Shipwreck in the Sky

by Eando Binder

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The flight into space that made Pilot-Capt. Dan Barstow famous. He was one of the very first astronauts to leave the earth -- and what he found surprised even him. "Another world." Small and too dark to see from the earth -- but large enough to capture his spacecraft. Large enough to get trapped on it.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The flight was listed at GHQ as Project Songbird. It was sponsored by the Space Medicine Labs of the U.S. Air Force. And its pilot was Captain Dan Barstow.

A hand-picked man, Dan Barstow, chosen for the AF’s most important project of the year because he and his VX-3 had already broken all previous records set by hordes of V-2s, Navy Aerobees and anything else that flew the skyways.

Dan Barstow, first man to cross the sea of air and sight open, unlimited space. Pioneer flight to infinity. He grinned and hummed to himself as he settled down for the long jaunt. Too busy to be either thrilled or scared he considered the thirty-seven instruments he’d have to read, the twice that many records to keep, and the miles of camera film to run. He had been hand-picked and thoroughly conditioned to take it all without more than a ten percent increase in his pulse rate. So he worked as matter-of-factly as if he were down in the Gs Centrifuge of the Space Medicine Labs where he had been schooled for this trip for months.

He kept up a running fire of oral reports through his helmet radio, down to Rough Rock and his CO. “All Roger, sir ... temperature falling fast but this rubberoid space suit keeps me cozy, no chills ... Doc Blaine will be happy to hear that! Weightless sensations pretty queer and I feel upside-down as much as rightside-up, but no bad effects ... Taking shots of the sun’s corona now with color film ... huh? Oh, yes, sir, it’s beautiful all right, now that you mention it. But, hell, sir, who’s got the time for aesthetics now? ... Oops, that was a close one! Tenth meteor whizzing past. Makes me think of flak back on those Berlin bombing runs.”

Dan couldn’t help wincing when the meteors peppered down past. The “flak” of space. Below he could see the meteors flare up brightly as they hit the atmosphere. Most of those near his position were small, none bigger than a baseball, and Dan took comfort in the fact that his rocket was small too, in the immensity around him. A direct hit would be sheer bad luck, but the good old law of averages was on his side.

“Yes, Colonel, this tin can I’m riding is holding together okay,” Dan continued to Rough Rock. If he paused even a second in his reports a top-sergeant’s yell from the Colonel’s throat came back for him to keep talking. Every bit of information he could transmit to them was a vital revelation in this USAF-Alpha exploration of open space beyond Earth’s air cushion, with ceiling unlimited to infinity.

“Cosmic rays, sir? Sure, the reading shot up double on the Geiger ... huh? Naw, I don’t feel a thing ... like Doc Baird suspected, we invented a lot of Old Wives’ Tales in advance, before going into space. I feel fine, so you can put down cosmic ray intensity as a Boogey Man ... What’s that? Yeah, yeah, sir, the stars shine without winking up here. What else? ... Space is inky black--no deep purples or queer more-than-blacks like some jetted-up writers dreamed up--just plain old ordinary dead black. Earth, sir? ... Well, it does look dish-shaped from up here, concave ... Sure, I can see all the way to Europe and--say! Here’s something unexpected. I can see that hurricane off the coast of Florida ... You said it, sir! Once we install permanent space stations up here it will be easy to spot typhoons, volcano eruptions, tidal waves, earthquakes, what have you, the moment they start. If you ask me, with a good telescope you could even spot forest fires the minute they broke out, not to mention a sneak bombing on a target city--uh, sorry, sir, I forgot.”

Dan broke off and almost retched as his stomach turned a flip-flop to end all flip-flops. The VX-3 had reached the peak of its trajectory at over 1000 miles altitude and now turned down, lazily at first. He gulped oxygen from the emergency tube at his lips and felt better.

“Turning back on schedule, Rough Rock. Peak altitude 1037 miles. Everything fine, no danger. This was all a cinch ... HEY! Wait ... Something not in the books has popped up ... stand by!”

Dan had felt the rocket swing a bit, strangely, as if gripped by a strong force. Instead of falling directly down toward Earth with a slight pitch, it slanted sideways and spun on its long axis. And then Dan saw what it was...

Beneath, intercepting his trajectory, coming around fast over the curvature of Earth, was a tiny black worldlet, 998 miles above Earth. It might be an enormous meteor, but Dan felt he was right the first time. For it wasn’t falling like a meteor but swinging parallel to Earth’s surface on even keel.

He stared at the unexpected discovery, as amazed as if it were a fire-breathing dragon out of legend. For it was, actually, he realized in swift, stunned comprehension, more amazing than any legend.

Dan kept his voice calm. “Hello, Rough Rock ... Listen ... nobody expected this ... hold your hat, sir, and sit down. I’ve discovered a second moon of Earth! ... Uhhuh, you heard me right! a second moon! Tie that, will you? ... Sure, it’s tiny, less than a mile in diameter I’d say. Dead black in color. Guess that’s why telescopes never spotted it. Tiny and black, blends into the black backdrop of space. It has terrific speed. And that little maverick’s gravitational field caught my rocket ... Of course it can’t yank me away from Earth gravity, but the trouble is--yipe! my rocket and that moonlet may be in for a mutual collision course...”

Dan’s trained eye suddenly saw that grim possibility. Barreling around Earth in a narrow orbit with a speed of something near or over 12,000 miles an hour the tiny new moon had, since his ascent, charged directly into his downward free fall. It was a chance in a thousand for a direct hit, except for one added factor--the moonlet exerted enough gravity pull out of its many-million ton bulk to warp the rocket into its path. And the thousand-to-one odds were thus wiped out, becoming even money.

“Nip and tuck,” reported Dan, answering the excited pleadings and questions from Rough Rock. “It won’t be a head-on crash. I may even miss entirely ... Oh, Lord! Not with that spire of rock sticking up from it ... I’m going to hit that...”

Dan had heard an atomic bomb blast once and it sounded like a string of them set off at once as the rocket smashed into the rocky prominence. The rock splintered. The rocket splintered. But Dan was not there to be splintered likewise. He had jammed down a button, at the critical moment, and the rocket’s emergency escape-hatch had ejected him a split-second before the violent impact.

But Dan blacked out, receiving some of the concussion of the exploding rocket. When his eyes snapped open he was floating like a feather in open, airless space. His rubberoid space suit, living up to its rigid tests, had inflated to its elastic limit. But it held and within its automatic units began feeding him oxygen, heat and radio-power. He had a chance, now, because he had been ejected cleanly from the rocket, without damage to the protective suit.

The stars wheeled dizzily around him. Dan finally saw the reason why. He was not just floating as a free agent in space. He was circling the black moonlet, at perhaps a thousand yards from its pitted surface.

“Hello, Rough Rock,” he called. “Still alive and kicking, sir. Only now, of all crazy-mad things, I’m a moon of this moon! The collision must have knocked me clear out of my down-to-Earth orbit ... I must have been ejected in the same direction as the moonlet’s course, in its gravity field ... I don’t know. Let an electronic brain figure it out some time ... Anyway, now I’m being dragged along in the orbit of the moonlet--how about that? Yes, sir, I’m circling down closer and closer to the moonlet ... No, don’t worry, sir. It was a weak gravity pull, only a fraction of an Earth-g. So I’m drifting down gently as a cloud ... Stand by for my landing on Earth’s second moon!”

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