Heliotrope

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HeliotropeWe designed it so that it would follow the sun, follow the light.

And I thought we too were designed that way.

I don’t know now.  I don’t know what to think.

We all type letters like this.  Just in case the worst happens.  Some are writing letters that document the whole of what has happened.  Some want to preach.  Some to rant.  Some to admonish any survivors who might find these messages.  The latest news sounds dire.  I watch an ant crawl across my keyboard and I wonder if her kind will survive this.

I don’t need or want to repeat what others have said.  I want to talk about the device.  The one that brought us hope.  That brought us together.  A few of us.  For a little while.  The people at project control are gathering the letters, along with the files, blueprints, specifications and calculations, and test logs, for this device and other projects, and whatever else they can find.  They will send it to the data banks on the device that were originally meant to store images and information gathered from the telescopes attached to it.  It may sound futile and pointless.  But I mean, why the hell not?

*****

When the project started, I was just a young man.  And shy.  I would fantasize about standing up in a room full of physicists and engineers and declaring the keystone piece of knowledge that would solve some major problem.  Maybe that kind of thing still happened, but I knew what my real contribution would be.  It would be the same as that of hundreds of others.  Nose to the grind work.  It was the start of my career with the agency.  Our section was one of many.  But I still felt prouder to be a cog in that wheel than I would have felt being the head honcho of a…well, lesser wheel.

On Fridays, whoever happened to show up in the cafeteria at lunch would play this game where they’d throw around ideas, ideas that were farfetched, science-fictional, or just plain nutso.  A few actual projects had started that way, so it wasn’t just a game.  It was a fun kind of brainstorming.  You throw out an idea and someone adds to it and keeps going and going until you go from hover boots to mobile space suit.  From a thing that might be possible to build to a thing that’s near impossible, at least for the time being.

One day, got onto the topic of the sun.  Of technologies and structures that already existed, solar panels, solar observatories, solar sails.  By the time we were done, we were up to building a module that would travel straight into the sun’s core, built for a new breed of scientists that would be called “heliologists.”  A few of us began discussing the difficulty in seeing far out in the galaxy and beyond from where we were on Earth.  Stunning as the images from rovers and probes and observatories were, what if we could do better and see farther?  What if we could survey the galaxy as we had surveyed our earth?  We could make more accurate maps, take clearer, closer, more detailed pictures, perhaps.  And who knows, we could see if there was life out there.  But that would require building and sending out many instruments, ones that would need to travel far, far out of the solar system.  And perhaps there were better ways.  We tinkered, we drew on napkins, we did computer simulations.  That idea was too ambitious and expensive to start all at once.  There would have to be a baby step.  As we continued to think and tinker, we veered from our original idea of a galactic survey and came back down to earth, as it were.

Long story short, we came up with a device design, practical and innovative and cost-effective as we could make it.  Suncatcher, we called it.  And to assure that the project would get as much bang for each buck as possible, it would serve as a solar observatory and a test bed project for both a solar sail design and for a space-based solar power collector and transmitter.  So, no pressure.

About five years later, as we all worked on other related projects, our group received enough funding to develop a proof-of-concept device.  We dropped the solar sail part of the project.  Others were working on that, and anyway our baby, Suncatcher, wasn’t meant to travel out into distant worlds.  It was meant to stay right here and take care of Earth.  We had partnered with others to research and develop more efficient solar panels and different transmission technologies (we opted for laser).  We had chosen a site for the Earth-based power receiving station.  We developed the system for merging the transmitted electricity into the existing power grid.

The team grew as the project grew.  We ramped down the observatory part, but did attach three telescopes, and some data banks.  We launched Suncatcher.  He hitched a ride aboard a rocket that was meant for another main mission.

We ticked off the check boxes one by one every time something went right.  But we came finally to a box we could not tick.  Suncatcher went where he was supposed to go, he turned toward the sun, as we had directed him to do.  His mirrors reflected the sunlight toward the new and improved solar panels, and they drank and drank.  So much energy.

Transmission was the problem.  It failed somehow.  The team in charge of implementing all these steps went through their procedures, while I waited and watched helplessly.  I had only built part of Sunny, as we began to call him.  I wasn’t part of sending him out into the world.  But I was part of figuring out how to help him after he had encountered his first problem.  We sent up a repair crew, not so much to perform repairs, as everything worked as expected, but to perform modifications.

We had never tried something like this before.  There were bound to be problems that we could not foresee, despite all of our what-if-ing and computer modeling.  Despite opening the project to the public so that interested citizens from around the world could pose potential problems for us.

We could not foresee everything.

But the valiant repair crew did what they had been instructed to do.  We fired up Suncatcher again.  The mirrors reflected.  The panels collected.  Transmission worked.  The receiving station…received.

Still we held our breaths.

Then the power began to flow.  And it flowed.  And it flowed.

A year later, Suncatcher was still working.  Some of the solar panels were meant to power the satellite itself.  The power he sent down was joining the power generated on Earth.  We aimed to power a city.  We managed to power several.  We could have powered more.  But we showed restraint.  Suncatcher had no back up yet.  If he suddenly failed and too many had become dependent on him, it might crash the entire power grid.

Sunny became big news.  He became one of the hopes of humanity.  Space-based solar power still had a long ways to go, but on Earth, more and more people were buying solar panels for their homes and businesses.  And why not?  We had made the panels better, more efficient, smaller, less expensive.  And someone else had taken our design and figured out how to mass produce it.  We had improved the technology for our project, but it was making its way into daily life.

I thought our biggest enemies would be entrenched energies lobbies.  But how could they compete with Sunny? Solar power had a celebrity.  A heroic and beloved star.  A star in the true sense, for Sunny sent the glow of our very Sun toward us.  My mother told me, long ago, a story about the mythological Sun god, who treated all equally, for his light shone in the houses of the rich and the poor alike.  Sunny too brought power to more and more people who did not have it before.

Of course I had wanted to help humanity in some way, contribute.  Don’t most young people?  But our proof-of-concept project had become the biggest news in science since the discovery of that little particle that supposedly lends mass to all matter.

I won’t go into all the fuss and fighting, the disappointments and the triumphs that followed.  It was such a struggle.  I raged to my family and friends about the injustice and the stupidity of those who opposed my brave superiors and our ambitious plan to launch a bigger satellite.  A device that could produce power for a lot more people.  So many people, that it became an international project.  The more support we gained, from colleagues, from the people, the harder it was to deny us.  We were open with what we did.  We worked with entrepreneurs, space agencies, universities, non-profit organizations.  And we began to design something that was far larger than I imagined.

The design of the whole was deceptively simple.  Hundreds of mirror segments would be assembled into five large sections, reflecting onto an array of solar panels that transmitted the energy of the sun to Earth as a laser.  The complete device would have thousands upon tens of thousands of parts.  I didn’t even know.  Maybe more than that.  I was only involved in one part of the whole.  I tried to keep up with learning what everyone else was doing.  It was a challenge.  To their credit, some non-scientists within the public seemed able to do so.

Concerns were raised about the safety of the device, the effect on the Earth’s climate from having a laser beaming through the atmosphere at all hours, and the wisdom of spending so many hours, so many resources, so much expertise, and so much money, on the problem of making more electricity, when the world still suffered from so many other, more basic, maladies.

But don’t you see, I would think toward such naysayers, this could be the key to solving so many other problems.

We were doing it right, letting the world watch us, monitor us, raise questions of ethics and regulation and ownership of the power.  And the world took notice of that too.  We were given due credit for being as responsible as we could be.  And so it began.

***

After several years of planning and modeling and designing, we were ready to begin building.  The device would be built and launched in pieces.  Smaller satellites would direct themselves and move into position once in space.  Before the device was activated a specially trained crew would be launched into space to go out and make any necessary adjustments or repairs.

Another several years passed, but considering the scope of the project, it was astounding how much work we had done in so short a time.

I was heartened by it.

I would listen to the radio on my way to work.  I would hear about horrible things that some people were still doing to each other.  I would shake my head and grip the steering wheel.  That too might change, I hoped.  So many people had proved worthy of a future filled with peace and prosperity for all.  Humanity had wondrous achievements in its past.  And yet we still warred and coveted and hated.  We still bullied and abused.  Maybe this new achievement, wrought and earned by so many around the world, would be one that would tip the balance to that future I and so many others hoped for.

***

There would be several launch dates over a few years (or so).  And there were several phases.  When the first satellites launched, they launched to worldwide fanfare.  For the satellites were marked not just by the designers and engineers and scientists who made them, but by men, women, and children who left their mark in other ways.

We couldn’t let them touch the components of the device itself, but the shells they would travel in were fair game.  The areas where we stored a few of the shells around the world were opened to the public for three days.  Kids, men, women, everyone came up and painted on the shells.  There must have been thousands of little purple flowers with five petals all over the housing by the time they were done.

The five sections of the mirror design.  They resembled flower petals.  They had given the device its nickname in the press, after a little purple flower that I swear grew in my mother’s garden.

Heliotrope.

The name fit all the better because of a phenomenon called heliotropism, in which plants bend to follow sun.  Just like her older brother, we had designed and programmed her to bend toward the Sun, follow its light.  There’s also a mineral with that name, a dark stone with red or yellow inclusions.  Some of the project control people began to bring the stones into the control room for good luck.

So much work had been done, but so much remained.  And some of us were behind projected schedules with the Earth-based receiving stations.  But everything was in motion.

It was so ambitious, that I think everyone expected it to fail.  Everyone expected to keep working and chugging to solve whatever problems were sure to arise when Heliotrope went live.  The older ones joked they would be gone before they saw her petals turn to the sun.  The middle-aged ones (like me, by then) hoped that we would live to see the day she would beam down power to all Earth.  And the young ones dreamed of being the ones who stood up in a room full of physicists and engineers and came up with the keystone piece of knowledge to fix the whole thing.

I wasn’t so important to the project that I couldn’t be replaced if something were to happen to me, but I worried about dying in a car crash or something before I could see it through.  Seems like a petty thing to worry about now.

***

After some months, the launches of the satellites became routine news.  But I still listened for them.  Still ticked off the things that were going right.  We were at the end of the launch cycle.  A party would be held sometime in that coming week.  The device would begin to assemble and unfold.  It was that same week, I think, that I heard the news about that first incident, the one that everyone thinks started everything.  Kidnapping.  Body found.  Retaliation.  The next thing we knew, there was a strike.  A counterstrike.  I admit I listened for days, shaking my head, wondering what one man could possibly do to stop it all, knowing that I may not be able to, not even if I were supreme leader of the world.  One person could accomplish much.  But some accomplishments required many people.  And some accomplishments required all the people.

I told myself that my work would be my contribution to peace.  And I was right about that.  I’m still right.  It’s terrifying how quickly the greatest international accomplishment in history was pushed out of the news by the ever-escalating war that spread through one region and pulled country after country into its bloody maw.

The world has been at war before.  But not like this.  Too many have the power to do too many terrible things to too many people with too much ease.

Some say it’s our fault, the scientists.  That we built too many powerful devices of destruction.

My device was not meant for destruction.  She doesn’t even look menacing.  She looks like a space flower.  She is the result of human passion and ingenuity.  But I wonder now how many of us will be here to see her shine.

It didn’t “get real” as we used to say when I was young, until that first nuclear weapon was launched.  It was a warning shot.  It didn’t actually kill any people, just some innocent animals on an island.  But the owners of that island were angered.  And the world’s nerves were taut.  Another was launched.  And another.

Some leaders have been heroic.  Some cowardly.  I am surrounded by people who deserve to live.  But how can we come back from this?  Human beings as a race, a people, are a perverse combination of cruelty and kindness, brutality and gentleness, compassion and apathy.  Individual people have risen above the horror of what we are.  But we have never risen above it as a people.  I thought, I hoped, we were going to this time.  And it was not the raw, fresh, untried hope of youth.  It was the hope of a middle-aged man who has seen and felt and known hurt and humiliation and pains both common and extraordinary.  Maybe none of it matters now.

We are looking at the probable end of humanity.  All that will remain is our space junk.  Silent satellites, crashing about in geosynchronous orbit.  Even the probes and rovers will wander without any guidance from the home they left.

Heliotrope will shine the Sun’s light upon an empty Earth.

Heliotrope Flower

*****

It is found.  It can’t hear them, but voices sound in the craft that approaches.

Drifting, but it held its orbit all this time.

How?

It was programmed to redirect itself toward the sun.  And it’s got that old solar panel technology to power itself.

It’s magnificent.  We have to get it.

Does it have any data?

What can we use it for?  Anything?

How old is this thing? It’s got to be broken.

No, it looks okay…

 

Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.

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