal an oval face. Even though it must have been a costume, her blue flight suit looked convincing. JJ noticed, however, that her patch sported a logo that was not NASA.

Since they had seen no one but Commander Zota in the Challenger Center that morning, JJ assumed this “live” message was a recorded video that was used over and over again for student simulations.

“Other than the International Space Station Complex, Moonbase Magellan is the largest modular human habitat ever constructed and used outside of Earth’s atmosphere,” Ansari continued. “The base was built to support up to twelve full-time workers. Our crew is made up entirely of international scientists who volunteer their time. Currently our staff is reduced, but we are managing to meet our mission requirements. It’s a long assignment here, up to a year at a time.”

The moonbase chief seemed disappointed when she mentioned the smaller crew. JJ leaned over and whispered to her brother, “If this were real they’d probably have thousands of volunteers to choose from. I’d sure volunteer.”

Onscreen, Noor Ansari continued talking. “Each dedicated volunteer on our crew is responsible for raising enough private funds to support his or her entire stay at this base. That can cost as much as half a million international credits, so you see it’s quite a challenge.”

King gave a silent whistle. “Wonder what that translates to in dollars?”

Song-Ye made a pfft sound again. “It’s not real anyway. As in, it’s all Monopoly money.”

“Shh!” Dyl said, scribbling furiously on a note card. “Why did you bother coming here if you’re going to be such a wet blanket?”

The girl huffed. “Because the invitation said this was an important, exclusive event, Juniper. It was a matter of pride.” She looked away, and her arrogance melted for an instant. “And … I am very interested in space.”

On the transmission, Noor Ansari indicated a screen that showed a gray rocky landscape without any sign of plants or animals. It was obviously supposed to be the lunar surface. They saw a rover vehicle rolling toward a fanlike array of mirrored panels that looked like a giant silver sunflower. “Moonbase Magellan gets its power from solar panels, which were manufactured at the International Space Station Complex, or ISSC, then flown here for installation. We are about to increase our energy capabilities by erecting a new solar-power collector.”

Ansari continued, “In my next transmissions, I’ll show you each module of the moonbase. Thank you for tuning in, however many of you are listening. It’s good to know that some people are still interested.” She forced a bright smile. “See you then!”

The screen went dark. JJ leaned forward and searched around the control panel for a button that would start the next segment.

“That’s all the time we have right now,” Commander Zota said. “We need to prepare for your mission.”

“Isn’t this our preparation?” Song-Ye asked sharply.

The flight director didn’t take offense. “Certainly, to an extent. But listening to a briefing is different from actual hands-on training. I have a surprise. For the first phase of today’s mission, you will each put on a real spacesuit.”


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