Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

Apollo 18

September 15, 2011

Some time last year, previously classified footage of a lunar mission was anonymously uploaded to a web site, This footage was allegedly recovered from a secret US mission to the Moon in December 1974, Apollo 18. But the astronauts never made it back to Earth, and so everything about the mission was buried even deeper. Until now.

Or, at least, so we are supposed to believe. The web site was actually viral marketing for the movie Apollo 18, which appeared in cinemas this summer. According to text at the beginning of the film, the movie is edited from the footage uploaded to the web site. In other words, everything that appears on the screen was shot by the cameras the astronauts took with them.

It’s all fictional, of course. Every one of the Saturn Vs built are accounted for – and when something costs that much money and requires that much expertise – the rockets are still claimed to be the most complex engineering projects ever undertaken – they don’t go “missing”. According to the story of the film, Apollo 18 was a secret Department of Defense mission, sent to place some early warning ICBM detectors on the lunar surface. Except it’s hard to understand how effective such devices would be on the Moon. But that doesn’t matter, because there is another secret purpose to the equipment.

The details of the mission, including a mission patch, are set up quickly,mostly through interviews with the “astronauts”: Commander Nathan Walker, CMP John Grey and LMP Benjamin Anderson. They name their CSM Freedom and LM Liberty (echoing the spacecraft of Mercury astronauts Alan B Shepard and (sort of) Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom). Everything goes according to plan until shortly after the LM has made touchdown, and the two astronauts are on their first EVA. They discover bootprints. Yet no Apollo mission has ever visited this area of the Moon. They follow the bootprints and find a Soviet LK lander. After searching the area, they discover the cosmonaut’s body in a deep crater nearby. Also in the crater are… creatures. Rocks which turn into hostile crab-like creatures…

I went to watch Apollo 18 at the cinema because I wanted to see how accurately the movie depicted an Apollo mission. I was not especially interested in the plot – and certainly not in a story of Moon creatures attacking astronauts. The presence of a LK lander was, however, an unexpected bonus. And… in terms of accuracy, Apollo 18 makes a pretty good fist of it. The hardware all appears to be correct – even the Soviet lander. The film-makers clearly had trouble emulating micro-gravity and the Moon’s one-sixth gravity, and in some places it doesn’t appear especially convincing. But they intercut footage from the real Apollo missions, which helps improve the verisimilitude – even if the cutting between black-and-white and colour footage does begin to annoy after a while.

Having said that, every foot of film in Apollo 18 is supposed to have been shot by cameras in situ. In one or two places, the film-makers slip up and frame shots that could not have come from them. And, it has to be asked, if the mission never returned to Earth, how was the footage recovered? Some of it is from television cameras, but other footage looks to have been shot on 16mm.

There was some vagueness in the tasks performed by the three astronauts during their trip to the Moon and the LM’s descent. I was waiting for LMP Anderson to begin reading out height and fuel, but he did this only briefly. And then the LM landed. But mostly the dialogue was convincing. Except… It’s unlikely an astronaut in 1974 would have known details of the abandoned Soviet lunar programme. That one had existed, perhaps; but not that the lunar lander was called the LK.

Apollo 18‘s story felt somewhat lopsided. Very little happens for the first two-thirds, as the mission approaches the Moon and then the LM makes its landing. But then the the story begins to pick up when Walker and Anderson discover the LK and the dead cosmonaut. It’s a shame it then devolve into a silly monster movie.To be fair, the moon-rock creatures are quite effective, and a real sense of paranoia develops in the LM between the two astronauts after the first attack.

I will probably buy the DVD for the collection, but the film is not really worth paying the inflated price of a cinema ticket to see.

Apollo 18, dir. Gonzalo López-Gallego (2011, Dimension Films, length 86 minutes)

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, Jim Ottaviania and Zander & Kevin Cannon

January 25, 2010

Last year was the fortieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon – celebrated, of course, on this blog (see here) – and, as a result, a variety of books were published on the subject. I only reviewed one of them, the Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual by Christopher Riley & Phil Dolling (see here), although I posted a list of new titles here. One of those new books was T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottavania and Zander and Kevin Cannon, a comic-book retelling of the Space Race.

T-Minus opens in 1957, with the meeting of CC Johnson and Max Faget at NACA. The two spacecraft designers pop up frequently throughout the story. T-Minus also tells the Soviet side of the story, beginning with a tour of Baikonur given by Sergei Korolev, the Chief Designer, prior to the launch of Sputnik. The story cuts between the two nations and their space programmes, focusing chiefly on the designers – Faget, Johnson and Korolev – although many other names familiar from the Space Race do appear. The major events of the twelve years between Sputnik and Apollo 11 are covered: Mercury, Gemini, the Apollo 1 fire, Gagarin‘s flight, Komarov‘s death, Korolev’s death…

T-Minus is aimed at kids, and it shows. There’s no commentary, the dialogue is often chatty, and, weirdly, in some places a lot of the dialogue spoken by the astronauts during their missions is taken straight from transcripts and left unglossed.

Unfortunately, the simple style of the art doesn’t really do T-Minus any favours. While the artists have made an effort to match the actual appearance of the people in the story, they lack so much detail it’s often difficult to tell them apart. This is not helped by the fact that only some of the characters are actually identified – Faget and Johnson, for example, are referred to throughout only as Max and CC, but never actually named fully.

As an introduction to the Space Race for younger readers, T-Minus mostly succeeds. It’s very detailed in parts, and some younger readers may struggle as a result. The simple art helps focus on the drama of the story, although it can lead to confusion over the personalities involved. There is certainly plenty in the book which will inspire further reading or research.

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (2009, Aladdin, ISBN 978-1-4169-4960-2, 124pp)

The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams

October 19, 2009

I had intended to publish a short story on this blog as part of my 40th anniversary celebrations of Apollo 11, but with one thing and another I never actually finished the story. Recently, however, I needed to come up with a flash fiction piece (i.e., under 1,000 words) as part of my writing group’s contribution to a local literary festival. And it occurred to me that the story I’d planned to publish here would be perfect. But first I had to finish it. And then chop it down to 1,000 words. Which I did. And I think it came out quite well.

So here it is:

The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams

“Radar lights are out.”

“That’s a Verb 57?”

Capcom confirms, “You’re go for a Verb 57.”

LMP Gerald P Carr punches it in on the DSKY. The computer will now accept data from the landing radar.

“Descent rate 70 feet per second… passing through 36 thousand… pitch 72…”

Carr reads out the LM’s altitude and descent rate, while Commander Stuart Roosa, USAF, flies the spacecraft. Moments later, Houston signs off as the LM crosses the lunar terminator —

Apollo 20, the first mission to visit the dark side of the Moon.

The LM approaches the Mare Ingenii, a lava-flooded crater. It looks like a real sea. Except it’s grey, a flat featureless grey like an under-exposed black and white photograph. A collapsed rim resembles two fjords. Carr can imagine a fishing port at the shore, a cluster of monochrome houses, with a monochrome jetty and little monochrome dories. Carr is USMC, he knows boats.

“Okay at 20,000,” Carr says. “Computer and PNGS on the button. 1:20 to pitchover.”

He feeds flight data to Roosa. They pitch over and begin to descend vertically.

“Ready for touchdown.”

“20 feet… 10 feet… contact.”


Not even a vibration through his boots. Carr feels a moment of vertigo, the moonscape visible through the window tips one way then the other. He blows out noisily; it’s enough to break the spell.

He says, “Engine stop, engine arm, command override off, PNGS on auto.”

Roosa says the magic words, but Houston can’t hear them:

“Centaurus has landed.”

Both astronauts want to go out onto the lunar surface, but they’re not scheduled for EVA for another three hours. First is a rest period, but they’re too keyed-up to sleep.

“What they used to call this?” Carr asks.

Mare Desiderii.”

“Sea of…” His Latin isn’t up to it.

“Sea of Dreams. But it’s not a mare. Except this bit, so they called it Sea of Cleverness. Ironic, huh?”

“I guess.” Carr is not big on irony. He’s a marine.

“What’s that?”

Roosa bounces round to face Carr. “What’s what?”

“I saw something flash.” Carr points north-east. The rim of Thomson there is broken, forming inlets into the “sea” of the crater’s floor.

“A flash? Like a reflection off a mineral?”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Worth checking out.” It’s some 12 kilometres away, so about an hour on the LRV.

The CSM is overhead, so Roosa tells CMP Paul Weitz their plan. He can inform Houston when he orbits back to the near-side.

“Be careful,” says Weitz.

Roosa acknowledges. He turns to look at the LM — bright silver, with its golden skirt. He got to come here, he marvels. Three days on the dark side. He made a first, he’s going down in the history books.

Like Neil Armstrong.

The floor of Thomson could have been made for the LRV, the going is so smooth. Roosa pushes the T-bar forward, and the speedometer needle creeps up to 15 kph.

“Boy,” says Carr, “we’re really motoring here.”

“Yeah. Who needs a Corvette?”

Carr directs Roosa to where he saw the flash. Roosa nudges the T-bar and the LRV arcs to the right.

Ahead, something sparkles. Sunlight spilling over the horizon makes the lunar surface a place of black shadows and grey twilight. But there’s something bright hiding in a fold in the tumbled-down rim.

From a kilometre away, it’s hard to tell what it is, though vision is sharp in the vacuum. Carr squints and makes out a suggestion of…

… something regular?

“You think it might be a Luna? One of those Russian probes?”

No, it’s too big. Carr has seen photos of the Luna probes: they looked like boilers on legs, like some robot from a 1950s B-movie.

The LRV slows to a stop. Roosa sits and stares at the object in the shadows. It’s a spacecraft. It lies crumpled against the slope, broken-backed, its engine bell towards them.

They disembark, and Roosa approaches the crashed spacecraft slowly. Is it alien? He’s heard of UFOs, of lights buzzing planes; but he doesn’t subscribe.

He can see the upper half of the craft. It looks familiar.

“Holy shit,” he says. “You’re not gonna believe this.”

It’s obvious now. Roosa can see exactly what it is:

A Mercury capsule.

Just like the ones flown by Al, John, Gus, the Original Seven. He can see the words “United States” on its side.

“Jesus,” says Carr. “How the hell did that get here?”

Roosa moves up the slope. The capsule looks undamaged. He’s close enough to see the hatch… and the curve of a helmet within.

“Stay back,” he warns.

There’s no movement, but it pays to be cautious. His breath is louder than the PLSS fans. The hatch is cracked open a few inches. He hauls it up.

Inside, belted into the single seat, sits a figure in a silver pressure suit. His head is slumped forward, hiding his face.

“No way is Houston going to believe this.”

The dead astronaut has the Star and Stripes on his shoulder. It’s impossible.

Roosa reaches in and shifts the body. Now he can see the nametag:


The only Kincheloe he knows of died back in 1958, killed at Edwards when his F-104 augered in. Could it be the same man? Maybe they faked his crash, maybe they sent him here instead.

“Jesus,” says Carr. “I found a flag stuck on a pole here.”

“Stars and Stripes?” asks Roosa. He’s still staring at the dead astronaut.


Roosa steps back from the capsule. He looks down at his feet, and sees his bootprints. They’ll last a million years. He sees more bootprints, not his. Kincheloe survived the crash.

“Know what this is?” Roosa remembers now. “I heard about it back at Edwards. Project Pilgrim. A one-way shot to the Moon.”

They actually went and did it. They sent a man to the Moon on a one-way ticket. He planted a flag here, then he died.

“Neil will be pissed,” Roosa says.

(all images NASA)

One Small Step, PB Kerr

September 5, 2009

Given the shadow the Apollo Programme casts over the history of the twentieth century, it’s surprising there isn’t more fiction set in and about it. There’s certainly plenty about space travel, but that’s science fiction, inasmuch as it supposes technologies and sciences which do not exist, such as faster-than-light drives. But they’re the subject of my other blog here.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, and I very much doubt I was alone in that. It was never a likely prospect – I’m not American, for one thing. In PB Kerr’s One Small Step, thirteen-year-old Scott MacLeod wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, but he gets to be one while he’s still a kid. PB Kerr is better known as Philip Kerr, the author of the excellent Bernie Gunther novels, as well as a number of others. As PB Kerr, he writes YA fiction – this novel, and the Children of the Lamp series.

One Small Step opens with Scott’s parents separated, his mother in Florida, and his father a serving USAF officer in Texas. After an incident at school, Scott goes to live with his father. And every Sunday, Scott’s father gives his son flying lessons at the nearby Air Force base. On a flight in a T-37 trainer jet, a bird strike shatters the canopy and knocks out Scott’s father. So he lands the plane on his own.

News of this feat reaches NASA, and Dr Wernher von Braun comes to visit Scott and his father. Apparently, NASA had been so scared after the Apollo 1 fire that the Apollo missions might fail, or that the astronauts might be killed, that they were running a shadow programme, called Caliban, using chimpanzees. They were all set to send a Caliban mission to the Moon ahead of Apollo 11, but their chimp commander has suffered a mental breakdown. Von Braun wants Scott to command the mission instead.

Which, of course, he does. After four months of training, Scott is blasted into space with two chimpanzees in a smaller version of the Apollo spacecraft. The mission plan calls for the two apes to land on the Moon, but not EVA, while Scott remains in lunar orbit. Naturally, he disobeys, pilots the LM down himself, and goes out onto the surface. Where something strange happens to him and his chimpanzee LMP. They then return to Earth and are quarantined, but Scott can convince no one of what he experienced on the Moon.

Certainly NASA used apes early in its space programme, but it’s a stretch too far to imagine an entire secret project shadowing Apollo. And that sort of spoils the book. Nevertheless, Scott is an engaging narrator, and the story is very readable. Kerr is perhaps better on his ape characters than he is on Apollo details – the afterword, for example, refers to the “Apollo 7 fire”. The only Apollo astronaut to make an appearance is Pete Conrad (see my review of his biography here), and he feels mostly true to character.

But. Sending apes to the Moon. And having to use a thirteen-year-old boy to command the mission. It’s just too incredible. The Caliban 11 mission is launched using a Saturn V, which means there was no requirement for ape-sized Apollo spacecraft, which means in turn there was no need for a boy rather than an adult to command them. Not to mention the level of automation required for a mission “manned” by chimpanzees. The real Apollo astronauts had thousands of tasks to perform during their missions, and their spacecraft were already quite heavily automated. I can swallow a young boy being given flying lessons, and landing a damaged jet trainer because the pilot is unconscious, but the rest…

Which doesn’t mean One Small Step isn’t a fun read. And I suppose it provides a very good YA introduction to Apollo. Not everyone, after all, is going to want to wade through heavy non-fiction books on the subject (which may explain why the terrible Moon Shot – see here – is so popular). I found the details in One Small Step mostly correct, the book wears its research lightly, and the period is evoked well. I already knew Kerr was a good writer, and in that regard this book doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps the whole separated parents subplot is a bit of a cliché, but at least it makes for a happy ending. I’d happily pass One Small Step on to a reader of the appropriate age. I’m fairly sure they would enjoy it.

One Small Step, PB Kerr (2008, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-1-84738-300-6, 305pp + Author’s Note)

The Pilgrim Project, Hank Searls

June 19, 2009

I don’t normally review fiction associated with the Space Race on this blog, chiefly because there’s little fiction available which seems appropriate. There have been novels written which are based on the subject, or based on the technology of the various NASA and Soviet space programmes – and, in fact, it was one such novel which partly rekindled my interest in the Space Race. That novel was Ascent by Jed Mercurio, and I reviewed it on my other blog here. The other book which inspired me to start this blog was Andrew Smith’s Moondust.

But. Fiction set in and around and about the Space Race. There’s Space by James Michener, of course. I read it many years ago, and I may well reread it to review here. And there’s Donald Wollheim’s Mike Mars series, some of which I own. There are also assorted novels by Jeff Sutton, Barry Malzberg, Stephen Baxter, Homer Hickam, Martin Caidin, and others.

And there’s The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls.

The Pilgrim Project is a fictional account of the first landing on the Moon. But this is not an Apollo mission. According to the novel’s foreword, at a symposium in New York in 1962, members of the Institute of Aerospace Sciences proposed sending an astronaut on a one-way trip to the Moon. He would have to survive there for about a year, while NASA figured out how to rescue him. The plan was never taken seriously, and work moved on apace on the Apollo programme.

Searls did well get his novel out so quickly. The Pilgrim Project is copyrighted 1964, so he must have started writing it shortly after the symposium mentioned above. Unfortunately, future events have made an alternate history of the story. For example, the novel opens with the crew of Apollo 3 in orbit. The year isn’t given, but I’d guess it was roughly contemporaneous with the book’s publication, so the mid-1960s. Sadly, the Apollo 1 fire, in which Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White lost their lives, delayed Apollo, and the first manned flight wasn’t until Apollo 7 on 11 October 1968.

Some of the actual details Searls gives of the Apollo programme and spacecraft are also slightly off. Admittedly, it seems a bit silly to complain about the accuracy of Searls’ depiction of the space programme, since the book was written while Apollo was still being planned. In fact, the writing of The Pilgrim Project predates the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3, on 23 March 1965.

But then The Pilgrim Project is pretty much a potboiler. The prose is direct and mostly inelegant. The characters are typical for the type of novel: the men are hard-talking, manly astronauts, and the women are all beautiful and needy. Some historical figures are named, such as Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley; while others are referred to only by their position – the President and the Vice-President, for example.

One of the latter is “the colonel”, the volunteer astronaut for the one-way Moon shot. He’s described as a Mercury astronaut, and Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Gordy Cooper and Wally Schirra are all named in the narrative. Which would make “the colonel” Scott Carpenter, who was actually a US Navy aviator. Another recurring character in The Pilgrim Project is “the Navy commander”, who is quite clearly based on Alan “the icy commander” Shepard (see my review here of Neal Thompson’s biography of Shepard, Light This Candle).

The hero of The Pilgrim Project, however, is Steve Lawrence, a civilian test pilot. The only civilian test pilot of the first post-Mercury group of astronauts, the New Nine, was Neil Armstrong. Lawrence is mentioned as having served with distinction in Korea, which Armstrong did indeed do.

In the novel, the Soviets take the first steps to a lunar mission of their own, sending up a Vostok to their unnamed space platform. Scared they might be beaten to the Moon, the Americans dust off Project Pilgrim, and “the colonel” begins training. The Pilgrim Project uses a Mercury capsule, launched into orbit on a Saturn 1B, and with a modified Polaris missile rocket for Lunar Orbit Insertion and an unnamed liquid-propellant throttleable rocket for landing. Prior to launch, a shelter and supplies, Project Chuck Wagon, would be sent to the Moon.

However, when the Russians declare that their astronaut is a civilian geologist, the President refuses to let “the colonel” fly the Pilgrim rocket. Steve Lawrence is asked to volunteer, and does so. If Lawrence is indeed based on Armstrong, then Searls was remarkably prescient. Or very lucky.

The story of The Pilgrim Project chiefly describes the run-up to the launch: the politicking which results in the project being given the green light, and Lawrence’s training. He does not actually launch until the penultimate chapter. Much is made of Lawrence’s home situation – his wife is a recovering alcoholic – and his conflicted motivations for accepting the job.

The Pilgrim Project is by no means great literature, but it’s certainly worth reading by those interested in the Space Race. A film was made of the book in 1968, Countdown, starring James Caan as Lee Stegler (a renamed Steve Lawrence).

The Pilgrim Project, Hank Searls (1966, Mayflower-Dell, No ISBN, 221pp)


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