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Back to the Moon by Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When I was a kid, I remember watching the Apollo lunar missions on TV. Sometimes we'd go over to my grandparents' place so we could watch on their color TV. I don't remember a lot of details, but I do remember how cool it felt to think there were guys up there walking around on the Moon -- and how hugely disappointed I was when I was a little older and found out that not only had the lunar missions stopped indefinitely, but there would be no more crewed American space missions after the Apollo-Soyuz linkup until the Space Shuttle flew some time in the indefinite future.

At the time I thought it would be just a brief hiatus. Once we got the Space Shuttle running and built a permanent space station, we'd get a new generation of moonships going and soon we'd have a permanent moonbase where researchers could do long-term scientific work, just like in the classic sf stories I always loved to read. When I still thought I had the right stuff for a scientific and technical career, my ambition was to be a scientist in a lunar settlement, and for an assignment in art class to draw myself as I'd be in twenty years, I produced a figure in an elaborate protective garment working amidst intricate equipment, with a window in the background showing the cratered lunar surface (turned out I'm too right-brained to handle the more advanced classes in math and the hard sciences that I would've needed to fulfill that dream). But even when I could tell I wasn't going to personally go to the Moon, I still wanted the dream for those who could.

Somewhere in the late 80's or early 90's, we lost our way. No, the Space Shuttle wasn't going to be the easy access to space that we'd been promised -- and nobody was trying to redesign it to make it better, or take what we'd learned from it to design something better to replace it. Instead, we'd just keep running those same flawed machines until they finally wore out, taking one after another orbiter up on routine missions to deliver satellites and do experiments. By the time we finally got around to building that big space station that was supposed to be one of the Space Shuttle's great purposes, the orbiters were coming to the end of their useful lives and there was still no replacement, just a lot of tenuous plans that nobody could agree to fund. It's gotten so bad that when the Russians had trouble with one of their workhorse rockets, there was serious discussion of abandoning the International Space Station and giving up crewed space travel altogether -- and some people were actually talking about this as if it were a good thing, and not being treated as fringe wackodes.

Because of all this background I as a reader bring to Back to the Moon, this novel really hit me hard. The protagonist, Bill Stetson, was just about the same age as I was at the time of the final Apollo lunar landing, but he had the right stuff, the proper brain wiring to do math and the hard sciences well enough to actually attain the dream he stated as he was watching Gene Cernan board the Apollo 17 lunar module and depart the Moon.

Well, at least Bill's done his side, and has become an astronaut. He's flown several Space Shuttle missions, and is currently hard at work getting the new American moon program, Orion, ready to go. As the first chapter opens, he's in the process of overseeing a robotic test rendezvous between the actual Orion spacecraft and its landing module. Unlike the old Apollo missions, which carried everything on a single Saturn V rocket, the crew module and landing module are launched on separate rockets and link up in space (a possibility that was explored for Apollo but was discarded as too risky due to the relatively primitive state of the technology at the time).

And there are problems. Mostly technical, related to a computer that couldn't handle an unanticipated situation, so that he had to take over manual control and teleoperate from his console at Johnson Space Center. But there's also the usual political problems dealing with funding and politicians who get cold feet. Which leads to his lengthy discussion with a fellow astronaut about just how Apollo got canceled at the height of its success, thanks to a jealous and deeply insecure President who couldn't stand seeing his hated rival get all the credit.

I found this interpretation interesting because at the same time I was reading Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper's memoirs, Leap of Faith, in which Cooper laid the blame for the termination of the Apollo program and the subsequent destruction of the specialized machine tools and plans to build the Saturn V rocket (intended to ensure that nobody else could subsequently re-open the Saturn V assembly line) at the feet of Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, whose openly avowed enmity toward the space program is the stuff of legend in the space and science fiction communities. However, it's quite possible that in the privacy of his mind Cooper considered Nixon to bear a considerable responsibility for that cancelation -- but because Cooper had been a serving Air Force officer during the Nixon Administration, he felt honor-bound not to publicly attack a man who had once been his Commander-in-Chief, and thus turned his wrath instead upon the acceptable target of a US Senator whose hands also were red with the blood of Apollo.

In any case, our protagonist Bill Stetson is feeling frustrated because of the very real possibility that Orion could still be canceled at the last minute, thanks to the ever-shifting winds of politics. And there's a grim irony in that fear, because the Orion system is not the product of the authors' imaginations. Rather, it's an actual NASA design that was pretty well complete and just about ready to be manufactured for unpiloted tests when it was canceled by the Obama Administration, right between when the authors completed the manuscript to turn in and Baen actually published the book (as is noted in the Afterword). Much like the lost Mars mission spacecraft that Gordon Cooper describes in Leap of Faith, it fell victim to politics, and specifically a penny-pinching Congress that couldn't see the value of the space program to science, to humanity's future, or even just to the jobs situation in their own country (every time a major NASA program gets canceled like this, enormous numbers of very skilled specialists lose their jobs, and often end up taking general labor jobs just to make ends meet, which means that they aren't using their specialized skills any more and the jobs are no longer available to those who are truly not qualified to do anything else and really need them to be productive and self-supporting members of society).

In the fictional world of Back to the Moon, things aren't quite so bad as they are here in the Primary World, because NASA isn't the only organization developing a mission to the Moon. In Nevada, multi-billionaire entreprenuer Gary Childers has created a spaceport for Space Excursions, his private space tourism venture. His spacecraft, the Dreamscape, is a real spaceplane which can both take off and land from the same runway, using a scramjet first stage not dissimilar from World War II transatlantic bomber plans of the sort that became the basis for spaceflight in the alternate universe of Allen Steele's The Tranquillity Alternative to boost it into orbit. To do a lunar flyby, the Dreamscape then docks with an orbital fuel station and refills its fuel tanks for the Translunar Injection (TLI) burn.

They're very close to achieving Mr. Childers' dream of giving private citizens a trip to lunar space and back home. But while the technical problems are pretty much resolved, the human ones are getting worse. Specifically, two of the slated passengers are causing personality conflicts. Although some of the people who are able to afford the price tag for a trip to the Moon are highly-motivated self-made multi-millionaires and billionaires who have the drive and focus to apply themselves fully to the intensive training that will make them able to handle themselves safely in the environment of a spacecraft in flight, two of them are spoiled scions of inherited wealth and annoying everyone else in their training group, both passengers and trainers. One of them simply isn't taking anything seriously, while the other one seems to think himself God's gift to the female gender. But both of them are sufficiently well-connected that removing them and replacing them with their backups for anything but evidence of gross physical or psychological unsuitability for spaceflight could be disastrous to the long-term success of the company, and getting them to behave well enough to last for a week-long lunar flyby is apt to net the company an enormous amount of future business.

And the jackasses among the passengers aren't the only problem -- Space Excursions has become the victim of industrial espionage, and the evidence points to China. A nation whose ambitions in the realm of space exploration are well-known, and who are ramping up for their own moonshot. When they launch a moon rocket a few days later, they claim they're just doing a robotic test, so everybody assumes the transmissions going back and forth between it and ground control are just computer-generated voice synthesizer work (comparable to the existing Vocaloid and Siri technologies), a way of getting the ground controllers in practice for working with their actual taikonauts when they fly the real mission.

However, when the Dreamscape finally flies to the Moon for real, our five space tourists and their pilot get a big surprise. As they enter the Moon's radio shadow and are cut off from the continual electronic chatter of terrestrial civilization, they pick up a faint transmission: a woman's voice, begging in Chinese-accented English for assistance. Paul Gesling, pilot of the Dreamscape, initially thinks it must be a stray signal bouncing off Jupiter from a terrestrial distress call -- until he realizes it would be so weak it would require an antenna the size of the Big Dish at Arecibo in Puerto Rico.

No, that signal is indeed coming from the Moon. Remember that Chinese robotic test mission? Turns out the Chinese government was lying through their teeth -- it was in fact carrying a crew of four, and something went wrong with their lander, resulting in them crashing on the lunar surface. Sure, they've become the first human beings since Gene Cernan to set foot on the Moon, but now they're doomed to become a permanent monument to the hubris and political paranoia of the Chinese space program.

Or maybe not so doomed, for all five of the passengers aboard the Dreamscape quickly realize something is desperately wrong and bring their specific skills to bear on locating the stranded taikonauts. The most annoying of the five actually prove to have skills invaluable to locating the faint signal and getting a visual fix on the location of the wrecked lander. In the course of their trip they've become imbued with some of the spirit of the astronaut, and as they're confronted with the problem of fellow spacefarers in peril, they throw themselves into the task with a will, setting aside their personal differences and egos to work as a team toward a goal.

From a libertarian perspective, this part of the novel is perhaps one of the most powerful arguments for the idea that wealth in itself is not evil, that given the right incentives, the wealthy can certainly focus their skills not merely upon destructive exploitation or the shameless exercise of privilege, but upon things that benefit the commonweal. Here we have a group of very wealthy individuals who've not only paid an enormous price in money to get the travel experience of a lifetime, but have also maintained the motivation and focus to successfully complete an arduous two-year training regimen, something that has to be earned through effort and can't be finessed through wealth or influence, just like the environment through which they'll be traveling to get that experience can't be bargained with. In a situation where the system can't be gamed, wealth and power no longer serve to insulate them from the consequences of their choices, and they'll get a new perspective on what's important in life -- probably more than any of the artificial privation exercises along the lines of "work an ordinary job for a year and live entirely upon its proceeds" that have been suggested as ways to teach those born to wealth and privilege what it means to be an ordinary person who has to struggle and work for a living.

And this episode is actually the midpoint of the novel. After all, the winged Dreamscape is not equipped to land on an airless celestial body, so they can't personally rescue the stranded Chinese spacefarers. What they can do is get word out as soon as they round the Moon and are out of radio blackout, so that NASA and the Chinese space agency can start working on a rescue mission without waiting for Dreamscape to arrive at its Nevada spaceport.

Except that plan assumes the Chinese government is willing to play ball. At first they try to stonewall, denying that their recent moonshot carried a crew, apparently as a way of saving face by hiding their failure. But with a little public pressure that makes it clear their denials are only making them look worse instead of better, they own up and begin working with the US on a rescue mission.

So now our old friend Bill Stetson's heading up the rescue mission. Initially there's some argument for sending the Orion up as a robotic mission, so that if the Chinese can't be rescued (frex, if they've already perished), American astronauts won't be endangered in a futile mission. But Bill argues successfully that a minimal human crew could deal with contingencies that might wreck a purely robotic mission, and could actually improve the chance of everyone getting safely home. So he will be commanding the mission, and will be taking with him as the second crewmember Dr. Anthony Chow, a trained physician who had originally been scheduled to focus primarily on the reactions of his fellow crewmembers to the space and lunar environment, but who now will serve as flight surgeon for a crew who may well include badly injured Chinese spacefarers.

The mission is only possible because the Orion rocket is already on the launchpad, ready for the original exploration and sample return mission they were going to run before the Chinese disaster became known. However, having everything already on the pad means that the astronauts will have to make all the modifications to the lander to enable it to carry all four evacuees as well as themselves off the lunar surface. The safety officers judged it too risky to have technicians modifying the lander before launch, since removing the mass might change the flight profile in ways difficult to predict.

As it turns out, it's a very good thing that Bill won his argument on having a crew aboard the rescue mission. They're hardly out of Earth orbit before the troubles start and he has to do an EVA (extra-vehicular activity) to repair a balky solar panel. The rest of the trip is a story of technical problems and improvised fixes that would do the crew of Apollo 13 proud. And then there are the problems of the Chinese crew to contend with -- Jim Lovell didn't have to deal with one badly injured, near comatose crewmember and another with political paranoia compounded by PTSD.

Meanwhile, Gary Childers of Space Excursions is watching the rescue mission grow increasingly desperate and realizes his people and equipment have an encore coming up. NASA's lander did what Dreamscape couldn't -- put down on the Moon and retrieve the stranded Chinese crew from the lunar surface. But as the Orion grows steadily less spaceworthy, to the point that even the plans to use the International Space Station as a lifeboat and send everybody home on Soyuz spacecraft becomes untenable, the rapid turnaround times built into the Dreamscape makes another solution possible, one that makes it clear that their equipment isn't just about pleasure flights for the ultra-wealthy, but can finally make it possible to reliably rescue astronauts from a disaster in orbit.

I'm happy to say that yes, this story does have a happy ending for everybody involved (other than some spies who are going to be facing the wrath of the US justice system). But this is a Baen book, and Jim Baen always preferred stories in which the good guys won. Given that this is a human-against-nature story, that principle has a different application from the typical Baen military sf offerings, but I think it would not be a spoiler to reassure readers that this is not going to be a downer story, but one with an uplifting ending that really leaves us feeling positive about humanity's ability to overcome obstacles and to get back on track in terms of space exploration and long-term space settlement.

Particularly given that both the authors are space scientists with degrees in the hard sciences and engineering and have worked for NASA, you can rest assured that the technologies in this novel aren't just wishful-thinking pipe-dreams, but actual workable systems. We just need the political and social will to spend the necessary money to make them happen. But right now, it seems that political and social will are the things shortest in supply.

And yes, we do need to get back to the Moon.

Review posted November 30, 2011.

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