Living with the Terminator

June 07, 1994|By ROBERT BURRUSS

Kensington. -- On June 3, 1965, Edward H. White II was the first American to ''walk'' in space. In the photograph I have of Mr. White drifting in space, the sun is a brilliant highlight on his face shield, and most of the direct light on his spacesuit is from the sun. The rest of the light is reflected sunlight from the earth -- earthshine, as it were. If the earth were farther away, say a million miles, the areas of his suit not directly lighted by the sun would be as black as space itself. On that earthbound Christian day in June of 1965, the sunlit side of Mr. White's body was the daylight side of the temporary planet that he was, and the dark side was the night.

''Terminator'' is the technical term for the fuzzy twilight zone that separates night from day on a moon or planet. From our earthbound vantage, the terminator of the moon is the region separating the day side of the moon from its night side. For the temporary moonlet that Mr. White was, night and day were separated by the thickness of a man's body. The original divine separation of day and night were compressed that day, by man, to a matter of inches.

In my photo of Mr. White in space, the terminator runs across the middle of his helmet, front to back, then down the left side of his chest, rippling over the zigs and zags of the folds in the fabric of his suit creating local horizons in the several terminators separating night from day on his legs, arms, feet and hands.

I became an engineer because I wanted to build rocket ships and go into space. Of course, we are all of us already in space, riding on this planet that orbits a star. To be more specific, I wanted to leave mother earth and the mundane cycles of time, and the grave burden of her relentless hug. Another planet would have been nice to visit or to live on, if it were small, or artificial, which would make the gravity less burdensome. A billion miles north or south of the sun would be good, giving a view of the sun and the planets and nearly everything else.

I can imagine living in an apartment on the hundredth floor of a building at the north pole of the moon. The south pole would be just as good, except that the earth would appear upside down from my window -- upside down, that is, relative to our present maps of the earth.

Actually, a lunar-pole penthouse with a hemispheric dome would be perfect. The earth would always be just above the horizon, and always at the same location on the lunar horizon. With binoculars, the continents would be visible and, on the night side of the earth, so would the lights of New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Singapore, Bombay, Berlin, Paris, London, Johannesburg, Rio. The earth would rotate in my view about once every 25 hours while staying in the same place on the local lunar horizon.

Every 28 days, the earth would go through its phases -- new earth, first quarter, half earth, three quarters, full, and then it would wane back to new with the sun right behind it. That's how the earth would look from the moon -- that's how it does look, were someone there to see it. But there's more to the picture than the changing earth over the same bleak lunar hills with the sun cycling blindingly across the horizon every 28 earth days.

On earth we are governed by two natural cycles, the daily one of light and dark, and the annual one of heat and cold. For someone living in space, even in an apartment on a pole of the moon, the divine separation of light from darkness would not apply -- or, simultaneously, it would be more immediate: When Mr. White was drifting in the sunlight in June 1965, night and day were side by side on his body; he could see his own terminator.

The moon might be sufficiently small that from even a sixth-floor vantage at the lunar north pole, the terminator might be readily visible, stretching to the horizon. Were you to look at the earth in half phase from one of the moon's poles, the lunar terminator would lie before you, lunar night to one side, day to the other.

On the moon, the ''day'' is 28 earth days long, and there are no seasons. In outer space, there are no cycles equivalent to day and night or to season. Humans who come to live in space will have a different sense of time than we do. Natural cycles will have to be replaced by artificial ones, if society in space is to endure.

On earth we have 24 time zones, and only those people who live within a few hundred longitudinal miles of one another are synchronized within the same temporal cycles. Temporally, the earth is disunited; in space, though, when human societies come to exist over hundreds of trillions of cubic miles, artificial time units will have to be broadcast so that whole civilizations might be in sync --- awake in phase, asleep in phase, eating in phase. Everyone will live on the same time cycle -- even if they are members of a different space societies and cultures.

For that portion of humanity that someday resides in space, the perception of time, with daily cycles of darkness and light and the annual cycles of seasons, will no longer exist. Nor will up and down exist, which means that concepts of organizational hierarchy, and of goodness residing over evil, and all the other things that have evolved in a setting of gravity and earthly time will no longer be part of collective human experience.

Edward White achieved planetary-scale status in June of 1965. In January 1967, he died in an Apollo fire, along with Virgil Grissom and Roger Chaffee. Death is the price that pioneers will pay at the terminator of light and dark, night and day. The terminator between life and death is forever part of life's eternal growth into new places and spaces.

Robert Burruss is an engineer who writes about technology and society.

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