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Authors: Homer Hickam

Back to the Moon

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to the



Homer H. Hickam, Jr.

To Linda
the women and men of NASA


Unlike astronauts and cosmonauts, no author ever works in a vacuum. A support team is required, albeit ad hoc, to complete any manuscript, especially one that attempts to recreate a reality that never existed. This is especially true of a writer devising a tale of space that occurs in the near future. The space business today is hideously complex. In a way, it inhabits a separate world, complete with its own unique laws, personalities, technologies, bureaucracies, and language. An outsider entering this world quickly becomes lost in the myriad unwritten rules of those who work the space trade, confused by the jargon, bewildered by temporary organizations within organizations that rapidly coalesce then just as quickly fall apart, bemused by managers both cautious and audacious nearly at the same moment, disgusted by the often enormous waste of talent and money and time just to stroke a particular ego, baffled by decisions never decided but realized anyway, and mentally pulverized by a technology nearly impossible to understand because no one has ever written it down in a way that's understandable. Even though I've been a space business insider for three decades, I have had to rely on the assistance of others who work space to make my manuscript as accurate as possible. To them (and you know who you are) I give my heartfelt gratitude, especially Jim Baker, an engineer of great vision and special talent. Clay Terry was also especially helpful in transferring vitally important documents written on one computer platform to another so as to allow me access to them.

Special thanks are also due to Linda Terry Hickam, my first editor, Tom Spain of Delacorte, my final editor, Frank Weimann, my literary agent, and Mickey Freiberg, my Hollywood agent. Finally, for the inspiration they have always given me, I doff my spacesuit helmet to NASA agency and contractor grunts everywhere. God bless them. They toil endlessly for me and you along the pathways to space.


Coalwood, West Virginia, my hometown, was not a place where children often looked at the stars. The narrow swath of sky between our mountains only allowed us a peek at the heavens, and even that was often blotted out by the dust and smoke coming from the coal mine tipple. The people of Coalwood, dedicated to the industry of coal mining, tended to look down, not up. That all changed for me when I was in the fourth grade. After reading everything on the grade school bookshelves, I started going upstairs to the junior high library and there I discovered the wonderful novels of Jules Verne. I was astonished by his tales, filled not only with great adventures but with scientists and engineers who considered the acquisition of knowledge to be the greatest pursuit of mankind. When I finished everything by Verne in the library, I started to read the modern science fiction writers who had followed in his footsteps: Heinlein, Asimov, van Vogt, Clarke, and Bradbury. These writers challenged me to look up at the sky, and to imagine myself crossing the boundless frontier of the universe. The junior high librarian knew to call me any time a new science fiction book arrived and I would almost break my neck running up the steps to get at it. This distressed my grade school teachers, who preferred that I have a more eclectic library record. To counteract my fixation they prescribed appropriate doses of Twain, Steinbeck, and other writers. I was happy to oblige them because I loved those writers too. But I was always happy to get back to my literary adventures in science and space.

In the fall of 1957, when I was in the tenth grade,
was launched and a great space race began between the United States and Russia. Because of the science fiction I'd read, I thought I already knew something of spaceflight and began to build and launch my own rockets, much to the consternation of the good citizens of Coalwood. I wrote about what happened in the three years that followed
in the book
Rocket Boys, A Memoir
but the story didn't end there. I eventually fulfilled my boyhood dreams and secured a position as an engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I had become, I thought, a man like Verne's men, an engineer dedicated to the pursuit of science and exploration.

The space shuttle era was just beginning when I started at NASA. It was an exciting time for engineers, scientists, and astronauts in the space agency as we learned how to fly and operate a manned heavy-lift spacecraft with wings. The space shuttle proved to be a magnificent machine, capable of accomplishing a wide variety of tasks in space. But as the years passed, I began to notice an increasing frustration among my fellow NASA engineers. The fact was most of us had signed on to explore space, to go to the moon, to the planets and beyond. The space shuttle was designed for the routine task of people and cargo hauling into low earth orbit. It was almost as if after the
flights there had been a directive from on high: the moon and the planets were off-limits to astronauts. All they were allowed to do was carve endless loops around the earth in the space shuttle and maybe, someday, aboard an International Space Station. This caused much frustration within the agency. Many of us especially thought we should build on
and go back to the moon.

I began to get together with a few of my NASA colleagues who thought as I did and we worked on ways to get out of low earth orbit, usually in a variety of new spacecraft. One day a paper written by Jim Baker, a Rockwell engineer, fell into my hands. In it was a proposal for modifying an existing space shuttle to fly to the moon, orbit around it, and return to earth. I called Jim and we discussed his idea at length. Yes, he said, it could be done. All that it required was the will to go and do it. Many years passed but Baker's idea stuck with me. I often found myself lurking in the techno-thriller or science fiction area of bookstores looking unsuccessfully for a novel about a realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon. I never found it. One day it occurred to me that if I wanted to read such a book, I would have to write it myself. About the same time I began to hear about a very special isotope called helium-3. Helium-3, a source of almost limitless energy, is rare on earth but abundant on the moon. I found it both ironic and hopeful that mankind's survival on our relatively lush planet may very well depend on our airless, desolate moon.

And so it was I set myself to the task of writing the book I wanted to read, remembering not only Jim Baker's designs, and the promise of helium-3, but also the strong-willed, inventive men and women who peopled the science and space adventures I read as a boy. It is said that heroes are made by the challenges they confront, by the risks they take, and by the pain they endure. Challenges, risks, and pain are all necessary for the fictional characters of
Back to the Moon
to live up to the book's title. This reflects reality. The
missions pushed the edge of the technological envelope and to go back to the moon today would still be difficult and risky. Nevertheless, many of my colleagues at NASA share my belief that we need to go now, without delay. The moon is laden with a vast storehouse of treasure that this country, and the world, will need in the very near future. If we aren't willing to take on the challenge of securing it, we will perhaps doom our planet to a limited and painful future that won't allow spaceflight at all. Then it will be too late. Let's not risk it. We need to go back to the moon. All that is required is the will, and the courage, to do it.

Homer H. Hickam, Jr.
Huntsville, Alabama

O fortune like the Moon
you ever want
but to regain
your former circumstance.
Life's equally fain
to decimate
as reinstate
the mind with games of chance
and penury
reversing with a glance.
—Carmine Burana,
“Fortune, Empress of the World”


The End of the Beginning

Oh, it's home again, and home again, America for me!

I want a ship that's westward bound to plough the rolling sea,

To the blessed Land of Room Enough beyond the ocean bars,

Where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars.

Henry Van Dyke
, “America for Me”


Frau Mauro, the Moon, December 12, 1972

Gene Cernan was having the time of his life. He tried to restrain himself, but driving the Lunar Rover over the powdery regolith of the moon was simply too much fun not to bust loose now and then. When he hit a bump and the Rover's front wheels left the ground, he let out a whoop. Then he spotted a dune and, rather than steering away, headed straight for it. The Rover dug in, its wheels gaining traction. Cernan, grinning like a school kid, looked over at his partner, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who kept his eyes straight ahead, stoic as always. The Rover bounced as it went over the top of the dune, its wire wheels spinning. Cernan spotted a large crater off to the left. He heard Schmitt's voice crackle in his helmet headset. “I want another reading on the traverse gravimeter.” Schmitt pointed to the crater. “And I want to go over to Shorty.”

Cernan marveled that Schmitt had memorized the name of every crater in the Taurus-Littrow region. “Okay, Jack. We're on our way.” He made a quick turn and pushed the joystick throttle forward.

“Be advised you are near red line on consumables, Gene,” Houston Mission Control crackled in the headsets of both astronauts.

Cernan switched to crew-only comm. “You heard the man, Jack. We've got just enough oxygen to get back to the Lem.”

Cernan heard Schmitt's exasperated sigh. “That's if we had to walk back, Gene, and you know that's not going to happen. The Rover's in good shape. I really need to take a look at Shorty. Make a bunch of geologists happy if I did. It's a bit of a mystery.”

Cernan weighed the odds. If anything happened to the Rover, he and Schmitt would run out of oxygen before they could make it back to the Lem on foot. But Schmitt was the only scientist ever to walk on the moon. He needed every precious second he could get for his research. Cernan shrugged invisibly inside his thick suit. It was the last time men were going to be on the moon for many years. Maybe it was time to play the odds. He stopped the lunar “dune buggy” at the base of the steep crater rim. “This do, Jack?”

Schmitt made no reply, not a second to waste. He hopped out and headed up the slope in as near a run as his suit would allow. Cernan detached the television camera from the Rover so he could show Houston the view. He trudged up the crumbling slope. The view up there was by God beautiful! Undulating sand mountains lay like white porcelain sculptures in a vast gray ocean of dust. “Take a look at this, Houston!” Cernan called. After a pan he aimed the camera into the deep pit of the crater. “And this!”

While Cernan enjoyed the view and shared it with earth, Schmitt kept up a one-sided commentary to the boys in the geologists' back room. “The crater named Shorty has a distinctly raised rim and a hummocky floor,” he said. “Dark ejecta surrounds it.”

Cernan pointed the video camera at Schmitt as he hustled over to a boulder that was coated with black dust. “I'm beside a boulder that has a knobby surface and is covered with hairline cracks,” Schmitt reported, and then laughed.

Schmitt's laugh was so unusual, Cernan switched to crew-only comm. “What's going on, Jack?”

Schmitt's voice was absolutely merry. “I've just solved in less than a minute an argument that's been raging in the geology world for years. Some of the boys say that Shorty's volcanic, others say a meteor caused it. Well, I know exactly what it is now.”

“Then tell the world, Jack.” Cernan chuckled. He worked his way over to his partner and filled the television frame with him. “Hey, Houston, listen up—especially any geologists monitoring.”

“Shorty is a fresh impact crater,” Schmitt observed succinctly. He went to the crew-only mode. “Hey, Gene—money's going to be changing hands in Houston on this one!”

“Wish I'd placed a bet myself!” Cernan answered, pleased that his partner was enjoying himself.

Schmitt went back to earth comm. “There's an accumulation of basaltic spatter and cinders. Shorty's floor appears to be either impact-indurated soil breccia or the top of the subfloor basalt.”

“Copy that,” Houston intoned. But Mission Control seemingly had a one-track mind. “You should be heading back to the Lem now.”

“I want a soil sample,” Schmitt replied stubbornly.

“We got to go, Jack,” Cernan told his crewmate as gently as he could, trying not to betray his own anxiety. Hypoxia was not an easy way to die. The Houston training people had been pretty graphic on what it would be like: First there would be a splitting headache, followed quickly by shortness of breath and air hunger. Being astronauts, they'd probably gut it out and still trudge on but they wouldn't get far. Convulsions would soon wrestle them to the ground and then they'd gasp and twitch like caught fish until the black shade of death enveloped them. Cernan guessed that would be a blessing.

Schmitt turned away, clumped down to the Rover, and popped the lid on the aluminum box that held drive tubes and tools. “This is important, Gene, and it's why we're here.”

Cernan was the commander. He could order Schmitt back on the Rover, but there was something about Shorty Crater that made Cernan want to push the envelope. “Make it fast, Jack,” he relented.

Schmitt puttered around the site, taking samples and gravity readings. Houston kept calling Cernan and reminding him that they were at the limit of their walk-back capability and Cernan kept replying that he knew it—just another minute more and they'd be out of there.

“Oh, hey—wait a minute—there's orange soil here!” Schmitt's excited voice was an octave higher than usual.

Cernan shuffled through the gray dust to peer at the splotch of color in front of his partner. He briefly raised the shield on his helmet. There was no change in the hue. “He's not going out of his mind, Houston,” he reported. “It really

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