Cover to Orbiter. Art by Colleen Doran
|Page count||104 pages|
It is a hard science fiction story set in the early 21st Century about a team of specialists employed to understand the mysterious reappearance of the space shuttle Venture. The shuttle crashed back to Earth after disappearing ten years earlier with its crew missing, save for the catatonic pilot, and alien technology on board.
Ellis and Doran are both space flight enthusiasts and dedicated Orbiter to the "lives, memories and legacies" of the astronauts who died in the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Warren Ellis received an Eisner Award nomination as Best Writer for his 2004 works including Orbiter.
The graphic novel was first published as a hardcover by Vertigo in April 2003 (ISBN 1-4012-0056-7) and as a softcover by Little Brown in May 2004 (ISBN 1-4012-0268-3). Titan Books published a British softcover in June 2004 (ISBN 1840237244)
The story begins with the crash of the Space Shuttle Venture into the area around Kennedy Space Center, which has been turned into slums as a result of its disappearance ten years earlier.
Three professionals are drafted (rather eagerly) to determine the cause of the incident.
- Michelle Robeson – biologist and the last living astronaut – is assigned to supervise the team studying the craft itself – and why it seems to be covered in skin.
- Terry Marx – a physicist employed by the severely reduced Jet Propulsion Laboratory – is assigned to determine how the craft made its ten-year trip – and why there is sand from Mars in its landing gear.
- Anna Bracken – psychiatrist formerly in charge of vetting the astronauts – is assigned to analyze the sole remainder of the craft's crew of seven, John Cost – starting with his catatonic state.
As the study begins, mysteries continue to appear. Cost is forcibly sedated after re-experiencing the Venture's disappearance, and medical examination determines he has no microgravity damage. The Venture is physically incapable of landing on Mars. Marx theorizes a bias drive, and is present when Robeson begins dismantling the Venture.
Answers lead to more questions. The "skin" the craft is covered with is found to both absorb radioactivity and reinforce the craft's superstructure. The Space Shuttle Main Engine has been replaced with a ball of exotic matter originating in the theoretical island of stability. It seems to create an alcubierre field, meaning that it avoids relativistic effects.
Under hypnosis, Cost describes effortlessly using the drive to land the Venture on Mars. Not only that, but when he decides to leave the craft, the "skin" envelops him, acting as a symbiotic EVA suit.
All these facts together drive Bracken to make a final, impassioned attempt to communicate with Cost. She tells him of Robeson's despair at losing space. She tells him of Marx's genius, wasted in a time where few dream of space. And she tells him about herself, how she wanted to experience the wonder of spaceflight through the eyes of astronauts.
Cost is pulled from his catatonic state, and tells all. Just before Venture's disappearance, he compares the limits of the Shuttle program to the glories of the Apollo program with his crew. "We get the map. They got the distance. The perspective."
That's when it happened. The Venture was swept from Earth orbit to the Moon's shadow. The crew panics, and Cost orders a course back to the International Space Station that will almost certainly ruin the craft for future flights. And then, contact.
For an unknown length of time, an alien race has observed Humanity's expansion into space, waiting to be contacted, eagerly anticipating "playmates" with which to share the universe. When manned spaceflight slowed, they thought something had gone wrong. When they heard Cost speak of past glories, they acted. They took the Venture so they could speak to humans for the first time.
The aliens modified the Venture with technologies that would permit humans to truly explore space. But, they needed a human to communicate their message to the world. The crew chose to stay with the aliens, and learn. Cost chose to return to Earth and make the introduction. In response to his desires to see the wonders of the universe, the aliens programmed the craft to make a "grand tour" of everything Cost ever dreamed about.
This is why it took ten years for the Venture to return to Earth. It is also why Cost was catatonic upon his arrival, having long since been overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of his experiences.
Robeson's team has unlocked all the Venture's secrets save one – how to operate it. Because only Cost could do it. Now, he takes Anna, Michelle, Terry (and Ali, one of Robeson's team, upon whom he was developing a crush) aboard the Venture "to meet them".
- "2004 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards". Hahnlibrary.net. 1943-04-19. Retrieved 2014-04-01.