Story Excerpt

For All Mankind

by C. Stuart Hardwick

 

It must have been a hell of a sight, our mighty Saturn V gleaming in the work lights, fumes waving like the Stars and Stripes thirty-six stories over the Cosmodrome. I never saw it myself. I only saw scissor-crossed shadows rolling past the gantry lift and a flash of twilight where the breeze fluffed the camo shrouds against the companionway.

And that’s about all I saw of the Soviet Union, outside the training center walls. The rest was jump seats, painted-out windows, and the inside of a sack that smelled like Yuri Gagarin’s underwear.

If that sounds like a kidnapping, it wasn’t, just Cold War paranoia rubbed raw by desperation. After all, we were launching from a bastion of deep Soviet secrets, and if we succeeded in saving the world, they might still be needed to put it back to the screw. It was all wasted on the two of us, though; what use are secrets to dead women?

I should back up, way up, all the way to 1963 and what might be the most important meeting ever conducted on the wing of a biplane.

I was in Corpus Christi, test flying for Covington Aero—a bunch of Texas wildcatters with oversize dreams. Their jets were just flying limos, but it beat dusting crops all to hell, and the smell of Jet-A on my hair cleared off randy flyboys faster than mange on a weasel.

I’d just finished a shakedown when Mazie stopped me at the front desk with a hand-scribbled telephone message.

Don’t eat, it said, I’m taking you to lunch. ETA 13:00.—Jerry.

I smiled, lost in memories till Mazie raised an eyebrow. My heart was pounding all right, but not for the reason she thought. The only “Jerry” I knew was Jerrie Cobb, and if she was coming all this way to see me, something big was up.

Jerrie had inaugurated Randy Lovelace’s Woman in Space program. He’d run her through the same tests as the Mercury astronauts and, when she passed with flying colors, sent her out to recruit the rest of us. Her dreams were up in orbit. I’d have been happy with a crack at Mach 1, but even that hope was too high. I washed out in the medical—ovarian cancer—but at least I got to keep on breathing.

Now here was Jerrie, back from the blue. A minute before one, she taxied up in a big yellow Stearman. We flew east and landed on a pipeline right-of-way overlooking Redfish Bay. With a basket pulled from the cockpit, we climbed up behind the engine and sat together on the upper wing where the shore breeze could reach us through the scrub oaks.

Jerrie’s blond locks still hung in a ponytail, framing her sun-hardened cheeks. She poured coffee from a thermos and spiked it from a silver flask.

“A toast,” she said.

“To what?”

“To getting into space if it kills us.”

We drank.

Sandwiches followed. I peeled back wax paper, and she lit a cigarette, beaming with eager secrets.

“Did you hear Kennedy at the U.N. the other day?” She said.

“No, why?”

She looked askance and leaned in close, the smile suddenly gone. “What I’m about to tell you is top-secret. An honest to God, no kidding around, you will be charged with treason if you blab, United States Government secret.”

“O . . . kay.”

Her eyes were cold and waiting. “Really.”

“I pinkie-swear, Jerrie, now spill.”

The smile flooded back.

“There’s an asteroid headed straight for us.”

“What?”

She took a quick drag and blew her smoke skyward. “Well, not straight for us. It’ll pass by in eight years, but ninety years later it’ll be back and . . .” she held up her sandwich and threatened it with her fist. “Wham!”

“It’s going to hit us? Oh my god! Why are you so happy?”

“Because it’s not going to hit us,” she said. “We’re going to stop it, you and me.”

“We are?”

“We are. It’s called Asteroid 1956 KI, found by some Russian scientist looking for ways to track our missiles. He thought it was going to hit us in ’71, so he contacted a colleague at MIT—scientist to scientist you know. They had a new computer big enough to pin down the orbit, and it turned out to be a near miss, but the flyby will sling it onto a collision course.”

I looked up from my pastrami. “But there’s plenty of time, right? In ninety years we’ll have space cruisers and ray-guns—”

Jerrie shook her head. “It’ll be too late. There’s a mountain up there with our names on it. Even if we reach it and blow it to bits, all the bits will still orbit around and hit us. They worked out that the only safe bet is to go give it a shove, and the sooner the better.”

“They? So we’re in this with the Russians?”

“You’d think so. I mean, we could barely put a prized pumpkin in orbit back then. But the big boys are at loggerheads, so nothing doing. That’s why Kennedy called for the Moon landing, as cover for the biggest crash program since the Manhattan Project—no pun intended.”

“Holy smokes.”

Jerrie blew smoke to the breeze. “The only thing they agree on is not to tell the public. So ’56 KI is a shared state secret, but we’re each going after it alone. Only here we are, six years later, and the wheels are off the wagon.”

“I thought Project Mercury . . .”

“Oh, the space program’s going gangbusters. It’s the asteroid plan that’s in the hooch. On paper it’s easy, just sling a giant H-bomb around the Moon and tell everyone we lost a test shot. A couple of years later, it catches KI on the far side of its orbit and boom! Practical, sneaky, god-awful expensive—everything you want in a government program. Except it just won’t work.”

“What? Why not?”

She counted off fingers splayed around her sandwich. “Mass concentrations in the Moon, influences from other planets, effects from solar storms that haven’t happened yet, thrust transfer efficiency—way too many variables. We don’t even know if KI’s solid. A robot won’t do. We need astronauts out there, people who can think and react.”

“What about radio control?”

“Too far away, fifteen or twenty minutes when things can go craps in a second. And what if something breaks? We need astronauts who can fix it. And instead of one big bomb, we need a bunch of small ones to use as the situation demands.”

“Okay, well what’s it to do with us? We’re not astronauts, just guinea pigs in heels, remember?”

“That’s where you’re wrong, ma chère. The laws of physics have done for us what Washington wouldn’t and Lovelace couldn’t. The new mission will take a lot more energy. They’re not even sure we can do it.”

“Even with the new Moon rocket?”

“Saturn was Plan A. We need something even bigger, and the budget’s already in orbit. That’s why Kennedy went to the U.N. last week, to propose a joint U.S.-Soviet Moon shot. That’s his way of saying we’ll share the glory if they’ll split the bill. But they’re still sore over the Bay of Pigs I guess, so . . .”

“So what do we do?”

“We need a bigger rocket or a lighter load. Someone remembered Randy Lovelace and his paper about how women astronauts would save weight.”

“You’re joking. Just because we’re a little lighter—”

“Not just us, Katie, our food, water, and air and all the fuel it takes to lift them. This mission might run for months. Every man replaced with a woman could save a thousand pounds in consumables, 150,000 pounds on the launch pad. And unless the Russians are training up Romanian gymnasts, you’re the lightest person alive who’s medically checked out for spaceflight. So how ’bout it?”

“Me? Why?”

“Well if you aren’t interested—”

“Of course I’m interested! But I washed out.”

“You had a hysterectomy didn’t you? You’re all better now, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

“So you washed back in. The last thing NASA wants anyway is a bunch of astronettes on their periods.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake—”

“I can’t say’s I blame them myself. I told Randy I’d have the surgery if they’d let me go.”

“Jerrie!” I sloshed my coffee onto the wing. “Don’t say that!”

Jerrie looked down, pulled a rag from a pocket, and cleanly wiped up the spill.

“You understand this is a one-way ticket, right?”

I hadn’t thought of that.

Jerrie could see my gears turning. “I’d give anything to fly in space, Katie.” She offered me the flask. “Anything.”

I declined. She capped the flask and looked out over the bay. A shrimp boat chugged past. Egrets danced through the reeds.

“All this could be gone,” she said, flicking an ash back over the wing, “but we can save it, you and me. That’s worth dying for isn’t it?”

Behind us, a pair of jets streaked out from the naval air station. I recognized them by ear: T-38s, the type of jets flown by the astronauts.

 

This time, we weren’t just lab rats. We reported to Dale Gifford, NASA’s Director of Special Operations, and the doors finally opened. Sort of. We flew all over the country learning everything from celestial navigation to CO2 scrubbers. But we always went as consultants, not astronauts, and our dreams were soon in a tailspin.

Apollo was a three-man ship, but without a lunar lander to fly, we could get by without its pilot. No other women had been recruited though, and that meant one of us was training as backup. Then Jerrie caught Dale in his office reading dossiers from the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

She went in on full afterburners. “We’re not ballast, Dale! We don’t need any Air Force fly-boys to drive us to the prom!”

Dale glared like a doe caught with her snout down in the collard greens. He waved us inside with a nod to the door.

“Don’t tell me what we need! Only twelve people know about what we’re up to so far, and LBJ’s top of the list. With his help, I can get anything I need cloaked in national security, no questions asked. Without it, I can’t get a parking space at the VAB. If I told him I was sending up a couple of bachelorettes . . .”

Jerrie started to protest. Dale slammed a hand on his desk blotter.

“Look,” he said, “There’s a thousand parts of this thing you two know nothing about. In the end, the numbers will call the shots. Right now, I need to keep the president at the table.”

I looked at Jerrie. I looked back at Dale. “Are you saying you’re lying to the president?”

His eyes darted about. “I’m saying, you worry about your job and let me worry about mine.”

*   *   *

Two weeks later, we were joined in our incognito training by Scott Anderson and Bob Keiffer, MOL astronauts tapped from the Air Force. We were broken into crews: Bob with Jerrie, and Scott with me. For sure, only one of us would be flying, and then as a weight-saving monkey throwing switches from the backseat.

Jerrie was livid. Scott was surprisingly decent about it and always saw I took my turn in the command seat. He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Nebraskan, an American Adonis in miniature. For appearances sake, we were never left alone. Then one day at Langley, we were in the docking simulator waiting for our run when he reached up and switched off the comm.

Here it comes, I thought, batter up.

“Can I give you a piece of advice?” he said.

“Um . . . sure.”

“Stop thinking like Jerrie’s copilot.”

Excuse me?

“Look, I get it,” he said, “She brought you in, and you’re her wing man. But in case you haven’t figured it out yet, you and me are the prime crew. They’re our backup.”

“But . . . Jerrie’s—”

“She’s a damn fine pilot with moxie to spare, but she’s also been in Life Magazine. She’s too famous for the United States government to blast off on a suicide mission. Besides which, you weigh less, you’ve got better test-flight experience, and you have an engineering degree. It’s your pooch to screw. You need to start owning the mission.”

I’ve known a lot of pilots, a lot of fighter jocks. No one has false bravado down like the test pilot crowd. This definitely wasn’t what I’d expected.

“Scott, just what are you saying?”

“Nothing, I just . . .”

I gave him the look, the same look Momma always used when waiting to hear who’d thrown the ball through the window.

Scott turned over his flight manual and pulled a folded sheet of paper from between its pages.

“Even with NERVA, this mission was an iffy proposition.”

Was?

He handed me the paper, a mimeographed letter from the chairman of the House Space Committee. Apollo was costing way more than expected, and the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office had been talking up atomic rockets as the ticket to Mars. Congress didn’t want another costly space race.

“NERVA’s been sidelined?” I looked up in shock.

We weren’t getting the atomic upper stage. The mission we’d been training for was over.

Scott took back the paper and tucked it away. “I’m saying you better be ready. It might be just you, all alone for six months in a bucket.”

He switched on the comm and smiled. “I’d pick a good book out, if I were you.”

*   *   *

That was the fall of ’67. By Easter, there were rumors of back-channel contingency planning with the Russians. Apparently, they had their own nuclear drive, smaller than NERVA but even more miserly with fuel. It could reach ’56 KI in eight months if they could get it into space. Scuttlebutt was, their Moon rocket was a shambles.

We weren’t doing much better. Our program was still on hold after the Apollo 1 fire. Throughout the summer, we visited North American to see updates to the Command and Service Modules. In October, we went to the South Dakota School of Mines, which of all places played host to a plywood mock-up of a deep-space habitat supposedly designed in Italy.

Eight months is a mighty long space-flight. We’d been planning for three, jammed like sardines in a barge adapted from our lunar lander. This thing was ten times the volume and half the weight, with every convenience for the modern spacefarer. From attitude control to docking to the zero-grav toilet, it had clearly been pieced together from Russian and American components, and not by any Italians.

The manual, with a cover portraying it out among the stars, gleaming like an Airstream trailer, called it the “Cruise Habitation and Berth Module.” We just called it the camper.

*   *   *

In July of ’69, Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. I was with Scott at LaGuardia, waiting on the red-eye to Moscow. The era of détente had blown in three weeks earlier when the Russians’ heavy booster exploded, destroying its launchpad and their one-of-a-kind mother-of-all asteroid-killing H-bombs.

With their camper and atomic drive, the Russians had the ticket to the ballpark, but we had the ride and the bat to swing once we got there. It would require a Frankenstein’s monster of technology and culture stitched together with explosive bolts, but someone had been planning ahead.

Parts for two Saturn rockets had been waiting at anchor off Istanbul, having started their journey a year earlier. Now they were en route to Baikonur, where the backup pad for the Russian’s failed booster would be ready for them in September.

One Saturn would carry the Russian drive. The other would take the camper, and us in an Apollo Command and Service Module with our “Special Payload Deployment Ring” in place of its heat shield. So in addition to five million pounds of explosive fuel, I’d be riding atop a dozen A-bombs. Don’t tell me girls don’t have balls.

*   *   *

I’d said my goodbyes back in Houston, all except to Jerrie, who’d made herself scarce since our orders came in, and she wasn’t on the roster. As Scott had foreseen, I was in command, but my Drive Module Pilot was a Russian engineer named Tatyana Tereshchenko. She was a crackerjack, but she was no pilot. She’d never even been in a simulator.

It galled me to trade Jerrie’s experience for some eggheaded Ruskie. After all we’d been through, she had to feel betrayed, and it killed me that she might think I’d had any hand in it. But Scott was my backup along with a tiny Soviet air force captain named Fyodor Danisov. If I held out for Jerrie, I was assured, either man could replace me with only a slight increase to the risk of killing everyone on Earth.

We had a month to prepare a brand new mission. There was simply no time for complaining.

*   *   *

Tatyana was sharp. She’d memorized all our manuals and could even quote from Buzz Aldrin’s dissertation on orbital rendezvous. But the critical maneuvers during the first three days would all be on me. Assuming I didn’t get us killed, she’d have eight months to learn the ropes. And so would I.

At the Gagarin Training Center, Tatyana took me to see our unproven drive module, still on a test stand awaiting its nuclear fuel. At its heart was a miniature atomic reactor designed to power a strategic bomber but never used for that purpose because, well, that would be crazy.

In space, it would sit at the end of a twelve-meter boom, with six radiators projecting around it like the fins of a dart. We’d be at the pointy end, protected from radiation by shielding, electromagnetic lenses, the boom itself, and a pair of propellant tanks.

For now it was all folded and crated, and when I moved a tarp from one of the plasma nacelles, some dust flew up, and I sneezed.

Tatyana said, “Gesundheit!” then looked away sheepishly and launched into a lecture on the assembly procedures to be performed by cosmonauts in space.

It was an awkward start, but when I suggested handholds to facilitate spacewalking repair, the chaperon balked, Tatyana barked, and in twenty minutes, a squadron of engineers had descended on the hanger, argued around a chalkboard, and agreed to a short list of changes.

I started to think my egghead might be an asset after all.

*   *   *

The drive was flown to Baikonur. Two weeks later, we followed. I’d have liked to have seen our Saturn rolled out and erected on its railway carriage, but this was considered unlucky. Instead, we were miles away in our hotel rooms when a deep booming drone set the windows rattling, and we ran out to the balcony to see a needle of flame climbing into the night. Below us, soldiers pointed and shouted “Poshla! Poshla!” and made encouraging noises.

We watched till the second stage faded from view. Then we hustled on to dinner, to a send-off of drinking and music, and finally to sleeping pills and bed.

*   *   *

The next day, my last day on Earth, I planted a tree.

Our chaperon led us from breakfast to the little park where Yuri Gagarin had done the same before his historic flight. Tatyana laughed and said, “Is tradition,” and we each took our turn at the spade.

The rest was a whirlwind of briefings and medical tests. Lunch was beef and carrot stew and a cake we never sampled. There were earnest words through a wall of glass and a darkened bus to the Cosmodrome.

As we drove, Tatyana and the chaperon chatted in Russian. I stared past the driver at the tree-limbed shadows and the afternoon light and thought of the cake and of sweet potato pie and of a thousand other flavors I’d never taste again.

We reached the pad just as dusk crept over the golden steppe. I’ve seen a Saturn-V standing at the Cape, a pastoral spire against the orange, red, and purple of a Florida dawn. Here she sat mummified in shadows and rags, but still she was hissing and eager. Everything stunk of the recent explosion, but when the hatch closed behind us, the cabin filled with the musk of machine oil, and I was finally home.

 

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Copyright © 2017. For All Mankind by C. Stuart Hardwick

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