Halley - The Next Time (16 ratings)
by Stuart Atkinson
Page 1 of 2When the Sun finally set on the wind-whipped mid-January day, it left behind
a cloudless twilight sky of deep, glacier-blue, the first clear sky for over
a week, and as you peered at it through your bedroom window all thoughts of
your homework assignment were banished, replaced by one desire, one need -
get out! Now you are standing beneath it in silence, and you feel dwarfed by
it, like an ant staring up at the vast, far-away ceiling of an ancient
cathedral. A sudden gust of wind bites into you, razor sharp, and you shiver
inside your thick school jacket which suddenly seems as thin as paper. Your
face is numb with the cold, your eyes stinging with the bitter cold, but
the view is worth the discomfort and pain.
What you see as you look towards the south takes your breath away: the
fingernail-thin crescent Moon hanging above the skeletal trees looks like a
sickle blade, forged from the purest, finest silver. Above and slightly to
the fragile young Moon's left shines a bright, orange-hued star - Mars, as
hypnotisingly beautiful and enigmatic as always. And there, to the upper
right of this spectacular pairing, hangs a thinbladed sword of silvery light,
shining as if lit from within. You allow yourself a smile. There it is,
exactly where your computer predicted it would be: Halley's Comet, back in
Earth's sky for the first time in 76 years.
You're still not sure your teacher isn't joking when she says that the last
time the comet graced Earth's sky, back in 1986, there were no footprints on
Mars, never mind Europa...
In 2062 the world is as fascinated by the comet as ever, and it has taken
over your life. You have been learning in school history lessons that when
the comet was last visible, many years before you were born, The World was
very different. Back then, as Halley's Comet shone in the pre-dawn sky, the
optimism and promise of the so-called "Space Age" had both faded away. There
had been plans for missions to Mars, but Man had still travelled no further
than the Moon - just half a dozen times to plant a flag, collect a few rocks
and hurry home again - and by 1986 the Moon felt as far away as ever, the
glory of Apollo was already fading, and no fresh footprints had been left on
its dusty surface since Apollo 17 blasted off and returned to Earth,
competing with repeats of sitcoms for TV ratings.
The last time Comet Halley's glowing tail was smeared across the night sky,
only a few crude space stations had yet been built and sent into Earth
orbit. The manned spacecraft flying in 1986 could still only carry crews in
single figures, even the Space Shuttle, so only a hundred people or so had
yet been into space. The destined-to-befamous Russian space station, MIR, had
only been in space a matter of months, and with the arrival of its first
expansion module still many months away it was merely a forlorn-looking
cylinder circling the Earth, like an outsize Sputnik. The only other things
permanently orbiting the Earth in that year were flocks of artificial
satellites, relaying phone conversations and TV pictures for the people of a
blue and white world still numb with shock and disbelief after seeing
seven of its invincible space heroes die before their eyes. Several of those
satellites actually saw the spacecraft explode, but said nothing, did
nothing, could only watch and mourh for What Might Have Been in silence.
The tragic and very public loss of the Challenger had been symbolic of the
fate of space exploration itself. The last time periodic Comet Halley passed
Earth it shone in the eyes of a civilisation whose expansion into space had
stalled. The Space Age had sputtered to a halt.
Now, as it shines in your eyes, you are glad you weren't alive then. Because
by 2062 things have changed. The Second Space Age has begun.
As Halley's Comet hangs above your neighbourhood trees in 2062, its dusty
debris drifts past a planet with a dozen permanently manned space stations
in orbit around it. You can see them crossing the sky on clear nights,
silvery-blue fireflies arcing across the heavens. The main International
Space Station, which barely survived its difficult birth seven decades
earlier, is now the largest object in Earth orbit by far, and blazes like a
second Moon as it crosses the sky, casting shadows behind you as you gaze up
at it. At its brightest it looks like a supernova sprinting across the sky...
And on that magically-clear night the proof that Earth's gravity well is a
prison no longer is there, right before your eyes: those lights twinkling in
the darkness on the unlit part of the Moon like stars are artificial,
generated by solar and nuclear power, providing light and warmth for the
personnel on the many manned bases which have been built on Luna.
Pressurised domes huddle inside craters or stand on their raised rims, on
the summits of the lunar mountains or on the frozen shores of their immense
lava oceans. Telescopes on the hidden farside study the universe in
unprecedented detail, solving - and creating - new mysteries every day.Next Page
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