Term Paper: Mars Story

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Manned Mission to Mars

It was Meretzky's turn in the exercise pod again. For reasons that IRIS, the ship's diagnostic computer, could not figure out, Meretzky had been losing bone density faster than any of his colleagues. For weeks now, IRIS had been rearranging the crew's schedule to accommodate Meretzky's extra time in the exercise pod -- Meretzky had also been forced to wear a tightened suit to increase the level of mechanical stress on his skeleton and stimulate the levels of bone growth. He wouldn't be much use if they landed on the red planet, as the first human beings to set foot on its surface, and with his first giant step for mankind the leg bones snapped like twigs. That would never do.

But IRIS was acting strangely, and she had been for months. It started after the blood test that revealed the elevated calcium levels in Meretzky's bloodstream -- the rest of the crew wasn't having those problems. And it would be strange to say this about an Artificial Intelligence system -- although before the mission all of the crew had been thoroughly schooled in knowing that IRIS wasn't really Intelligent, it was just a sophisticated series of algorithms and speech emulators -- but IRIS seemed to be flailing. It's not that the instructions were contradictory: it's just that Meretzky's sudden increased bone loss, after so much travel time, when they were almost at their destination, seemed to have triggered some kind of crisis mode. Or actually Meretzky was pretty sure what it was. IRIS had signaled to Mission Control on Earth that this was a medical problem beyond her pay-grade. Something had triggered her internal analytic algorithms to say: Meretzky's bone-density loss was beyond all expectations, so now we're operating in a realm where he's not an astronaut subject to expected medical protocols, but essentially an ongoing medical experiment. Except the available data doesn't tell us how to keep this patient alive. Meretzky was sure this had happened, and as a result IRIS was having to communicate with a team of medical specialists back on Earth. Hence the accelerated exercise schedule, and the increasingly frequent blood and serum tests.

Meretzky climbed into the exercise pod and began strapping himself in. The lights came on indicating that IRIS was listening. "You can seal the exercise pod, IRIS," said Meretzky. "I'm ready for whatever we're doing this time."

The flickering lights of IRIS's speech synthesizer appeared on the viewscreen. "You'll be exercising for an hour, then I'll probably do some tests. We'll see how you feel."

Meretzky remembered their training. The best thing was to be completely honest with the interactive diagnostic systems. Especially about your internal mental state. "The only thing that has me feeling funny, IRIS, is the way you've been handling this. The other crew members are practically working double duty, because I keep getting pulled for medical observation."

"Your fellow crew members haven't complained to me, Meretzky," said the flickering voice synthesizer. "They'd like to know why you're losing bone mass so much faster than they are. After all, you'll have a 500-day stay on Mars, then a flight home. None of you wants to be unable to walk when the ship gets back on earth."

"But it's not a problem on Mars, is it? Gravity's lighter there," said Meretzky. "Maybe my lighter skeleton would come in handy."

"It's a little over a third of the gravity you're used to on earth," said IRIS. "But we have no data on what a long-term stay on Mars does physiologically to humans. It's best if we have you in good condition when you make landfall, don't you think? You'll be in better condition when you get home."

"You're thinking farther ahead than I am, IRIS."

"That's what computers do, Meretzky."

"Why are you called IRIS, anyway?" he asked, even though he knew the answer to this. But a little cornball humor helped to make the months pass on this mission.

"You really need to ask?" said the computer, who had been programmed to seem as unpredictable and hesitant as a human interlocutor.

"I'm asking."

"Because it's Siri spelled backwards," said the computer, making reference to a well-known consumer product way back from Meretzky's childhood, an operating system that tried to hint at the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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