“Back to the Moon” by Travis Taylor and Les Johnson. Published in 2010 by Baen Books, it weighs in at 303 pages with Afterword. Three editing errors noted.
The time is the near future,sometime late in the 20-teens or early 2020s. NASA is engaged in an a dry-run of the Altair system for a Lunar return. Probes are mapping the surface with increasing resolution in preparation for the next landing. On the private sector side, Space Excursions is about to embark on their first free-return trip around the Moon with paying tourists in the Dreamscape. Things are looking up for the space industry, and that has some folks jealous.
China launches their own probe to the Moon, but it apparently crashes. This leaves the media free to focus on the Dreamscape flight. Five paying customers, each for their reason, are going to where few others in the human race have been – out to the Moon. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill trip with various and sundry egos jostling for position, until they start passing behind the Moon. The pilot forgot to turn up the squelch on his radio, and in the static he hears a faint voice:
“sssssssss Emergency! Please help! ssssssssssss SOS! This is the crew of the Chinese exploration ship Harmony calling for help! We’ve crashed and are ssssssssssssssssssssss”
WTF? That wasn’t in the mission briefing. (the pilot is a Millenial, or Gen Y) They make brief contact, and a passenger is able to spot the crashed vehicle. Four people, little power, depleting air. It seems hopeless, as the Dreamscape can’t land on the Moon (yet), and its homeward-bound trajectory was set three days prior. And why did no one know there were people on board the Chinese craft?
Well, the Yankees, or at least Uncle Sam, is here to help. That Altair that was set to fly in a month? You’ve got a week. If anyone can do anything to help save the day, it’s the Americans. We’re just crazy like that. And off to the Moon scrambles a desperate rescue party from NASA.
Certainly an interesting premise. I think it takes the Chinese philosophy of “saving face” a bit to the extreme, first in their silence regarding the presence of a crew, and second in the rebuffing of U.S. offers of assistance. We’re assured of a technically accurate description of the Constellation transport architecture (Ares I, Ares V, Orion, Altair) by both authors’ close association with NASA, but the assumption at that all of the components would be available in the early 2020s seems to strain credulity a bit given that the Augustine Committee looked at the budgets and progress and didn’t see the Altair coming online until the late 2020s, early-to-mid 2030s at best.
The storytelling also suffers a bit from the focus on technical accuracy. Character development is okay, but really not much more than is needed to move the story. Pretty much every crisis or moment of danger is foreshadowed well-prior and easily spotted by astute (or ISU-trained) readers. At times the prose was dry enough that I felt like I was reading an engineering debrief rather than a fiction story.
I think the focus on the Constellation architecture works against the book, in that it will quickly date it as ‘just another Moon story’ (of which there are hundreds), rather than as a timeless work to be enjoyed again and again by succeeding generations. Sort of like with Erik Seedhouse’s “Lunar Outpost” (wait, or was that Michael Carroll’s “Seventh Landing“?), which was less about setting up a Lunar outpost and more about the Constellation project. Which is effectively de-funded, and moribund at best at the moment. Something that Mr. Taylor has words about in the Afterword.
Unfortunately, Constellation was an answer to a question that wasn’t being asked. The Vision for Space Exploration promulgated by President Bush in 2004 specifically stated that NASA was not going to build a new rocket. By September 2004 there were a number of industry players promulgating transport solutions for crew and cargo to the ISS through the Concept Exploration & Refinement (CE&R) studies which were supposed to have led to a flyoff amongst at least two solutions in the 2008 (prob. 2010) timeframe. That was all out the window when Michael Griffin came on board and announced ESAS in early 2005. The Ares I and Ares V were around in 2004 (check out SafeSimpleSoon; I have a marketing CD from ATK with videos of the stuff dated August 2004), but didn’t compete in the CE&R studies (although there is an Ares I in the Boeing presentation). In essence, with the adoption of Constellation, NASA was building their own rockets that no one else could use, or perhaps dare to use in the case of Ares I. The Russians had a 100 mT to orbit rocket they used for the Buran, but seeing no other market for the rocket in the world they mothballed it. Ares V would serve only NASA, with the taxpayers footing the bill for something they couldn’t have – a chance to go to space.
The reader should definitely check out the CE&R studies, as they are going to start looking familiar again (as with the CST-100 from Boeing).
Mr. Taylor reaches different conclusions in the Afterword, though his professional proximity to the Constellation project may influence him as much as my personal dislike of the Constellation architecture (engineering optimization gone overboard, giving us an expensive system for limited tasks, with little applicability to any other purpose) may influence the tone of my writing when reviewing books that tie their objectives to that particular architecture. Let’s just say that I found the Afterword a bit of a sour pill after an otherwise okay story.
And okay kind of sums it up. I’ll go with a waxing half Moon for “Back to the Moon”.