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The assignment was to write about a picnic or a barbecue — some sort of outdoor food event. Furthermore, one of the class challenged me to write a story with no animals in it and in which nothing supernatural happens. So I wrote about a field trip from school...

Incidentally, the technical descriptions and the details about the site and what happened there are as true and as accurate as I could make them. It really all took place just as I have described it.

There are two versions of the story here. The first is the one I originally wrote and submitted to the writer's group. The second is a revised version incorporating some comments I received. If you want to skip straight to the second version, either scroll down or click here.


The Field Trip (Original Version)

This term there were only three children enrolled in the Tranquillity Base school and it was my job to keep them entertained and educated for a year while their parents did whatever it is that scientists do when their tour of duty brings them to the moon. The youngest child was eight and the oldest was eleven so I didn’t anticipate too many problems. When I first met the children, they’d been on the base for about a month which was just about enough time to get them acclimatised to the low gravity and airless lunar conditions. They were not impressed.

"It’s so boring," said Bobby, the youngest child in the class. "Nothing ever happens here."

"That’s right," agreed Eric who was eleven. "We can’t go outside without wearing space suits. And when we do go outside it all looks just the same as it did the last time we went out. Nothing changes. There’s no weather or anything. Just dust everywhere."

"And rocks," said ten year old Janet. "Don’t forget the rocks."

"Rocks," agreed Eric. "Rocks are even more boring than dust."

"Well let’s see if we can do something about that," I said. "One of the things I want to do while you are here is take you all on a field trip to the site of the original moon landing. It’s not very far away from the base. In fact Tranquillity Base was built here specifically because this is where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed and walked on the moon."

Bobby looked at Eric and Eric looked at Bobby and rolled his eyes. "Boring!" he said. "That was a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s all ancient history now. Going there will be just like visiting a museum. And museums are super boring."

"Well, we’ll see about that," I said, ignoring his comment. "We’ll be doing our field trip to the landing site the day after tomorrow. So make sure your oxygen tanks are fully charged and get your parents to prepare lunch boxes for you. We’ll have a picnic while we’re there."

* * * *

When the day of the field trip arrived, we walked from Tranquillity Base to the landing site. It wasn’t far. I always find the place a little sad. There are clear plastic cases around Armstrong and Aldrin’s footprints so that the tourists can see the footprints but can’t accidentally (or purposefully) walk over them and rub them out. Apart from that very little has been done to preserve the site. The American flag still lies forlornly in the dust where the blast from the ascent stage’s rockets knocked it over when Armstrong and Aldrin started their journey home. The gold foil that sheathed the descent stage is now very tattered because people have torn pieces off to keep as souvenirs. Embedded in one leg of the descent stage is a plaque engraved with the words Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind. Someone has scratched "John loves Jennifer" on it, obliterating the signatures of the astronauts.

I showed the children around the site and explained to them how the descent stage brought the astronauts to the moon’s surface and how it acted as a launch pad for the ascent stage when it was time to take off again. Janet seemed quite fascinated by what I said but I caught Eric and Bobby rolling their eyes at each other through their suit helmets and more than once I’m sure I saw Eric mouth the word "Boring!"

Just to the west of the lunar module is the place where the astronauts jettisoned all the stuff they didn’t intend to take back with them. They needed to save weight – the more weight they saved, the more moon rocks they could bring back to Earth. The area is known as the Garbage Dump to the personnel at Tranquillity Base. There is indeed quite a lot of rubbish there, including two lunar overshoes, some empty food bags, a couple of cameras, an insulated blanket, four urine containers and four defecation collection devices. These last are full to the brim and when I saw Eric poking experimentally at them I decided that the children had done enough site exploration for the time being.

I called them all back and we gathered together round the descent stage of the lunar module for our picnic lunch. The children attached their lunch boxes to the Food Access Units of their suits and while they drank their juice and munched their sandwiches I told them how the great adventure had almost ended in tragedy.

"Did you know," I said, " that Armstrong and Aldrin very nearly died here because of a little bit of plastic about half an inch long?"

Eric and Bobby started to look interested. Like all small boys they had a ghoulish attraction to anything morbid. "What happened?" asked Eric.

"The plastic piece was a switch on the lunar module control panel," I explained. "When they were getting into their spacesuits one of them accidentally bumped into it and broke the switch off. It was a very important switch. It was the one that fired the engines of the ascent stage. Because the switch was broken, they couldn’t start the engines and that meant they couldn’t take off and go back home. They were stuck here on the moon, facing certain death."

"How would they have died?" asked Bobby eagerly. "What would have killed them?"

"Well," I said, "they might have died of starvation or thirst when their food and water ran out. But more likely they’d have suffocated to death when they ran out of air to breathe."

"Or," said Eric gleefully, "maybe they’d have realised there was nothing they could do so they’d just have opened their spacesuits and exposed themselves to vacuum so as to get it over and done with quickly. The pressure difference would have made them explode and they’d have splattered themselves all over everywhere! We got taught about that when we were learning how to use our own suits."

"Ewww! Gross!" said Janet, turning a bit pale.

"Be that as it may," I said, "they didn’t actually die, even though they couldn’t flick the switch. Do any of you know how they solved the problem?"

The children all shook their heads.

"Buzz Aldrin used a felt tip pen to push the switch mechanism. The engines fired and they made a perfect take off. They rendezvoused successfully with the command module that Michael Collins was orbiting around the moon and they all returned safely to Earth."

Eric nodded solemnly. "Felt tip pens are cool," he said. "I like the funny feeling you get when you sniff the tips!"

"Watch this," I said, changing the subject. I tossed a rock towards the lunar lander. The children’s eyes followed its gentle trajectory as it curved down and landed in one of the shallow dish-shaped feet at the bottom of the landing strut. A small cloud of dust rose up and then gently settled again. "See how the rock falls to the ground much more slowly than it would on Earth?"

"Yes, I know," said Eric scornfully. "That’s because the gravity here is only about a sixth of what it is on Earth. Everybody knows about lunar gravity. It’s boring!"

"Oooh!" said Janet. "What’s that?" She darted forward and bent down to pick up something that had been exposed when the dust was disturbed. "Look at this," she said excitedly. "Look what I’ve found!"

Eric and Bobby stared at the small, grey piece of plastic that Janet was holding. "Gosh!" said Eric. "I think you’ve found the broken switch. That’s a proper historic object, that is."

"Let me look," I said, and Janet showed it to me. "Yes," I said, "it’s definitely the switch. Well spotted!" She beamed in triumph and tucked the switch away in her suit pocket.

All the way back to Tranquillity Base the children chattered excitedly about what Janet had found. Somehow I didn’t think that Eric and Bobby were at all bored any more. I was very pleased with the effect of Janet’s discovery. I love seeing children get enthusiastic about life on the moon. After all, they are our hope for the future. Maybe Eric, Bobby and Janet would come back here one day to serve a tour of duty. Perhaps they’d bring their own children with them.

I thought about Janet’s discovery. In retrospect it seemed to me that she’d found the switch rather too easily. So I decided that next year, when another class of children had a field trip to the landing site, I’d hide my home made broken switch somewhere a bit less obvious.



I showed the story that you've just read to Lyn, the convenor of the writer's group. She pointed out that I had some unecessary descriptive material (not quite a Checkovian gun, but pretty damn close). So on the grounds that you have to kill your darlings, I cut it out. She also suggested places where some expository material might work better as dialogue. So I did that as well. Finally, she suggested a way of strengthening the ending. Here's the revised story. I think it is a stronger story as a result of the revisions...

The Field Trip (Revised Version)

by Alan Robson and Lyn Bowyer


This term there were only three children enrolled in the Tranquillity Base School and it was my job to keep them entertained and educated for a year while their parents did whatever it is that scientists do when their tour of duty brings them to the moon. The youngest child was eight and the oldest was eleven so I didn’t anticipate too many problems. When I first met the children, they’d been on the base for about a month which was just about enough time to get them acclimatised to the low gravity and airless lunar conditions. They were not impressed.

"It’s so boring," said Bobby, the youngest child in the class. "Nothing ever happens here."

"That’s right," agreed Eric who was eleven. "We can’t go outside without wearing space suits. And when we do go outside it all looks just the same as it did the last time we went out. Nothing changes. There’s no weather or anything. Just dust everywhere."

"And rocks," said ten year old Janet. "Don’t forget the rocks."

"Rocks," agreed Eric. "Rocks are even more boring than dust."

"Well let’s see if we can do something about that," I said. "One of the things I want to do while you are here is take you all on a field trip to the site of the original moon landing. It’s not very far away from the base. In fact Tranquillity Base was built here specifically because this is where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed and walked on the moon."

Bobby looked at Eric and Eric looked at Bobby and rolled his eyes. "Boring!" he said. "That was a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s all ancient history now. Going there will be just like visiting a museum. And museums are super boring."

"Well, we’ll see about that," I said, ignoring his comment. "We’ll be doing our field trip to the landing site the day after tomorrow. So make sure your oxygen tanks are fully charged and get your parents to prepare lunch boxes for you. We’ll have a picnic while we’re there."

* * * *

When the day of the field trip arrived, we walked from Tranquillity Base to the landing site. It wasn’t far. I showed the children around the site and explained to them how the descent stage brought the astronauts to the moon’s surface and how it acted as a launch pad for the ascent stage when it was time to take off again. Janet seemed quite fascinated by what I said but I caught Eric and Bobby rolling their eyes at each other through their suit helmets and more than once I’m sure I saw Eric mouth the word "Boring!"

"What’s all this stuff lying on the ground?" asked Bobby. "The place looks like a rubbish dump!"

"That’s exactly what it is," I said. "The astronauts jettisoned all the things they didn’t intend to take back home. They needed to save weight. The more weight they saved, the more moon rocks they could carry back to Earth."

"It looks pretty messy," said Janet. "The astronauts must have been real litter louts!"

"I suppose they were," I said. "There’s all sorts of junk here. There’s a couple of lunar overshoes, some empty food bags, two cameras, an insulated blanket, four urine containers and four defecation collection devices." The containers are full to the brim, but I didn’t think it was necessary to mention that unsavoury fact. Then I noticed Eric poking experimentally at the lids on the containers. "All right everyone," I said hurriedly, "I think we’ve done enough exploration of the garbage dump for the time being. Let’s go back to the lunar lander and have our picnic."

The children attached their lunch boxes to the Food Access Units of their suits and while they drank their juice and munched their sandwiches I told them how the great adventure had almost ended in tragedy. "Did you know," I said, " that Armstrong and Aldrin very nearly died here because of a little bit of plastic about half an inch long?"

Eric and Bobby started to look interested. Like all small boys they had a ghoulish attraction to anything morbid. "What happened?" asked Eric.

"The plastic piece was a switch on the lunar module control panel," I explained. "When they were getting into their spacesuits one of them accidentally bumped into it and broke the switch off. It was a very important switch. It was the one that fired the engines of the ascent stage. Because the switch was broken, they couldn’t start the engines and that meant they couldn’t take off and go back home. They were stuck here on the moon, facing certain death."

"How would they have died?" asked Bobby eagerly. "What would have killed them?"

"Well," I said, "they might have died of starvation or thirst when their food and water ran out. But more likely they’d have suffocated to death when they ran out of air to breathe."

"Or," said Eric gleefully, "maybe they’d have realised there was nothing they could do so they’d just have opened their spacesuits and exposed themselves to vacuum so as to get it over and done with quickly. The pressure difference would have made them explode and they’d have splattered themselves all over everywhere! We got taught about that when we were learning how to use our own suits."

"Ewww! Gross!" said Janet, turning a bit pale.

"Be that as it may," I said, "they didn’t actually die, even though they couldn’t flick the switch. Do any of you know how they solved the problem?"

The children all shook their heads.

"Buzz Aldrin used a felt tip pen to push the switch mechanism. The engines fired and they made a perfect take off. They rendezvoused successfully with the command module that Michael Collins was orbiting around the moon and they all returned safely to Earth."

Eric nodded solemnly. "Felt tip pens are cool," he said. "I like the funny feeling you get when you sniff the tips!"

"Watch this," I said, changing the subject. I tossed a rock towards the lunar lander. The children’s eyes followed its gentle trajectory as it curved down and landed in one of the shallow dish-shaped feet at the bottom of the landing strut. A small cloud of dust rose up and then gently settled again. "See how the rock falls to the ground much more slowly than it would on Earth?"

"Yes, I know," said Eric scornfully. "That’s because the gravity here is only about a sixth of what it is on Earth. Everybody knows about lunar gravity. It’s boring!"

"Oooh!" said Janet. "What’s that?" She darted forward and bent down to pick up something that had been exposed when the dust was disturbed. "Look at this," she said excitedly. "Look what I’ve found!"

Eric and Bobby stared at the small, grey piece of plastic that Janet was holding. "Gosh!" said Eric. "I think you’ve found the broken switch. That’s a proper historic object, that is."  

"Let me look," I said, and Janet showed it to me. "Yes," I said, "it’s definitely the switch. Well spotted!" She beamed in triumph and tucked the switch away in her suit pocket.

All the way back to Tranquillity Base the children chattered excitedly about what Janet had found. Somehow I didn’t think that Eric and Bobby were at all bored any more. I was very pleased with the effect of Janet’s discovery. I love seeing children get enthusiastic about life on the moon.

I thought about the way Janet had spotted the switch in the lunar dust. In retrospect it seemed to me that she’d found it rather too easily. So I decided that next year, when another class of children had a field trip to the landing site, I’d hide my home made broken switch somewhere a bit less obvious.


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