Cold. Barely 273 degrees Celsius below zero, and black. The stars burning, cold white points, against the total absence. The larger disc of Sol, our sun, though still tiny in all that vastness, drifts silently away. Every hour an extra forty eight thousand kilometres separates the gently tumbling vessel from that piercing white circle.
Every thirteen minutes, for a period of 2.16 seconds, the transmitter faces near enough toward the home planet. Every thirteen minutes a stream of electromagnetic impulses begins the voyage home. A journey that lasts a mere six hours.
Cold. Barely 3 degrees Celsius, and grey. A drizzling sheet of rain smothers the giant metal sentinel of the Tidbinbilla tracking station, standing silently atop Mount Stromlo. Staring out through the clouded atmosphere. Listening to the cluttered voices from deep space. Mindless voices, save one. Every thirteen minutes, for eight hours every day, a 2.16 second burst of electromagnetic impulses is gathered by the dish, to be fed to the ever waiting computers.
“Close the door Langridge.” orders Dr. Voss.
“Sir.” I reply and meander over to take up my position at the projector. It is rather boring actually. Running classified films and slides for these NASA eggheads. Oh, I know that they talk impressive, in their white jackets and knowledgeable faces, but these educated types can be so stupid when it comes to ‘down to earth’, day by day living. I shouldn’t complain really, if they weren’t so specialised, so narrowly focussed, they might even be able to operate projectors and light switches for themselves, and I’d be out of a job.
Dr. Hans Voss sat in a large easy chair across the coffee table from his two guests. In spite of the luxurious surroundings he looked uncomfortable, worried even.
“Now gentlemen, good of you to come on such short notice. Er, I believe you’ve already met each other?” Voss received their nods of affirmation impatiently. Although an extremely qualified scientist in his own right, he was, or had become, a managerial type, a business man, and felt a bit intimidated by ‘working’ scientists, especially his underlings.
The two ‘real’ scientists were equally agitated. David Cotte and Stephan Werner, in common with most government employed researchers, were wary of all bureaucrats. Whenever they requested an urgent meeting, it seemed inevitably to lead to a cut in funding, or a foreshortening of deadlines.
Voss continued, “Good. I’m not one to beat about the bush, so I’ll say it plain. We are in a hell of a bind. You are both aware of the unprecedented success, to date, of the Pioneer project. Especially Pioneer 10. October 1986, like clockwork, it passed the orbit of Pluto, gaining us some great publicity. And some well needed budgetary congratulations. Even the 1988 accident that sent it spinning has not stopped her progress.”
The poor buggers sitting opposite him just smiled wanly. They still had no idea what he wanted of them. A little taken aback by their lack of apparent reaction, Voss continued. “You gentlemen may not be aware, but next year, in 1990, we are facing financial decimation. We cannot afford a disaster now. Our hopes were high for a budgetary lift from Pioneer 10’s passing the heliosphere. You know, officially leaving the solar system. That would have been a pretty big World First.” “Would have been?” Cotte questioned, half to himself. Voss eyed them both with his deepest confidential sincerity. “I need your minds on this. You are our best two astrophysicists. We received some serious, confidential news from Canberra, Australia.”
“Never mind the mindless projectionist.” I thought to myself. Well, I did sign up to the official secrets act. “They were tracking Pioneer 10 yesterday evening.” Voss confided gravely, “It has stopped.”
“Well Hans,” Werner responded, “It is a shame and all, but be realistic. It should have broken down years ago. And anyway, we are physicists, not engineers.”
“I did not say it broke down David, I said it stopped.” replied Voss. “Over a period of about 30 minutes it’s motion reduced, both the outward motion, and its rotation. It is now stationary, fortuitously with it’s antenna facing home.”
“Das ist nicht… sorry, that is not possible Hans. The momentum change alone would have flattened it to nothingness.” Werner stumbling briefly in his second language with the sheer unbelievability of the idea.
“It is still sending pictures, correction, one picture. That is what you are here to see.” he continued, calmer now he had actions to order. “Langridge!”
“Sir.” I once again exercise my dazzling vocabulary. Then I turn off the lights and run the film. “These were received yesterday whilst 10 was travelling away from us at a little under 29,000mph.” informed Voss. The vision was just stars panning across the screen, and every thirteen minutes a larger, blindingly bright circle appeared on the screen. Obviously Sol. The Sun.
“This second film is a compression of the last thirty minutes, in which 10’s velocity relative to us fell to zero.” The panning slowed, more and more rapidly, until all motion ceased, stopping on a black screen with the fuzzy white arc of a circle in one corner.
“Is this a joke Voss?” Cotte demanded angrily. “No David.” answered Voss, frightened compassion in his voice. “Langridge!” no compassion was wasted on me.
Ten hours passed. The footage was viewed and reviewed ad nauseam. The suggestions, hypothesises, bone crazy guesses piled up with no resolution in sight. I just stood there, driving the projectors, ignored by these great minds as they got nowhere, slowly.
Have you ever been in one of those situations where all around are deadly serious? So serious that you get the giggles? It was awful standing there, trying to show disinterested respect. To keep a straight face, or at the very least, my job. First came the smirk. Then the grin. Finally the twitching on my face and the catching of my breath. I had held it so well. But the dam finally broke. I burst out in uncontrollable laughter. Tears streamed from my eyes and my sides ached. “Voss will have me shot!” I reason, but the noise just grows louder. I collapse against the projector in exhaustion.
I regain partial control of my body as Voss shouts at me, “Have you gone mad, man?”
“No Sir, chortle, Sorry Sir. It is just so funny. You, with all your education and knowledge. And you cannot see the answer under your noses.” I sigh. Tears of laughter still soaking my cheeks.
“Please Sir, let me show you.” I answer, as my composure returns. I run the first film and pause it on a field of small white stars, then I show the final stages of the compilation film where it slows down. I pause this one at the end, with the fuzzy white arc in one corner. “Gentlemen, would you please walk to the screen with me?” I instruct. Dumfounded, they follow. “Walk right up to the screen and look closely at any of the stars, one outside your own shadow of course.” I continue. “Still closer, that’s it. Now tell me what you see.” It was Cotte who answered, realisation dawning on his face. “I see a fuzzy, white arc.” “Now gentlemen, look back at the projector.” I command. “Now what do you see?” They all turn to look at the dazzling white disc of the projector lens.
They locked me up of course. Said I was mad. At least it is a nice facility, I was allowed the newspapers and the food is good. I did notice that the Pioneer project was not mentioned anywhere. And that at the 1990 budget, dramatic cuts were made in NASA’s funding. Economic necessity, the deficit and all. But I do wonder how they sleep at nights.
Consider. If the stars are just images on a screen, albeit a large, spherical one, and the Sun is the projector then, what are the planets? Are they the seats? Or the patrons?
And if we continue with our cinematic analogy, where are the exits? What’s more, at intermission, do the lights come on?