Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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Lunar Roller Coaster

by Alan J. Wahnefried




Dr. Steinhagen stormed into the director's office, slamming the door behind him. Dr. Phyllis Mulbah looked up. The downside of an open-door policy is about to strike again, she thought.

            "Dr. Steinhagen, nice to see you again. Won't you please have a seat? Can I offer you a cup of coffee?" she began pleasantly, knowing the effort was futile.

            Dr. Steinhagen sat down in a huff. "Thank you for offering the coffee. This is not a social visit. I was sent a message directing me to the 'theme park entrance'! What is the meaning of this absurdity? I am a scientist, not some teenager!" he fumed.

            Dr. Mulbah sat back in her chair and took a deep breath. "The message was not intended to diminish your scientific credentials. I need to explain why you were directed to that entrance."

            "Why do you even have a theme park?" Steinhagen retorted sarcastically.

            "Short answer. We don't have a theme park. Some people working at the entrance jokingly suggested the centrifuge would be a great theme park ride. The comment warped into a name that stuck. In some ways, it is an apt description. You are aware Nova Exodux is using the Moon as a training center for our Martian colony?" Dr. Steinhagen nodded in agreement while continuing his funk.

            "The Moon is not a perfect training site, but it is better than Earth. We use the Moon to teach, and test, skills all colonists require, like assembling buildings or maintaining space suits. Most colonists won't use the skills much, but the skills are vital. We test the suitability of the colonists. Ideas like 'going outside for fresh air' or 'ordering a steak' need to disappear from their thinking. Are you following me so far, Doctor?"

            "Of course. All of that is obvious to anyone with half a brain. You have not begun to explain this insult!" Dr. Steinhagen puffed.

"Just being sure we start from the same place. Nothing more, doctor. As you observed, the points I made are obvious. Let me get into the more subtle points. We attract many romantics. On paper, they have the qualifications we need. They read too much science fiction and don't read our material. Many romantics will struggle when they encounter a difficult reality. The service academies have had the problem for centuries. Initially, we put people through rigorous training on Earth and then sent them to the Moon. When on the Moon, the romantics encountered the realities of reconstituted food and spartan accommodations, and they leave. We lost the time and expense of training them."

            Dr. Mulbah paused and glanced at Steinhagen. His expression had softened a little.  Rather than inviting another outburst, she continued.

            "We had other issues. Once the lunar colony opened, we started getting queries from space tourists. People who loved rollercoasters and wanted to spend a weekend on the Moon. Initially, we regarded them as a nuisance. We sent them discouraging form letters.

            "Colonists need to assemble buildings or other structures. What would we have them assemble? There is a limit to the number of geodesic domes we need on the Moon. If we assembled and disassembled buildings, the training lacked authenticity. We needed a variety of structures. Make sense?"

            "I suppose it does. But you are still avoiding the issue."

            "Doctor, you understand I must completely state the problem before I can explain the solution. The 'theme park' is part of the solution.    

            "We changed our training program to place the lunar experience early in the program.  After the initial physical exam, we put candidates in the centrifuge. Losing unsuitable candidates after only a week is a great cost-saving. The centrifuge is followed by training on extraterrestrial construction and then time on the Moon. We make the experience extreme. Candidates live mostly on reconstituted food and live in utilitarian quarters. Once again, some candidates leave, cutting our losses. After the lunar experience, we start the in-depth training Martian colonists need.

            "We informed our staff of the changes. We explained the changes reduced our expenses without impacting the quality of our training. As you know from your academic experience, funding is never sufficient. One of our psychologists, Dr. Jose Lozano had a brainstorm. He realized the space tourists could be a source of funding."

            "That makes no sense," Steinhagen retorted briskly.

            "Let me see if Dr. Lozano is available. He can explain better than I can," Dr. Mulbah dialed a number. She spoke briefly. "Dr. Lozano will be here shortly. Are you sure I can't offer you coffee or tea?"

            Steinhagen was readying a volley when there was a knock on the door. Dr. Mulbah acknowledged the knock. Dr. Lozano entered the room. After introductions, Dr. Lozano sat down and explained his idea.

            "With hindsight, my idea looks simple. Our facilities are not in constant use. Our centrifuge can sit idle for days. Also, we don't always need the same number of people on the Moon. I suggested we use the space tourists as an asset. We answer queries with an invitation to go to the Moon. Only a small number of people are accepted per our availability. Tourists must first pass a physical. Our charge for the physical is not extreme, but not cheap. If the tourists pass the physical, we demand a four-figure non-refundable deposit to hold a slot on a lunar flight. They also must pay for a class on the centrifuge. The centrifuge class costs four more figures. Classes are filled with tourists and our actual candidates. We find the mix makes the class more interesting. After the class, both tourists and candidates have a session on the centrifuge. Most of the tourists decide they had enough and forfeit their deposits.  They may be heroes on rollercoasters, but wimps in the centrifuge. Tourists who persist must pay for the actual lunar ticket. The tickets cost an additional five figures. The tourists and our candidates get training on using space suits. As our space suits are not what they see in the movies, many tourists do not have the discipline and quit."

            "Do any of these tourists make it to the Moon?" Steinhagen asked indignantly.

            "About twenty percent of the tourists do persevere."

            "This sounds like a scam or a fraud. Sending someone to the Moon costs more than you're charging! Do the authorities know about this?" Steinhagen smugly continued his interrogation.

            "The authorities know. We never said we send someone to the Moon for that cost. We never send up tourists by themselves. We are dealing with marginal costs. Our ships can carry ten people and some cargo. The capacity for ten people is fixed costs. If we only need to send six people to the Moon, we need to cover the fixed costs of the other four seats. Space tourists can cover some of the fixed costs. They also cover the cost of the extra food we send for them. We don't make a profit but lose less money."

            Dr. Steinhagen's expression had changed. His expression was somewhere between confusion and awe. "What do they do on the Moon? How long do they stay?"

            Dr. Mulbah resumed her narrative. "The tourists stay about a week. They stay in incredibly spartan accommodations. They eat only reconstituted food. They do walk and work on the lunar surface. They may disassemble structures we want the actual candidates to assemble. Or they may help assemble new structures."

            "Having the candidates start with only components gives more urgency to the training," Dr. Lozano interjected.

            "We have a roller coaster on the Moon. The coaster was made from junk our teams found on the Moon. We do use it for training. The tourists also ride it. They get incredible bragging rights with their friends."

            Dr. Steinhagen was starting to look thoughtful, and vaguely impressed.

            "We also use tourists as passengers when our candidates practice driving extraterrestrial vehicles. Originally, an instructor took three candidates out for driving sessions. The candidates who weren't driving either didn't pay attention or became back seat drivers. Using tourists as passengers removed the distractions."

            "Do the people who don't go to the Moon feel cheated and give the program a bad name?" Steinhagen queried.

            "Just the opposite," Mulbah rejoined, "Remember most of them chose not to go. We reject very few. The eighty percent who don't go still brag about their experience. We give them T-Shirts and a certificate extolling their effort. Some of these failures make it their goal to go to Mars and make it happen. Other people who don't go to the Moon become our greatest recruiters."

            "The people who go to the Moon brag about their toughness and are very happy," Lozano added.

            Dr. Steinhagen was pondering what he just heard. Several questions started to form but never got verbalized. Finally, he gathered a thought. "I may, or may not, be in training with tourists?"

            "Yes. Does it matter?"

            "I suppose not. You mentioned the utilitarian accommodations for the tourists. Are candidates' accommodations the same as the tourists?"

            "Of course not!" Dr. Mulbah reassured. "We just asked you don't dispel the tourists' illusions. The accommodations on Earth, and the Moon, are as we described in the literature, we sent you. You will experience reconstituted food, but not exclusively."

            A sheepish expression played over Dr. Steinhagen's face. "I guess I overreacted. Will you accept my apology?"

            "Of course, Doctor!" was Dr. Mulbah's enthusiastic response. "Should I call the theme park entrance and tell them you are on the way?"

            Dr. Steinhagen nodded yes. After another round of handshakes, Dr. Steinhagen left.

            Dr. Lozano picked up Dr. Mulbah's phone and dialed a number. "Jason?" he began. "A Frederick Steinhagen heading your way. He is a well-credentialled scientist, but he may be a problem. Just want to give you fair warning." Dr. Lozano listened for a minute and continued, "That's right. He may not play well with others. Thanks," He hung up the phone and sat down with a sigh of relief.

            "Phyllis," he began. "It's a good idea you came up with the space tourist idea. It's a great way to cover part of our screening."

            "Face it, Jose", she retorted, "We both know some people with doctorates are real prima-donnas. Most of the people we send to Mars are not scholars. We need plumbers, electricians, teachers, and mechanics. In many situations, those people are more important than any astrophysicist. Steinhagen better get used to living with Joe Sixpack. Besides, you came up with the screening program."

            "I must confess I borrowed the idea from an airline. We're just leveraging the perception most people believe a psychological evaluation involves long tests and invasive personal interviews. We are just letting them be themselves while we watch. I would bet against Steinhagen making it to the Moon, let alone Mars."

            "At least, the revenue we get from the tourists offsets some of the cost of screen people like Steinhagen."

            They both laughed.

******

At the theme park entrance, Steinhagen's feathers were getting ruffled. He was seated next to what looked like a teenager. His neighbor kept asking Steinhagen about his experience on different rollercoasters. On the other side, two plumbers were discussing backed-up drains. Steinhagen couldn't believe these people had the money to be space tourists. He rebuffed the conversation with terse stern replies. Steinhagen didn't realize he wasn't sitting next to tourists. The teenager looked young for his age. He was a brilliant Ph.D. candidate who was going to the Moon to complete his research for his dissertation. He and Steinhagen could have had a very stimulating discussion, if not for Steinhagen's attitude. The plumbers were retired military NCOs. They were the guys who could make anything out of nothing. Nova Exodux needed them. With each biting response, Steinhagen's chances of going to Mars diminished. He would never understand why he was rejected.

THE END


2022 Alan J. Wahnefried

Bio: Mr. Wahnefried is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He lives in suburban Detroit with his charming and understanding wife. He has been published internationally. His stories have appeared in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol. 16, 101words.org (multiple times), commuterlit.com, and CafeLit.uk.co

E-mail: Alan J. Wahnefried

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