Sending people into space was something that humanity had been able to do since, roughly, the middle of the 20th century. Yuri Gagarin and all those who followed were essentially nothing more than the scientific method in action. The results replicated and on we went.
After the small flurry of activity that was the USA v The Soviet Union space race, which ended with Apollo 11 and the first humans on the surface of the moon, things stagnated.
As easy as it was to send people into what we defined as space, and even to another celestial body, sending them any further was an engineering feat several orders of magnitude above what had already been achieved. The final word on the matter was along the lines of: “Yes, it can be done, and we can probably do it, but it requires technology we haven’t invented yet. Give us 30 years.”
Then 30 years came and went and the scientists and engineers said: “Were almost there, give us another ten years. We promise this time.”
15 years passed and finally, finally, someone was ready and willing to launch a living human into space with the goal of stepping onto Martian soil and then returning. No one was ready to accept that it would be India who would beat everyone, including the private companies, to the launchpad.
Within the canon of space exploration post-Apollo, there are three dates that are lodged in everyone’s memories, and all three of them are attached to the first manned Martian launch by the Indian Space Agency:
July 15 2037, the day that the ISA launched their manned mission to Mars.
August 18 2037, the day they announced to the world that the mission had failed and their craft was now floating free of all control between Earth and the moon.
February 20 2038, the day that had been calculated as the extreme upper limit of survivability in the cramped conditions within the capsule.
The world mourned the loss of the six astronauts for a long time. The fault in the mission, it was revealed much later, was a very human error which had led to limited communications between the onboard computers. Literally an unplugged cable which could have been fixed by one of the astronauts, had it been discovered in time.
Once again, humanity’s efforts to travel past their own little bubble of the universe stalled. People cited the Indian mission as why they shouldn't leave Earth, the ever-looming threat of asteroid strike not an issue to those who couldn’t imagine the world ending.
But humanity and her issues with space travel aren't the story here. No, the story is what happened between July 15 and August 18 2037 somewhere between Earth and the moon…
The launch went off without a hitch, and that's probably the only thing that went right.
Even with all the shaking and rattling of the rocket as it broke out of the planet’s gravity well, they all noticed the three little red lights that blinked on almost instantly. When the capsule didn't explode, or vent them into whatever it was outside the capsule, the six highly trained astronauts decided that the little red lights weren't an actual issue, and since there were all sorts of lights all over and none of the major ones they had been told to watch were an abnormal colour, they all ignored them until it was too late.
They were a week into the mission when the hallucinations started. One by one, they all started to see things outside the capsule which shouldn't have been there. First they were immense jellyfish, and if watched for more than a few minutes, they morphed into something that was, but at the same time wasn’t, a cat’s head.
When the commander of the mission noticed the others acting weird, he radioed the issue back to Earth, but it was about then the critical failure of the mission reared its ugly head and everything stopped working.
Days passed and there was no word from Earth on any of the communications systems on board.
Everything seemed to working appropriately and no one aboard the craft could see anything wrong with the systems, but it was abundantly clear that they were out of communication with Earth.
Then the engines stopped. Well, not stopped. Paused. They reignited after almost four hours. But by that point, even if they had been in contact with Earth, everything would be off and getting to Mars and returning - the key point on all the astronauts applications – would be unattainable.
Eventually, they all had the conversation they had been avoiding and said it out loud for the first time: “We are going to die out here.”
The captain did his calculations and estimated, given all they knew, that the air supply would last the longest, however it would get rather stale very quickly if the engines continued to cycle on and off as they had been doing.
The moon swung by on their left a few days later. Off ahead and slightly to the right was their original target. It was going the wrong way for them now to ever reach, even if they fixed the engine issue. The bright glow teased them as they continued toward their final days.
They had almost reached the halfway point between launch and final breaths when one of them noticed that not only were the engines cycling off and on regularly, but also that they were steering when they were on.
The hallucinations were still there, floating outside. Now they were something of a shimmering grizzly bear, and they had started to talk to them. Even from outside, their speech was able to be heard as if they were right next to the crew. The language itself was a mystery, but they didn't seem harmful, and once again they were passed off as a minor gas leak somewhere aboard the ship.
Imagine their surprise when, out of nowhere, each of the floating heads, now somewhere in the two dozen range all at once vanished into what could only be described as a tunnel of light.
The astronauts were also heading towards it, and within minutes had disappeared from all they knew and a lot they didn't.
The ship was never seen again, its crew was never heard from again and those on Earth who had been monitoring the mission only saw a sharp glint in the sky before everything on their monitors disappeared.
The rest of the planet was never told.