Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Hermit of Iapetus, Part VI

Read previous bits of the story starting here.

Arthur C. Clarke's spaceman Robert Kleinman is cryptically to have said "Space is small; only the planets are big." In the years I have wandered Iapetus, I have not found ground to dispute him. As A boy, I reveled in reading about Saturn's moons. The giant Titan was the tempting home of liquid seas of methane and other petrochemicals, the human inhabitants of Clarke's Oasis City. The books I read described Iapetus as tiny. Odd, but tiny. Miniscule compared to Titan, to the Galilean moons of Jupiter, to our own moon, Luna -- when I discovered it had a name, it was the Moon to me no longer.

Iapetus is not tiny.

As a boy, I found that magical formula that allows one to determine the surface area of a sphere:

4 pi r2

It was simple, then, and elegant, to determine that Iapetus has a surface area of about 6,583,650 square kilometers depending upon which estimate of the moon's radius one uses in the formula. I always chose the more conservative estimate, a trait I inherited from my mother. That is immense, say, compared to the inside of your average spacer, which might stretch to meet 12,000 cubic meters. But Admunsen explored Antarctica, a continent that covers 13.2 square kilometers, twice that in winter when the sea ice expands.

To Admunsen and his compatriots, Antarctica seemed tractless. Often they traveled on their 99-day voyage in blizzard conditions, feeling their way forward gingerly, so as not to fall into a crevasse or become lost in the jumbles of ice and mountain. Some days, they covered nineteen, twenty miles. Others they sat in their tent with the wind howling through the guy wires. Once they sat for five days in a gale, waiting for it to abate. Finally, they took down their tent, carefully trying not to break its brittle, ice-coated canvas in pieces, and harnessed their dogs to voyage in the wind because they could no longer bear to be idle. "There's nothing so bad as lying weather-bound like this," Admunsen recalls a companion saying, while another added: "IT takes more out of you than going from morning to night." So as they wandered from crevasse to crevasse, bridge to bridge, glacier to glacier, occasionally catching a glimpse of the dome-shaped Mount Helmer Hanssen, "its top as round as the bottom of a bowl, and covered by an extraordinary ice-sheet, which was so broken up and disturbed that the blocks of ice bristles in every direction like the quills of a porcupine," he wrote. "It glittered an burned in the sunlight -- a glorious spectacle. There could only be one such mountain in the world, and as a landmark it was priceless. We knew that we could not mistake that, however the surroundings might appear on the return journey, when possibly the conditions of lighting might be altogether different."

But even Helmer Hanssen was lost in Antarcitca's immensity. A landmark it may be, but when landmarks disappear beneath the horizon, one knows one is walking in an immense land. In space, the landmarks are always there. Yes, the distance between them is in light years, but the guideposts are there to be seen nonetheless, without fretting over erecting spare ski poles in the landscape in order to guide one's return journey, without fretting over leaving a sledge erect against a pile of butchered dog carcasses awaiting human bellies on the return journey. And in space, one rides in a coccoon of aluminum, silicon, and other metals. One is propelled. One voyages when one sleeps, with computers monitoring the journey and the shirt-sleeve weather inside the immensity of cold space. In space, all one has to do is wait. Only on the planets -- and the moon -- does one have to walk.

Space is small; only the planets are big.

This I have tried to explain to Liam, in letters ferried to Mars by obliging couriers. I'm not sure he understands. I have recommended that he read the account of Admunsen, for I know it is available in the testosterone-dripping libraries on the Moon and Mars. I hope he reads it. I hope he takes home the lessons of the Butcher's Shop.

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