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Egocentric Orbit

Egocentric Orbit

From: Egocentric Orbit

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 ...

Near 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

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.

Next: The Guardians

Previous: Millennium

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