Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Congratulations, Rosetta

NOTE: Just a little something that popped into my head as ESA celebrated the arrival of Rosetta at their cometary objective.

It was inevitable that the ship be nicknamed Titanic.

Captain Russo fought hard against it. When Nels, the navigator, used the name in his log of waypoints, Russo put him on short rations for a week and cancelled his birthday party. When Verchenko used it, deeply disguised in his notations of Powanda-Mussorgsky’s chemical composition, he forced the hapless chemist to go without bathing for two weeks and to write a paper on the composition of the ethers with which his body odor afflicted others on board. Ten pages.. Single-spaced.

Then, in the news broadcast announcing their arrival at the gigantic comet, he slipped and called the Amundsen-Scott “Titanic” and the broadcast had to be interrupted by commentary from home for eight minutes before the laughter and hooting subsided and Captain Russo could restore order.

They arrived the day after the head of the Cobra fell off.

How many times, with his father, with the Scout troop, on his own, had Russo climbed that famous rock? How many times had he laid in its shadow, using its bulbous head to occlude the Moon, the stars, the planets, imagining what it might be like to leap from the top of that rock in the Utah canyons and climb to the stars.

Foul weather, the geologists and land managers suspected, beheaded the Cobra. It had been a week of violent rain, with thunder and lightning – how many times had he risked death to stand watch as clouds roiled and lightning danced and rain and hail and wind spattered his face; to stand watch as The Cobra defied the turmoil.

Now he took another vigil as the Amundsen-Scott orbited the wordlet of Powanda-Mussorgsky.

Fused like ice cubes in a cool drink, he wondered, staring at the two massive balls of rock and ice joined. Or sublimed together like ice cubes in the tray in the freezer?

“Will it crunch like snow when we walk on it, do you think?” Varney the geologist asked.

“Or will we fall through it? Drown at the center of all that ice and dust?” asked Milson, biologist.

Stars vanished behind the bulk of the comet as Captain Russo watched.

There was atmosphere. Thin. Wispy. But clear as the stars nearest its limb twinkled and winked before the comet snuffed them. The same in reverse on the other side, minutes later, as the Amundsen-Scott orbited and as Powanda-Mussorgsky rotated. Sublimation, he thought. He squinted toward where the two masses of the comet joined, and thought he could see with his eye the atmosphere at the joining thicker, more substantial. How long, he wondered, had those two objects sailed through the solar system so close to each other, near but not touching, until the thin wisps of ice and rock blasted from them by the cold heat of the solar wind coalesced and drew the pair together, joining them as one. And would the perturbations of the Amundsen-Scott, of their soon-to-be-landing party, sever the two again, as hail and lightning and finally severed the head of The Cobra after millennia of occluding the stars from the eyes of Life Scouts, the Utes and Anasazi, and other aboriginals who prowled the canyons looking for God or gods and found The Cobra in the way of their view of the heavens.

Theirs was not a heroic mission. The comet was not on a collision course with Earth or the Moon or Mars or any of the worlds on which Man had a foothold in the solar system. There were no new scientific studies to make – robots and probes and Man had visited other comets, long before the time of Russo and Titanic. As Captain of the Amundsen-Scott, Russo was allowed some leeway along the milk route from Mars to Titan for sightseeing, and the company had enough paying passengers aboard to allow for a touristic diversion whose gossamer contributions to science were as thin as the comet’s atmosphere, but just thick enough to add to the company’s patina of scientific cooperation as it shuttled scientists and diplomats and settlers and prospectors and ad men from the inner solar system to the outer, and sometimes in reverse.

“It’s not a miracle,” Russo thought, echoing the voice of Jim Lovell, from a mission not dissimilar from his. “We just decided to go.”

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