2001-A Space Odyssey

    8 - Orbital Rendezvous




    Half an hour later the pilot announced: “We make contact in ten minutes. Please check your seat harness.”


    Floyd obeyed, and put away his papers. It was asking for trouble to read during the celestial juggling act which took place during the last 300 miles; best to close one's eyes and relax while the spacecraft was nudged back and forth with brief bursts of rocket power.


    A few minutes later he caught his first glimpse of Space Station One, only a few miles away. The sunlight glinted and sparkled from the polished metal surfaces of the slowly revolving, three-hundred-yard-diameter disk. Not far away, drifting in the same orbit, was a sweptback Titov-V spaceplane, and close to that an almost spherical Aries-1B, the workhorse of space, with the four stubby legs of its lunar-landing shock absorbers jutting from one side.


    The Orion III spacecraft was descending from a higher orbit, which brought the Earth into spectacular view behind the Station. From his altitude of 200 miles, Floyd could see much of Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. There was considerable cloud cover, but he could still detect the blue-green outlines of the Gold Coast.


    The central axis of the Space Station, with its docking arms extended, was now slowly swimming toward them. Unlike the structure from which it sprang, it was not rotating - or, rather, it was running in reverse at a rate which exactly countered the Station's own spin. Thus a visiting spacecraft could be coupled to it, for the transfer of personnel or cargo, without being whirled disastrously around.


    With the softest of thuds, ship and Station made contact. There were metallic, scratching noises from outside, then the brief hissing of air as pressures equalized.


    A few seconds later the airlock door opened, and a man wearing the light, close-fitting slacks and short-sleeved shirt which was almost the uniform of Space Station personnel came into the cabin.


    “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Floyd. I'm Nick Miller, Station Security; I'm to look after you until the shuttle leaves.”


    They shook hands, then Floyd smiled at the stewardess and said: “Please give my compliments to Captain Tynes, and thank him for the smooth ride. Perhaps I'll see you on the way home.”


    Very cautiously - it was more than a year since he had last been weightless and it would be some time before he regained his spacelegs - he hauled himself hand over hand through the airlock and into the large, circular chamber at the axis of the Space Station. It was a heavily padded room, its walls covered with recessed handholds; Floyd gripped one of these firmly while the whole chamber started to rotate, until it matched the spin of the Station.


    As it gained speed, faint and ghostly gravitational fingers began to clutch at him, and he drifted slowly toward the circular wall. Now he was standing, swaying back and forth gently like seaweed in the surge of the tide, on what had magically become a curving floor. The centrifugal force of the Station's spin had taken hold of him; it was very feeble here, so near the axis, but would increase steadily as he moved outward.


    From the central transit chamber he followed Miller down a curving stair. At first his weight was so slight that he had almost to force himself downward by holding on to the handrail. Not until he reached the passenger lounge, on the outer skin of the great revolving disk, had he acquired enough weight to move around almost normally.


    The lounge had been redecorated since his last visit, and had acquired several new facilities. Besides the usual chairs, small tables, restaurant, and post office there were now a barber shop, drugstore, movie theater and a souvenir shop selling photographs and slides of lunar and planetary landscapes, guaranteed genuine pieces of Luniks, Rangers, and Surveyors, all neatly mounted in plastic, and exorbitantly priced.


    “Can I get you anything while we're waiting?” Miller asked. "We board in about thirty minutes?'


    “I could do with a cup of black coffee - two lumps - and I'd like to call Earth.”


    “Right, Doctor - I'll get the coffee - the phones are over there.”


    The picturesque booths were only a few yards from a barrier with two entrances labeled WELCOME TO THE U.S. SECTION and WELCOME TO THE SOVIET SECTION.


    Beneath these were notices which read, in English, Russian, and Chinese, French, German, and Spanish.










    Medical Certificate


    Transportation Permit


    Weight Declaration




    There was a rather pleasant symbolism about the fact that as soon as they had passed through the barriers, in either direction, passengers were free to mix again. The division was purely for administrative purposes.


    Floyd, after checking that the Area Code for the United States was still 81, punched his twelve-digit home number, dropped his plastic all-purpose credit card into the pay slot, and was through in thirty seconds.


    Washington was still sleeping, for it was several hours to dawn, but he would not disturb anyone. His housekeeper would get the message from the recorder as soon as she awoke.


    “Miss Flemming - this is Dr. Floyd. Sorry I had to leave in such a hurry. Would you please call my office and ask them to collect the car - it's at Dulles Airport and the key is with Mr. Bailey, Senior Flight Control Officer. Next, will you call the Chevy Chase Country Club and leave a message for the secretary. I definitely won't be able to play in the tennis tournament next weekend. Give my apologies - I'm afraid they were counting on me. Then call Downtown Electronies and tell them that if the video in my study isn't fixed by - oh, Wednesday - they can take the damn thing back.” He paused for breath, and tried to think of any other crises or problems that might arise during the days ahead.


    “If you run short of cash, speak to the office; they can get urgent messages to me, but I may be too busy to answer. Give my love to the children, and say I'll be back as soon as I can. Oh, hell - here's someone I don't want to see - I'll call from the Moon if I can - good-bye.”


    Floyd tried to duck out of the booth, but it was too late; he had already been spotted. Bearing down on him through the Soviet Section exit was Dr. Dimitri Moisevitch, of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Science. Dimitri was one of Floyd's best friends; and for that very reason, he was the last person he wished to talk to, here and now.