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The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls

Cover art by William Steinel

Published by McGraw-Hill

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Four decades ago America reached the Moon only to turn its back on that achievement after a mere twelve men walked on the lunar surface. In these days in which our biggest struggles are against people who claim the lunar landings were faked and against the social and political inertia that is keeping humanity confined to Low Earth Orbit, it can be difficult to appreciate just how daunting President Kennedy's charge to land a man on the Moon appeared in the early 1960's. But daunting it was, so much so that planners considered some very desperate possibilities for making Kennedy's 1970 deadline when there was some questions as to whether the Saturn V rocket booster and the Apollo Command-Service Module and Lunar Module would be ready in time.

Among those desperate possibilities was one reminiscent of some of the "Mars to Stay" plans being bruited about by space settlement advocates. In this scheme a single astronaut would be sent to homestead the Moon in a tiny habitat. For as long as a year NASA would send monthly supply rockets to keep our intrepid astronaut alive in his lofty hermitage, buying the time to finish developing the technology to bring him home safely to Earth.

As it turned out, we didn't need to resort to such crazy schemes, and even got Neil and Buzz to the Moon and back with five months to spare (not to mention sending a second flight in that timeframe, delivering the wisecracking Pete Conrad to the Moon, along with Alan Bean who would later document the lunar experience of himself and the other moonwalkers in paint). But in 1964 the possibility that Apollo wouldn't work was sufficiently compelling that pilot and technical writer Hank Searles wrote a novel about such a last-ditch attempt to beat the Russians to the Moon by sending an astronaut on the hope that we could sustain him up there while we built the means to retrieve him.

It's the story of Steve Lawrence, a former Navy carrier aviator who worked as a civilian test pilot at Edwards before joining NASA. His wife Mickey is an alcoholic who quit drinking after a near-fatal auto accident, but who is still emotionally fragile and could relapse into active drinking if stressed too far. They have a son, a budding naturalist whose sharp intellect enables him to pick up that something is very wrong, but who doesn't have the emotional maturity to understand why.

When the novel begins, Steve is in orbit with Apollo 3, a LEO training flight that is practicing an orbital rendezvous with the LEM. At the time the novel was written, it was assumed that Apollo would start with a number of training flights in which a succession of crews would practice each of the various aspects of a lunar mission, and only when the parts were mastered individually would they be put together and carried out in lunar space. Furthermore, it appears that Searles assumed in writing this novel that Apollo would go with the plan in which the Lunar Module would be launched separately and the Command-Service Module would rendezvous with it in LEO before leaving for the Moon, rather than both components being launched on the same Saturn V rocket (a feat made possible only because every possible gram of mass was shaved off the Lunar Module, until it was so fragile it literally couldn't support its own weight on Earth).

This mission is commanded by the colonel, an unnamed astronaut who is presented as a member of the Mercury Seven. However, his personal description doesn't really match with any of those men, try as various critics may to figure out the identities of him and the equally unnamed character known as the commander who's their capcom and who is also said to be one of the Seven. It may be a fun game to gather all the details that could identify or exclude a given historical astronaut as one of these two men, but in the end it's really not that illuminating. It's my opinion that these two figures were never intended to be roman a clef representations of specific Mercury astronauts, but rather were composite figures representing the Seven collectively.

We're no sooner been introduced to our intrepid astronauts than they have a major mechanical problem. Instruments at Mission Control indicate an oxygen leak that has taken their supply dangerously low. The spacecraft's onboard instrumentation indicates everything's fine, and the colonel initially balks at the request to abort the mission. But then there's a rapid interchange with Mission Control that Steve doesn't quite catch, something about "pilgrim," and the colonel relents.

They return to a firestorm of controversy about the aborted mission, particularly when evidence emerges that the Earthbound instrumentation was faulty and the colonel's initial resistance had been the correct decision. It's interesting to see the part in which they decide what the public will be told, as though ordinary people are children to be placated with tales of baby-delivering storks and the tooth fairy, particularly considering that this novel is not just set in pre-Watergate times, but was written before the Nixon Administration. Although many people associate government habits of fabricating stories for public consumption on a policy basis with Watergate, the pattern goes back at least to Pearl Harbor, and probably even earlier.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the specifics of Project Pilgrim, and a sudden new policy concern about it. When it was planned, only the Seven were considered for it for the simple reason that they alone were trained in the tiny Mercury spacecraft. Planners believe that the later selection groups, spoiled by the larger cockpits of the Gemini an Apollo spacecraft, would not be able to tolerate riding in such confined conditions for the three-day trip to the Moon. And the Seven were chosen solely from active-duty military test pilots on the grounds that the records of their civilian counterparts were incomplete.

But now a Soviet geologist has published an open letter calling for the first man to land on the Moon to be a civilian, preferably a scientist. The President has become concerned that following through with the plan to send the colonel on Project Pilgrim could end up handing their adversaries an unwitting propaganda victory. Thus he pushes for one of the new civilian astronauts to be substituted in this daring, nay, desperate mission. Although his advisors are against it, he goes so far as to call Steve Lawrence into the Oval Office and broach the possibility to him.

It's an awkward position for an astronaut to be in. On one hand, it's impolitic to tell one's President no. On the other, Steve doesn't want to take the mission away from a man he's come to respect deeply, a man who's been training for it even as he prepared for his Apollo mission -- and who will have to train Steve for the very mission from which he's been displaced.

And his misgivings are echoed by those of his good friend Gus Scarbo, a Navy flight surgeon haunted by a disaster he witnessed in the Korean War. He's lost his unquestioning acceptance of the rightness of modern technological warfare, and now he's coming to have serious doubts about the current course of the American space program. At what point does the risk become too high, even when the astronaut volunteers to accept it?

As Steve's training proceeds, his friend's doubts grow ever larger. And Dr. Scarbo's not the only one who's beginning to wonder if Project Pilgrim might be immoral madness. Franz Ludwig, a German scientist from Von Braun's rocket team, is beginning to view it as hubris, even as his own son-in-law is becoming so enamored of it as to be unwilling to hear any contrary voices.

And then the news comes in that the Soviets have launched their own moon shot, and that it is crewed. If America is to stay in the running in the space race, Project Pilgrim must proceed. However, there's a problem with the launch of the shelter that will sustain the astronaut during his sojourn on the Moon. The homing beacon that was supposed to guide the astronaut in has failed, and it is now uncertain exactly where it landed.

But the program managers are desperate enough to deliver success that they are willing to grasp at straws. Perhaps the shelter's beacon hasn't failed altogether, but is just too weak to transmit all the way to Earth, in which case there's still hope that as the astronaut approaches the Moon he'll be able to pick up the signal. And even if that fails, Gordon Cooper proved in his Faith 7 flight that an astronaut in Low Earth Orbit can identify individual houses, so it follows that an astronaut in lunar orbit would be able to see the shelter and land beside it, especially since it is equipped with a flashing light as a backup beacon.

Even as Steve prepares to lift off, both Gus Scarbo and Franz Ludwig try to stop it. Scarbo takes the desperate step of breaching security to break the news on a television show -- only to be shut away in the mental ward of Bethesda Naval Hospital as a move to discredit him and his message. Ludwig tries to argue with the President, only to have a massive stroke that leaves him completely locked-in, aware but unable to communicate.

So off our intrepid astronaut heads for the Moon in the tiny, cramped Mercury capsule atop a ramshackle rocket stack that shouldn't even work. But work it does, and three days later he's in lunar orbit, searching for the shelter that is his only hope of surviving the coming months.

Thinking he sees it, he lands only to discover he's made a terrible mistake. Instead of the shelter, he's discovered the wreckage of the Soviet spacecraft, which combined crew cockpit with shelter in a single vehicle. He looks over it briefly in hopes of finding anything helpful for his own survival, but soon concludes that nothing less than an intact shelter would do any good. He then considers trying to bury the slain cosmonaut, who lies halfway out the hatch of his spacecraft in an effort to plant the Soviet flag before dying. He soon concludes that without proper tools he will exhaust the oxygen in his biopack long before he could scratch together enough lunar soil to properly cover the remains.

Wanting to honor the dead man's courage in some way, Steve takes the Hammer and Sickle to the rim of the crater, intending to plant it alongside the Stars and Stripes in a monument to the desperate but ultimately futile efforts of two superpowers to put a man on the Moon. In doing so he finally sees the flashing beacon of his missing shelter and realizes it lies just within walking range provided by his biopack. Hope renewed, he sets off to find it and get it set up for long-term occupancy.

And there the novel ends, lady and the tiger fashion. Does Steve make it to his shelter and get it set up in time to avoid a myriad of perils? Is NASA able to keep the supply rockets coming until they have a working Apollo LEM and can bring him home, or does one of those vital launches go astray so badly as to doom him? Is he able to keep himself sane, healthy and fit in his lunar hermitage during that time, or do the fictional equivalents of Pete Conrad and Alan Bean arrive to find he's met some horrific death in the interim? We can only wonder where the story of Steve Lawrence goes from there, for there is no sign Mr. Searles ever wrote a sequel carrying the story through to answer those questions.

Review posted July 24, 2012

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