High Vacuum

High Vacuum
“High Vacuum” – C. E. Maine; Ballantine, 1957

“It could happen! A taut, authentic tale of tomorrow’s headlines.” – the tagline on the front cover of my 1957 Ballantine Books edition of High Vacuum by Charles Eric Maine (1921 – 1981).  The cover art is by Richard Powers.  This entire novel is about a lunar landing by a developing space program. The first manned lunar landing (Cp. Armstrong and Aldrin – Apollo 11) was in 1969, but the first spacecraft to reach the moon was in 1959 (the CCCP “Lunik 2” craft).  My parents were alive quite prior to there being any sort of lunar landing. I have never lived in such a time. I have met Sen. John Glenn, who is (at the time of this entry) ninety-four years old. Space flight/lunar landings have never not been (peripherally) a part of my existence.

So, it is interesting from a sociological perspective to imagine what it was like to witness major milestones (……a heavily terrestrial word for something relating to the words “space flight”…..) in astronautics.  As the tagline of this 1957 novel says: “It could happen!” – which I take to mean, both a manned lunar landing and the way that landing plays out.  But having been published in 1957, it is right on the cusp of some big milestones and so that tagline might not have seemed so far fetched.

Alpha rocket and its four official crew-members experience Moonwreck.  So, unlike the Apollo 11 event, this mission is considered a failure.  The rocket carrying the crew crashes on the moon. The novel begins (the very first sentence, indeed) with the crew regaining consciousness after the crash.

He remembered now the long deceleration through space toward the eroded silver mass of the moon, and Caird’s increasing uneasiness as the fuel meters ticked off the tons, and the flashing of the servomechanism pilot lamps as the rocket responded to the precise indications of the radar altimeter, and above all he remembered the sudden quivering silence as all the jets cut out together while the Alpha was still more than a quarter of a mile above the lunar surface; then the brief, too brief, fall through space, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, the last moment rush to check pressure suits and adjust helmets……… pg. 3

Well, it is only a little spoiler when I say that, as hinted at in the above excerpt, Alpha rocket ran out of gas. Further, the crash-damage was extensive enough to change the mission from one of exploration, experimentation, construction into one of survival. Unsurprisingly, there are further complications:  all of the crew did not survive the crash and the Alpha rocket also landed in a lethally radioactive crater. According to the Ministry of Astronautics handbook, memorized by the crew:  “Vacuum is the first and last enemy of the astronaut.  Every aspect of the problem of survival in space devolves from this basic consideration.”  Hence the novel’s title.

The science of the novel is not always the best. Some of this can be excused simply because it pre-dates actual lunar landings and activity. However, it should be noted that the author himself was a pilot and probably possessed at least a rudimentary understanding of aeronautics. Generally, I feel like the science was tolerable (again, this is not a scientific treatise on astronautics), but in many places the general logical/reasonability level was off-kilter.

The storyline focuses on the need to reduce time spent in the radioactive zone and on acquiring/keeping oxygen. Basically, the crew is left to constantly wear their spacesuits, which have removable-replaceable oxygen tanks.  The only time the crew can remove their enclosures is when they are in the Alpha rocket’s cabin, where they have created a sealed non-vacuum.  It is in here where the astronauts relieve themselves and take nutrition.

Very early on in the novel I disliked almost all of the characters. For one thing, they are all trained under the Ministry of Astronautics, but they seem to be lacking in a lot of skills. And not just skills, but actual psychological characteristics.  The commander of the mission is level-headed, but he also seems the most whimsical and wandering.  Patterson is an absolutely miserable character.  He is the source of what I think is the worst element of the storyline. There are other characters that exhibit similar distasteful psychologies.

To me, speaking in a world in which manned lunar landings are not unheard of, the crew of Alpha rocket is too ornery and difficult to be on this mission.  Would a space program assemble a team that does not completely work together without friction?  Would not teamwork and coordination be among the highest regarded attributes for a team trying to land on a different celestial body? Further, Patterson has a bizarre personality and through the course of the story, various amoral/immoral tendencies present themselves. However, Patterson is also the only crew-member that seems capable of any mechanical or technical knowledge and skill.

I would think that on a team that was landing on the moon, because there is limited number of persons, each member would be highly trained in a multitude of skills and areas of interest.  I really felt that the survivors were narrowly trained or that they lacked basic engineering skills. Each crewman can quote the Handbook, but they are not cross-trained on radar or communications?

I suppose Caird is the character I most liked. I really did appreciate his efforts to keep the crew united and focused. I also really appreciated his efforts to at least provide some value to the mission by doing a limited amount of research and exploration. I like that he had the foresight to keep a logbook.  However, he failed at being a good leader because he failed to truly understand the crew under him. His end is due to his abundance of trust.

Overall, the story involves a lot of traipsing around a section of the moon and jockeying for possession of the oxygen tanks.  There is some concern about lunar night and radiation poisoning, but the story is driven by the concept of a vacuum.  To me it seems like this crew did a lot better than they should have based on their lack of knowledge and the challenges faced. So, the novel has an unevenness to it.

Some of the scientific validity and technical scope of the novel could be mitigated if the author chose to focus on the psychological scenario of the survival attempt.  Letting readers watch the changes and adaptions of the crew as they undergo the various trials of the event would have been interesting.  After all, being the first humans on the moon lends itself to an eerie and abstractness.  This, the author did do well.  I admit I liked his presentation of the setting – he describes the moon and the terrain effectively.  It is not over-written in purple-prose, nor is the writing empty and vague.  Very functional and it probably could have been expanded even more.  For example, when Maine describes the difficulty the crew has with sleeping in their spacesuits, I really did imagine it to be difficult and miserable.

The storyline is fairly well-paced, but the imbalance between the characters’ skills and the challenges seems too much.  Also, I truly hate the particular “crime” Patterson commits. But there is a lot to like about the concept of this novel.  Though the ending is ridiculous and the outcome rather quite unlikely, I guess it is a valid imagining of a lunar landing.  And we cannot go back to 1957; we cannot return to a time when manned lunar landing was un-happened. Authors cannot really rewrite this story without at least some influence of knowledge of lunar landings.  It did not happen like this, thankfully.

2 stars


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