Space Cadet by Robert A. Heinlein

  “Okay. Back to the airlock, everybody. Stick together.” When they were there, the instructor said, “Inside, Mr. Vargas. Unhook your line, snap to the lock and wait for us. You’ll take this drill over—about a month from now.”

  “But sergeant—”

  “Don’t give me any lip, or swelp me, I’ll report you for AWOL—jumping ship.”

  Silently the cadet did as ordered. The instructor leaned inside to see that Vargas actually anchored himself, then straightened out. “Come, gentlemen—we’ll start again—and no monkey shines. This is a drill, not a tea party.”

  Presently Matt said, “Sergeant Hanako—”

  “Yes? Who is it?”

  “Dodson. Number three. Suppose we had all pulled loose?”

  “We’d ’ave had to work our way back on our rocket units.”

  Matt thought about it. “Suppose we didn’t have reaction units?”

  “Nothing much—under these circumstances. The officer of the watch knows we’re outside; the radio watch is guarding our frequency. They would just have tracked us by radar until they could man a scooter and come get us. Just the same—listen, all of you—just because they’ve got you wrapped in cotton batting is no reason to behave like a bunch of schoolgirls. I don’t know of any nastier, or lonelier, way to die than all by yourself in a space suit, with your oxygen running out.” He paused. “I saw one once, after they found him and fetched him back.”

  They were rounding the side of the ship, and the bulging sphere of the Earth had been rising over their metal horizon.

  Suddenly the Sun burst into view.

  “Mind the glare!” Sergeant Hanako called out. Hastily Matt set his visor for maximum interference and adjusted it to shade his face and eyes. He did not attempt to look at the Sun; he had dazzled his eyes often enough from the viewports of the ship’s recreation rooms, trying to blank out the disc of the Sun exactly, with a coin, so that he might see the prominences and the ghostly aurora. It was an unsatisfactory business; the usual result was a headache and spots before his eyes.

  But he never grew tired of looking at Earth.

  She hung before him, great and fat and beautiful, and seeming more real than when seen through a port. She swelled across Aquarius, so huge that had she been in Orion she would have concealed the giant hunter from Betelgeuse to Rigel.

  Facing them was the Gulf of Mexico. Above it sprawled North America wearing the polar cap like a chef’s hat. The pole was still bright under the failing light of late northern summer. The sunrise line had cleared North America except for the tip of Alaska; only the central Pacific was dark.

  Someone said, “What’s that bright dot in the Pacific, over near the edge? Honolulu?”

  Honolulu did not interest Matt; he searched, as usual, for Des Moines—but the Mississippi Valley was cloudy; he could not find it. Sometimes he could pick it out with his naked eyes, when the day was clear in Iowa. When it was night in North America he could always tell which jewel of light was home—or thought he could.

  They were facing Earth so that the north pole seemed “up” to them. Far off to the right, almost a ship’s width from the Earth, nearly occulting Regulus in Leo, was the Sun, and about half way between the Sun and Earth, in Virgo, was a crescent Moon. Like the Sun, the Moon appeared no larger than she did from Earth surface. The gleaming metal sides of Terra Station, in the sky between Sun and Moon and ninety degrees from Earth, outshone the Moon. The Station, a mere ten miles away, appeared half a dozen times as wide as the Moon.

  “That’s enough rubbernecking,” announced Hanako. “Let’s move around.” They walked forward, looking the ship over and getting the feel of her size, until the sergeant stopped them. “Any further and we’d be slapping our feet over the Commandant’s head. He might be asleep.” They sauntered aft and Hanako let them work around the edge of the stern until they looked across the openings of her mighty tubes. He called them back promptly. “Even though she ain’t blasted in years, this area is a little bit hot—and you’re not shielded from the pile abaft frame ninety-three anyhow. Forward, now!”

  By hot he did not mean warm to the touch, but radioactive.

  He led them amidships, unhooked himself from the cadet next to him and hooked the lad’s line to the ship. “Number twelve—hook to steel,” he added.

  “The trick to jetting yourself in space,” he went on, “lies in balancing your body on the jet—the thrust has to pass through your center of gravity. If you miss and don’t correct it quickly, you start to spin, waste your fuel, and have the devil’s own time stopping your spin.

  It’s no harder than balancing a walking stick on your finger—but the first time you try it, it seems hard.

  Rig out your sight.” He touched a stud at his belt; a light metal gadget snapped up in front of his helmet so that a small metal ring was about a yard in front of his face. “Pick out a bright star, or a target of any sort, lined up in the direction you want to go. Then take the ready position—no, no! Not yet—I’ll take it.”

  He squatted down, lifted himself on his hands, and very cautiously broke his boots loose from the side, then steadied himself on a cadet within reach. He turned and stretched out, so that he floated with his back to the ship, arms and legs extended. His rocket jet stuck straight back at the ship from the small of his back; his sight stuck out from his helmet in the opposite direction.

  He went on, “Have the firing switch ready in your right hand. Now, have you fellows ever seen a pair of adagio dancers? You know what I mean—a man wears a piece of leopard skin and a girl wearing less than that and they go leaping around the stage, with him catching her?”

  Several voices answered yes. Hanako continued, “Then you know what I’m talking about. There’s one stunt they always do—the girl jumps and the man pushes her up and balances her overhead on one hand. He has his hand at the small of her back and she lays there, artistic-like.

  “That’s exactly the way you got to ride a jet. The push comes at the small of your back and you balance on it. Only you have to do the balancing—if the push doesn’t pass exactly through your center of gravity, you’ll start to turn. You can see yourself starting to turn by watching through your sight.

  “You have to correct it before it gets away from you. You do this by shifting your center of gravity. Drag in the arm or leg on the side toward which you’ve started to turn. The trick is—”

  “Just a second, Sarge,” someone cut in, “you said that just backwards. You mean; haul in the arm or leg on the other side, don’t you?”

  “Who’s talking?”

  “Lathrop, number six. Sorry.”

  “I meant what I said, Mr. Lathrop.”


  “Go ahead, do it your way. The rest of the class will do it my way. Let’s not waste time. Any questions? Okay, stand clear of my jet.”

  The half circle backed away until stopped by the anchored static lines. A bright orange flame burst from the sergeant’s back and he moved straight out or “up,” slowly at first, then with increasing speed. His microphone was open; Matt could hear, by radio only, the muted rush of his jet—and could hear the sergeant counting seconds: “And…one!…and…two!…and…three!” With the count of ten, the jet and the counting stopped.

  Their instructor was fifty feet “above” them and moving away, back toward them. He continued to lecture. “No matter how perfectly you’ve balanced you’ll end up with a small amount of spin. When you want to change direction, double up in a ball—” He did so. “—to spin faster—and snap out of it when you’ve turned as far as you want.” He suddenly flattened out and was facing them. “Cut in your jet and balance on it to straighten out on your new course—before you drift past the direction you want.”

  He did not cut in his jet, but continued to talk, while moving away from them and slowly turning. “There is always some way to squirm around on your axis of rotation so that you can face the way you need to face for a split second at least. For example, if I w
anted to head toward the Station—” Terra Station was almost a right angle away from his course; he went through contortions appropriate to a monkey dying in convulsions and again snapped out in starfish spread, facing the Station—but turning slow cartwheels now, his axis of rotation unchanged.

  “But I don’t want to go to the Station; I want to come back to the ship.” The monkey died again; when the convulsions ceased, the sergeant was facing them. He cut in his jet and again counted ten seconds. He hung in space, motionless with respect to the ship and his class and about a quarter mile away. “I’m coming in on a jet landing, to save time.” The jet blasted for twenty seconds and died; he moved toward them rapidly.

  When he was still a couple of hundred feet away, he flipped over and blasted away from the ship for ten seconds. The sum of his maneuvers was to leave him fifty feet away and approaching at ten feet per second. He curled up in a ball again and came out of it feet toward the ship.

  Five seconds later his boots clicked to steel and he let himself collapse without rebound. “But that is not the way you’ll do it,” he went on. “My tanks hold more juice than yours do—you’ve got fifty seconds of power, with each second good for a change of speed on one foot-second—that’s for three hundred pounds of mass; some of you skinny guys will go a little faster.

  “Here’s your flight plan: ten seconds out, counted. Turn as quick as you can and blast fifteen seconds back. That means you’ll click on with five foot-seconds. Even your crippled grandmother ought to be able to do that without bouncing off. Lathrop! Unhook—you’re first.”

  As the cadet came up, Hanako anchored himself to the ship with two short lines and took from his belt a very long line. He snapped one end to a hook in the front of the cadet’s belt and the other to his own suit. The student looked at it with distaste. “Is the sky hook necessary?”

  Sergeant Hanako stared at him. “Sorry, Commodore—regulations. And shut up. Take the ready position.”

  Silently the cadet crouched, then he was moving away, a fiery brush growing out of his back. He moved fairly straight at first, then started to turn.

  He pulled in a leg—and turned completely over.

  “Lathrop—cut off your jet!” snapped Hanako. The flame died out, but the figure in the suit continued to turn and to recede. Hanako paid out his safety line. “Got a big fish here, boys,” he said cheerfully. “What do you think he’ll weigh?” He tugged on the line, which caused Lathrop to spin the other way, as the line had wound itself around him. When the line was free he hauled the cadet in.

  Lathrop clicked on. “You were right, sergeant. I want to try it again—your way.”

  “Sorry. The book says a hundred per cent reserve fuel for this drill; you’d have to recharge.” Hanako hesitated. “Sign up for tomorrow morning—I’ll take you as an extra.”

  “Oh—thanks, Sarge!”

  “Don’t mention it. Number one!”

  The next cadet moved out smoothly, but returned on an angle and had to be snubbed with the safety line before he could click on. The next cadet had trouble orienting himself at all. He receded, his back to the ship, and seemed to be about to continue in the direction of Draco till the end of time. Hanako tugged gently on the safety line while letting it run through his gloves and turned him around toward the ship. “Ten seconds on the jet, while I keep a strain on the line,” he ordered. The safety line kept the cadet straightened out until he got back. “Number three!” called out Hanako.

  Matt stepped forward with a feeling of tight excitement. The instructor hooked the safety line and said, “Any questions? Go ahead when ready.”

  “Okay.” Matt crouched, broke his boots free, and stretched out. He steadied himself against the sergeant’s knee. In front of him lay the northern constellations. He picked out the Pole Star as a target, then loosened the safety catch of the firing switch in his glove.

  “And…one!” He felt a soft, steady pressure across his saddle, a shove of not quite ten pounds. Polaris seemed to vibrate to the blasting of the tiny jet. Then the star swung to the left, beyond the ring of the sight.

  He pulled in his right arm and right leg. The star swung faster, checked and started back. Cautiously he extended his right-side limbs again—and almost forgot to cut the jet on the count of ten.

  He could not see the ship. Earth swam in the velvety darkness off to the right. The silence and aloneness were more intense, more complete, than he had ever experienced.

  “Time to turn,” said Hanako in his ear.

  “Oh—” said Matt, and grabbed his knees.

  The heavens wheeled around him. He saw the ship swinging into sight, too late. He checked by starfishing, but it had moved on past. “Take it easy,” advised the sergeant. “Don’t curl up quite so tight, and catch it on the next time around. There’s no hurry.”

  He drew himself in again, but not so much. The ship came around again, though twice as far away as it had been before. This time he checked before it swung past. The figures crawling on her side were about three hundred feet away and still backing away from him. He got someone’s helmet centered in his sight, pressed the switch and began to count.

  For a few worried seconds he thought that something had gone wrong. The figures on the ship did not seem to be getting nearer and now they were swinging slowly past him. He was tempted to blast again—but Hanako’s orders had been specific; he decided not to.

  The ship swung out of sight; he doubled up in a ball to bring it around more quickly. When it showed up it was distinctly nearer and he felt relieved. Actually the two bodies, ship and man, had been closing at five feet per second—but five feet per second is a slow walk.

  A little more than a minute after cutting his jet, he jackknifed to bring his boots in front of him and clicked on, about ten feet from the instructor.

  Hanako came over and placed his helmet against Matt’s so he could speak to him privately, with the radio shut off. “A good job, kid, the way you kept your nerve when you swung past. Okay—I’ll post you for advanced training.”

  Matt remembered to cut out his walkie-talkie. “Gee, thanks!”

  “You did it, not me.” Hanako cut back in the voice circuit. “Okay, there—number four.”

  Matt wanted to chase back to his room, find Tex, and do some boasting. But there were seven more to go. Some did well, some had to be fished out of difficulty.

  The last man outdid himself. He failed to cut off his power in spite of Hanako’s shouts for him to do so. He moved away from the ship in a wide curve and commenced to spin, while the sergeant whipped at the safety line to try to stop the spin and head him back. At the end of a long fifty seconds his power gave out; he was nearly a thousand feet away and still receding rapidly.

  The sergeant played him like a fisherman fighting a barracuda, then brought him in very, very slowly, for there was no way to check whatever speed the tension on the line placed on him.

  When at last he was in, clicked down, and anchored by static line, Hanako sighed. “Whew!” he said. “I thought I was going to have to go get him.” He went to the cadet and touched helmets, radio off.

  The cadet did not shut off his instrument. “I don’t know,” they heard him reply. “The switch didn’t go bad—I just couldn’t seem to move a muscle. I could hear you shouting but I couldn’t move.”

  Matt went back to the airlock with the group, feeling considerably sobered. He suspected that there would be a vacant place at supper. It was the Commandant’s policy to get a cadet who was to be dropped away from the ship without delay. Matt did not question the practice, but it jarred him when he saw it happening—it brought the cold breath of disaster en his own neck.

  But he cheered up as soon as he was dismissed. Once he was out of his suit and had inspected it and stowed it as the rules required, he zipped to his room, bouncing his turns in a fashion not approved for in-ship progress.

  He banged on the door of Tex’s cubicle. “Hey, Tex! Wake up! I’ve got news for you.”

No answer—he opened the door, but Tex was not there. Nor, as it happened, were Pete nor Oscar. Disconsolately he went into his own sanctum and picked out a study spool.

  Nearly two hours later Tex came bouncing in as Matt was getting ready for lunch and shouted, “Hey! Matt! Mitt me, big boy—shake hands with a spaceman!”


  “I just passed ‘basic space suit’—sergeant said it was the best first test he had ever seen.”

  “He did? Oh—”

  “He sure did. Oh boy—Terra Station, here I come!”

  “Liberty party—man the scooter!”

  Matt zipped up the front of his space suit and hurriedly ran through the routine check. Oscar and Tex urged him along, as the liberty party was already filing through the door of the lock. The cadet officer-of-the-watch checked Matt in and sealed the door of the lock behind him.

  The lock was a long corridor, sealed at each end, leading to a hangar pocket in the side of the Randolph in which the scooter rockets were stowed. The pressure died away and the far end of the lock opened; Matt pulled himself along, last in line, and found the scooter loaded. He could not find a place; the passenger racks were filled with space-suited cadets, busy strapping down.

  The cadet pilot beckoned to him. Matt picked his way forward and touched helmets. “Mister,” said the oldster, “can you read instruments?”

  Guessing that he referred only to the simple instrument panel of a scooter, Matt answered, “Yes, sir.”

  “Then get in the copilot’s chair. What’s your mass?”

  “Two eighty-seven, sir,” Matt answered, giving the combined mass, in pounds, of himself and his suit with all its equipment. Matt strapped down, then looked around, trying to locate Tex and Oscar. He was feeling very important, even though a scooter requires a co-pilot about as much as a hog needs a spare tail.

  The oldster entered Matt’s mass on his center-of-gravity and moment-of-inertia chart, stared at it thoughtfully and said to Matt, “Tell Gee-three to swap places with Bee-two.” Matt switched on his walkie-talkie and gave the order. There was a scramble while a heavy-set youngster changed seats with a smaller cadet. The pilot gave a high sign to the cadet manning the hangar pocket; the scooter and its launching cradle swung out of the pocket, pushed by power-driven lazy tongs.

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