2001-A Space Odyssey

    7 - Special Flight




    No matter how many times you left Earth, Dr. Heywood Floyd told himself, the excitement never really palled. He had been to Mars once, to the Moon three times, and to the various space stations more often than he could remember. Yet as the moment of takeoff approached, he was conscious of a rising tension, a feeling of wonder and awe - yes; and of nervousness - which put him on the same level as any Earthlubber about to receive his first baptism of space.


    The jet that had rushed him here from Washington, after that midnight briefing with the President, was now dropping down toward one of the most familiar, yet most exciting, landscapes in all the world. There lay the first two generations of the Space Age, spanning twenty miles of the Florida coast to the south, outlined by winking red warning lights, were the giant gantries of the Saturns and Neptunes, that had set men on the path to the planets, and had now passed into history. Near the horizon, a gleaming silver tower bathed in floodlights, stood the last of the Saturn V's, for almost twenty years a national monument and place of pilgrimage. Not far away, looming against the sky like a man-made mountain, was the incredible bulk of the Vehicle Assembly Building, still the largest single structure on Earth.


    But these things now belonged to the past, and he was flying toward the future. As they banked, Dr. Floyd could see below him a maze of buildings, then a great airstrip, then a broad, dead-straight scar across the fiat Florida landscape - the multiple rails of a giant launch-lug track. At its end, surrounded by vehicles and gantries, a spaceplane lay gleaming in a pool of light, being prepared for its leap to the stars. In a sudden failure of perspective, brought on by his swift changes of speed and height, it seemed to Floyd that he was looking down on a small silver moth, caught in the beam of a flashlight.


    Then the tiny, scurrying figures on the ground brought home to him the real size of the spacecraft; it must have been two hundred feet across the narrow V of its wings.


    And that enormous vehicle, Floyd told himself with some incredulity - yet also with some pride - is waiting for me. As far as he knew, it was the first time that an entire mission had been set up to take a single man to the Moon.


    Though, it was two o'clock in the morning, a group of reporters and cameramen intercepted him on his way to the floodlit Orion III spacecraft. He knew several of them by sight, for as Chairman of the National Council of Astronautics, the news conference was part of his way of life. This was neither the time nor the place for one, and he had nothing to say; but it was important not to offend the gentlemen of the communications media.


    “Dr. Floyd? I'm Jim Forster of Associated News. Could you give us a few words about this flight of yours?”


    “I'm very sorry - I can't say anything.”


    “But you did meet with the President earlier this evening?” asked a familiar voice.


    “Oh - hello, Mike. I'm afraid you've been dragged out of bed for nothing. Definitely no comment.”


    “Can you at least confirm or deny that some kind of epidemic has broken out on the Moon?” a TV reporter asked, managing to jog alongside and keep Floyd properly framed in his miniature TV camera.


    “Sorry,” said Floyd, shaking his head.


    “What about the quarantine?” asked another reporter. “How long will it be kept on?”


    “Still no comment.”


    “Dr. Floyd,” demanded a very short and determined lady of the press, “what possible justification can there be for this total blackout of news from the Moon? Has it anything to do with the political situation?”


    “What political situation?” Floyd asked dryly. There was a sprinkle of laughter, and someone called, “Have a good trip, Doctor!” as he made his way into the sanctuary of the boarding gantry.


    As long, as he could remember, it had been not a “situation” so much as a permanent crisis. Since the 1970s, the world had been dominated by two problems which, ironically, tended to cancel each other out.


    Though birth control was cheap, reliable, and endorsed by all the main religions, it had come too late; the population of the world was now six billion - a third of them in the Chinese Empire. Laws had even been passed in some authoritarian societies limiting families to two children, but their enforcement had proved impracticable. As a result, food was short in every country; even the United States had meatless days, and widespread famine was predicted within fifteen years, despite heroic efforts to farm the sea and to develop synthetic foods.


    With the need for international cooperation more urgent than ever, there were still as many frontiers as in any earlier age. In a million years, the human race had lost few of its aggressive instincts; along symbolic lines visible only to politicians, the thirty-eight nuclear powers watched one another with belligerent anxiety. Among them, they possessed sufficient megatonnage to remove the entire surface crust of the planet. Although there had been - miraculously - no use of atomic weapons, this situation could hardly last forever.


    And now, for their own inscrutable reasons, the Chinese were offering to the smallest have-not nations a complete nuclear capability of fifty warheads and delivery systems. The cost was under $200,000,000, and easy terms could be arranged.


    Perhaps they were only trying to shore up their sagging economy, by turning obsolete weapons systems into hard cash, as some observers had suggested. Or perhaps they had discovered methods of warfare so advanced that they no longer had need of such toys; there had been talk of radio-hypnosis from satellite transmitters, compulsion viruses, and blackmail by synthetic diseases for which they alone possessed the antidote.


    These charming ideas were almost certainly propaganda or pure fantasy, but it was not safe to discount any of them. Every time Floyd took off from Earth, he wondered if it would still be there when the time came to return.


    The trim stewardess greeted him as he entered the cabin. “Good morning, Dr. Floyd. I'm Miss Simmons - I'd like to welcome you aboard on behalf of Captain Tynes and our copilot, First Officer Ballard.”


    “Thank you,” said Floyd with a smile, wondering why stewardesses always had to sound like robot tour guides.


    “Takeoff's in five minutes,” she said, gesturing into the empty twenty-passenger cabin. “You can take any seat you want, but Captain Tynes recommends the forward window seat on the left, if you want to watch the docking operations.”


    “I'll do that,” he answered, moving toward the preferred seat. The stewardess fussed over him awhile and then moved to her cubicle at the rear of the cabin.


    Floyd settled down in his seat, adjusted the safety harness around waist and shoulders, and strapped his briefcase to the adjacent seat. A moment later, the loudspeaker came on with a soft popping noise. “Good morning,” said Miss Simmons' voice. “This is Special Flight 3, Kennedy to Space Station One.”


    She was determined, it seemed, to go through the full routine for her solitary passenger, and Floyd could not resist a smile as she continued inexorably.


    “Our transit time will be fifty-five minutes. Maximum acceleration will be two-gee, and we will be weightless for thirty minutes. Please do not leave your seat until the safety sign is lit.”


    Floyd looked over his shoulder and called, “Thank you.” He caught a glimpse of a slightly embarrassed but charming smile.


    He leaned back into his seat and relaxed. This trip, he calculated, would cost the taxpayers slightly over a million dollars. If it was not justified, he would be out of his job; but he could always go back to the university and to his interrupted studies of planetary formation.


    “Auto-countdown procedures all Go,” the captain's voice said over the speaker with the soothing singsong used in RT chat. “Lift-off in one minute.”


    As always, it seemed more like an hour. Floyd became acutely aware of the gigantic forces coiled up around him, waiting to be released. In the fuel tanks of the two spacecraft, and in the power storage system of the launching track, was pent up the energy of a nuclear bomb. And it would all be used to take him a mere two hundred miles from Earth.


    There was none of the old-fashioned FIVE-FOIJR-THREE-TWO-ONE-ZERO business, so tough on the human nervous system.


    “Launching in fifteen seconds. You will be more comfortable if you start breathing deeply.”


    That was good psychology, and good physiology.


    Floyd felt himself well charged with oxygen, and ready to tackle anything, when the launching track began to sling its thousand-ton payload out over the Atlantic.


    It was hard to tell when they lifted from the track and became airborne, but when the roar of the rockets suddenly doubled its fury, and Floyd found himself sinking deeper and deeper into the cushions of his seat, he knew that the first-stage engines had taken over. He wished he could look out of the window, but it was an effort even to turn his head, Yet there was no discomfort; indeed, the pressure of acceleration and the overwhelming thunder of the motors produced an extraordinary euphoria. His ears ringing, the blood pounding in his veins, Floyd felt more alive than he had for years. He was young again, he wanted to sing aloud - which was certainly safe, for no one could possibly hear him.


    The mood passed swiftly, as he suddenly realized that he was leaving Earth, and everything he had ever loved. Down there were his three children, motherless since his wife had taken that fatal flight to Europe ten years ago. (Ten years? Impossible! Yet it was so...) Perhaps, for their sake, he should have remarried.


    He had almost lost sense of time when the pressure and the noise abruptly slackened, and the cabin speaker announced: “Preparing to separate from lower stage. Here we go.”


    There was a slight jolt; and suddenly Floyd recalled a quotation of Leonardo da Vinci's which he had once seen displayed in a NASA office:




    The Great Bird will take its flight on the back of the great bird, bringing glory to the nest where it was born.




    Well, the Great Bird was flying now, beyond all the dreams of da Vinci, and its exhausted companion was winging back to earth. In a ten-thousand-mile arc, the empty lower stage would glide down into the atmosphere, trading speed for distance as it homed on Kennedy. In a few hours, serviced and refueled, it would be ready again to lift another companion toward the shining silence with it could never reach.


    Now, thought Floyd, we are on our own, more than halfway to orbit. When the acceleration came on again, as the upper stage rockets fired, the thrust was much more gentle: indeed, he felt no more than normal gravity. But it would have been impossible to walk, since “Up” was straight toward the front of the cabin. If he had been foolish enough to leave his seat, he would have crashed at once against the rear wall.


    This effect was a little disconcerting, for it seemed that the ship was standing on its tail. To Floyd, who was at the very front of the cabin, all the seats appeared to be fixed on a wall topping vertically beneath him. He was doing his best to ignore this uncomfortable illusion when dawn exploded outside the ship.


    In seconds, they shot through veils of crimson and pink and gold and blue into the piercing white of day.


    Though the windows were heavily tinted to reduce the glare, the probing beams of sunlight that now slowly swept across the cabin left Floyd half-blinded for several minutes. He was in space, yet there was no question of being able to see the stars.


    He shielded his eyes with his hands and tried to peer through the window beside him. Out there the swept-back wing of the ship was blazing like white-hot metal in the reflected sunlight; there was utter darkness all around it, and that darkness must be full of stars - but it was impossible to see them.


    Weight was slowly ebbing; the rockets were being throttled back as the ship eased itself into orbit. The thunder of the engines dropped to a muted roar, then a gentle hiss, then died into silence. If it had not been for the restraining straps, Floyd would have floated out of his seat; his stomach felt as if it was going to do so anyway. He hoped that the pills he had been given half an hour and ten thousand miles ago would perform as per specifications. He had been spacesick just once in his career, and that was much too often.


    The pilot's voice was firm and confident as it came over the cabin speaker. “Please observe all Zero-gee regulations. We will be docking at Space Station One in forty-five minutes.”


    The stewardess came walking up the narrow corridor to the right of the closely spaced seats. There was a slight buoyancy about her steps, and her feet came away from the floor reluctantly as if entangled in glue. She was keeping to the bright yellow band of Velcro carpeting that ran the full length of the floor - and of the ceiling. The carpet, and the soles of her sandals, were covered with myriads of tiny hooks, so that they clung together like burrs. This trick of walking in free fall was immensely reassuring to disoriented passengers.


    “Would you like some coffee or tea, Dr. Floyd?” she asked cheerfully.


    “No thank you,” he smiled. He always felt like a baby when he had to suck at one of those plastic drinking tubes.


    The stewardess was still hovering anxiously around him as he popped open his briefcase and prepared to remove his papers.


    “Dr. Floyd, may I ask you a question?”


    “Certainly,” he answered, looking up over his glasses. “My fiancé is a geologist at Clavius,” said Miss Simmons, measuring her words carefully, “and I haven't heard from him for over a week.”


    “I'm sorry to hear that; maybe he's away from his base, and out of touch.”


    She shook her head. “He always tells me when that's going to happen. And you can imagine how worried I am - with all these rumors. Is it really true about an epidemic on the Moon?”


    “If it is, there's no cause for alarm.. Remember, there was a quarantine back in '98, over that mutated flu virus. A lot of people were sick - but no one died, And that's really all I can say,” he concluded firmly.


    Miss Simmons smiled pleasantly and straightened up. “Well, thank you anyway, Doctor. I'm sorry to have bothered you.”


    “No bother at all,” he said gallantly, but not very accurately. Then he buried himself in his endless technical reports, in a desperate last-minute assault on the usual backlog;


    He would have no time for reading when he got to the Moon.