An astronaut blasting into low Earth orbit likely has many things on his or her mind. Is my seatbelt strapped? Did the booster rocket ignite? Did I leave the front door unlocked this morning?
They are likely not considering, however, that they are entering a conflict zone of a decades-old battle at hundreds of miles per hour. It is a conflict which has been waged in speech and writing, in print and broadcast—a war that, despite its seeming importance, has received little previous attention.
The battle is this: When that astronaut, or a satellite, or the moon, is whizzing around the Earth, is it properly said to be in orbit or on orbit?
I know. “On orbit” struck me as strange, too, the first time I heard it. That’s because “in orbit” dominates mainstream press accounts. There’s a 1982 UPI story, for instance, that deploys it in both headline and lede: “Nighttime Sun Mirrors In Orbit Called Feasible.” The story begins:
A space agency study reports that the technology is available to place a series of half-mile-wide solar reflectors in orbit to provide the light of 56 moons and illuminate major population centers at night.
Alas, the usage lasted longer than the plans to build a giant solar nightlight. Twenty years later, the New York Times ran a piece in its design section on astronaut interior decor:
Dr. Tom Jones spent 18 days in orbit in 1996 with four people in a cabin the size of two minivans.
Some extremely shoddy data journalism reveals in orbit to be the canonical press version. Certainly it’s the usage preferred by major news organizations. In a highly unscientific Google Fight, in orbit overwhelmingly bested its prepositional rival on the websites of the Times, CNN, and this very magazine.
But turn to NASA’s website itself and things get a little muddier. The daily reports from the International Space Station deploy the lesser-used preposition. They are, in fact, called the “on-orbit status reports.” A 2001 edition of the agency’s internal Orbital Debris Quarterly News celebrates the “History of On-Orbit Satellite Fragmentations.” And “on orbit” appears in the official NASA style guide—its two words, the guide instructs, should be hyphenated when used as an adjective or adverb—whereas “in orbit” does not.