What are the pilot's characteristics in Tom Godwin's short story "The Cold Equations"?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the short story "The Cold Equations," the pilot Barton develops as the story progresses. Since that's the case, author Tom Godwin first depicts Barton as possessing the characteristics of emotional distance and the ability to rationalize, but Marilyn's presence soon brings out his empathetic nature.

Barton's emotional distance and ability to rationalize are portrayed in his reaction towards death at the beginning of the story. He is so accustomed to thinking rationally that he no longer feels emotional at the sight of men's deaths. His emotionless, objective rationality stems from his work as a pilot of an emergency rescue vessel. Due to his work, Barton has long since accepted the fact that men colonizing outer space are at the mercy of the laws of nature; there are few chances of survival. Yet, though Barton views death objectively and distantly, he must steel his nerves the moment he discovers there is a stowaway onboard because he is very reluctant to take any stranger's life:

[H]e had no choice in what he must do. There could be no alternative—but it required a few moments of conditioning for even an EDS pilot to prepare himself to walk across the room and coldly, deliberately, take the life of a man he had yet to meet.

Hence, Godwin does not characterize Barton as a cold person but rather as an emotionally distant person who has been desensitized by his environment. As the story progresses, his sensitivity returns.

When Barton realizes the stowaway is a young girl named Marilyn, his caring, empathetic characteristics emerge. Barton displays empathy for Marilyn by doing everything he can to try and save her or at least prolong her life, including contacting his commander to ask if there was a chance of an emergency rescue and receive permission to reduce his deceleration speed for a time. His empathetic, caring nature is further depicted when he says to Marilyn, "You'll never know how sorry I am," and reflects to himself that she'll return each night to his dreams to die all over again. His reflection shows just how much he will grieve her death.