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Abandon in Place by Jerry Oltion

Cover art by Vincent di Fate

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

I can still remember how disappointed I was when I learned that the Apollo-Soyuz linkup was going to be the last Apollo mission. Although I was just a little kid, I'd gotten excited about space travel after my mom took me on my grandparents' back porch to look at the moon high over their garage, almost full, and told me that there were men walking around up there. After that I'd taken a fair interest in the TV coverage of the moon missions, and once I was in school I started to read kids' science fiction, especially stories of space exploration like The Lost Race of Mars and Young People on Mars. So I'd just sort of assumed that we were seeing the beginnings of a new Age of Exploration along the lines of the voyages of Columbus and Cabot and the like we learned about in school. Even being told that the Apollo capsules would soon be replaced by a reusable Space Shuttle wasn't a lot of comfort, especially as the years wore on and that program encountered one obstacle after another.

This novel is redolent of that nostalgic longing for the time when space travel meant grand voyages of exploration, not just routine deliveries of satellites to their orbits or supplies to the International Space Station (and hauling their trash back to Earth like a glorified garbage scow). The protagonist, Rick Spencer, was a ten-year-old when Apollo 11 went up, and as he watched the coverage of the moonwalks, he knew he wanted to be an astronaut too. He memorized all the statistics of the Saturn V rocket, and pushed himself to excel in math and the sciences so he could explore space.

Yet the actuality of being an astronaut in the Space Shuttle era has proved disappointing. As the novel begins, Rick's just flown back to Cape Canaveral after Neil Armstrong's funeral, and feels like a part of his own heart went into that box at Arlington Cemetery. As Rick's standing on the Space Shuttle gantry, getting some fresh air while the techs wrangle a problem with the satellite they're loading into the cargo bay, he looks over at the abandoned Pad 34. As he returns his attention to the spacecraft he will soon be flying into orbit, his peripheral vision detects movement. He looks back to see a Saturn V rocket illuminated by spotlights, just like the moon launches he watched as a kid.

And then it takes off with a roar so powerful it shakes the Space Shuttle gantry and brings Rick to his knees. All he can do is watch in awe as it rises on a pillar of flame, reaching for the sky.

After that experience, his Space Shuttle flight comes as an anticlimax. He'd expected to be admiring the blue curve of the Earth below him, but it's the Moon that keeps drawing his attention. And the orbiter keeps having annoying mechanical problems. It's downright funny when the French Canadian mission specialist lets fly with a certain five-letter word in his native tongue before announcing that the orbiter's toilet is broken.

As Rick's enjoying his two-week post-flight vacation in the Florida Keys, a second Saturn V launches itself from Pad 34. An infuriated flight director calls to order him back up to Cape Canaveral to compare notes. In the subsequent interview it soon becomes obvious that NASA views these moon rockets as a threat, and wants them stopped. But the equipment to decommission one of them is long gone, assuming the rocket doesn't take off before the hoses can even be attached.

When Rick tries to convince them to let astronauts board it, hoping to grab a flight to the moon of his dreams, the NASA officials decide it's a perfect way to get the next ghost rocket decommissioned. And after Rick's rather obvious act of volunteering, he's the obvious candidate for the job.

So Rick spends the next month in training, pulling sixteen-hour days on the simulator until he knows every piece of equipment in the cockpit of the command module. He even convinces his bosses to let him practice on the old lunar module simulator by arguing he could use the LM as a lifeboat the way the Apollo 13 astronauts did. However, he can't take it down to the lunar surface unless he has a command module pilot, since rendezvous and docking are done from the command module. And NASA isn't going to risk more than one astronaut on this project.

As the next month's launch window for a moon shot approaches, Rick stands at Pad 34, dressed in a shuttle spacesuit modified to allow him to sit properly in an Apollo acceleration couch. It's the only real option, since all the old Apollo spacesuits in the Smithsonian have deteriorated enough that they can't maintain pressure (not to mention that Apollo spacesuits were custom-made for the astronauts who wore them). Just in case the Saturn V vanishes as soon as he climbs aboard, he has a parachute.

The rocket appears right on schedule, and Rick climbs aboard, feeling very strange not having technicians to help strap him in. But he gets all his connections made before the engines ignite and off he goes toward a rendezvous with the Space Shuttle orbiter that will take him home after he decommissions this ghost rocket.

But when the time comes to actually EVA to the orbiter, he finds he can't do it. Instead he decides he wants to go for broke and take that once in a lifetime chance of a lunar mission -- if he can get two other astronauts to fill out his crew.

That request gets a shriek of delight from his girlfriend, fellow pilot Tessa McClain. She and the Japanese astronomer Yoshiko Sugano, who has rendezvous training, EVA across to fill out their crew. However, Mission Control isn't so happy. CAPCOM warns them that they can't complete the mission safely without ground control, which Houston can't provide for an unauthorized mission. But then a Russian ground controller comes onto the frequency, offering mission control services under international treaty.

Enfuriated, flight controller Dale Jackson breaks all communications protocol to come onto the frequency and threaten the entire Russian Federation with a charge of piracy. But when it becomes clear his grandstanding won't frighten the three astronauts into backing down, he shuts up and lets the Russians handle this unorthodox Apollo moon mission.

Except it soon becomes obvious that flying a ghost spacecraft is no ordinary space mission. Although their command module feels solid enough, it starts to fade whenever Rick gets too confident about the future of the space program. It becomes a delicate balancing act to get their spacecraft safely to the Moon and back.

And just as they've passed through the most dangerous part of re-entry and Rick congratulates himself on a job well done, the command module dissolves around them and deposits the three astronauts into the Pacific Ocean. Rick tries to grab some of the moon rocks they brought back, but instead gets a faceful of ammonia-laden water when the sample bottles that held the polar ice dissolve into nothingness.

To add insult to injury, the recovery crew subject them to decontamination and quarrantine protocols that were discontinued after the Apollo 14 mission. The NASA authorities claim it's a precaution in case there were any microorganisms in the ice Rick and Tessa found at the lunar south pole, but it soon becomes obvious that Jackson is retaliating against them for defying his orders.

(There's a little bonus here for anyone that has watched The Right Stuff -- the NASA ship that takes them to Hawaii is named the Jiminez, almost certainly a reference to Jose Jiminez, the fictional astronaut portrayed in the comedy routines of Bill Dana. You can probably find them on YouTube; however, they represent the humor of an earlier age, before political correctness, and may be Not Safe For Work).

Worse, the CIA is now taking an interest in the phenomena our heroes have manifested. If it is repeatable at will, the military wants to use it as a weapon. But Rick isn't a soldier, even if he's flown high-parformance military aircraft as part of his training, and he's not comfortable with the idea. Thus begins a battle of wits and wills between the astronauts and their would-be handlers that culminates in a dramatic press conference and crowd rescue event.

But that triumph proves temporary, for the knowledge that consciousness can affect material objects through the quantum foam is becoming widespread enough that someone will use it for ill. At first it's just petty stuff, personal grievances against unrestrained dogs and cats, but it's only a matter of time before the anger and resentment of an entire nation becomes focused upon a demogogue who promises vengeance.

Although a lot of people with military experience try to dissuade them, Rick and Tessa feel an obligation to stop what they've helped unleash, however unintentionally. So off they go to Europe -- but how do you stop someone who has the power to disable any weapon thrown at him, just by thinking at it?

The solution they hit upon makes me think of the Larry Niven short story "The Deadlier Weapon." And it's quite satisfying, in a macabre humorous way.

Even the final scene at the end rings all too true. Part of the disenchantment with NASA's manned space program seems to be a lack of any sense of how it will lead to the grand projects of our heart-felt sf-nal dreams, of star-spanning galactic federations or empires. But what if we could find a way to bridge that gap in one giant leap?

One small note -- the ghost flight of Deke Slayton's racing plane is an actual unsolved mystery. There's been a lot of speculation about what happened, from a case of mistaken identity (unlikely, since that style of racing plane is rare and the paint job was distinctive) to a send-off joke played by one or more of his surving Mercury buddies (even using a near-life-size model, it would require enough people to carry off that it's likely someone would slip up and reveal it), but no answers.

Review posted July 21, 2011

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