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)