Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
- President John F. Kennedy, 1962
O fortune like the Moon
you ever want
but to regain
your former circumstance.
Life's equally fain
the mind with games of chance
reversing with a glance.
- Carmina Burana; Fortune, Empress of the World
We should just go up there and mine the blame thing.
- Homer Hickam
An Author's Commentary
What follows is not my usual. You know me. I'm the fellow who wrote Rocket Boys: A Memoir which told the story of some boys in the West Virginia coalfields who decided to build rockets. I also wrote a lot of other novels and memoirs. If I have to define myself as a writer, I would say I'm a story-teller which is kind of a West Virginia specialty.
I've told stories of the coalfields of West Virginia and stories of the Outer Banks of North Carolina and stories of the South Pacific during World War II and of the fossil grounds of Montana. My most recent novel was the story of a long trek my parents took with their pet alligator during the Depression titled Carrying Albert Home. Counting Albert, I've written five books set at least partially in West Virginia, Rocket Boys, The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone, and We Are Not Afraid.
Interestingly, and more to the point of this particular piece, I've also written five works set on the moon. They include lunar fiction that began with the New York Times best-selling novel Back to the Moon (BTTM) and followed up some years later by a trilogy of novels titled Crater, Crescent, and Crater Trueblood and the Lunar Rescue Company.
But there is another work, actually my first that was set on the moon. I wrote it way back in 1993. Since I've recently being appointed to an adjunct group of the National Space Council, I think maybe it's time to revisit my work, written a quarter century ago to encourage a rather reluctant organization to head for the moon. You may recognize it best by its acronym: NASA.
How I Came to Write About the Moon
In 1986, I was working at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) assigned to train the crew of SL-J, a Spacelab mission that was mostly funded by the Japanese. After it finally flew in 1992, I wrote up all the lessons learned on that mission (they were legion) and turned them in and waited for my next assignment. It came one day when I was called to report to my boss, a fellow I'll call Ken, mainly because that was his name.
Ken sat me down and pondered me for a long second with his expressive eyes which always seemed unhappy when he sat me down in front of him for reasons I cannot imagine other than over the previous few years various astronauts had tried very hard to get me fired. Of course, other than making a number of poor decisions based on faulty judgment, I was innocent of everything.
Ken, to his credit, took up for me every time some pretty powerful folks came after me, enough that I had gotten through SL-J while still being gainfully employed. I wrote a little about that flight in my Paco: The Cat Who Meowed in Space book and, even though it was a difficult mission, I now look back on it fondly as veterans often do after fighting in wars that come close to killing them but not quite.
"So, Homer," Ken began, "what do you want to do next?"
Actually what I wanted to do was sit down and write the great American memoir-novel except I didn't know that yet so I said, "Whatever you want me to do, Ken," which I took as a safe answer.
"We thought you did a great job on SL-J," Ken allowed, resisting I'm sure the urge to list where I hadn't done so great, "but now we think you should do something else. You've heard about the space station, I guess."
Of course I had and said so. President Reagan's Space Station Freedom had morphed into Vice-President Al Gore's International Space Station which would include as an equal partner the recently defeated evil Communists of the Soviet Union now known as our besties the Russians.
Ken went on. "We need somebody to figure out how to train crews on payloads aboard the ISS. The Russians have their ways and we've got ours but somehow we need to pull them together. The astronauts will have to agree to it and we'll have to make the Europeans and the Japanese happy, too. How about it? You up to taking that on?"
Since it sounded like an interesting assignment, I agreed. "Don't screw it up," he said. Actually, he didn't say that but I kind of knew he was thinking it. What he actually said was, "Let me know if you need anything," and waved me out of his office.
After giving it some thought, I could see the first requirement to do my new job was to gather up as much knowledge on the various space programs as I could. This led me to Marshall Space Flight Center's excellent reference library. After harrying the librarian there for some days, he retrieved from all his sources everything available on our Russian pals and the other space organizations on how they trained their crews on payload operations. (Note: Payload in this case is NASA-speak for science experiment).
Before I came up with a way to combine forces with the Russian Space Agency and everybody else, I thought it best to review the current space policies of NASA itself. Sometimes the organization we know the least about is the one in which we work.
Digging through everything was a tedious process but as I labored, one thing kind of jumped out and hit me pretty much right between the eyes. Although there was a hold-over plan from the Bush (#1) Administration called the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) that called for a return to the moon, it had (1) never been funded and (2) never been taken seriously. Therefore, as far as I could tell, nobody, anywhere, had any real plans to send people to the moon!
This bothered me and got me to thinking, always dangerous to me and anyone nearby, and one of the things I thought about was my encounter with one Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1960 when he was running for the Democratic Presidential nomination in the West Virginia primary. At the time, I was in Welch, the county seat of McDowell County in the heart of the coalfields, there to purchase a suit for the National Science Fair after the rockets of the Big Creek Missile Agency had won at the county and state level.
After going to the men's store with O'Dell, one of my fellow amateur rocket builders, I managed to purchase a suit that was pretty much orange in color because O'Dell said I needed to stand out at the great fair and a suit that color would do the trick. As it turned out, it did, not at the fair but with Senator Kennedy. This strange and fateful event in my life and the world I would later write about in Rocket Boys: A Memoir.
Here's the relevant excerpt.
I wormed my way through a crowd of people and saw a table with a "Jack Kennedy for President" sign on it. Some men were setting up some loudspeakers. Then the martial strains of "Anchors Aweigh" blared out followed by "He's Got High Hopes," sung by Frank Sinatra. "What's going on?" I asked a man putting up a Kennedy poster on a telephone pole.
He looked me over, as if maybe I had two heads, and then said, "The Senator's going to make a speech right here in Welch. He'll be here any minute."
Attracted by the music, more people were crowding in. Somehow, Emily Sue found me. She took one look and said, "Oh my stars!" Her mouth stayed open.
I thought there was something going on behind me that had scared her. I looked over my shoulder but didn't see anything. "What?" I demanded, turning back.
Her mouth was still open. "What color is that?"
"My suit?" I looked at my sleeve. "I dunno. It's sort of an orange, I guess."
"Orange! You bought an orange suit?"
I shrugged. "Well, yeah..."
Just then, a convoy of Lincolns and Cadillacs wheeled into the parking building, their tires shrieking. Emily Sue and I had to step aside or we'd have been run over. We found ourselves right up front of the crowd. "Hey, this is great!" I said.
Emily Sue hadn't even glanced at the signs or the cars. She was still staring at me. "You don't like my suit?" I asked her. "O'Dell came by and helped me pick it out."
She slowly shook her head and then said, "That explains everything."
The crowd was applauding politely as a man got out of one of the Lincolns. He waved and I guessed he was Senator Kennedy. When he was hoisted to the top of a Cadillac, I knew I was right. He was a thin man with a large head and a lot of hair and a brown face. My first thought when I saw him was to wonder how in the world it was possible to get such a tan in the spring. The Senator waved again, cleared his throat - somebody handed him up a glass of water which he sipped - and then he started to talk. The crowd was milling, not everybody paying attention. He was giving it his all, though, and I thought it only polite to listen. His speech, delivered with a clenched fist punching out nearly every word, was about Appalachia (which I was surprised to hear we were part of) and the need for the government to help the whole area, maybe, he said, with a TVA-style project. I'd been taught about the Tennessee Valley Authority in high school history. Mr. Jones said President Roosevelt had used it to help the economy of the hill country of Tennessee and Alabama. I heard my Dad say once to my Uncle Ken that the TVA was just socialism, pure and simple. Uncle Ken said it wasn't, either, that it was just the government looking out for the little man. Dad had replied the government didn't look out for anybody but itself.
The Senator kept talking. I noticed that his hand crept to his back, pushing in the small of it like it hurt him there. He stood stiffly, like one of Dad's junior engineers after their first day in the mine. His eyes had kind of a sad look to them, too. I thought he was in some pain, either in his back or somewhere else.
The Welch audience stayed attentive but quiet as Senator Kennedy promised to create a food stamp program. The men who had gotten out of the Lincolns and Cadillacs applauded at the proposal but they were joined by only a few people in the crowd. The Senator paused and brushed the hair from his forehead in a nervous gesture. "I think the people of this state need and deserve a helping hand and I'm going to see that you get it!" he shouted, socking the air. Only silence came back at him. I noticed some people starting to leave. The Senator frowned and looked worried and I felt sorry for him. "How about some questions?" he asked. He sounded a little desperate.
My hand shot up. For some reason, he noticed me right off. "Yes. The boy in the, um, suit."
"Oh God," Emily Sue groaned. "You're going to embarrass the whole county."
I ignored her. "Yessir. What do you think the United States ought to do in space?"
"Oh, please God," Emily Sue groaned anew.
There was a stirring in the crowd, a few hoots of derision, but Kennedy smiled. "Well, some of my opponents think I should go into space," he said. With that, he got himself some appreciative laughter. He looked at me. "But I'll ask you, young man: what do you think we ought to do in space?"
As it happened, I had been lately thinking about the moon a lot. In-between spring storms, Jake's telescope allowed me to walk down the rilles and climb the mountains and stroll the mares of the moon in my mind. It helped me when I was sad about Daisy Mae, or worried about my parents moving to Myrtle Beach, or contemplating my future. The moon had become near and familiar and that's why my answer just sort of popped out. "We should go to the moon!" I said.
The Senator's entourage laughed but he shushed them with an irritable wave of his hand. "And why do you think we should go to the moon?" he asked me.
I looked around and saw men in their miner's helmets so I said, "We should go there and find out what it's made of and mine it just like we mine coal here in West Virginia."
There was more laughing until one of the miners spoke up. "'That boy's right! We could mine that old moon good!"
"Hell," another miner shouted out, "West Virginians could mine anything!"
A ripple of good-natured applause went through the crowd. There were a lot of grins. Nobody was leaving.
Kennedy seemed to be energized by the response. "If I'm elected president," he said, "I think maybe we will go to the moon." He swept his eyes across the people, now attentive. "I like what this young man says. The important thing is to get the country moving again, to restore vigor and energy to the people and the government. If going to the moon will help us do that, then maybe that's what we should do. My fellow Americans, join with me and we will together take this country forward..."
The crowd responded heartily. Kennedy was talking about working to make the country great again when Emily Sue dragged me away. "What're you doing?" I demanded. "I'm having fun."
"We're going back to Philips and Cloony before they close."
"You're not going to Indianapolis in that orange suit. It's the most carnival thing I've ever seen!"
I stopped dead in my tracks. "I like my suit."
She started to argue but then said "I don't doubt it." She put her hand on my back and propelled me forward.
After that encounter, I might be excused if I take credit for the entire Apollo program which, by the way, I do. In any case, I had clearly given the idea of people going to the moon at an early age.
And why was that?
My thoughts on the moon may well have been shaped because of where I lived, the little company town of Coalwood. Like the moon, Coalwood was remote and the people there were doing something most other people didn't know much about which, in our case, was the mining of coal from deep under our mountains. Because I read a lot of science fiction as a teen, when I looked out my window late at night and saw the hoot owl shift walking to work, it made me think of miners on the moon trudging through the dust in the darkness.
Hoping I had missed something in the official documents about going to the moon, I started reading every journal or magazine I could find that might have something on a new attempt to go back but no matter how hard I searched, there was just nothing. NASA and every other space agency in the world seemed content with just keeping their people locked in low earth orbit. The moon was entirely yesterday.
While I was puzzling over this sad state of affairs, I happened to see a Huntsville Little Theatre production of the play Terra Nova which was about Sir Robert Scott's fatal attempt to reach the South Pole. This started me off reading more about Scott as well as other early Antarctic explorers such as Amundsen and Shackleton. Gradually, it dawned on me that the moon and Antarctica might be something alike in that they were both remote continents and required a lot of specialized equipment and transportation to get there and set up housekeeping.
At the time, I was working in what was called the Man-Systems Integration Branch within the Mission Operations Laboratory. This was the fancy name for the office that housed MSFC's payload crew training managers. It was a very busy office filled with some dynamic people which included Sue Boyd Rainwater who would eventually oversee NASA's extravehicular activities operations (which means going outside in a space suit with a bag full of tools and working), Patti Moore who would be the primary crew interface in Russia during the early ISS years, and luminaries in crew training such as Julie Sanchez, Angie Johnston, Joel Best, Alice Dorries, Debra Underwood, Chuck Lewis, Carole McLemore, Ken Smith, Cindy Fry, Anne Carter, Lybrease Woodward, George Norris, George Hamilton, Janet Dowdy Strong, Kimberly Robinson, Jessica Osborne, Dave Scott, Sonny Mitchell, Roy Young, Alan Johnston, Mike Massimino (an intern who later became an astronaut) and many others. Everyone who was in our branch kind of stood out.
Since there might be some interest in the intern who became an astronaut, here's his story.
One summer when I came home after a particularly exhausting month of training my often unhappy crew in Japan, I discovered a young lantern-jawed New York Yankee (not a ball player - the real thing) in my office which, up to then, I'd considered my own private work space. When I walked through the door, without warning, there this fellow was, springing from his chair to shake my hand and introduce himself.
He was a summer hire, he said, a citizen of New York, and presently a student at MIT. He went on to tell me he was happy, oh so happy, to be in Huntsville and wasn't this a nice office where he'd been placed, indeed?
Although I was polite and allowed that it was very much a nice office, I subsequently complained vigorously to anybody who would pay attention about the incursion that had occurred of a tall, ungainly youth into my sacrosanct private office (it even had a window). Since I soon perceived that nobody cared that I had been invaded by what was surely the great-great-grandchild of a bluecoat unionist, I gave up complaining and got to know the youngster because I had no other choice.
After awhile, Mike and I even became sort of friends. He even relaxed enough around me to wax on about how someday he wanted to be an astronaut. Amused, I told him, "You have about as much chance of becoming an astronaut as I have of writing a number one New York best-seller."
Mike Massimino, of course, would indeed later become an astronaut and, if you've been paying attention, you know I also wrote that #1 book thing. Life is a funny, funny riddle except when it isn't which is most of the time, both ways.
If Mike's name sounds more familiar than a lot of astronauts, he is the astronaut you see with Leonard on Big Bang Theory flying with the fictional MIT engineer (!) aboard the Soyuz to the ISS.
In real life, Mike actually never flew on the Soyuz maybe because he's too tall but, hey, it's a television show. This much I will say. He did a bang-up job of repairing the Hubble Space Telescope and that makes him in my estimation one of the really good guys in the space program.
For some reason, maybe because I was always trying to run him off or griping at him about one thing or another, we never took a photo of us together but here's one of Mike with one of the actors on the show. In case you're not certain, Mike is the tall one and is really the MIT graduate.
Besides stray northern interns, we had interesting visitors every so often, too. I was privileged to tour this lovely young woman around for a day. The story I got was she was in a movie about grease and could sing a little, too. Anyway, she was very nice.
Although there were many technical aspects to being a payload training manager, ultimately our jobs came down to handling several types of people who tended to be highly intelligent, pedantic, picky, sensitive, overworked, and quirky, i.e., astronauts, the scientists whose experiments the space flyers operated, and NASA upper management. We also had a great deal of responsibility with virtually no authority, a situation that required us to figure out what needed to be done and then gain agreement amongst all the parties to our plans, a nearly impossible task. We were, as might be imagined, often a little stressed.
To get by without going crazy, we occasionally needed to talk to people who understood. This usually meant another training manager. Cindy Fry was the one I most often turned to for that particular requirement. When I sat down with her at lunch one day, we covered the usual astonishing things happening in the training world, and then I told her about how unhappy I was that we weren't going back to the moon. At this revelation, she asked, "Why do you care?"
This I took as a very good question. My answer was my JFK story. She puzzled over that for a moment and then asked, "Yes, but why do you really care?"
Why, indeed? I thought it over, and then said, "Because I think the moon is the best place to go if people are going to actually live in space. Not just astronauts but everybody. There's work to do on the moon, both blue-collar and white-collar kind of work. For one thing, we could just go up there and mine the blame thing."
I told her about the play I'd seen and the fact that we had a base in Antarctica right on the pole and that I thought Antarctic explorations were a lot like exploring the moon and maybe there were some lessons that could be learned there.
Cindy had her thinking cap on. She had also recently finished a difficult Spacelab mission and was about to get involved with another one. She said, "You know what, Homer? I bet if we pitched it right, we could get a trip to the South Pole to study the station there! Why don't we go after some center director contingency funds?"
After I confessed I'd never heard of such funds, Cindy explained that the center director was allowed to squirrel away a small pot of money for anyone who came up with a good idea and needed help to test it out. She told me further there was a competition for those funds but maybe, if she and I were clever enough, we might be able to come up with some justification to make the trip. I wasn't exactly certain how this had become a "we" project but I really didn't mind. Anyway, it sounded like a fun adventure that might even be worthwhile.
We submitted our proposal and then went on to other things. For me, this included more study on how to bring the various crew training organizations together. This required trips to Russia and Europe and all over which was interesting and I was soon thoroughly immersed in how to pull everybody together, especially including Vice President Gore's Muscovite BFFs.
After a few weeks, the answer came from the Center Director that the request for our funding was approved for our study but only for the time it took to study and write it. There were, it was explained, no travel funds allowed under the Center Director's money pot.
I called Cindy and we agreed to meet to see what could be done. "How can we," I wondered, "write anything about the South Pole Station without going there to get some answers?"
Cindy's answer was a stunner. "I don't know, Homer, but there's something you should know. I'm quitting NASA and moving to Texas."
It took a moment to register but then it did. "What? When?"
"Right away." Cindy went on to explain that she had decided she needed to spend more time with her husband and her young family and had concluded NASA was just never going to let that happen. There was too much travel and too much stress.
Sometimes, things just don't work out and, although I would miss her, I admired Cindy's courage in giving up a promising future with the space agency in favor of her family. Eventually, she would become the Dean of Computer Sciences at Baylor University but she always kept her family first. I am proud to still be her friend but she threw me a curve those many years ago.
Although now Cindyless and without a ticket to Antarctica but on the hook to make the study, I knew I needed to find out as much as I could about what was officially titled the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. My initial research revealed that it was originally built for the 1957 International Geophysical Year (IGY) which, by the by, also resulted in Russia's Sputnik, the world's first artificial earth satellite, which ultimately led to the creation of NASA and me building rockets when I was a kid and ultimately writing Rocket Boys. Yay, IGY!
The National Science Foundation (NSF) was the federal agency responsible for running the South Pole Station so the next thing I did was call them to let them know what I was doing and why. After being shuttled around from one person to the next, I finally found someone there who was associated with the South Pole Station. This fellow—let's call him Bill—proceeded to disappoint me with the news that he couldn't talk to me because I was from Marshall Space Flight Center and it was Johnson Space Center in Houston who was supposed to be the contact between NASA and the NSF.
"But I have a grant to study the South Pole Station," I said. "My Center Director gave it to me."
"Can you give it back?"
I briefly considered this, dismissed the idea as unworthy, then asked, "Who at JSC is your contact?"
Bill provided a phone number in Houston for a fellow I'll call Bob. I called Bob and told him what Bill had said and also what I was doing and why. "Good luck," he replied.
After waiting for him to say something else which he didn't seem inclined to do, I asked, "Is JSC making a study of the South Pole Station?"
He hesitated, then said, "Nope."
"Are you going to?"
"Why would I?"
He hesitated, then said, "Nope."
"Are you going to?"
"Why would I?"
"Because it might help us build a moonbase."
"But we're not building a moonbase," he said, quite correctly. "Look, yeah, somebody here wrote a little study about that base down there but he's off on something else now. If I were you, I'd do the same and just drop the whole thing. Anyway, no matter what you write, nobody is going to pay any attention to it. If you haven't figured it out, Homer, we've done the moon. We're not going to do it again."
Rather than argue, which I sensed was a waste of time, I thanked Bob and hung up and went straight back to Bill and did what I have learned works best when faced with an intractable bureaucrat, i.e., whine, snivel, and grovel.
"OK, I'll help you," Bill finally agreed in the midst of my sob story which I clearly didn't plan on ending any time soon, "but it'll have to be unofficial. So what do you want to know?"
"Everything," I said and, to his credit, Bill didn't hang up.
Before long, I had a great deal of information about our base on the southern pole and after giving the whole thing some thought, and studying a lot more, I was ready to write and publish.
And so I did, a write-up I grandly titled A Study of the National Science Foundation's South Pole Station as an Analogous Data Base for the Logistical Support of a Moon Laboratory.
And here it is.
Reflections and Further Commentary
And so my study was published and, just as Bob of JSC/Houston predicted, no one at NASA or the federal government in 1993 cared anything about it. To my knowledge, a quarter century later, they still don't. Nonetheless, being the stubborn type, and especially after subsequently writing four novels set at least partially on the moon, I believe my first work about Luna contains several concepts or analogs that are important if we're really going to go back there, this time to stay. They are as follows:
• The Evolving Construction Analog was my proposition that the best course while building a moonbase was to do it slowly over time. This was the way the South Pole Station was constructed with its components evolving from an uncrewed power-producing station to a temporarily crewed science laboratory to a full-time occupied facility. Another Apollo-type crash program is not required. Slow and steady wins the race, as the old maxim goes, and it is particularly true when building something big and costly that has yet to prove itself.
• The Funding Analog was a way of looking at spending money for the moonbase over time. Just as in Antarctica, funding a moonbase should be spread out, the money only spent as it makes sense to do based on the success of what has come before. I also still like my idea of not putting NASA in charge but creating a Lunar Base Consortium (LBC) of government and private players.
• The Transportation Analog was probably the one I had the most fun describing because I got to draw a lot of rockets. It also (ahem) resulted in me predicting somewhat the lift capabilities of launchers that would be coming on line a quarter of a century later. The Moonbird rocket is similar to today's Falcon 9 or the standard Delta or Atlas rockets, the Moondog is similar to the Falcon Heavy, Atlas V, or Delta Heavy, and the Moonbeast is similar to the BFR, the New Glenn, or NASA's SLS. Profit-seeking rocket companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin were not even glimmers on the horizon back in 1993 so I didn't foresee them. What I fully expected was that NASA would have to design and build all of the new American rockets through its usual set of contractors. I'm glad that's not the way it turned out.
• The Fuzzy Boundary Proposal: While I was writing the study, I came across some references to the "fuzzy boundary" method of launching payloads to the moon and included that idea in my study. It was my reasoning that without any rushed time constraints to build the moonbase, there was no reason not to use gravity-assist to send various segments with self-landers. Had I known about the idea at the time, I would have also proposed Aldrin Cyclers that constantly make figure-8's around the Earth and the moon. These Cyclers carry living quarters and crew supplies so that any country or company wanting to hitch a ride to the moon can come up from Earth, rendezvous with a Cycler, give it a little boost, and be on their way with whatever they have, including landers, supplies, and people. I wrote at length about the design and capabilities of these cyclers in my Helium-3/Crater series which I described as somewhat steampunk in design and function.
For all my fascination toward the moon as a destination, what is it I want to see happen there? I will tell you very clearly. I want to see a new world filled with hearty individuals who desire above all else to raise their families in the manner in which they see fit while being free (if they wish) of Earthian politics and Earthian religions and any philosophy to do with the Old World in favor of the New on what I consider our eighth continent.
In other words, I want humanity to start thinking in different ways that can only occur when we truly break free not only of the gravity that keeps us bound to the Earth but the chains of our history. This is not to say everything will be perfect there. Far from it. Just as I show in my Helium-3/Crater trilogy, I expect life on the moon to be difficult and dangerous but it's through difficulty and danger that human progress is most often made.
The moon is there, waiting. I say let's just go and mine the blame thing. Ad Luna!