In Oxygen, biochemist John B. Olson and physicist Randall Scott Ingermanson produce a work of science fiction that poses an intriguing question. If a catastrophe should strike midway between Earth and Mars, what should an astronaut trust: God or technology? The protagonist, Valkerie Jansen—astronaut, scientist, doctor, and Christian—responds in a way that honors both her faith-based heritage and her empirical training.
In this account of a mission gone awry, events begin on Tuesday, August 14, 2012, in Alaska and end on Friday, July 4, 2014, on Mars. During the short two-year span, Jansen is selected to the astronaut corps, trains for a flight, and begins the mission to Mars. The pressure of time is a significant catalyst: NASA must launch Ares 10 as scheduled or the program will be scrapped; Jansen has months, not years, to complete her training; and, following a series of mishaps, the astronauts have limited time to find a solution to their depleting oxygen supply. Furthermore, if NASA is to profit from televised coverage and gain public support for future flights, it must meet expectations for a Fourth of July landing. This haste is conveyed effectively in the novel’s format. Comprising four long sections that house forty short chapters, the novel is fast-paced.
Part 1, “Human Factors,” opens with Jansen camped in Alaska, collecting biological samples from an active volcano as part of her postdoctoral work. Poisonous gases leak from the earth’s crust and she instinctively seeks higher ground. When the gases reach into the treetops she climbs, she returns to camp, punctures her Jeep’s tires, and inhales the stale oxygen they provide. Her survival instinct and vast scientific knowledge are a combination sought by NASA. In a coincidence that is at odds with an otherwise believably scripted work, two NASA officials arrive by helicopter during this episode to interview their applicant. Instead of conducting an interview, they find themselves rescuing the oxygen-deprived Jansen, airlifting her to safety. The episode tells them what they hoped to discover in their interview, and they offer her a dream job.
Throughout much of the novel, the relationship between crew members is a tenuous one. Even prior to the flight disasters, tension exists. Others are suspicious of Jansen’s Christian beliefs, which she downplays in their presence. Fundamentalist protesters mob NASA’s gates, angered at the agency’s search for evidence of life on Mars. Their presence embarrasses Jansen and inflames fellow astronauts. In particular, Chief Engineer Bob Kaganovski worries that Jansen might thwart the discovery of life on Mars to avoid a potential conflict with Creationism. Jansen’s fellow astronauts are aggrieved she has replaced the more affable Josh Bennet, the former leader of their mission, who remains behind to assume responsibilities as capcom.
The rough launch in part 2, “The Point of No Return,” creates mechanical and physical problems for the crew even before they leave Earth orbit. Commander Kennedy Hampton suffers a detached retina that leaves him blind in one eye, though a greater blindness is his lack of faith in his crew and in God. His paranoia infects the morale of his crew, and they begin to question loyalties. Desperate to continue the mission, he withholds information from NASA about damage to onboard systems, endangering the lives of his comrades.
In part 3, “The Belly of the Beast,” Kaganovski and Hampton take an unplanned spacewalk to assess vehicle damage and attempt repairs. When Kaganovski touches an exposed wire, he causes an explosion of such intensity that a metal seam ruptures. Jansen must aid injured astronaut Lex Ohta, repair the breach to prevent further loss of oxygen, and rescue the bewildered spacewalkers. As the origins of the explosion remain unknown, the consensus among crew and NASA is sabotage: Someone attached a bomb to the ship prior to launch. Tight security precludes all but one of six...
(The entire section is 1,027 words.)