Virgil One

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Science Fiction

The first crewed mission to Venus, the 2 person crew go about their routine as they begin to explore this hostile and mysterious planet.

Virgil One

 

November 23rd 2058

Watching a pen slowly spin a few centimetres away from me, some music quietly playing from my console next to me. I reach out and tap the pen, making it spin faster, slowly drifting away now. We were told not to let things free float in the cabin, it poses a hazard or something. By hazard, they mean it could poke someone in the eye but it’s a bright red pen moving pretty slowly. If I get it stuck in my eye, I would honestly deserve it because the requirements for that to happen are a lot of bad choices. The pen is now out of my reach. It’s drifting towards an air intake vent so it will stick to that. So I guess my obligation to safety is complete. The music continues quietly next to me. It’s pretty quiet, just the music and the sound of the life support systems humming. I tilt my head to the side and look out the small round window next to me.  Just blackness and stars. The last four months have been the same, not much to see, not much to do beyond the usual housekeeping procedures. I’m not bored, just have nothing to do right this moment. We are expecting a communications packet any time now so that’s something.

As I vacantly stare out the window, I hear my crewmate float in.

“Mail call!”

“Finally, anything of note?”

He looked through his tablet

“Same old, same old. Some personal letters, operational stuff, news”

He handed me the other tablet, which had my personal letters as well as the operational and other content.  I start flipping through.

“Anything interesting happening in the news beyond us?” I ask.

“Eh, not much. The Mars colony is holding elections yet again this December, helium-3 stocks have gone up, the UN is continuing its reorganizing and there are unconfirmed reports that a new charter is being drafted.”

Without looking up I respond, “A new charter?”

Yeah I guess it has to do with the global free trade union or increased international cooperation.”

I’m not much into politics so I tuned a lot of that out. Matt was big into politics so he started prattling on regardless of my clear lack of interest. I was reading my letters, but every now and then, I would zone back in to hear him talking about the possibilities of a solar system wide government. He’s optimistic about those things, but I personally can’t see that level of international cooperation. No one wants to give up their nationality or government. I suppose a federation type system might work but I don’t know. I’m an astronaut, not a political scientist. Unlike Matt who legitimately is both. Good to see his degree serving him well. Political science is very important on a mission to Venus where politics isn’t relevant. To be fair he has accumulated over three years in space flight so that’s probably why he’s here. Skimming through the news as Matt continues talking, I see some interesting stuff. A new digital fad among children, reality TV still sucks, something about successes in generating microscopic space warps in the lab. That’s kind of cool. It will be interesting to see where that research goes.

As I read and Matt continues talking and making hand gestures, a beep goes off on both our wristwatches. Time to prep for Venus orbital insertion. Matt stops and pushes off back to the flight deck, I turn off my music and join him.

 

The flight deck is small, two seats and three square windows in front, panels of touchscreen controls and a few analog controls. Matt was already in his chair running checks. I came around and settled into mine, strapping myself in and grabbing the procedure booklet stuck next to the seat. We couldn’t see the planet, as the spacecraft was already flipped around so all we saw was black empty space out in front.

“Fuel check,” Matt said.

“In the green, hydrogen flow nominal, starting ignition sequence.”

Flipping through the procedures and checking the redundant systems, nuclear engines are pretty simple in operation but the safety checks are immense, which I suppose is a good thing considering it’s basically a nuclear reactor on the back end of our vehicle. Matt started the countdown.

“Ignition on my mark, five…four…three…two…one, mark!”

The engines started up. The acceleration wasn’t severe but we did feel ourselves getting pressed into our seats a little. The engines burned for a few minutes, bringing our orbit down so we will skim through the upper atmosphere of the planet to slow us the rest of the way into our desired orbit. By this point, we could see Venus loom into view slowly to the side. We were very close to the planet, in a way dropping into the upper most part of the atmosphere. After a while, we reoriented the vehicle and could see out over the planet. It looked like Earth from low orbit only no oceans, no plants, just a vast opaque light yellow cream atmosphere obscuring the surface. We could feel as we dipped into the atmosphere. Everything started to shudder, and the rapid deceleration made us sink into our seats some more.

“Approaching periapsis,” I said as we watched the information streaming on the screens in front of us. Periapsis was the closest we would be to the surface so once we passed it we would be heading back up out of the atmosphere into our new orbit. A few minutes passed and the vibrations faded, the feeling of being pressed into our chairs went away and we were now out of the atmosphere and fully in orbit of the planet. A small correction burn to keep us out of the atmosphere and we were set. I flipped on the communications and sent a transmission back to Earth.

“Virgil One to control, orbital insertion complete.”

We shook hands and relaxed for a moment, Venus was a very odd planet to see from a low orbit, completely covered in clouds, no surface could be seen, it was a yellowy sand colour, and the sun was brighter here as we were closer to it.

“Have a fix on the aerostat?” Matt asked.

I turned on the habitat tracker. There should be a small habitat suspended under a large donut shaped balloon full of nitrogen waiting for us. One of the cool things about Venus is the atmosphere is so thick that normal air acts like helium does on Earth so the balloon is just full of mostly nitrogen with some hydrogen to fine tune the altitude. The aerostat should be floating some fifty five kilometers above the surface, at that altitude the temperatures and pressures are similar to Earth, but the air is still very much toxic and acidic so you have to stay inside.

After a moment, a radio ping was received. The aerostat was alive and well, drifting through the clouds below us. That was a very good thing. If we couldn’t find it, we would have to cancel a lot of the mission and stay in orbit, and that’s boring.

“Looks like you will be flying us down after all. You can handle that without getting us killed right?” I asked with a smug grin on my face. Matt sarcastically laughed in response.

“You make fun of my piloting abilities because you secretly like me and don’t know how to express your true feelings,” Matt jokingly said before stupidly making a finger gun pose and winking at me in an overstated comedic manner.

“HA! You wish,” I say as I unbuckle my straps. I pull myself close to Matt. “I prefer my guys to be more interesting than a jar of mayonnaise.” I smile and slap him on the shoulder before pulling myself back into the living module. “I joke, but you are mean,” I hear Matt say as I float away. This has how it’s been since we started training for this mission. We flew a mission prior to the lunar station. All of us who were a part of that one became friends, but we also give each other a hard time. One of the reasons we’re chosen for this one is we work well together. That and our combined expertise. I’m here because geology is my main field.  Matt is a very experienced pilot and has more compiled time in space than any of the other available crew. I’m glad I was chosen for this flight.  I really wanted it and worked hard for it. It’s also nice in a poetic way to have a woman on the first comprehensive mission to Venus.

 

The next day we suited up and ran through the pre-launch checks for the entry vehicle. It was a small two person spacecraft with a heatshield on the underside, but it wasn’t going to reach the surface, as that would crush it. Its job is to enter the atmosphere, slow down, and fly to the aerostat habitat. We waited for twenty minutes until the aerostat was in the correct position for us to intercept.

“Standby for undocking,” I said. “All systems are in the green.”

Running through the console in front of me, I switched over the main systems to internal. The entry vehicle was now self-sufficient and ready to fly on its own. Matt looked over to me and asked if I was ready to go. I just responded with a thumbs up and nod. The countdown started, and I read off the numbers aloud. Once it hit zero, I manually activated the docking latches to retract.  We heard a metallic clanking sound followed by quiet. The control jets fired softly on the nose and sides of the vehicle to push us off and away. The bursts where short and small so we didn’t damage the main spacecraft. It’s kind of strange, I can see the jets as we maneuver but you don’t hear anything, no noise from outside.  The only sounds were internal, from the spacecraft and in my suit. My breathing, the rubbing of fabric, the muffled sound of switches and panels being pressed in the cabin.

“Undocking successful.  Alright Matt it’s all on you. Try not to kill us.”

Matt smiled and gripped the control stick on his right side. “No promises.”

Another countdown followed by the de-orbit burn, the engines fired for a few seconds slowing our orbit so we were now on a decent course into the atmosphere. The nose of the vehicle was oriented back, facing our direction of travel. The horizon of Venus became wider and the curve of the planet got smoother. The haze of the atmosphere slowly seemed to rise up as we got lower until we started to graze the top. The nose was pitched up so the heat shield was now in position. Our seats began to shimmy a little, and a glow started to appear on the nose outside the front windows. As we got further down the turbulence got worse, the glow got brighter and we started to see streams of plasma shooting by the windows. At this point, we were a meteor speeding through the atmosphere. The blackness of space vanished above us and was replaced with a haze. We were being battered around as we descended lower. I could finally hear the sound of the atmosphere flying by the hull outside.

“Coming up on parachute deployment,” Matt said as he ran through the entry procedures. The streamers outside had subsided and the glow of the heatshield was fading. We were still traveling supersonic however. A low thud was heard as the parachute compartment was ejected, and behind us a large parachute unfolded slowing us down greatly. Unlike a space capsule where you enter the atmosphere with your back to the ground we were facing the direction of travel like in a plane, when the parachute deployed we were both forced forward into our harnesses. I could feel the blood rushing to my face and hands. It lasted only a few seconds but it was an uncomfortable sensation. Our speed dropped more, and the parachute was detached and fluttered away behind us. Entry was now over, and Matt took control. The entry vehicle had small wings but it was hardly a glider. “Coming up on sixty kilometers altitude,” I read off my console. We were guiding in on a very steep angle, more like controlled falling really. The aerostats altitude was fast approaching, and we had slowed our speed enough to deploy the balloon. Matt pushed a button on his console and a hatch running along the back of the vehicle opened up. Out came a folded up mass of chemical resistant coated fabric that inflated with nitrogen. We were lurched forward again as it suddenly slowed us to a crawl. The vehicle was now suspended under an oval shaped balloon, two small, ducted fans unfolded out the back giving us flight control.

After a while we spotted the aerostat right where it’s supposed to be, a collection of modules suspended under a donut shaped balloon among the yellow stained clouds. A tether was coming from the bottom down into the clouds. When we arrived yesterday, it dropped a very long anchor down that drilled into the surface to keep it in on position. The winds at this altitude can be strong however, so it sways around slowly. It’s like a child holding a balloon outside, only Venus is the child. We slowly approached, trying to keep our course aligned with the aerostat. Matt had to make tons of small manual corrections in all directions. The closer we got the more massive the aerostat looked. The balloon was huge. It loomed over, casting a shadow over the habitat and us as we approached the docking port. I activated the docking sequence. The nose opened up like a three-sided door and a ring docking port extended. Very slowly we moved in, the winds trying to push us and the habitat around. Like a pro, Matt had us lined up right when we came within a few meters. One final push from the jets and we touched the connector.

“Contact!” I said aloud.

Soft dock was achieved. A ring of clamps pivoted around and latched on. The metal clanking of multiple latches securing could be heard, until we got a green light on the hard dock. We made it.

We shook hands again, opened our suits’ visors and unbuckled our harnesses. Tthe feeling of gravity was disorienting, as the gravity here was almost the same as Earth and we had just spent months in zero gravity. Even with the exercise and anti-atrophy injections, my legs still felt heavy and annoying. What made it worse was we had to crawl through the short tunnel leading to the habitat. To save space, the docking port was the same as used in space so it’s wide enough to float through, but not wide enough to walk through. Once we entered however, the habitat was rather open and spacious, four large modules connected to a central cylindrical module.

“Home sweet home,” Matt said as he started peeling out of his pressure suit.

“It’s more a business trip than relocation,” I responded as I unlocked my helmet and took it off.

“Thanks Ms. Literal.”

I stowed my suit in a locker by the airlock and tied my hair back up into a ponytail. Matt went off to the crew quarters, probably to stake claim on what he viewed as the best cabin. There are only four and they are identical so it’s not like it matters. As he did that, I went off to check the main systems and more or less just enjoy being here. Not every day you get to live in a floating house on another planet. The rest of the week was pretty much just that, making sure everything was in working order and running checks. There was a small leak in a coolant line that needed to be repaired. It’s on the outside of the life support module. There were small catwalks along the sides, so it’s easy to get to, but because the outside is rather toxic, I’m suiting up in a chemical resistant garment. Not quite a space suit, but still enclosed with its own air supply and a helmet. Because the outside pressure was the same as the habitats’ internal pressure at this altitude, it wasn’t pressurised, which made moving easier. Stepping outside I paused and looked out into the clouds. It was breathtaking. Strangely sculpted clouds all around me, a faded yellow colour. I could hear the wind on my suit. I had a tether attached to the catwalk clanking as I walked to the damaged line. It was a surreal experience. It felt like I was on a tall building but when I looked down I could not see a surface, just clouds forever.

Reaching the line, I saw that it was just a small ammonia leak. I closed the valve and started sealing the hole. Matt had to go out the other day and re-wire a solar down line. Although the equipment outside was made to be resistant to the corrosive environment, wear still gets through, and considering this thing has been floating in this environment for over a year it’s stood up well. As I waited for the repair to set, I leaned over the safety bar on the catwalk and just looked out over the sea of clouds. Sea is an appropriate metaphor. The pressures at the surface are crushingly high, just like the depths of the ocean. I was going to be going to the surface tomorrow, in a spherical lander that would ride the tether down and back up. Like some of the first deep sea explorers on Earth, I was going to be lowered into the depths of an ocean, just not one of water.  My day-dreaming was interrupted by Matt. I needed to finish the job and reopen the line. I wrapped the repair in a tape made of the same stuff that coats the balloon. Interestingly enough, it’s the same material used in many non-stick cooking pans and in laboratories to store highly corrosive acids. With the repair done, I walked back to the airlock, stealing another look out over the planet before going in. I love this planet. When I was young and first looked at Venus through a telescope, I fell in love with it. A bright off-colour disc with a crescent shape like the moon, I never lost the wonder of first realising that point of light in the sky wasn’t just a light, it was an entire world. I never imagined I would one day be exploring that point of light I once looked at from my backyard. Tomorrow I will get to touch the surface.

I didn’t sleep much that night. I was excited about the surface mission, and I also haven’t fully gotten used to the gentle swaying of the aerostat. It feels like being on a large cruise ship. Not crazy amounts of movement but a gentle movement you notice sometimes. Yesterday Matt rolled out of his bed onto the floor because of it. I tried not to make fun of him but it was an impossible task. The padded railing on the side isn’t just here for show, and now he knows to use it just in case. Probably the weirdest thing I’ve noticed since being here is the sun doesn’t set. It doesn’t even look like it moves in the sky. Venus rotates so slowly its days are one hundred and sixteen days long. It could be the middle of the night by our watches but the sun is still shining bright. As a result, window covers need to be closed at night so we have an illusion of night.

Morning finally came. I got up had breakfast and was already running through my mission planner, doing the safety checks on the atmospheric suit and prepping the capsule for decent. I wanted to get going, but I had to follow the schedule. Matt would stay behind on the aerostat and act as a local control. He was in command, and it was his job to make judgment calls to keep me safe and on track. Originally, he was going to make the landing but it was decided I would, after he recommended it. He knew how I felt about the mission and wanted me to have the opportunity. I really appreciated that, to be honest. Matt came around a corner where I was working with the suit.

“Almost ready to take a walk through Navka planitia?” Matt said referring to the location directly below us.

“You better believe it, all systems check out,” I replied.

“You should have a good five hours before you need to come back up.”

“Wish it was longer, but five hours should be plenty, besides we have other locations to explore over the next few months.”

The anchor was a few kilometers away from the old soviet Venera fourteen landing site, but not close enough to walk to, so I won’t be seeing it. This is a volcanic region and I’m going to be gathering geological samples anyway.

The time had come. I climbed into the atmospheric suit that was already in the capsule. The suit was more like a wearable submarine than a space suit; it was ridged with fluid filled joints, a cooling system and a metal helmet that didn’t have a visor like a space suit. It instead had three small thick windows that looked like those found on a deep-sea submersible. The joints had built in hydraulics so it would be easier to move around in but it’s still an unwieldly suit. Once in the helmet was placed over me and secured, I ran a quick mobility check before squatting it down into the small capsule. In my ear I heard Matt over the radio.

“Everything looks good on my end, how about yours?”

“Good here, I am go for decent.”

The capsule was closed, and I heard the latches shut. It was rather dark. There was a small window looking down in front of me, and I could see the clouds but nothing else. I was looking through a small window down at another small window. I will admit it feels kind of claustrophobic but I trained for this. With the go-ahead, I felt a lurch as the capsule started to decent down the tether It fell fast and I felt almost weightless for most of the trip, which to be honest, helped make the suit feel more comfortable. After a while, my decent slowed. Looking through the small window, I could begin to see the surface below me. My field of view was tiny but I could see rock formations through my little window. The decent slowed again and finally I saw little rocks on the ground, getting closer. With a thud, the capsule came to rest on the surface. I heard the capsules walls groan a little as it contracted under the presser slightly. Everything else looked good.

“Touchdown! Permission to step outside.”

A few seconds later, I heard Matt over the radio. “Everything still looks good, I don’t see why not.”

I smiled, reaching over in the suit I pulled a lever on the wall. The gloves where not meant for fine motor control in this suit so no buttons. All the controls had to be big and analog. I heard a hiss as the pressure equalized with the outside. It took a few minutes but eventually my suit registered the hatch was ready to open. The latches all clicked and the hatch swung open. I was greeted with a very strange and alien world.

I stepped out and looked around, I radioed back to Matt, which in turn sent the message back to Earth. “Virgil one to Control, welcome to Venus.”

The environment was very strange. It looked like a cloudy day on Earth, only everything was a yellowy colour. The ground was a flat rock that seemed to crack as I walked over it, like walking over a lava flow or stacked shale. The air was so thick and hot everything seemed to warp and distort the further it was from me, like looking through water. As I stepped out onto the surface I saw something in the corner of my eye, it looked like something moved. I turned to check and saw nothing but rocks. I guess the dim distorted lighting is playing tricks on me. Walking around in this armor suit, I could only hear my breathing and the faint muffled sounds of the rocks below my feet. I switched on the external microphone, which lets me hear my environment around me. It was discovered early on during the first Mars missions that being able to hear what’s happening around you is an important safety feature. Hearing rocks slipping next to you as you stand under a ledge or hearing a tool drop off your belt is very handy. I started to hear quite deep rumbling sounds from the distance. The thick air distorts sound, so it took me a minute to realise I was hearing lightning from the clouds above me. Coming up to a rock outcropping I started to hammer a sampling rod into the surface, all the while I was telling Matt about what I was seeing. I was really enjoying myself. It was hard work but I was still amazed I was here.

Off to my left side I saw something curious, a flat object that looked different than the surrounding rock. I walked over to investigate. I leaned down and picked it up, it was a thin piece of metal, highly corroded but metal none the less. I thought maybe it fell off the aerostat, I flipped it over and scraped off some of the corrosion, I saw an imprint of what looked like small Russian writing and some numbers. I paused for a moment, the only Russian thing anywhere near me is Venera fourteen, but it’s a number of kilometers away from me and the wind wouldn’t be able to have pushed this here. The edges of the piece had strange marking on it, like little scratches or file marks. This was very confusing, a few steps away I found another bit of corroded metal with the same marks on it. I showed Matt the marks with my helmet camera and he was just as confused as I was. The environment around me was a fairly flat plain with some hills and rock shelf. I stopped gathering rocks for a bit and walked around the area, I kept finding bits of metals mostly in the direction of Venera fourteen. It was almost as if it was torn apart and dragged over the surface, but I never found any large pieces, just bits of metal no bigger than my suit’s glove. As far as I knew, it was still sitting in its landing spot and these where just bits of the outer shell that broke off and found their way here. I collected some of the metal bits and stowed them with the rock samples.

Making my way over a small rock outcropping I found a volcanic vent, or at least an old one. It was a hole no bigger than my fist that disappeared into the outcropping and down into blackness. I collected some material around it and from inside the opening, as I reached in I pulled out a small bit of metal again. It had more of the scratch marks on it. What was doing this? I don’t know of any natural erosion that would do this to metal especially here where there is no surface wind or water. As I inspected the piece and tried to get a close look at the scratches, I suddenly heard scraping next to me. I looked down to see one of my tools fall into the hole and vanish. I didn’t place it there. I looked into it but it was gone. At this point, I was feeling a little uneasy so I decided to head back to the landing area as I was departing soon.

Walking through the thick atmosphere, I had some time to think. Matt was as lost as I was on the cause of the metal corrosion. It was a real mystery to be sure. Control also had no idea. The Russian space agency was pleased to see samples from Venera fourteen were going to be returned but they also had no answers on the curious state of the metal. When I got back to the lander, I started stowing my equipment and samples, and getting out the seismic experiments. I noticed one of the legs had scratches on it, like the ones on the metal. Now I know that wasn’t there before. I looked around and saw nothing. This was making little sense, but seeing it caused no real damage to the lander, I went off to deploy the seismic experiments, little rods that I hammered into the surface that would measure tremors in the crust. Deployment went off without a hitch and data started being returned to Matt and control. My job here was done. I returned to the lander and loaded the last of my samples, I noticed one of the packs with the metal pieces was open and the bits where pulled out. One of the smaller pieces was missing. Maybe I knocked it over and didn’t notice. I was unsure, but there weren’t any more scratches on the lander. This suit is bulky, so I very easily could have knocked it over and not noticed. Crawling back in the capsule, I closed the hatch and cycled the atmosphere so the internal environment was the same as the inside of my suit before starting the accent.

It took longer to get back than to descend down, but I eventually made it back and was able to get out of that suit. Matt greeted me.

“Have fun?” He asked me.

“It was amazing, and kind of puzzling.”

Unloading the samples, we kept most sealed and in storage to preserve them, one we opened in the lab to study. It had one of the metal pieces, in the lab glove box we looked it over, under closer investigation the scratches where directional, as in they were made as if something had scraped over it in one direction. Looking at them under light and a low power microscope Matt made a hum of confusion before turning to me.

“Want to hear something crazy?” Matt asked.

“What?”

“If I didn’t know better I would say these look like tiny teeth marks.”

That was a crazy idea. I can’t see how a Russian space craft would be chewed on as it sits on a lifeless poisonous planet. We argued for a bit but in the end couldn’t think of a realistic answer.

The habitats’ anchor was brought up and we started to drift to a new location. We spent the time to look over the samples. It was a busy few days. We were unable to determine the cause of the scratches, however. Control was looking over all the footage from the surface walk and checking all the returned data. Arriving over our new location the aerostat lowered the anchor and re-attached itself to the surface. We were now over a valley close to the South Pole. Prepping for the next decent a small alarm beeped a couple times. It was an alert that we were losing contact with the seismic probes. It seemed we were losing contact with the probes one by one, starting at one end of the line. Maybe they were just corroding, but if they were, you would think it would be random and not one by one in series. The probes where basically just rods sunk into the ground, no cameras or any detailed info about their condition. The only bit of relevant data we noticed is the sensor would pick up a fast small vibration before cutting out.  We decided to deal with it later as we needed to get the lander ready to go. Climbing back into the suit I readied for my second decent to the surface. There was more to this planet than we originally knew, Some of it made no sense, but the mystery was why we are out here. Knowing all the answers would make living pointless. The drive for the unknown is what we are all about. Closing the capsule, I readied for the decent.

“Alright you are ready to go. Try not to lose anymore tools,” Matt said.

“Try not to fall out of bed again,” I replied in kind.

As we traded barbs, we received a communications packet from control. Matt piped it in over the radio.

“Virgil One this is Control. After looking over the data from the last landing, we noticed an anomaly in the video feed.”

I waited in the capsule as Matt looked over what they found. “An anomaly?” I asked myself.

“It looks like the camera on your helmet picked up movement a couple times.” Matt told me.

I paused for a moment. “I don’t remember seeing anything really move beyond what I was holding.” As I thought about it, I realised I was wrong. I did see something in the corner of my eye, but nothing was there.

“What does it look like?” I ask.

“Hard to tell. It was on the ground, but looked like a flat rock that just moved off to the side as you turned your head.”

We both stopped. There was a moment of silence, and we both thought the same thing but didn’t say it aloud.

“Well that’s curious,” I said, breaking the silence. We didn’t know what it was, but it may have been an optical illusion for all we knew. We had more questions than answers, but the crazy idea that there might just be something down there we hadn’t considered, started to seem less crazy. After completing the checks I was given the go-ahead for decent.

I thought about what may be down there, and what may be under the ground. There is so much about this planet we don’t know. We won’t unlock the secrets ourselves. Others will need to come back to pick up where we leave off, but we will try to unlock as much as we can.

I started thinking about the explorers who came before me, and those who will follow, as I felt a lurch and started my decent back down to the surface and into the unknown once again.


Submitted: January 03, 2021

© Copyright 2021 adev. All rights reserved.

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Serge Wlodarski

Cool story.

Sun, January 3rd, 2021 1:16pm

Serge Wlodarski

My father worked on the Gemini and Apollo projects and I graduated from Virgil Grissom High School.

Sun, January 3rd, 2021 1:18pm

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