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)