March 14, 2006 — -- "Orbit" is John Nance's 18th novel and is set, like many of his previous books, in the heavens. Kip Dawson, the main character, wins a seat on the Intrepid, a spacecraft that is set to orbit Earth. The craft is besieged by problems, and the pilot is killed in an accident. Dawson writes his last testament on the craft's laptop and is unaware that millions of people on land have received it and are following his every word. A massive effort to rescue him begins on Earth.
For Kip Dawson, the risks associated with being shot into space in a few hours are finally beginning to seem real. Am I really going to do this? he thinks, braking the SUV hard, foot shaking, as he casts his eyes up to take in the stark blackness of his destination, amazingly visible through the windshield. This last evening on earth -- the very eve of his windfall trip into space -- feels too surreal to grasp emotionally. He's sure of only one thing: At long last, it's scaring as much as exciting him.
He winces at the irritated blast of a trucker's horn and pulls to the side of the highway, letting the big rig roar past before climbing out to stare into deep space. He's oblivious to the sharp chill of the desert night, but aware of the double white flash of the beacon at Edwards Air Force Base a few miles to the east.
To the west, the barest remains of ruddy orange undulate on the horizon, a razor-thin band along the crest of it, whispering a vestigial message from the sunset. But it's the deep velvet black of the cloudless night sky that's entrancing him, and he hasn't seen the Milky Way so startlingly clear since he was little.
The highway beside him is quiet again, but the sky is full of silently twinkling strobe lights from the arriving and departing airliners frequenting LAX, a kinetic urgency energizing the lower altitudes above him. He feels like a child as he contemplates the vastness of all that void. Provided there's no explosion on the way up, he'll be there in person in a few hours, encapsulated in a tiny, fragile craft, closer -- even if only incrementally -- to all those stars.
There is no productivity in stargazing, the dutiful part of his mind is grousing, but he suppresses the growing urge to leave. The air is quiet and perfectly still, and he hears the song of a nightbird somewhere distant. A moment earlier a coyote had made his presence known, and he hears the animal call again, the howl almost mystical.
How small we are, he thinks, as he stands beneath the staggering scope of a billion suns strewn at least ten thousand light-years across from horizon to horizon, trying to embrace it -- even the largest of his personal problems seeming trivial by contrast. There's a barely remembered quote... perhaps something Carl Sagan once said: "Even though earth-bound and finite, the same human mind that can declare the cosmos too vast to physically navigate can at the same moment traverse its greatest distances with but a single thought."
His cell phone rings again, the third time in an hour, but he tunes it out, thinking instead about the details of ASA's space school he's attended for the previous two weeks and the awe he still feels when he sees the famous Apollo 8 picture of the Earth rising over the lunar landscape. Everything in perspective. It's the way he's been told every NASA astronaut feels when the sound and fury and adrenaline of reaching orbit subsides -- three g's of acceleration end abruptly -- and it's finally time to be weightless and breathe and look outside.
He recalls the video of sunrise from space, the colors progressing through the rainbow to the sudden explosion of light over the rim of the planet, all of it proceeding at seventeen times the speed of dawn on the ground -- where the Earth's surface turning velocity is less than a thousand miles per hour. He'll see four sequences of that during the flight. An incongruous desire for coffee suddenly crosses his mind, and he realizes he's longing as much for the tangible feel of something earthly and familiar as the drink itself. But he has a responsibility to achieve the sleep that coffee won't bring. Morning and caffeine will come soon enough. He should head back.