The Moon Landing That Might Have Been

The Real Life History Behind “Dangerous Company,” (in the March/April issue of Analog).

by C. Stuart Hardwick

 

Of the many unexpected adventures writing has brought into my life, few can compare to meeting Jerry Pournelle.

Jerry was a long time supporter of the Writers of the Future contest but missed the year I won, owing to a turn in his health. So when we learned he was at MidAmericon II in Kansas City, Martin Shoemaker and I rearranged our schedules for the chance to chat with an icon of SF and the space program as well.

Jerry was an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist, an aeronautical engineer who worked on missile defense for the military and, later, as a director at North American Rockwell where the Apollo Lunar Module was built. He advised several presidential administrations, and for a long time, was an influential voice in U.S. space policy.

Now here he was, draped in a Hawaiian shirt, hobbled by age, fawned over by attendants, and surrounded by a ring of eager fans and two very exhausted up-and-coming authors. Jerry was very gracious, making sure everyone had a chance to seek and get his attention. Martin gave thanks and homage. Each of the fans had his or her question answered. Jerry talked about writing with Larry Niven and said how proud he was of Lucifer’s Hammer and how it was still helping pay his bills.

Then he came around to me. He apologized for missing me in Hollywood (he’d had a stroke for crying out loud!) and asked about my work. I told him about my winning story and about “Open Source Space,” which I’d yet to submit for the Jim Baen Award or sell to Analog. This got his aerospace veteran nerd genes going.

In case you missed it, “Open Source Space” involved a lunar cycler and replica Apollo lunar reenactor flights. Jerry waxed on about Apollo, about how we won the race to the Moon too soon for our own good, how we spent too much on the effort and created a space bureaucracy that has since sought to maximize the distribution of jobs across congressional districts rather than exploring the stars. (I’ll address that in an upcoming article.)

Then he mentioned a project I’d never heard of from the heady days after Sputnik. It was “classified at the time,” he said, and “may still be for all I know, but . . . what are they gonna do?” What he described was an early plan for the Moon landing, but not Apollo, not the Lunex or Horizon proposals to establish a military base, not Lunar Gemini, which came later and involved an open cockpit lander. No, he specifically mentioned the Air Force and the name of the project—which I stupidly failed to immediately chisel into something solid (like Martin’s good nature).

The Air Force, he said, had proposed to put a man on the Moon before the Russians could “any way they could.” With no more than the Titan launch vehicles already in the pipeline, they were going to send a man to the Moon in an automated lander—without the ability to bring him home. Once there, he would “dig himself in as best he could,” (Jerry made motions as if doing the breast stroke through lunar regolith) for protection from cosmic rays, and then wait for resupply. He would prevent the Russians from claiming the Moon, but might have to hold out—presumably with habitat gear arriving later—for a year or two until we had the ability to bring him home.

Yeah.

To this day I don’t know if this was a proper classified program as Jerry suggested or someone’s speculation scribbled on a napkin in his presence—but I knew I was going to write about it. The only trouble was, stories (unlike real life) have to be believable. In a world in which the highly successful Apollo program is history and the other less complete proposals I mentioned are all but forgotten, how many readers would find this hair-brained scheme remotely plausible?

Also, I needed an emotional hook and a tie to my Open Source Space universe. And then it came to me: Why not give the hair-brained scheme to the Russians? After all, they had a higher risk tolerance than NASA. Yuri Gagarin parachuted from his capsule because it wasn’t yet mature enough to get him down alive. Alexi Leonov took a spacewalk through an inflatable airlock, then almost died when he couldn’t get back in through it. The actual, real-life Soviet lunar lander would have carried a lone pilot—something NASA considered too risky, and would almost certainly have made an automated landing—dangerous in the days before hi-resolution orbital mapping.

And there is plenty of Russian history to work with. The Soviet Luna 15 probe really did plow into a mountain while Armstrong and Aldrin were preparing to end their historic landing. An earlier probe had relayed voice signals that briefly sent Western analysts into a tizzy. There really is a photo called “the Sochi six”—Russia’s answer to the Mercury Seven, except the photo is a hatchet job and originally showed twenty Cosmonaut candidates before the Soviet system excised them.

One of those really was Grigory Nelyubov, a cocksure young cosmonaut candidate who was undone by his ego. Might he, given the opportunity, have volunteered for such a mad scheme? Might he even have pulled it off?

Maybe. I’d like to think so.

Such devotion to country has gone out of fashion, and to be sure, such nationalism can lead to myopia, provincialism, and jingoism. But on the other hand, there’s something to be said for the steely-eyed missile man—or woman—who’s willing to suffer outrageous fortune, not for a lucrative TV deal, but for honor, duty, and the greater good.

Here’s to you Grigory and the other forgotten Cosmonauts. And here’s to you Jerry, for all the stories you bequeathed us, for the germ of this new one, and for your service to us all.


C. Stuart Hardwick is a Writers of the Future winner and three-time Jim Baen Award finalist who’s been published in Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, Forbes.com and Mental Floss, among others. A southerner from South Dakota, Stuart grew up creating radio dramas and animated shorts before moving on to robots and ill-conceived flying machines. He’s worked with the creators of the video game Doom, married an aquanaut, and trained his dog to pull a sled. Stuart studied writing at U.C. Berkeley, lives in Houston, and has been known to wear a cape. For more information and a free signed e-sampler, visit http://www.cStuartHardwick.com.

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