Our little blue betta fish laid flat at the bottom of his makeshift life support chamber – A plastic cup on our kitchen table with warm water and a tube fed in to blow bubbles into the mini incubator. In the morning, my crewmember had discovered the little guy looking sick at the bottom of the tank and yelled, “Oh, Jupiter!” before rushing to his rescue.

Only he didn’t say Jupiter.

Now the two of us stood around watching him repeatedly swim upside down towards the surface before floating back down to the bottom again. Things were not looking good.

At least he was surrounded by family. He would have wanted it this way.

We received this fish during resupply, or ‘Hab Christmas’, as I like to call it. Unlike the other items, this wasn’t something we requested and I was surprised at how excited I was when I saw it. It felt as if we were children receiving their first pet. After all, he was the first other living creature we’d need to care for since the start of the mission.

The commander, of course, reacted as any dad surprised by an unexpected pet would: with a groan and an eye roll. I could nearly feel his thoughts – ‘Another damn mouth to feed. Fine, but YOU’RE taking care of it.’

We set him up in his new fish tank, crafting items for him to hide in, and spent the next few weeks trying to decide on a name for him without coming to a consensus. We basically each started calling him different names as if his identity needed to be protected for research purposes.

Some of my favorite options included:

  • Alfred
  • Master Betta (I lobbied heavily for this one – for recognition of his advanced educational degree)
  • Sully
  • A Fish Named Sue
  • J.T.

“He’s going to die without even having a real name,” One crewmember said defeatedly, concerned for the fish’s dignity.

“No, guys! If he goes down we all go down!,” another crewmember exclaimed.

Humor is important in these situations.

The Morning

The rescuer crewmember- let’s call him Hasselhoff, and I went on about our morning business as little Master attempted to recover. The rest of the crew slowly filtered in from sleeping in, walking past the bubbling infirmary. Finally, one crewmember noticed something was off.

“What’s wrong, buddy?,” they asked.

It was as if our child had cornered us with a logically-perfect question about the existence of Santa Clause. Hasselhoff and I shot sharps looks at one another like parents silently discussing who was going to break the bad news.

I lost the interaction and replied, “He’s not looking very well this morning.”

“Aww…,” They replied, eyes still on Master. “I Hope you feel better.”

I’m a bit ashamed of it now, but I realized then that I had basically assumed he would be a goner within the first 20 seconds of noticing him at the bottom of the tank. As crewmembers were talking about what could be done, I wondered what we were going to do with the body. After all, once they noticed the 7th crewmember was gone, Mission Support would start asking questions, and I’m not ready to go back to the joint.

Now, it’s not that I’m heartless or even pessimistic. It’s just that growing up in a Portuguese household where our rabbits conveniently ‘ran away’ the night before having rabbit stew, my attachment to pets tends to hit different levels than American kids. Then again, I’m also the person who secretly catches spiders and bugs so that we don’t kill them.

Before you knew it, everyone was awake and standing around the fish tank. It was oddly reminiscent of a family sitting around someone’s hospital bed, discussing the options.

The family gathers around a loved one

Hidden in this story, however, was the beauty of my crew and their tendency to think both scientifically and with compassion. They’re what astronauts are made of – people who understand the world enough to solve its problems.

The commander reacted as any good dad would – by jumping into the conversation and trying to care for the fish.

The crew began discussing the science –no longer engineers, but medical practitioners. “What could the cause be?,” Dr. Hasselhoff asked. His trauma team responded.

“pH levels”

“Check it, stat.”

One crewmember ran to the lab, returning with pH strips and began testing the water. “Looks nominal.”

”What else?,” the doctor continued.

I typed away at the computer, searching for information on the patient’s history. “Sir, the water’s too cold for him,” I noted.

Within minutes, and I kid you not, a rig was set up with a glass container on a thermally regulated plate set to the proper temperature.

Fish Infirmary

“How long will it take to warm up?,” Hasselhoff asked.

“I’m not sure,” the nurse responded.

I objected. “We Don’t Have That Kind of Time!”

Humor is important in these situations.

The crew balanced the salinity of the water, set the proper pH level, and monitored the temperature. At one point, I even found him in a Free-Willy type of sling for reasons I still don’t understand. I didn’t ask questions however, instead listening to the imaginary wife tugging on my arm saying, “Brian, the doctors know what they’re doing…”

The crew took turns throughout the day to come in check on him nervously, hoping we would not be the one to find him at the top of the tank.

At one point, I entered to find several family members and the medical staff gathered around the tank. Their motionless bodies blocked the view of that they were all looking at, and it seemed it was over. I continued towards them as they parted, revealing a fish looking back at me. “He’s doing a lot better,” Hasselhoff noted.

It was indeed true that the fish was no longer swimming upside down, but I decided to observe him for a while.

I watched as he didn’t move any of his fins. Instead, his motion was derived only from the movement of the water. He made no effort to change course as his face sailed directly into the glass, forcing him into a new direction before repeating it again.

This time, I traded glances with another like-minded crewmember. “Yeah….he’s looking great…”

The hours passed and eventually I approached his new area to find what was easily the most adorable and depressing thing I’ve ever seen:

Patient Charts are Important

The hab-to-fish-hospital transformation had been complete and everyone, including myself, were concerned and hopeful for our Martian pet.

Before everyone went to bed, the medical staff made sure to double check all of the environmental controls. When asked about his tank light, we decided to turn it off.

“After all that, we don’t need him swimming towards the light.”

The End?

Admittedly, when I began this story, I didn’t know how it was going to end. Actually, I was pretty damn sure how it was going to end, but who wants to read a depressing story?

Now, the fight is still far from over. However, I am happy to report that little Master is looking quite improved. Carefully calibrated water and temperature changes seem to be doing the trick. He’s up and swimming around, no longer turning upside down or lethargically using his face as a battering ram. In the last two days, he’s seemed to be recovering and acting normal again. For a crew on Mars, even a pet fish can cause quite the emotional roller coaster.

After the first morning, I became much more hopeful. I leaned down and placed my hands on my knees so that I could look him in the eye.

“We will beat this. You WILL be a healthy Master Betta again.”

Humor is important in these situations.


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