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whale 2 (1)

You’re Dropping Out, There, Houston

Melissa McCarthy



n ellipse is a shape; plural, ellipses. It’s the surface that’s exposed when you set a cone point-up on a table, then cut through it while tilting your sword somewhat from the horizontal. It’s an oval, a closed loop, where for every spot on the curve and for any pair of focal points within, the sum of the two distances from the perimeter to the two points remains the same.

Ellipsis is a form of punctuation; plural, ellipses. It conveys, in English, omission. Other languages use the same typography—three dots in a row—for a wide range of subtly different meanings. Conversely, other alphabets, eg Laotian, use a different symbol (like a shepherd’s crook) for the same concept, of leaving out some words.

But here in written English the three dots are used to show that the speaker said something more, but the writer is not going to report it all fully. Or, perhaps the speaker hesitated a little, or they trailed off, whether because they didn’t want to finish, or couldn’t, or because they were implying an opposite. It might be that . . .

Sometimes as a writer you use ellipsis when you can’t quite be sure what the words were. There were sounds, but you could not swear, not with enough certainty, what they said. Indeterminate or imprecise reporting. In email, ellipsis is used in a little three-dot image, showing that the reply has been trimmed, that more, prior conversation is stowed below, out of the way. For a symbol depicting omission, ellipsis certainly contains a lot, still.


I’ve been considering—or perhaps looping around while staying at a constant combined distance from—two particular literary texts, which contain several of these modes and uses of ellipsis. The first text is, Composite Air-to-Ground and Onboard Voice Tape Transcription of the GT-4 Mission, published by NASA, Manned Spacecraft Centre, Houston, Texas, August 31st 1965. Aka NASA Program Gemini Working Paper No. 5035. It was declassified in 1974, and is available online, as a scanned pdf of the doc. I’ll be referring to it as “the transcript,” and it’s fantastic.

GT-4 means that it’s the Gemini-Titan programme, fourth mission into space. What’s that? Blasting off on 3rd June 1965, two astronauts, Ed White and Jim McDivitt, spent ninety-eight hours in orbit, carrying out various experiments such as testing camera equipment, monitoring their own physiology, looking for the South Atlantic Anomaly. They tried, unsuccessfully, to align their craft with their discarded booster. And Ed White had the particular task of being only the second person ever to undertake an EVA, or, Extravehicular Activity: he walked out into space.

The transcript records most of the radio conversation between the space craft and the various stations back on earth (on land and ships); they communicated with whichever one was closest, losing contact with others as they went round and round, sixty-six times. Like with friends—sometimes you talk to one more, then another, then you come back into range with the first.


There are two astronauts on board, Jim the command pilot and Ed the pilot. My sense from reading the transcript as a text, a script, is that Ed is by far the more personable and relaxed of the two. He gives a somewhat “awestruck stoner” vibe, in contrast to Jim’s practical, military demeanour. Did you remember to turn off the magnetometer and the proton-electron measurer, Ed? “I’m afraid I was watching the stars so much I forgot to turn it off at the proper time,” is his comment at thirteen hours, three minutes, thirty seconds after the start of the journey. I do know that this, my interpretation, can’t be factually true, because I don’t think one becomes a NASA experimental pilot without a large complement of sensible, obedient efficiency. But that’s how it reads, when you take the transcript as a literary text, when you interpret it. For example, at around six hours forty-one, Jim is giving ground control a long debriefing about the booster: “All the ΔV [delta velocity] I'd added up to that time had been in the direction of the booster, or retrograde. [. . .] it seemed like our rates on the booster were low, on the order of a half a degree a second in pitch and yaw. [. . .]

(I’m using square brackets and three dots, the ellipsis, to indicate that there are some other words in the transcript here, but I’m not including them because they distract from the main thrust; I don’t have space in my vehicle. The typist of the transcript itself uses five dots to indicate ellipsis, instead of three. Just a cultural habit. Let’s resume . . .)

“On the other hand, I wanted to make sure we had a reasonably good alinement prior to getting to our 2-1 GO-NO GO point in case anything went wrong,” says Jim, still going on about his retrograding. At this point Ed distracts him with some chewing gum. Jim continues the tech chat, about acceleratometer bias, camera access, vehicle separation, until he’s interrupted by Ed blissing out: “Boy! That was beautiful. [. . .] That first view of the booster. [. . .] Just exactly.” While not floridly articulate, Ed really manages to convey his sense of awe and pleasure. And he’s funny.

Not everything is recorded here; the transcript omits their broadcasts that went out live to the public on earth. The transcript also doesn’t explain what they’re talking about, which is fine, makes it more immersive to read. Some of it is just exchange of numbers, tech details that they have to agree on. Sometimes they say regular, comprehensible words, but there are gaps. It seems that they’re talking at cross-purposes, or the transcriber can hear some utterance, but it is too indistinct to write down, to pass on to us. E.g. here’s a snippet of conversation from twenty-six hours five minutes:

Jim: It looks like a rain storm with rain hanging out except that it's . . . . .
Ed: How about yawing a couple . . . . .
Jim: . . . . . the other way?
Ed: . . . . .
Jim: . . . . .
Ed: How far around do we have to come yet?
Jim: Can you see it?
Ed: What?
Jim: . . . . . parallel.
Ed: . . . . . to come around to the side?
Jim: Yes.
Ed: . . . . .
Jim: . . . . .
Ed: Those are the lights we saw the other night.
Jim: Was it like that, Ed?
Ed: Huh?
Jim: It wasn't like that.
Ed: . . . . . horizon.
Jim: . . . . . California.

Sometimes the text is entertainingly truncated: there’s a mysterious exchange, or creative cut-up, at thirty-five hours seventeen where we aren’t told Jim’s words, but Ed’s are:

“Right. I just finished it. /
. . . . . sunrise /
That thing really grabs me when it goes like that. /
Have you got a good view of it out there? /
. . . . . get to sleep . . . . . /
Yes. /
Ah . . . . . cereal.”

Some information has not been preserved, here. Also, it’s a scanned page, and some of the typing doesn’t show up enough on the pdf. It’s too faint, the distinctness of the words fading into the white of the page. Occasional typos. Then there’s a crucial exchange, at thirty-six hours four minutes:

Jim: Sure wish I knew how our water supply was doing back there.
Ed: I do too.
Jim: . . . . .
Jim: . . . . .
Ed: I don’t think so. Do you?
Ed: . . . . .
Jim: . . . . .
Ed: Why don’t you see if you can see, Jim?
Ed: That’s really neat!
Ed: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Ed: Maybe you can direct it better.
Jim: . . . . .
Jim: . . . . .
Ed: No way of telling, huh?

Degree zero, void, no content. I don’t know what they’re talking about here. No way of telling, huh. I mean, from what I know about the context of what they’re doing on the mission, I know it’s something about taking photos, and trying to align the horizon and the rising stars, and use the equipment right, while intaking enough water so they don’t dehydrate but not so much that they run out. But it’s beautifully vague. Surrounded by ellipses, out in nowhere, there’s a particular and precise absence and omission, which Ed nonetheless manages to articulate: “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”


Ed’s comment on seeing and nothingness is, for me, the highlight of the expedition. But there is another excellent section of the transcript, and in fairness this is the part for which the journey is mainly famous. It’s Ed leaving the capsule after four hours of elapsed journey, going out on his space walk. He has a much better time of it than his Russian precursor, who got steamed up, too hot. Ed enjoys his EVA (“This is the greatest experience I’ve . . . . . it’s just tremendous.”) In fact, he enjoys it so much that they cannot get him to come back into the vehicle. His feet went out at four hours thirty, though the reader senses that the spacewalk really starts at four eighteen, when they finally manage to open the stuck mechanism on the hatch door and Ed looks out properly for the first time, “What a view! By golly. You can see the black sky up above.”

During the EVA there’s a bit of a comms problem, with Jim inside his space craft having to relay everything between ground and Ed. At four hours thirty-six they inform Ed, “You’ve got about five minutes.” He doesn’t come in, and they allow another five. But he won’t come in even after this extension, despite them shouting “Get back in!” at him, not til four hours forty-eight minutes. And then it goes terribly quiet. From the space end; from earth there’s a constant request for, “Gemini 4, Houston CAP COM. Gemini 4, Houston CAP COM. Give me your status.” But they don’t. At five hours fourteen we read Ed and Jim chatting to each other. It’s not until five nineteen that they report directly back to earth.

This thirty minutes of drop-out, non-communication, a pause or lacuna in the two-way radio conversation during and after Ed’s space walk, is great. It seems that they were having trouble with the door mechanism again, and decided to concentrate on this, as having a hatch that closes as you re-enter earth’s atmosphere is more pressing than talking to Gus down in command. But I think, I prefer to read the text as, that they undergo this quiet time because Ed has experienced something so extraordinary that he cannot yet convey it in words. He’s moved out into an unexamined space, come to a new understanding of his position vis-a-vis the capsule, the other humans, the earth, the source of light. He looks different, and differently, now.

He’s lost for words. Or, some words are lost. Most of them, they left Ed’s mouth, travelled all the way to ground control, landed in their ears, on the magnetic tape, and on the page. But not all of them. Where do the other words go, then, the ones from the ellipsis? They disappear, dissipate, fade out somewhere between Ed in space and the transcript in my hands. There is a long distance, through a cold, harsh environment, and there are a lot of stages, over which the information could decay. But I think that it’s in space that we lose his words. If they haven’t reached us, they must still be floating about out there, out in orbit, words like the sparks from the booster rocket that Ed describes as spreading out into his field of vision like stars, or like “little fireflies all around.” It’s very beautiful, the picture of space he conveys with his words.

Ed White: born, 14th November 1930, died 27th January 1967—less than two years after his space walk—in another rocket, the Apollo 1. He was in the cabin, still on earth, when a fire broke out, killing the three astronauts on board.


This lapse in communication between unusual vehicles—I’ve seen that before somewhere. In Hergé’s Cigars of the Pharaoh (original serialisation in French, 1932-34; book, 1955; English translation, 1971), which is my second focal point, here. Quite early on in the story, Tintin, Snowy, and their new friend, Sophocles Sarcophagus, wake up one morning floating in the Red Sea, each in his own coffin. They’ve been tossed overboard in a hurry when the coastguard approached the boat they were on. Tintin in a coffin in a boat was jettisoned. Soon he will be swamped by a tribute to Hokusai’s Wave, and picked up again by a gun-runner, while Sarcophagus is spiked with the poison of madness. It’s all go, in Tintin.

But on this one page, the three coffins, looking like they’re roped shut but luckily they’re not, these coffins float together on the dark green water, until dawn. When they wake up and push open the lids, Tintin and Snowy are right next to each other, so they can chat. But Sarcophagus is further away, and when he talks, Tintin can’t hear him. Sarcophagus says: “. . . ry . . . cet . . . ing . . . wo . . . ump . . . ca . . .” (That’s in English. In French, he says, “. . . té . . . oua . . . our . . . pa . . . ote . . . ère . . .”) Tintin retorts, “What? What are you saying? . . . Louder. The noise of the wind is drowning your words.” Sarcophagus replies to this complaint, “What? I can’t understand a word you’re saying with the wind.” Because all he can hear from Tintin is “. . . ous . . . al . . . ent . . .”

There’s a third frame of cartoon, where the same thing happens: they only receive fragments of what the other is shouting. Sarcophagus is on a distant horizon by this point, waving his arms as though he’s semaphoring, and six little pips, spots of water, sparks, radiate around his head like the hour marks on a clock. So Tintin gives it up, realises there’s no point in shouting himself hoarse, and he’s better off attaching his boat to Snowy’s and trying to fish them some breakfast.

Now, this is an excellent page in the Tintin oeuvre. Both participants in the conversation that we see parts of the two ends of are saying and demonstrating the same thing, which is, I can’t hear you say that you can’t hear me. What do the ellipses mean in this situation? That some sound is carrying, over the waves, through this channel, but not enough for Tintin to distinguish the precise words. The noise of the wind drowns out the specificity; only fragments get through. And where are Tintin’s words going? Parallel to Ed’s words falling away into space, Tintin’s words, because of his environment, his circumstances, are clearly falling into the sea (just ask his friends Thompson and Thomson). That’s where they’d drop: into the water.

In both these cases, the transcript and the cartoon, we’re presented with, there’s a definite focus on, the ellipsis. The voice drops out, we’re left with absence. This then invites the question of, what flows in to fill the space? It might be silence. Absolutely nothing. Or static, or buzz. Sibilance, or indistinct noise, or imagination. I think there’s a clue in our typography, where the ellipsis is shown by three dots, because in Morse code (and there’s a lot of this to decipher, in Tintin) these three dots have another meaning: they’re the letter “S.” That’s what I hear rushing into the holes in the communications between the death-related vehicles: a long hissing sound. Sss tss tss in every ellipsis, everywhere.


We have floating around in space through the gaps and dots, and we have floating in coffins with ellipses. There’s one further instance that grabs me, one voyage around these two focal points, the one in the water and the other up among the stars. It’s in Chapter 110 of Herman Melville’s 1851 Moby-Dick, when Queequeg notices that the Nantucketers have a habit of carving wooden vehicles (or, coffins,) for their dead sailors. He approves of this, as it’s like what they do back at his island home: put the dead warrior in a canoe and float him away “to the starry archipelagoes; for not only do they believe that the stars are isles, but that far beyond all visible horizons, their own mild, uncontinented seas, interflow with the blue heavens; and so form the white breakers of the milky way.”

(That’s Queequeg who signs up to the voyage by copying a tattoo off his arm, the one in the shape of “a queer round figure”—an ellipse.) The ocean, with its strange vehicles, extends right on up into space, and death, believes Queequeg. I’d go along with that; it’s easy to trace the continuity between Tintin’s ocean, up to the Gemini’s ellipsoid orbits through space. Just follow along the dotted line . . . There’s one other thing that we might notice, though, linking the two spheres.

The astronauts are anxious not be left waiting in the water too long, after they splash down. They say it’s because they don’t want to drown, and they have been in this extreme, extremely confined space for a long time. But I wonder if it’s something a little more, which is bothering them in the water. Queequeg certainly has a horror of being ignominiously dispatched into the sea without the right craft; he’s scared of the “death-devouring sharks,” as Melville calls them. And what does Tintin find, when, floating there in his coffin, he trails a spar overboard? He hooks . . . a massive shark which nearly capsizes and destroys him. That’s what is dot-dot-dotted about him in the water, in his expanse, sea, space. They’re all around, though we might omit to mention them. That’s what lives in the ellipsis, or just under it, cruising all round us: s . . . s.

MM fleeing plant

Melissa McCarthy