Monday, May 9, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter V - Where in Space are We?

The way our viewpoint character "joined" the crew of the Hound of Heaven means we never got a look at its outside, did we?  But the author does take a moment to describe how it's laid out.  And how badly it's maintained.

The bridge was 'midships, deck running the total diameter and perpendicular, like all decks, to the line of march. Like a belt around her center ran the observation ports and jutting a trifle from her otherwise smooth lines were the bridge wings, bubbles of gamma and psi proof glass from which a landing could be conned. The metal controls were dull beneath a coating of scum and the meter faces and screens were smudged with fingerprints. Half the dials were broken and the deck coating was worn through to the metal in the most frequented places. But it was a bridge and while on it one had the feeling of silence and smartness.

Okay, I'm a little confused.  I'm assuming the Hound is more or less rocket-shaped, because come on, 1954.  But the bridge is in the middle of the ship, so it's more like modern ocean-going vessels, which have a bridge on a tower around the ship's center.  Except the Hound's bridge probably isn't jutting out of the hull, because that's not aerodynamic and this thing is capable of atmosphere landings.  And the bridge deck is running the diameter of the vessel - i.e. the width of the rocket - but perpendicular to the line of march, which I'm assuming is the direction the ship flies.  So this bridge "deck" is just a section of one of the much longer decks running the length of the vessel?  Why'd they stick it in the middle where you have to get in "bridge wings" to see what's going on rather than up in the nose?  Maybe Hubbard eventually realized the advantages in sticking a cockpit up front, since that's where he puts the bridges of the spaceships in his later works.

Also, the place sounds pretty grungy.  What, is the Apparatus crewing it?

Anyway, Corday's learning the ropes, one five-hour watch at a time, relieving someone named Bucky Hale to be relieved in turn by Captain Jocelyn.  Except Jocelyn doesn't physically take a place on the bridge, but sends in a substitute, an often-drunk Englishman named Swifty who flies the Hound's scout plane in case there's an atmosphere that needs exploring.  And when Corday is on watch, he's attended by a junior officer who is simultaneously watching to make sure he doesn't run off and also there to explain what everything does because again, Corday is not actually trained to do this job.

And that's Corday's new life - five hours watching the stars go by and other people operate the ship, then he's relieved and makes some final notes in a logbook before leaving to work on the ship's steering systems, then maybe five hours of sleep before he starts the cycle anew with a crappy breakfast.  Don't ask what he's eating, it's "soggy" whatever it is.

On top of this, he's also trying to learn navigation from Hale when both of them can find the spare time.  Hale warns that you can't just decide to go off somewhere, and you always need to be in search for new star charts, since they don't print these on Earth anymore "aside from a little hand-copied stuff they want fifty-hundred thousand dollars for around the spaceports."  Which is a bit weird, isn't it?  Like highway rest stops not stocking anything but the most overpriced and bare-bones road maps.  It seems that between the relativity concerns and economic uncertainty, this future society has given up on commercial space travel, even while maintaining the facilities to allow spaceships to land and resupply and take off again.

If you're hoping to learn the mechanics of astronavigation from this story, good luck.

"Now behind you, you see stuff one way and ahead you see it another. Age is strung out to the rear and run up a few hundred dozen times to the front. Wouldn't be so bad if you was always goin' or comin' from the same stars. But you ain't. So you have to calculate the spectrum for each angle of approach and departure, and the spectrum changes for every angle. So it's a pile of memory. But we navigate in close so you only have to know about a thousand spectrums for each of sixteen navigational stars and then you got identity."

I think Hale is talking about redshift and blueshift, where the observed wavelength of electromagnetic radiation appears to lengthen or shorten because the thing emitting it is moving further or closer to you, respectively.  So if you'd memorized the various spectrums of radiation emitted by various stars, then you could tell whether they were receding from or closing with your position, which would allow you to get a sense of where you were in relation to them.  Or maybe Hubbard is suggesting that the sort of energy emitted from stars varies from angle to angle, so if you memorize what kind of stuff Betelgeuse is emitting when you're thirty degrees above the galactic plane, and how Aldebaran looks rimward from it, then you can puzzle out where you are?

But if you know what stars you're looking at, couldn't you just use more conventional navigation without worrying about "spectrums" and "angles of approach?"  Or, if you have a starmap at launch, and know where you launched from, and keep records of how long and how fast you were going at various headings, couldn't you deduce your position through nothing but mathematics?

"But how do you know Earth?" Corday had consistently asked.

"Well, Earth's easy.  You just figure out where it ain't and head for where you guess it might be and pick out a pin point amongst a lot of bigger pin points and you come right on in.  You read Leckwalader on Star Selection, Mr. Corday."

Or maybe it's all just guesswork.  Oh, that Leckwalader is Algernon Leckwalader, whose "First Steps" is an unhelpful handbook to spectrum navigation that uses so many "ifs" and "probably"s that it's little surprise Hale turned out the way he did.

Also, no navigational beacons hanging out in space, emitting signals to tell ships where they are?  No satellites in Earth orbit to guide spaceships home? 

Anyway, as vague and unhelpful as Hale and Leckwalader are, Corday gradually learns how to use a "celestolabe" well enough that he can guess which star he's sighted on.  He also grows familiar with the Hound's maneuvering system, which has been rebuilt three times now, so that only sixteen of her sixty maneuvering jets (thirty each in rings around the nose and tail) still work, and their fuel tanks have been converted to water storage tanks while the jets now run off fuel from the "chemical landing" tanks, and on top of that someone had "hidden" new steering tanks in each end of the ship.

If nothing else, this explains how the Hound ended up hitting a planet's atmosphere that one time.

So Corday gets to spend some time clomping around the hull in a space suit and magnetic boots.  And when he's not doing that, or his job, or learning to navigate, he's being quietly enraged by Captain Jocelyn's condescending orders to make sure decks get cleaned ("How can you let your people live in such filth?"), or fix communication breakdowns, or check on bad food supplies ("That confounded cook will have us all down with bellyaches.")   Or else Jocelyn is coming by to maliciously take up Corday's free time by chatting about contemporary music and such.

But there is one occasion where Jocelyn unsarcastically comments that "A few more weeks like this and you'll make a first-rate officer."  Yet all the while, Queen keeps passing by, asking how things are "with a wink and a nudge," saynomore, saynomore.

Or in other words, this chapter is mostly a montage showing how Corday is learning the space ropes.  But there's a rising tension, as Jocelyn keeps winding him up, and Corday seethes against his captivity, while Queen offers a chance for vengeance and freedom.  All the while, Corday has to deal with feelings of guilt as he wonders "how low a man of honor can fall."  What is more important, Corday's personal honor, or his liberty and ambitions?  Is it better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and make the best of a horrible situation, to be the best damn officer Corday can be, or risk it all to retake control of his own destiny at the cost of his integrity?

Don't bother trying to answer these questions, they won't matter, as we'll see next chapter.

Back to Chapter IV

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