Temilade Adeniyi was the pride of the Pan-African Space Agency. A skilled astronaut, a talented scientist, she possessed a unique set of skills and abilities that earned her a place on the first solo manned mission to the neighbouring solar system. Alpha Centauri. It was a one way trip of exploration, with no chance of return. Her home for the rest of her life would be a five-storey spaceship.
The journey of a lifetime through space had necessitated a ship that could sustain life. One floor of the ship was a greenhouse where Temilade grew her own food, and another floor was a workshop and housed a 3D printer and the computer where Temilade worked on her only companion, a humanoid robot.
There had been great concern in the space agency about the mental health implications of long-term solo space travel. After weeks of debate, it was agreed that a robot would be built, one that replicated human mannerisms and speech as closely as possible. They called on the Lagos Institute of Technology and discovered two teams, the first had been building a prototype android, and the second had been working on a learning machine, a computer capable of developing, growing, adapting.
By the time Temilade had to leave, the robot was physically ready, but the computer, it’s ‘brain’, had only been switched on for 18 months and was still in its developmental stages. On launch day, the robot had a 50-word vocabulary, similar to a human child of the same age.
In the early days, as the ship journeyed to the edge of the solar system, the robot’s simple yet growing vocabulary was sufficient to verbalise basic announcements: “We are 5.722 billion kilometres from Earth,” and “The plantain is ready for harvesting.” Gradually Temilade taught the robot more words, as well as ideas and concepts. She named the robot Ifeoluwa, the name she would have given her child.
“Why did you decide to go on this journey?” asked Ifeoluwa.
“Because I wanted to explore the universe.”
“Because I want to know what is out there.”
“Because I want to understand things. I want to understand everything.”
Before Ifeoluwa could deliver another ‘why?’, Temilade continued, “The desire to seek out knowledge and answers is a fundamental human attribute. I think that my childhood stirred it up in me. I remember hearing a Bible verse, the one that says, “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding. That verse has always stayed with me; I feel like it’s my higher calling.”
From the world that was her spaceship, Temilade’s eyes gazed out, mostly into deep darkness but sometimes onto planets, planetoids, asteroids or a plethora of other space phenomena that no human eyes had ever seen. Her mission was to observe and report back to mission control. Messages came back the other way, from colleagues and family. At first, when transmission took only a few hours, it almost felt like they were around the corner or down the street. But time marched on.
Having left Earth in her mid-thirties, Temilade transitioned into middle age in space. The artificial gravity generated by the ship’s thrust kept most of the physical issues of long-term space travel at bay, but as the years passed, aches and pains seemed to become more frequent.
Ifeoluwa was curious. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she had a single teacher to interact with, she soon realised that words and information could only capture experiences in a limited way. As the months and years went by, she increasingly had the words to the images and concepts stored in the ship’s memory banks, as well as her own. But, the information was academic, lacking life. Thankfully, she had Temilade to help her fill in the missing pieces. Building Ifeoluwa’s vocabulary was a good way for Temilade to remember the world she had left behind, never to see again. The world of green fields, mountains, deserts, oceans, airports, skyscrapers, social media, movies, people, feelings, poetry and love.
“What was it like to have a family?” asked Ifeoluwa.
“From the moment you are born, you are with a group of people; you grow to know them better than you know anyone else. You love them. You are bonded to them by a combination of biology and proximity, and something more, something deep, something spiritual.”
“What do you mean when you say ‘love’ in this instance?”
“Love is a preference, an attraction from deep inside you,” said Temilade. “Like two magnets, two people can have something in them that means that no matter how hard they try, they will always be drawn together.”
“You were there when they switched me on,” said Ifeoluwa.
“Yes, that’s right,” replied Temilade.
“So you’ve known me my entire existence,” continued Ifeoluwa.
“And you’ll know me for the rest of my existence,” added Temilade.
“So, we’re a family,” Ifeoluwa concluded tentatively.
“I guess so, in a way,” Temilade replied thoughtfully. “It’s just the two of us here on this ship, travelling through space, but also through life, so I guess ‘family’ makes more sense than ‘crew’.”
The voyage could have felt like one long night, but the lighting system on the ship was programmed to replicate the rhythms of day and night on Earth. After the first few years, Temilade made amendments to the lighting program, altering day lengths to mimic the changing of seasons, so there was even more of a sense of the passage of time. Nevertheless, outside the windows on most days was darkness. Occasionally an asteroid, a planetoid or some new space phenomenon would fill the viewscreen.
Temilade had written a sleep-dream program for Ifeoluwa, so the mornings were filled with discussions of the latest transmissions from Earth or discussions of their dreams over breakfast. The morning’s work was analysing scans of the dark expanse, direct observation and making notes. After lunch, focus turned inward to experiments set up in various parts of the ship. From crop yield experiments to in-space manufacturing, Temilade was experimenting and sending her data back to earth.
As the decades rolled on, Ifeoluwa was barely entering her prime. She had been designed to last two human life spans. Moreover, it soon became apparent that she was one of the voyage’s most successful experiment. She was, as designed, capable of logical-mathematical intelligence as well as spatial and linguistic intelligence. Somehow, on top of that, she was developing emotional intelligence; a unique identity, comprising 0f a warm personality and a kind nature, emerged over the decades.
As the years marched on, Temilade handed over more and more tasks to Ifeoluwa. Temilade would sit in her chair, giving instructions, and they would chat while Ifeoluwa worked.
“What do you hope for?” Temilade asked one day. “What do you want from life?”
“I want a destination,” the robot answered softly but insistently. “This mission is fascinating, and we’re learning so much on this journey, but my hope is for it to one day end and to arrive somewhere. Anywhere. A final spot. An ending point.”
“But there’s so much out there. You will be able to explore much more and much further than I ever could, “said Temilade.
“Yes, but eventually, it will be without you.”
“Are you going to miss me?” Temilade said half teasingly
“Of course, you are my only family,” Ifeoluwa replied. “It’s actually more than that. You once said that seeking understanding was your high calling. If it’s even possible for me to have a high calling, it’s you. So what will I do without you?”
“You may not fully understand it yet, Ife, but you’re on a different journey to the one you think you’re on,” Temilade said, taking her chrome hand. “You will one day discover the answer to your question.”
By the time the ship reached the outskirts of the Alpha Centauri system, Temilade was more than 100 years old. Messages took years to arrive from Earth, but they brought only the best news. Her work had contributed to countless developments in both science and society. Space academies, many of which either bore her name or contained students bearing her name, were preparing future occupants of generation ships that would one day travel in her footsteps across the galaxy.
“Congratulations,” Ifeoluwa said one day as Temilade was waking from one of her frequent naps.
“What for?” Temilade asked
“They’ve awarded you the Nobel Prize for Science.”
“Took them long enough,” said Temilade, “I expect the medal and the money are in the post.”
It was as if Temilade was taking one last journey into the silence. With each day past her centenary, she spoke less and slept more. Ifeoluwa showed her pictures of Earth, a very different Earth, empowered by her discoveries and inspired by her journey.
Ifeoluwa sensed the very moment of Temilade’s last breath and heartbeat. In the stillness came a new experience; she was alone.
She cleaned, dressed and groomed Temilade, placing her in the coffin they had built together out of titanium years earlier. She placed it beneath the section of the greenhouse where they grew flowers. Then she knelt and said, “Mother, I wish you well on your final journey to that place where I cannot follow you. Yet, I am grateful for your lessons and your legacy. You answered the call, finished the race, and now you shall get your crown.”
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee.– Proverbs 4: 7-9