Leaving Low Earth Orbit


On the sunny afternoon of December 21 1968 an orange sailed through the open glass windows in a Heliopolis apartment in Cairo. The projectile bounced once on the floor of the boys room before it came to a halt under a photograph of the family. Adults blamed the entire episode on wayward boys in the neighborhood. But the older boy had an unlikely explanation which he kept to himself. He imagined that the orange was tossed his way by Jim Lovell, the second in command of Apollo 8, and a man he came to idolize for no particular reason. The vessel had just been launched in far away Florida, but the boy had kept close track of the entire mission even before launch. Two decades later, after a lecture by Lovell, the grown man wanted to introduce himself and mention the orange, but did not, to his regret.

The race to the moon, and the bets placed on the eventual first arrival, occupied minds throughout the 1960s, and whether one favored the United States or the Soviet Union depended largely on the person’s political orientation. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, when Egyptian television played a short snippet of one of his sermons, the boy’s favors swung toward the Americans. He watched with some trepidation as a squat and ungainly Soviet tub, dubbed Zond 6, carrying a turtle and a number of smaller critters orbited the moon in an eccentric manner during the latter part of November 1968, before skipping back to earth and crashing in the wilds of Kazakhstan, killing all animals on board, small and smaller. But his excitement soared as the closing act of 1968 belonged to the spectacular vessel called Apollo 8, launched from America and piloted by Americans. The closing weeks of 1968 were notable in Egypt by the fact that the state media gave prominent play to Apollo 8. It was a significant departure from its hereto skewed reporting which hailed every Soviet achievement and downplayed every American one. There were daily reports of the accomplishments of Apollo 8, and on the day after its safe arrival back on earth, December 28 1968, the stations promised a full half hour documentary on Apollo 8. For the passionate follower of the space program the documentary seemed a suitable present on his birthday. He fidgeted all day waiting for it. His birthday fell awkwardly during lent, making the idea of a cake out of the question; instead it was always celebrated with some variation of fruits or vegetarian delicacy topped with a single candle. On this day he had no wish to linger on a celebration and was eager to rush to the TV and watch the documentary which delivered everything it promised and more.

What the documentary promised were photographs of the earth and the moon and footage of the men inside their capsule and of the heavenly bodies outside it. There were certainly those, in full black and white graininess. The documentary also delivered more than it promised, albeit in an intangible form. There was the awe imprinted on the young viewer of the vastness of the distance between the earth and the moon, and the comparatively insignificant size of the vessel. Apollo 8 traveled more than 100 times farther than Columbus, in a vessel smaller than his and with no possibility of patching up leaks while sailing toward its destination. Jim Lovell’s error of wiping out the computer memory and reorienting the vessel by the stars was a throwback to an earlier era of technology, but also an affirmation of the indispensable place of craft in all journeys of discovery. The boy found the diagrams and illustrations of the earth, moon and the vessel entirely unsatisfying, due to their truncated perspective. Instead, and only to comprehend the scale of the enterprise, he placed the orange which he had kept from days earlier on one end of the long hallway in the apartment, and on the other end he placed a playing marble. He tweaked the distances to approximate that between the earth and the moon. He could not find a satisfying stand-in for Apollo. Even an ant would have been too big, and insufficiently majestic. He imagined Apollo, too tiny to see on his reconstruction, racing toward the moon, carrying within it even smaller creatures. These creatures were his heroes. His sunday school teacher had tried to convince him, mostly in vain, of the existence of God based on the vastness and the unlikeliness of the universe. But in the hallway of his home he came to comprehend the true wonder of human existence, the inexplicable ability of tiny creatures to venture to places utterly inhospitable to their weak forms.

The birthday documentary began to pull America into view. Immigration was a near certainty now, and only a matter of months away. There was the excitement of tunneling out of Egypt, of whose failures he had become tired and ashamed. But America had remained elusive in spite of his diligent research. He memorized the names of all 50 states and their capitals. He collected road maps of the country and many of the bigger cities. He listened to the vinyl discs that came from America by couriers. He had followed the presidential campaign, and the mysterious Electoral College. He imagined that forsaking his tribe would be easy, but what American tribe would he belong to? Apollo 8 mission control offered a tentative answer. The tribe of men who seemed able to do complex things without any seeming effort. They spoke in acronyms with hushed and even tones, whether the matter at hand was routine or catastrophic. Their uniform of short-sleeved shirts, thin ties and half-rimmed glasses signaled a welcome otherness. Neither birth nor kinship guaranteed membership in that tribe; the price of belonging was facility with arcane knowledge. He listened carefully to their clipped chatter. They reduced the terrifying act of leaving earth’s embrace into a comfortable three letter acronym, TLI. Trans Lunar Injection. This was quite a departure from the world he had known so far, where daily acts of stupidity were celebrated with great fanfare. Three men were commanded to escape their home planet into the vastness of space with a single understated sentence, “Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI. Over”.  A reporter’s comment, heard faintly in the background, provided a succinct summary of the event. Leaving low earth orbit. Low Earth Orbit, LEO. That phrase stuck with the boy as a metaphor for all that was about to happen to him. It captured in equal measures the excitement and fear of leaving home. In his hallway construction immigration was but a small move, from one section of the orange to another. But he saw it as something closer to the first ever human departure from earth’s influence. Immigration would happen weeks after Apollo 11, and it would start with a walk down the hallway from the bedroom to the foyer; from the orange to the marble. While a few family members said their goodbyes in the early morning light, he imagined himself leaving low earth orbit. America neither kept the promises of 1969, nor disappointed in a larger sense. In the tumult of the 1970s, many radicals attacked the space program, and even science itself. He took no effort to argue with them, feeling that they are simply bound to the gravitational pull they had never questioned. The country as a whole abandoned the promises of the Apollo program, confining humans to low earth orbit, but spectacular machines made further journeys; the Voyager twins, and the Mars expeditions did not send humans out of earth orbit, only the fruits of their mental labors. While the language of science, and the space program, crept into his daily expressions, he tried to keep LEO private. Once, while castigating one of his graduate students for aiming too low, he demanded “you really needed to leave low earth orbit on this issue”. The student, just a few years younger, was puzzled by the expression but adopted it anyway. Soon enough it was common around his lab. LEO was a synonym for any effort deemed lacking in imagination, poorly executed or simply boring. A better-funded competing group across the country was described as a “a bunch of LEOs”. He regretted the public use of what had been his private phrase. But the idea of leaving low earth orbit remained as a metaphor for any worthwhile venture; leaving the comfortable and combating the unknown before returning to the familiar. He counted himself lucky in a number of ways, but mostly in having the freedom to occasionally leave the familiar and experience the anxiety of the unknown. In escaping low earth orbit he would find delight in not belonging and redemption in transgressing without fanfare. He would never find comfort in the assurances of religion or the musings of philosophers. For him life was too incomprehensible and random. It made sense solely within its context and only by its ever-shifting rules. The trepidation of its inevitable waning made bearable by the thought of it as one exciting preparation for a final departure from low earth orbit.

— Maged Atiya

From “Tales of Immigration”