They Didn't Ask Me (dr_phil_physics) wrote,
They Didn't Ask Me
dr_phil_physics

Pilgrim Progress Report

Somewhere I think I once did a blog review of Robert Altman's Countdown. I know I've mentioned it several times, including during my review of The Martian. It's a 1968 movie with Robert Duvall and James Caan about a juryrigged mission to put an American on the Moon, using a mixture of Apollo and Gemini parts -- because the Russians were going and the full Apollo wasn't ready.

I hadn't heard of it until just a few years ago when it was on Turner Classic Movies. Pristine print in letterbox widescreen. It is by no means a great space movie -- to me it is memorable because it was a big studio production with Altman at the helm which had the misfortune to come out the same year as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oops.

In looking it up when I did The Martian review, I was reminded that it was based on a novel. So... off to Amazon, where I found a used copy for a couple of dollars. And it came the other day and I read it Monday and Tuesday night.

The Pilgrim Project / Hank Searls. 1964.
used via Amazon.com, paperback, $3.00 + $3.99 S+H.

Opening the package took me right back to my early SF reading. Books tended to be shorter -- this paperback was some 200 pages, with a small heavy font with very small margins and gutters. The three cut edges of the paper had been dyed a deep purple or burgundy -- the dye spreading onto the pages just a little bit. The cover art, as you can see, very stylistic and simple.

One of my favorite books in junior high school was Martin Caidin's Marooned, later made into a lackluster film much like Countdown. But Marooned comes in two versions -- the one I read was Apollo/Skylab. I finally tracked down a copy of the 1964 Mercury/Gemini version and am partway through it. (My used copy is slightly mildewed and so I can't read it in very long stretches -- one area that e-books have solved.) Marooned is much the better story, and the 1964 version is contemporary with The Pilgrim Project

This is cheap and dirty spacecraft design, a Just-in-Case Apollo isn't ready when the Russians try for the Moon. A Saturn I launch vehicle, with a Centaur third stage. A one-man Mercury capsule with extra supplies, using a Polaris solid rocket engine to get close to the surface and then a liquid fuel engine for maneuvering and landing. No launch vehicle. You're stranded on the Moon... and have to find the shelter sent up the week before and use that until Apollo is ready and you can hitch a ride on a LEM to go home. Huh. Doesn't this sound a lot like the plot of The Martian, except doing it deliberately?

This book doesn't make sense at first -- this isn't the NASA we grew up with -- until you understand the Cold War subplots between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Space Race wasn't just about firsts -- it was also about controlling the high ground. There really were fears that the Moon could be militarized and by the Russians if we didn't get there first!
“I do not believe that this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a Communist moon” -- Lyndon B. Johnson
And as NASA secrets go, Pilgrim makes a lot more sense as a positive thing than the conspiracy of Capricorn One when they realized their environmental equipment couldn't make it to Mars and back -- and they had to fake the Mars landing so as not to kill O.J. Simpson.

Like Capricorn One, there is a lot of lying going on. Including an abort of a manned Apollo mission for really poor reasons.

What is more unbelievable is the sort of standard issue 1950s/1960s matter of alcoholics, spies and interagency and interservice rivalries. The flight surgeon is against the whole project and behaves unprofessionally and -- in the Cold War spirit of the story -- treasonously. My take away is that Searls is a competent technical writer and researcher -- the basic parts and engineering are there. I read up on all this stuff in every book I could find in our school and public libraries when I was a kid. Today, you could research all this stuff on Wikipedia and make it sound convincing.

But technical accuracy does not necessarily a great plot make.

In the movie they used a Gemini capsule as a one-seater, so there'd be more room. But in the book, it's a Mercury capsule. Mainly for weight. But one of the things I forgot about Mercury was the periscope. If you're trying to land on the Moon and you're lying on your back facing up, it sure would be nice to see the surface. In the LEM, you're standing and looking through forward and downward canted windows.

They used the "little Saturn" rocket for launching, just as they did to get the Apollo capsules up for Earth orbit work in Apollo 7 and the three Skylab Apollo missions. They used Launch Complex 37, not the more famous Saturn V Launch Complex 39. As they start talking about the firing of the engines, I suddenly had to remember that the Saturn IB first stage did NOT have five engines like its big brother the Saturn V Moon rocket, but eight. Off to Wikipedia where I realized they were talking about the original Saturn I, not the IB: S-I first stage with 8 H-1 engines, burning RP1 kerosene and LOX, S-IV second stage with 6 RL10 engines, burning LH2 and LOX. And the never-flown S-V (Centaur-C) third stage, with 2 RL10 engines. The Saturn I flew some of the early unmanned boilerplate Apollo capsules, such as the one in Grand Rapids MI. (grin) The Saturn IB didn't fly until 1966, with an upgraded S-IB first stage, still with 8 H-1 engines, but the second stage was the S-IVB third stage workhorse of the Saturn V rocket, with its single J-2 engine, also used in the Saturn V's second stage.

Pretty clever to manhandle the mass around to make the Saturn I a manned Moon rocket.

Technical details are easy. People are hard, especially when we all know who the Mercury Seven are. Glenn is mentioned by name, as having left the program to run for the Senate. One of the main characters is the colonel -- he talks a lot about the commander. I'm assuming the latter is Shepherd, but is the colonel Grissom? That's who I assumed in my mind the whole time. It's an almost clever way to deal with NOT inventing extra original Mercury astronauts, which is the usual conceit. It's like 555- phone numbers and the endless number of made up large airlines in stories. It's one of the reasons it's easy to write in the 29th century -- or secret kingdoms. (grin)

And then on the top of page 170 I was suddenly thrown out of the story because one of their markers was Shiaperelli crater. What, wait? Sure enough, I was right and there is a Schiaparelli crater on the Moon AND one on Mars. Now I REALLY am wondering if Andy Weir ever read The Pilgrim Project when he wrote The Martian.

If I was a few years older, I probably would've found The Pilgrim Project on my own in the mid-60s and I would've liked it okay. Today, I am really glad to have found a copy and see where the movie came from. Has some good technical stuff, but the story... seems desperately far fetched today. For my money, Marooned is far superior and the 1981 Shuttle Down by Lee Correy is a decent more modern technical and engineering romp -- but the latter also suffers from some poor writing in some places.

RECOMMENDED for its historical value

As a footnote, I should add that McDonnell-Douglas, the manufacturer of the Gemini space capsule, really was investigating post-Gemini missions and adaptations, including a 12-man Big Gemini orbital resupply ship and:
A range of applications were considered for Advanced Gemini missions, including military flights, space station crew and logistics delivery, and lunar flights. The Lunar proposals ranged from reusing the docking systems developed for the Agena Target Vehicle on more powerful upper stages such as the Centaur, which could propel the spacecraft to the Moon, to complete modifications of the Gemini to enable it to land on the lunar surface. Its applications would have ranged from manned lunar flybys before Apollo was ready, to providing emergency shelters or rescue for stranded Apollo crews, or even replacing the Apollo program.
It's like the paper I discovered last year or so about the concept of using an Apollo capsule for Mars and Venus manned flyby missions!

In other words, there were a lot of hairbrained schemes for dangerous manned flight missions talked about, so that part of the story isn't completely bonkers.

Dr. Phil
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Crossposted on LiveJournal
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction, space
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