Six Children go to Mars

Girls and boys, ladies and gentlemen. Good afternoon.

First of all, thank you for coming to the presentation of this story. I especially want to thank the Juan Rulfo bookshop for having organised everything so well.

Man’s landing on the Moon was preceded by an announcement from the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, expressing his commitment to NASA and that, before the end of the sixties, ‘a man would land on the Moon and come back to Earth safe and sound’. And, so it happened. A few years later, after six successful trips to the Moon, the Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, pompously announced —trying to emulate President Kennedy— that Americans would reach Mars before 1980.

At that time I was already working with NASA. I remember the excitement of man’s arrival on the Moon, which I saw from the Fresnedillas Space Station, one of the three NASA stations that supported flights to the Moon. This is why the announcement by the Vice President of the United States filled me with optimism. ‘After trips to the Moon will come trips to Mars’, I thought naively.

However, in those moments of euphoria, neither the poorly advised Vice President of the United States, nor I, at the beginning of my career at NASA, were aware of the magnitude of the adventure of taking human beings to Mars; much more difficult, both in technology and economic cost, than journeys to the Moon, which is ‘so close’ to us.

A manned trip to Mars is full of problems that even now, forty decades after Vice President Agnew’s announcement, we do not know how to solve. Many of these problems stem from the need to bring back to Earth —it is crucial— the same humans sent to the planet. More than twenty unmanned automatic probes have already been sent to Mars, but none of them have return to Earth, they have all remained there or passed by and ended up circling the Sun.

The main difficulties of a journey to Mars originate from celestial mechanics, which require the journey time (round trip) to exceed twelve months. In the best-case scenario, 75 million kilometres would have to be covered both there and back. Unfortunately, human beings cannot be subjected to weightlessness and the harsh effects of cosmic radiation for that long. Plus, the money it would cost to make that trip would far exceed the economic capacity not only of NASA but of all the space agencies of the world combined.

Due to these grave issues —and many more I will not mention to avoid boring you—, human beings will most likely not reach Mars before the end of this century.

So you will ask: ‘Why have you written a story in which children go to Mars?’.

I have written it precisely for that reason. Because it is extremely difficult and because only with the great imagination that reigns in the world of stories can we conceive a trip as difficult as this one.

I chose the characters of the book fairly quickly. First I thought of Mariú and Daniel, my grandchildren. But two were too few for such a long journey. So I asked them about their classmates. Mariú talked to me about her friend Jimena, and I thought she would also make a good astronaut. Likewise, Daniel spoke to me about Manuel and César, who I also liked. Then we had to choose someone who was a few years older than the other five to be the Commander of the spacecraft. After a few setbacks we selected Marcos, César’s brother. Six was already a good number, so I subjected them to a strict ‘virtual’ training —that is, in my brain—, and turned the six children into courageous astronauts and, without any additional baggage, sent them to Mars.

All the astronaut-children behaved rather well during the long journey. Mariú formed an excellent pair with César and the two of them were the best pilots of the ship. One day there was a significant malfunction caused by a failure in the electric system and they had to control the ship, since the automatic pilot was not working. They did very well.

Daniel was who found that fault thanks to his magnificent sense of smell.

Manuel fell down one of the sides of the great Victoria Crater and nearly broke his leg. But he behaved like a champ and did not shed a single tear.

Jimena was a bit scared at first and wanted to go back to Earth, but since that was not possible, she soon got over it.

Marcos, the Commander of the Ship, also behaved very well, always keeping the five astronauts under control. But he had a terrible fright when, during the last moments of the return journey, they announced from Houston that something was wrong because the ship was quickly heading towards the Moon instead of the Mohave desert in California, where they were meant to land.

I would not like to finish this brief commentary without sincerely thanking all those who have helped me make this story possible.

Firstly, I would like to mention Margarita, my wife here present. Her contribution has been extremely important. During the thirty years I worked with NASA, I wrote almost everything in English. Of course, they were not stories but technical reports. For this reason, when writing in Spanish, I tend to unwillingly construct sentences as they are constructed in English. Every time I finished a chapter, I would give it to Margarita to revise. I remember well how, after reading each chapter, she would scold me terribly for that tendency of mine and would make many corrections: I had no other choice but to write them again.

My daughter Belén, who is also here, has likewise helped me a lot by revising the entire book chapter by chapter. I still remember with a some shame when she got very angry because I was not allowing the girls to pilot the ship. I, born almost at the beginning of last century, when women in Spain did not even drive cars, did not think it appropriate —despite the fact I have changed a lot over the years— that two girls like Mariú and Jimena, who could barely ride a bike, could pilot a spaceship to the distant planet of Mars. So I had to change some passages of the story and promote the two fearless astronauts to pilots of interplanetary ships, so that Belén would not get cross.

Also, Belén has written an endearing epilogue, titled ‘The Explorer’. Which puts a beautiful end to the story.

With CAPITAL LETTERS I want to talk about the editors of Media Vaca, Begoña and Vicente. I have written a few books already, not many, but a few. Which is why I have had to fight with many publishing houses, because they would not ‘make’ the books as I wanted them to. But with Media Vaca it has all been different: they were always ahead of me. The things they did always surpassed what I wanted. The edition of the story is truly exquisite, a true work of art! I thank you with all my heart.

Finally, I would also like to thank the illustrator of the book, Juan Miguel Aguilera —whom I had the honour of writing the prologue for a magnificent novel he wrote a couple of years ago—, who has done a masterful job with perfect photographic montages in which the six astronaut-children actually seem to be floating while travelling through space; montages made up of NASA’s photographs and others by Santiago Martí, whom I would also like to thank for his valuable contribution.

As you can see, a book is not only the author’s work, but of a large team that makes it possible.

And that is all. I hope you like the story.

Luis Ruiz de Gopegui

Text read at the presentation of Six Children on Mars at the Juan Rulfo Library in Madrid, 2 November 2011 (photograph by Santiago Martí).