It took a long time for human beings
to accept that our little piece of meteoric
rubble wasn't the exact and absolute
center of the Universe. It does appear
that way, doesn't it? It may not take
so long for a spaceman to learn ...
By JOHN CORY
Illustrated by Gardner
ear the end of his
fifteenth orbit as Greenland
slipped by noiselessly
below, he made
the routine measurements
that tested the operation of
his space capsule and checked the
automatic instruments which would
transmit their stored data to Earth
on his next pass over Control. Everything
normal; all mechanical devices
were operating perfectly.
This information didn't surprise
him, in fact, he really didn't even
think about it. The previous orbits
and the long simulated flights on
Earth during training had made such
checks routine and perfect results
expected. The capsules were developed
by exhaustive testing both on
the ground and as empty satellites
before entrusting them to carry animals
and then the first human.
He returned to contemplation of
the panorama passing below and
above, although as he noted idly,
above and below had lost some of
their usual meaning. Since his capsule,
like all heavenly bodies, was
stable in position with respect to the
entire universe and, thanks to Sir
Isaac Newton and his laws, never
changed, the Earth and the stars
alternated over his head during each
orbit. "Up" now meant whatever
was in the direction of his head. He
remembered that even during his
initial orbit when the Earth first
appeared overhead he accepted the
fact as normal. He wondered if the
other two had accepted it as easily.
For there had been two men
hurled into orbit before he ventured
into space. Two others who had also
passed the rigorous three-year training
period and were selected on the
basis of over-all performance to precede
him. He had known them both
well and wondered again what had
happened on their flights. Of course,
they had both returned, depending
upon what your definition of return
was. The capsules in which they had
ventured beyond Earth had returned
them living. But this was to be expected,
for even the considerable
hazards of descent through the atmosphere
and the terrible heating
which occurred were successfully surmounted
by the capsule.
Naturally, it had not been expected
that the satellites would have to be
brought down by command from
the ground. But this, too, was part of
the careful planning—radio control
of the retro-rockets that move the
satellite out of orbit by reducing its
velocity. Of course, ground control
was to be used only if the astronaut
failed to ignite the retro-rockets himself.
He remembered everyone's
surprise and relief when the first capsule
was recovered and its occupant
found to be alive. They had assumed
that in spite of all precautions he
was dead because he had not fired
the rockets on the fiftieth orbit and
it was necessary to bring him down
on the sixty-fifth.
Recovery alive only partially solved
the mystery, for the rescuers and
all others were met by a haughty,
stony silence from the occupant. Batteries
of tests confirmed an early
diagnosis: complete and utter withdrawal;
absolute refusal to communicate.
Therapy was unsuccessful.
The second attempt was similar
in most respects, except that command
return was made on the thirty-first
orbit after the astronaut's failure
to de-orbit at the end of the thirtieth.
His incoherent babble of moons,
stars, and worlds was no more helpful
than the first.
Test after test confirmed that no
obvious organic damage had been
incurred by exposure outside of the
Earth's protective atmosphere. Biopsy
of even selected brain tissues seemed
to show that microscopic cellular
changes due to prolonged weightlessness
or primary cosmic-ray bombardment,
which had been suggested by
some authorities, were unimportant.
Somewhat reluctantly, it was decided
to repeat the experiment a third time.
The launching was uneventful. He
was sent into space with the precision
he expected. The experience
was exhilarating and, although he
had anticipated each event in advance,
he could not possibly have
foreseen the overpowering feeling
that came over him. Weightlessness
he had experienced for brief periods
during training, but nothing could
match the heady impression of continuous
freedom from gravity.
Earth passing overhead was also
to be expected from the simple laws
of celestial mechanics but his feeling
as he watched it now was inexpressible.
It occurred to him that perhaps
this was indeed why he was here,
because he could appreciate such experiences
best. He had been told the
stars would be bright, unblinking,
and an infinitude in extent, but could
mere descriptions or photographs
convey the true seeing?
On his twenty-first orbit he completed
his overseeing the entire surface
of the planet in daylight. He
had seen more of Earth than anyone
able to tell about it, but only he
had the true feeling of it. The continents
were clearly visible, as were
the oceans and both polar ice caps.
The shapes were familiar but in
only a remote way. A vague indistinctness
borne of distance served to
modify the outlines and he alone
was seeing and understanding. On
the dark side of the planet large
cities were marked by indistinct light
areas which paled to insignificance
compared to the stars and his sun.
He speculated about the others
who had only briefly experienced
these sights. Undoubtedly they
weren't as capable of fully grasping
or appreciating any of these things
as he was. It was quite clear that
no one else but he could encompass
the towering feeling of power and
importance generated by being alone
in the Universe.
At the end of the twenty-fifth
orbit he disabled the radio control
of the retro-rockets and sat back with
satisfaction to await the next circuit
of his Earth around Him.
This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction May 1960.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.