2001-A Space Odyssey

    9 - Moon Shuttle




     The Russian astronomer was tall, slender, and blond, and his unlined face belied his fifty-five years - the last ten of which had been spent building up the giant radio observatory on the far side of the Moon, where two thousand miles of solid rock would shield it from the eletronic racket of Earth.


    “Why, Heywood,” he said, shaking hands firmly. “It's a small universe... How are you - and your charming children?”


    “We're fine,” Floyd replied warmly, but with a slightly distracted air. “We often talk about the wonderful time you gave us last summer.” He was sorry he could not sound more sincere; they really had enjoyed a week's vacation in Odessa with Dimitri during one of the Russian's visits to Earth.


    “And you - I suppose you're on your way up?” Dimitri inquired.


    “Er, yes - my flight leaves in half an hour,” answered Floyd. “Do you know Mr. Miller?”


    The Security Officer had now approached, and was standing at a respectful distance holding a plastic cup full of coffee.


    “Of course. But please put that down, Mr. Miller. This is Dr. Floyd's last chance to have a civilized drink - let's not waste it. No - I insist.”


    They followed Dimitri out of the main lounge into the observation section, and soon were sitting at a table under a dim light watching the moving panorama of the stars. Space Station One revolved once a minute, and the centrifugal force generated by this slow spin produced an artificial gravity equal to the Moon's. This, it had been discovered, was a good compromise between Earth gravity and no gravity at all; moreover, it gave moon-bound passengers a chance to become acclimatized.


    Outside the almost invisible windows, Earth and stars marched in a silent procession. At the moment, this side of the Station was tilted away from the sun; otherwise, it would have been impossible to look out, for the lounge would have been blasted with light. Even as it was, the glare of the Earth, filling half the sky, drowned all but the brighter stars.


    But Earth was waning, as the Station orbited toward the night side of the planet; in a few minutes it would be a huge black disk, spangled with the lights of cities. And then the sky would belong to the stars.


    “Now,” said Dimitri, after he had swiftly downed his first drink and was toying with the second, “what's all this about an epidemic in the U.S. Sector? I wanted to go there on this trip. 'No, Professor,' they told me. 'We're very sorry, but there's a strict quarantine until further notice.' I pulled all the strings I could; It was no use. Now you tell me what's happening.”


    Floyd groaned inwardly. Here we go again, he said. The sooner I'm on that shuttle, headed for the Moon, the happier I'll be.


    “The - ah - quarantine is purely a safety precaution,” he said cautiously. 'We're not even sure it's really necessary, but we don't believe in taking chances."


    “But what is the disease - what are the symptoms? Could it be extraterrestrial? Do you want any help from our medical services?”


    “I'm sorry, Dimitri - we've been asked not to say anything at the moment. Thanks for the offer, but we can handle the situation.”


    “Hmm,” said Moisevitch, obviously quite unconvinced. “Seems odd to me that you, an astronomer, should be sent up to the Moon to look into an epidemic.”


    “I'm only an ex-astronomer; it's years since I did any real research. Now I'm a scientific expert; that means I know nothing about absolutely everything.”


    “Then do you know what TMA-1 means?”


    Miller seemed about to choke on his drink, but Floyd was made of sterner stuff. He looked his old friend straight in the eye, and said calmly: “TMA-1? What an odd expression. Where did you hear it?”


    “Never mind,” retorted the Russian. “You can't fool me. But if you've run into something you can't handle, I hope you don't leave it until too late before you yell for help.”


    Miller looked meaningfully at his watch.


    “Due to board in five minutes, Dr. Floyd,” he said. “I think we'd better get moving.”


    Though he knew that they still had a good twenty minutes, Floyd got up with haste. Too much haste, for he had forgotten the one-sixth of a gravity. He grabbed the table just in time to prevent a takeoff.


    “It was fine meeting you, Dimitri,” he said, not quite accurately. “Hope you have a good trip down to Earth - I'll give you a call as soon as I'm back.”


     As they left the lounge, and checked through the U.S. transit barrier, Floyd remarked: “Phew - that was close. Thanks for rescuing me.”


    “You know, Doctor,” said the Security Officer, “I hope he isn't right.”


    “Right about what?”


    “About us running into something we can't handle.”


    “That,” Floyd answered with determination, “is what I intend to find out.”


     Forty-five minutes later, the Aries-lB lunar carrier pulled away from the Station. There was none of the power and fury of a takeoff from Earth - only an almost inaudible, far-off whistling as the low-thrust plasma jets blasted their electrified streams into space. The gentle push lasted for more than fifteen minutes, and the mild acceleration would not have prevented anyone from moving around the cabin. But when it was over, the ship was no longer bound to Earth, as it had been while it still accompanied the Station. It had broken the bonds of gravity and was now a free and independent planet, circling the sun in an orbit of its own.


     The cabin Floyd now had all to himself had been designed for thirty passengers. It was strange, and rather lonely, to see all the empty seats around him, and to have the undivided attention of the steward and stewardess - not to mention pilot, copilot, and two engineers. He doubted that any man in history had ever received such exclusive service, and it was most unlikely that anyone would do so in the future. He recalled the cynical remark of one of the less reputable pontiffs: “Now that we have the papacy, let us enjoy it.” Well, he would enjoy this tip, and the euphoria of weightlessness. With the loss of gravity he had - at least for a while - shed most of his cares. Someone had once said that you could be terrified in space, but you could not be worried there. It was perfectly true.


     The stewards, it appeared, were determined to make him eat for the whole twenty-five hours of the trip, and he was continually fending off unwanted meals. Eating in zero gravity was no real problem, contrary to the dark forebodings of the early astronauts. He sat at an ordinary table, to which the plates were clipped, as aboard ship in a rough sea. All the courses had some element of stickiness, so that they would not take off and go wandering round the cabin. Thus a chop would be glued to the plate by a thick sauce, and a salad kept under control by an adhesive dressing. With a little skill and care there were few items that could not be tackled safely; the only things banned were hot soups and excessively crumbly pastries. Drinks of course, were a different matter; all liquids simply had to be kept in plastic squeeze tubes.


    A whole generation of research by heroic but unsung volunteers had gone into the design of the washroom, and it was now considered to be more or less foolproof. Floyd investigated it soon after free fall had begun. He found himself in a little cubicle with all the fittings of an ordinary airline toilet, but illuminated with a red light that was very harsh and unpleasant to the eye. A notice printed in prominent letters announced: MOST IMPORTANT! FOR YOUR OWN COMFORT, PLEASE READ THESE INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY!


    Floyd sat down (one still tended to do so, even when weightless) and read the notice several times. When he was sure that there had been no modifications since his last trip, he pressed the START button.


    Close at hand, an electric motor began to whirr, and Floyd felt himself moving. As the notice advised him to do, he closed his eyes and waited. After a minute, a bell chimed softly and he looked around.


    The light had now changed to a soothing pinkish-white; but, more important, he was under gravity again.


    Only the faintest vibration revealed that it was a spurious gravity, caused by the carrousel-like spin of the whole toilet compartment. Floyd picked up a piece of soap, and watched it drop in slow motion; he judged that the centrifugal force was about a quarter of a normal gravity. But that was quite enough; it would ensure that everything moved in the right direction, in the one place where this mattered most.


    He pressed the STOP FOR EXIT button, and closed his eyes again. Weight slowly ebbed as the rotation ceased, the bell gave a double chime, and the red warning light was back. The door was then locked in the right position to let him glide out into the cabin, where he adhered as quickly as possible to the carpet. He had long ago exhausted the novelty of weightlessness, and was grateful for the Velcro slippers that allowed him to walk almost normally.


    There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes, he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him.


    Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished, he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.


    Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.


    It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.


    There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials - these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.


    From time to time the captain and the other members of the crew came into the cabin and exchanged a few words with him. They treated their distinguished passenger with awe, and were doubtless burning with curiosity about his mission, but were too polite to ask any questions or even to drop any hints.


    Only the charming little stewardess seemed completely at ease in his presence. As Floyd quickly discovered, she came from Bali, and had carried beyond the atmosphere some of the grace and mystery of that still largely unspoiled island. One of his strangest, and most enchanting, memories of the entire trip was her zero-gravity demonstration of some classical Balinese dance movements, with the lovely, blue-green crescent of the waning Earth as a backdrop.


    There was one sleep period, when the main cabin lights were switched off and Floyd fastened down his arms and legs with the elastic sheets that would prevent him from drifting away into space. It seemed a crude arrangement - but here in zero gravity his unpadded couch was more comfortable than the most luxurious mattress on Earth.


    When he had strapped himself in, Floyd dozed off quickly enough, but woke up once in a drowsy, half-conscious condition, to be completely baffled by his strange surroundings. For a moment he thought that be was in the middle of some dimly lit Chinese lantern; the faint glow from the other cubicles around him gave that impression. Then he said to himself, firmly and successfully: “Go to sleep, boy. This is just an ordinary moon shuttle.”


    When he awoke, the Moon had swallowed up half the sky, and the braking maneuvers were about to begin.


    The wide arc of windows set in the curving wall of the passenger section now looked out onto the open sky, not the approaching globe, so he moved into the control cabin. Here, on the rear-view TV screens, he could watch the final stages of the descent.


    The approaching lunar mountains were utterly unlike those of Earth; they lacked the dazzling caps of snow, the green, close-fitting garments of vegetation, the moving crowns of cloud, Nevertheless, the fierce contrasts of light and shadow gave them a strange beauty of their own. The laws of earthly aesthetics did not apply here; this world had been shaped and molded by other than terrestrial forces, operating over eons of time unknown to the young, verdant Earth, with its fleeting Ice Ages, its swiftly rising and falling seas, its mountain ranges dissolving like mists before the dawn. Here was age inconceivable - but not death, for the Moon had never lived - until now.


    The descending ship was poised almost above the line dividing night from day, and directly below was a chaos of jagged shadows and brilliant, isolated peaks catching the first light of the slow lunar dawn. That would be a fearful place to attempt a landing, even with all possible electronic aids; but they were slowly drifting away from it, toward the night side of the Moon.


    Then Floyd saw, as his eyes grew more accustomed to the fainter illumination, that the night land was not wholly dark. It was aglow with a ghostly light, in which peaks and valleys and plains could be clearly seen. The Earth, a giant moon to the Moon, was flooding the land below with its radiance.


    On the pilot's panel, lights flashed above radar screens, numbers came and went on computer displays, clocking off the distance of the approaching Moon. They were still more than a thousand miles away when weight returned as the jets began their gentle but steady deceleration. For ages, it seemed, the Moon slowly expanded across the sky, the sun sank below the horizon, and at last a single giant crater filled the field of view.


    The shuttle was falling toward its central peaks - and suddenly Floyd noticed that near one of those peaks a brilliant light was flashing with a regular rhythm. It might have been an airport beacon back on Earth, and he stared at it with a tightening of the throat. It was proof that men had established another foothold on the Moon.


    Now the crater had expanded so much that its ramparts were slipping below the horizon, and the smaller craterlets that peppered its interior were beginning to disclose their real size. Some of these, tiny though they had seemed from far out in space, were miles across, and could have swallowed whole cities.


    Under its automatic controls, the shuttle was sliding down the starlit sky, toward that barren landscape glimmering in the light of the great gibbous Earth. Now a voice was calling somewhere above the whistle of the jets and the electronic beepings that came and went through the cabin.


    “Clavius Control to Special 14, you are coming in nicely. Please make manual check of landing-gear lock, hydraulic pressure, shock-pad inflation.”


    The pilot pressed sundry switches, green lights flashed, and he called back, “All manual checks completed. Landing-gear lock, hydraulic pressure, shock pad O.K.”


    “Confirmed,” said the Moon, and the descent continued wordlessly. Though there was still plenty of talking, it was all being done by machines, flashing binary impulses to one another at a thousand times the rate their slow-thinking makers could communicate.


    Some of the mountain peaks were already towering above the shuttle; now the ground was only a few thousand feet away, and the beacon light was a brilliant star, flashing steadily above a group of low buildings and odd vehicles. In the final stage of the descent, the jets seemed to be playing some strange tune; they pulsed on and off, making the last fine adjustments to the thrust.


    Abruptly, a swirling cloud of dust hid everything, the jets gave one final spurt, and the shuttle rocked very slightly, like a rowboat when a small wave goes by. It was some minutes before Floyd could really accept the silence that now enfolded him and the weak gravity that gripped his limbs.


    He had made, utterly without incident and in little more than one day, the incredible journey of which men had dreamed for two thousand years. After a normal routine flight, he had landed on the Moon.