Commander Samuel Robbins was alone on the moon.
He hadn’t come alone. Just seven hours prior, he and his friend, Lunar Module Pilot Clayton Dodge, had taken their spacecraft Trailblazer to a hazardous landing in the crater Tycho on June 20, 1973, leaving Command Module Pilot John Taylor in orbit aboard the Scout.
Apollo 18 was to be the final mission of NASA’s famous space program to beat the Russians to the moon, a fitting end to a grand project. Robbins and Dodge were to pick samples from the moon’s most fantastic crater, and what they would bring back would no doubt be an incredible benefit to lunar science. After Harrison Schmitt, Dodge was the only scientist to land on the moon, having studied lunar geology under renowned professor Lee Silver.
Trailblazer had come down in the midst of a boulder field near Tycho’s titanic central peak. No clear images of the landing site had ever been taken, as it was so far out of the way of all other lunar missions. Fortunately, when it was all too evident that she was coming down in a dangerous landscape, Robbins took over and guided his ship to a safe landing, narrowly missing sharp escarpments that certainly would have meant death to the mission, not that it mattered now.
Trailblazer was a lunar module unlike any other, one of a kind. Unlike the previous six, it was larger, as it needed extra fuel for both landing and takeoff in such a southern location on the moon. As Tycho was the most fantastic of landing sites, and this was to be the last Apollo mission, Trailblazer was also fitted out with oxygen not for three and a half days, but five, to provide the most amount of time possible on the lunar surface.
Six hours after landing, the cabin was depressurized and Robbins and Dodge took their first steps on the moon. They marvelled at the cliffs that rose about them on all sides, and the incredible mountain not ten miles off from where they had come down. Deploying the lunar rover, Robbins and Dodge began explorations, heading for a small crevasse they had seen during their final approach. Pulling up ten yards from the edge, Robbins jumped from the rover and approached the lip. Dodge stayed behind to pick samples of several glass-like rocks he had seen by the rover’s wheels. He also wanted to investigate a strange magnetic anomaly emanating nearby.
Robbins inched his way closer to the mini canyon, careful not to slip on the fine lunar soil. From all appearances, the area around the crevasse seemed sturdy. However, looks proved to be deceiving, and the commander fell down into the rift, which was only fifteen feet deep. He survived the fall with no trouble due to the Moon’s low gravity, but he didn’t dare climb up without assistance for fear of tearing his suit.
“Clay, come help me, I’m stuck.”
“Where’d you go?”
“Down here. In the crevasse.”
“Shit, on my way. You alright?”
“Nothing wrong, yeah. I just need you over here to guide me up.”
Suddenly, a third voice crackled onto the radio. “Boys!” It was Gus Burke, CAPCOM. “Boys, I need you to get back to the LM immediately.”
“Gus? What the hell is this?” Robbins asked, confused.
“Not now, Gus, I’ve gotta help the commander, he’s fallen into a crevasse-”
“Dodge, get to the LM now, dammit!”
“Gus, will you-” Dodge was cut off. The radio went silent, and Robbins couldn’t hear a thing except his own breathing. “Dodge? Hey, Clay, my radio...I think it’s out. Clay?” There was only silence. No matter, though Robbins thought. My radio just got snagged on a rock is all. I’ll have visual on Clay in a moment.
But soon, seconds turned to minutes as Robbins awaited Dodge to come rescue him from the pit. As nervousness took its grip upon the commander, he busied himself with gathering rock samples from the base of the crevasse, undoubtedly the deepest retrieved from the moon on all seven landings. He placed them in a pouch above his left knee. When it became apparent after around ten minutes that something had happened to Dodge, Robbins eyed the walls of his little prison and tried to find a way out of the crevasse. It was going to be awkward, but with seven hours of oxygen in his pack, he figured he’d have the time to scale fifteen feet. The most important thing was to not snag any part of his suit on the rocks.
Pieces of what looked like breccia flaked away as he attempted to grip some of the escarpments, eventually finding a firm hold. He kicked his boots into the walls to create little footholds as he ascended ever so slowly. Soon, after around a period of twenty minutes, Commander Robbins was once again in the sunlight. He did not have to look around to spot the fate of Dodge.
Dodge was lying face down in the lunar dust. He was not moving. Robbins scrambled over, carefully examining the suit for a breach. It was still pressurized, yet his pack was not functioning. Had this been his fate? he thought, An inoperable pack?
Gently, Robbins turned the body of his comrade over, and recoiled in horror. Dodge’s skin was peeling and flaky, almost lobster red in color. It was as if his friend had been flash fried. Vomit had stained the glass on the inside of his helmet. Dodge’s black hair fell out in clumps as Robbins dropped him to the surface in his surprise. Gasping, the commander stood and hovered over his friend’s corpse.
When the shock had subsided, Robbins made his way back to the rover. It was inoperable; some malfunction had occurred, and it lay stationary and useless. Fortunately, Trailblazer rested not too far over a ridge to the northwest. It wouldn’t take half an hour to walk back.
Grief stricken and confused, Robbins made his way back to his ship. He was all alone on the moon, without any way to talk to earth or Taylor up in orbit.
He may as well have been alone in the universe.2: Horrific Desolation
“Flight...we’ve lost them…” Gus Burke said solemnly.
Flight director Rob Perry stared in disbelief. The boys around the room fell silent, some weeping at the loss of their friends. Perry, usually calm, cool, and calculating, slammed his desk in frustration. Then, aloud, he demanded “How did the boys in development miss something like this?”
“Rob, solar storms are practically unpredictable, how were they supposed to know-”
“Christ, it’s their job to know, isn’t it? Now we’ve got two dead men on the moon. How do we break something of this magnitude?” He reclined in his swivel chair, staring at the screen at the head of the room. What had once been relaying footage of astronauts Robbins and Dodge exploring Tycho had been reduced to static. “There’s no way they could’ve survived? It’s not just a comms failure?” There was a bit of hope in his resigned tone.
Gus shook his head. “Taylor is fine because he was in the Command Module on the other side of the moon. Even if he wasn’t, that thing was designed to be a solar storm shelter. The LM offers minimal protection. Even if they were in Trailblazer in the midst of the blast, they would’ve been fried. The process would have just been a bit longer. This way at least it was almost instantaneous.”
Perry nodded. “Like Grissom, White, and Chaffee.”
“Only protection up there would be if they had buried themselves or something. Rocks would’ve provided protection for such a brief, yet powerful event. There’s a chance Robbins might have been spared in that crevasse, but, with the communications blackout, it’s safe to assume he did not make it. As for Dodge...he didn’t have the time, nor the materials to seek shelter in the ground.”
After a long silence, Perry nodded. Finally, “Okay. Tell the press.”
Commander Robbins stumbled up to the LM’s ladder. Hopping up, he drifted past the first rung and proceeded to ascend into the cabin. Closing the hatch behind him, he checked Trailblazer’s systems. Everything had been knocked offline as well. Something big had happened, he figured, for a biopack, the rover, and the LM to all just die so suddenly. Fortunately, Robbins was an electrical engineer as well as a test pilot, and even helped design some of the systems for the upgraded heavy LM at Grumman. He set to work reconnecting wires and checking behind panels. As he did so, Robbins could not help but steal momentary glances out of the two windows at the head of the LM. Out there was a landscape that one of the first moonwalkers, Buzz Aldrin, had described as “Magnificent desolation.” Just two hours ago, Robbins had agreed with his friend and colleague. But now, with a deathly silence looming over his head, loneliness struck deep into his core, Robbins dreaded the rolling cliffs of Tycho, and wanted to be rid of this world as soon as possible. It was this drive that kept him working at the ship’s electronics.
He did find something interesting in his examinations; the radio on his biopack had not been compromised as he had once thought. The problem was that, since everything in the LM had been knocked off, all communication with earth had been shut down, as Trailblazer had acted as their relay.
Finally, he had things up and running. The hum of the generators returned, and hissing oxygen slowly filled the cabin. Eventually, the cabin was pressurized, and he removed his suit cautiously. Once this was accomplished, Robbins moved to the radio and tried to raise earth.
“Houston, this is 18, over.” He paused, expecting Gus to come back on. There wasn’t a response. He tried again. “Houston, this is Robbins, calling earth, please respond, over.” Again, nothing.
He swallowed nervously. “Houston, it’s awful lonely up here, I need to hear you confirm receiving my message, over,” his voice cracked.
Gus hurriedly responded. “Jesus, 18, it’s Gus. Sam, you’re alright?”
“Aside from mentally, yeah. What’s going on? I fell into a crevasse during explorations, then you send us some cryptic bullshit, then when I get out Clay is dead, and nothing works!” he found himself sobbing and trailing off by the time he finished.
There was a pause. For the briefest of moments, Robbins thought he had lost mission control. Then “There was a solar storm, 18. It lasted only a few seconds, but it was strong enough to knock everything offline and kill Dodge. You being in the crevasse explains our question as to how you’re alive, over.”
Robbins nodded. It all made sense now. Had he not slipped in that powdery lunar dust, he would’ve been cooked, just like Dodge. The thought caused him distress.
“It…” Robbins failed to finish his thought.
“Come again, 18?”
“I was just saying,” Robbins explained after a moment, “It’s awful lonely up here. I’m sure glad I got things running again.”
Gus chuckled. “We are too, buddy. Just glad that you’re alive.”
Robbins nodded. “Yeah, right.” He couldn’t help but think of Dodge, lying exposed out there, lifeless…
Another voice crackled online. “Hiya, commander,” it said sheepishly.
Robbins gawked with delight. “John!” he cried, “John, how ya doing up there? Keeping Scout nice and orderly, I presume?”
John’s response came back a bit confused. “Sure...yeah, sure commander.”
“I expect nothing less. I’m sorry I’ll be dirtying it up in a bit with my lunar dust.”
There was a pause. Gus came back on. “Sam?”
“I’m afraid you won’t be dirtying up that module.”
Robbins was silent for a time. “Come again, Houston?”
“Astronaut Taylor departed the moon’s orbit with orders from us, about ten minutes before you reestablished contact with control. I’m afraid...I’m afraid you won’t be leaving the moon’s surface, Sam.”
Gus continued for a time to talk, but Robbins couldn’t hear him. He had collapsed to the floor, wailing and crying. He stared fearfully out of the windows above the LM’s hatch as the craggy, towering cliffs of Tycho seemed to close in around him.
3: "Let's Talk Rescue"
“Commander Samuel Crispin Robbins of Apollo 18 has been reported by NASA to be alive,” science reporter Jules Bergman announced to his audience. “Earlier today he and his companion Clayton Forrester Dodge, the Lunar Module Pilot of the mission, were assumed dead on account of a violent solar storm. Commander Robbins survived the storm due to a rock outcropping he utilized as a shelter, but it has only saved him for the time being. With the Command Module Scout on its way back to earth, his ship Trailblazer has nowhere to go beyond lunar orbit. Subsequently, Commander Robbins is stranded in the moon’s crater Tycho with no hope of rescue.”
Rob Perry switched off the TV. “We’re not leaving him behind.”
“What?” NASA administrator James Fletcher asked incredulously.
“You heard me. We’re not going to lose our man up there. Let’s talk rescue.”
“Rob, you can’t be serious. I mean, what can we do? Robbins’ LM isn’t capable of return to earth and the Scout can’t just turn around.”
“The Applications Program did a study back in ‘65, I think,” Gus Burke chimed in. “to see if a Gemini capsule could be landed on the moon to serve as a sort of shelter. Maybe we could send one up to keep Sam alive long enough for an Apollo to go up and get him?”
“Absolutely out of the question,” Fletcher dismissed. “It hasn’t been properly tested. Nor do we have the resources to slap together a new rocket design within a few days’ time.”
“Plus that’d mean sending up another pilot to land the thing, essentially stranding a second man on the moon, which I can’t allow,” Perry admitted. “It was a good thought though.”
Burke pondered the issue. “What if we send another Apollo rocket? To meet up with him?” he mused.
Perry pointed at Gus. “That’s a start. Have we any man-rated Saturn rockets?”
“Yes,” Gus said.
“No,” Fletcher insisted.
Perry looked quizzically at his associates. “Well, do we or don’t we?”
Fletcher swallowed nervously. “Well...technically we do. After cut backs, SA 513, 514, and 515 were repurposed. Now, 513 is being refitted for the upcoming Skylab program, and 514 just landed 18 on the moon.”
“That leaves one more,” Perry intervened irritably.
“It does, yes,” Fletcher admitted.
“So why isn’t it man-rated?” demanded Perry.
“Well, it was repurposed as an exhibit. It’s going to be transported to the Michoud Assembly Facility.”
After staring blankly at the administrator, Perry spoke up. “I fail to see your point. How does that make it unsuitable for flight?”
“Well, think of the costs, Rob! And the time. We simply haven’t the time.”
“And why not?”
“Aside from getting the ship reassembled and on the pad, there are several tests and checkouts and safety procedure to be undertaken-”
Perry waved his hand to cut Fletcher off. Turning to Burke, he asked, “Gus, barring tests and procedure, how long do you estimate it’ll take SA 515 to be mounted on Pad 39A to be launched to the Moon?”
“At the very least five days, I suppose. Not including tests.”
“A flight to the moon takes around four days. Adding on the days for preparation, that equals nine. And Trailblazer is equipped with how many days of oxygen?”
“It was five, Rob. But without Dodge, that makes roughly ten days of air.”
“Fine. I would assume responsibility should anything go wrong in this hypothetical scenario.” He paused, thinking. “You were on the roster for Apollo 19, weren’t you?”
Gus nodded. “Commanding seat, sir.”
“This is preposterous!” Fletcher interjected. “Why, Burke and his crew haven’t been in the simulators for over a month now!”
“Your point? He has three days to brush up on how to fly to the moon. Jack Swiggert only had two days to prep for Apollo 13, and he made it there and back alive.” Perry turned to Burke. “I want you and your Command Module Pilot to get back in the sims immediately. Simulate a two man flight to lunar orbit in the vicinity of Tycho. Should everything go to plan, Robbins will dock with your Command Module and the three of you shall return home.”
Gus nodded excitedly. “Yes, sir!”
“Rob, you can’t do this! It’s insanity!” Fletcher cried.
“Fight me and I’ll go over your head,” Perry threatened. “If we standby for the next week and allow Robbins to die up there on the moon, all anybody is going to ever think about when they look at earth’s neighbor is the dead astronaut up there!”
“We already have a dead American on the moon.”
“This is different. Dodge didn’t have a chance of survival. We can make things right, soften the blow of this catastrophe by not sitting on our asses and killing our other boy while there’s a chance. I know the president would back me on this. We’re not losing our man.”
Fletcher was exasperated. He finally gave in after staring intensely at Rob. “I’ll get to work on assembling SA 515 on the pad.”
“It’s no longer going by that name.” Smiling at Gus, Perry said resolutely “Call her Apollo 19.”
Robbins was lying on the floor of Trailblazer’s cabin, panting and wheezing, vacantly gazing about at his metallic coffin. He recalled how a decade prior, he had made history by surpassing the current record for time held in space on his Mercury flight Miracle 7, even beating out Gordo Cooper. Despite the cramped conditions aboard the one-man spacecraft, Robbins had never felt claustrophobic nor constricted. The small cabin was designed to have enough space in just the right places so that, in free-fall, it would still seem a liberating experience. Inside the Trailblazer however, he had a different feeling despite the roomy quarters Grumman had granted him. The walls seemed to be inching in by the hour, the oxygen not seeping out from the filtration system fast enough, the windows shrinking before his very eyes. Robbins felt trapped. He yearned for the familiar feeling of his Mercury spacecraft that brought him his first taste of space.
Suddenly, Gus’ voice crackled upon the radio excitedly. “Sam! Come in, Sam! I’ve got news.”
Robbins pressed the switch on his suit and spoke into the radio. “Go ahead, Houston.”
“I’m coming to get you!” came Gus’ reply. “You hear me? I’m coming to get you!”
4: The Question of the Engine
Ted Clarke was in desperate need of sleep. As the chief of public relations for NASA, it was his job to relay any and all information regarding current missions to the press. Apollo 18 was his first flight, and he had been told by his predecessors that the job would never give him a headache. For the last four lunar flights, there had been little interest from the media, save loyal magazines like National Geographic and Life, much less television coverage. By the looks of it, the near disaster of Apollo 13 was the last great space drama of the foreseeable future. It was a shame, Ted had once thought, as he wanted his flight, being the most scientifically advanced and necessary of any Apollo mission, to be the most covered.
Now Ted had reporters crawling out of his ears. He could hardly utter a word before a new question was hurled at him. Trying his best, Ted tried to explain that Flight Director Rob Perry and NASA administrator James Fletcher had just greenlit a barebones rescue mission that would see the risky launching of a rapidly assembled Saturn rocket, destination lunar orbit.
“Once the new Saturn, dubbed Apollo 19, reaches lunar orbit, Commander Robbins of 18 will take off aboard the Trailblazer and rendezvous with Commander Gus Burke and Command Module Pilot Richard Clerval in the moon’s orbit.”
Ted then opened the floor to questions, despite the press already slipping a few in. “What’s the estimated time between now and the rendezvous that will retrieve Commander Robbins?” a question from the Times.
“The Saturn will theoretically be assembled in three more days’ time. It should arrive in lunar orbit around four days later. After precision checkouts, Commander Robbins will join his colleagues in orbit.”
“But doesn’t the Trailblazer only carry enough oxygen for five days?” someone from the Post interrupted. “That means Robbins will be dead within the next day, well before Apollo 19 would reach the moon…”
“Originally, it was designed to carry only five days’ worth, but that has since expanded with the unfortunate loss of astronaut Dodge.”
“What about the Russians?”
“What about them?” Ted asked, eyeing a gentleman from the Herald.
“Word from Moscow says that they’re planning a test launch of some rocket. Rumor has it it can reach the moon. Any chance they’re trying their hand at their own rescue mission? What if the Russians were to retrieve Commander Robbins first-”
“I’ll have to stop you there, sir,” Ted put his hand up, chuckling. “From all indications, this is just a standard rocket test by the Russian space program. They haven’t the know-how to land on the moon, quite frankly, and I won’t entertain the thought amidst other pressing matters.”
“Ted,” the reporter from the Times cut back in, “what’s to say that the ascent engine for the Trailblazer will even fire?”
“Well, from what we understand,” the reporter elaborated, “everything’s been damaged by the solar storm. What’s to say the firing mechanism for the ascent engine won’t function?”
“Ah, I see,” Ted sighed. “Well, Commander Robbins, as you know, assisted in the design for this new lander. He is currently checking over his systems now to make sure that the ship will be in perfect working order in a few days’ time.”
Ted had to pause to wipe the sweat from his brow. “Now, before I depart, I would like to note that Command Module Pilot Taylor of Apollo 18, now two days out from the moon, has handled the journey back to earth extremely well under the dismal circumstances. He is expected to make a safe splashdown early evening tomorrow. Thank you, everybody.” Ted hastily departed the stage amidst a barrage of unanswered questions.
“What’s to say the ascent engine won’t fire?”
Rob Perry looked up at the disheveled man who had burst into his office. “Ted, there’s always the chance-” he started to answer.
“Bullshit. I just had to lie my way out of that exact question, and you can’t even give me a straight answer?”
“We’re doing everything we can to bring Sam back to earth, you know that.”
“I do know it,” Ted insisted, flopping tiredly onto a couch opposite Perry, “but shouldn’t you at least make sure that the damn bird is gonna fly before sending up another rocket and risking the lives of two more men?”
“Control is going through a checklist now with Sam,” Perry said halfheartedly. “If all goes well, then we’ll know. If not...we’ll figure something else out.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
“We’ll figure something out.” Perry’s icy gaze met Ted’s. “We’re not losing our man.”
Ted nodded. “How’s Gus?”
Perry eased back in his chair, the tension released from his body. “He’s been in the sims with Rich for the past two days, ever since we gave him a go. They’ve managed to cram a shit-load of training in. He’ll be ready in three days for the launch.”
“And the rocket?”
“Most of the stages just arrived on several barges to the Cape. Only one more needs to get here before they can start assembling.”
Ted nodded. He started to say something, but thought twice about it. Frowning, he shook his head.
“What’s on your mind?”
“A reporter caught me with some question about the Russians.” Ted laughed, “I shut that shit down real quick. We know less about their program than he does, they keep that thing tightly under wraps.”
Perry leaned forward with interest. “What was their question?”
“Eh, he was asking about their new rocket test, scheduled sometime in the next few days. Thought they’d be making an attempt to get Sam themselves.”
Perry contemplated it, then smiled. “Not a chance. Even our last-minute attempt has more credibility than a Russian rocket test.”
“That’s what I tried to tell him.”
“Yeah, well, you handled it just fine then. Here’s hoping that’s the end of it.”
Ted shook his head again. “Y’know, Rob,” he said, brow furrowed, “something tells me it won’t be.” The two sat in silence for a time, Perry focussing on mountains of paperwork that all had to be addressed in the next 72 hours, and Ted slowly drifting off into that sleep he so desperately needed.
Kathy Robbins was no stranger to the hazards of the space program. When Sam first went into orbit aboard Miracle 7 in 1963, his spacecraft was in danger of being marooned when one of the three retros refused to fire. Fortunately, the other two were enough to send his capsule back into the atmosphere. She recalled how in 1966 she and Sam were in Houston when Gemini 8 almost ended in disaster. The two listened to the calm, calculating voices of Dave Scott and Neil Armstrong as they attempted to salvage their capsule as it tumbled recklessly through space, knowing at any moment their voices may stop, signifying failure. Sam had been on the backup crew for the flight, and the idea of him being up in that ship had scared Kathy, though she had no doubt in her mind that he would have solved the problem just as the prime crew had.
This was different though; in the past, none of her fears had come to fruition. Currently, her worst nightmare was being played out on the floor of a desolate crater on a dead world hundreds of thousands of miles away. It was taking everything within her to not crack.
Earlier that day, her friend Marilyn Lovell had helped to calm her fears somewhat. If anybody knew how Kathy felt, it was Marilyn, whose own husband Jim almost died aboard the near disastrous flight of Apollo 13.
“I'm not going to tell you it's going to work out in the end, because we can't know that,” she had said. “But what you can do is trust in Sam. He and everyone in NASA are working hard to ensure his safe return. They got my Jim back home, and if they could work that miracle, they can work another.”
Kathy brushed a tear aside. “What'll I do though?”
“Keep on hoping for the best, and keep your chin up. We're both Navy wives, it takes more than this to break us,” Marilyn finished with a smile. However generic the words she had said were, they had indeed helped.
When Kathy was told about the rescue attempt currently underway, she felt obligated to drop in to see Gus and Rich. She made the drive to the Space Center in Houston. Having grown used to visiting the simulator rooms when her husband had been training for his flight, she gave no second thought to just walking right on into the building. A new technician tried to stop her from interrupting the current simulation, but Rob Perry took the fellow aside.
She looked about the various simulations, spotting a mock-up of a command module with a set of familiar voices coming from it. Glancing through the open hatchway, she caught sight of Gus and Rich hard at work.
“Coming up on visual contact with the LM,” Gus announced into his headset.
Rich scoured through the crosshairs, then, “I have visual on Trailblazer.”
Kathy, though observing from twenty yards away, could see just how tired the two men were. They had doubtlessly been working day and night on rehearsing the essential moments of the fight. Gus had heavy bags under his eyes and dark, heavy whiskers lining the lower half of his face. Rich had a patchy beard and direly needed a haircut.
“Coming up on LM capture,” Gus said, looking up through a port above his head, where a cardboard model of the LM was slowly being carried along a track towards rendezvous.
“Not too fast,” cautioned Rich.
After a moment, Gus grimaced, “Shit, we're drifting.”
“Not too fast!” reiterated Rich.
There was a thump, barely perceivable, but then the ‘Master Alarm’ button began to go off. Kathy knew they had collided with the LM.
“Godammit!” Gus cursed in frustration. He stood, throwing his headset back into the capsule. For a moment, he angrily surveyed the room before locking eyes with Kathy. She was pale and visibly shaken.
My God, she thought, he's not ready. A pit opened up deep inside her as any shred of hope remaining dissipated.
Gus walked down the steps from the simulator and approached her. He awkwardly sniffed and scratched his nose, thinking of what to say. But before he had a chance to speak, Kathy simply said “Bring my husband home.”
For a time, they regarded one another. Then, she repeated “Bring him home,” and walked out.
With newfound determination, Gus hopped back into the sim. “Reset your switches, Rich. Let's try it again.”
Sam was going through his checklist, looking over anything and everything that might prove to be a hindrance to when he had to takeoff. So far, he had found nothing, but there was plenty to go through over the next few hours before he knew for sure.
Apollo 19 was less than a day from when it was scheduled to liftoff. He desperately hoped it would indeed liftoff.
Dr. Sergei Korelev surveyed the marvelous sight from his perch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. He gazed across the patchy grass plain to see his proud achievement, dwarfing every structure for miles round. Standing erect at over 300 feet high was an immense spire, the third of its kind.
It was a rocket, unlike anything the world had ever seen. Its green and white figure stood out against the setting sun, shining bright as the final rays were lowering below the horizon.
The Americans had ridiculed the first try at launching, and rightfully so; it had been quite an expensive fireworks show. But once Dr. Korolev had recovered from his surgery, and he had pored over every little detail in his beloved rocket, the second launch, kept secret, had been a resounding success. So here was the first manned Russian lunar vehicle, ready to set forth on its historic first step into the cosmos.
And approaching Korolev was one of the two men who was going to fly it.
“Good evening, Klaus!”
“Doctor,” the eager cosmonaut Klaus Viktorenko greeted.
“How are you, my boy?”
“Just fine, sir,” the young man beamed, unable to remove his gaze from the ship.
“And Commander Leonov?”
“Oh, Alexei is in high spirits, I can assure you! Though perhaps a tad resentful as I am the one to be landing and regrettably not him.”
Korolev nodded understandingly. “You'll have to be sure to give a hearty Russian welcome to our American friend on the moon,” he joked.
“Well, perhaps unfortunately, Tycho is out of range of your vehicle sir. But Rupes Recta will have to suffice.”
“Nonsense!” Korolev scoffed. “My machine can do anything I please! If anything, Tycho is just beyond your expertise of piloting.”
In actuality, though neither man would admit it, both the rocket and the pilot training were insufficient enough to guide a cosmonaut to Tycho.
“I say anything the Americans can do, we Soviets can match,” Viktorenko compromised.
“Speaking of, what is the news from their Texas center?”
Korolev scratched his head vaguely. “I believe they are due to launch an Apollo rescue to the moon tomorrow afternoon.”
Viktorenko sighed. “Just when we've caught up, the Americans couldn't help but have one last race.”
The two men looked at each other and laughed, then continued to regard the rocket in awe.
Commander Samuel Robbins stared at his instruments.
He had been staring at them for a very long time, trying to process what they were relating to him. Very clearly, almost displaying it to him in neon-lights, they told him he was stuck on the moon. The ascent engine would not fire. Or the clamps securing him to the descent stage would not release. Either way, they could not manually be repaired, as that meant damaging the spacecraft and ensuring his death on the moon.
This time, he did not wail nor cry, he merely watched. Watching, with the faintest of hopes slipping away by the continuous ticking, unrelenting hands of a clock, that the instruments would change in his favor, that they’d give a ‘go’ for lunar orbit rendezvous.
After several days of tests, the answer came back negative. Robbins knew his bird; he helped design the Trailblazer. He knew the verdict was final.
“Perry,” he muttered into the mic, dropping all formalities.
CAPCOM handed control over to Rob Perry. “Yes, 18, this is Perry?”
“I say ‘No go.’ No ascension. I’m staying put.” It was like rubbing salt in an already agonizing wound to repeat himself.
There was a long, pervading silence. Finally, “You’re sure?”
“Damn sure. Something is wrong with either the engine or the explosive bolts to blast me from the descent stage. Must’ve been compromised by the storm. Nothing I can do now.”
Another pause. “I see, Sam.”
Sam smiled a bit. He could hear that Rob was all choked up. It felt good that he knew the people down there cared. It made him feel less alone on this bleak, alien world.
“We’ll keep our boys going round the clock and proceed with the launch of 19. If we find any sort of solution-”
“Nah, nah, don’t bother. Tell Gus thanks but no thanks. I can’t have him and Rich risking their necks over a certainty that I won’t make it. I wish they could have the chance to have their own mission, it isn’t right that they should have to piggyback off of mine. They’re good flyers, who gives a shit about funding, they ought to…” he realized he was now rambling and trailed off. He didn’t want to preoccupy Perry and the others with haphazard thoughts when they had more important things to think about.
“What can we do for you?” Perry asked, wanting to help in any way.
“For me?” Sam thought a moment. “Get my wife down there. I want to talk to her.”
“And do it within an hour or so, would ya?”
Perry paused confusedly. “Why an hour?”
“I’m going out,” Robbins stated, almost defiantly. “I’m going out there on the surface after Kathy and I talk. I won’t be coming back in.”
“Don’t argue, Rob, there’s nothing you can do for me. I know my fate is final, and so is my decision. I’m going out. I’d rather end it sooner than prolong it any further”
Perry contemplated. He knew that from his desk in mission control, his authority didn’t carry much weight across the void with a dying man with a whole world at his disposal. If his last hours were going to be spent out there, he may as well grant him consent. “Nothing I can do to change your mind?”
“Anything else we can do for ya?”
Robbins shook his head, then realized Perry couldn’t see him. “No. But before I do go out, just...just get my wife down there. Please.”
Despite the crackling, snowy beeping sounds that constantly garbled the Apollo comms system, Kathy’s soothing voice stretched across the quarter million miles of void that separated her and her husband.
“Hey there,” Sam managed to whisper through small weeping sobs. “How’re the kids? Did you bring them with you?”
“They’re still in school for the day. Marilyn will pick them up afterwards for me.”
Sam sighed somberly. “That...that’s okay. I guess they wouldn’t want to see their old man like this, huh?” There was a brief pause. It was hard to think of what to say, with such little time left and so much to get out. “How’s the picture down there? Grainy or clear?”
Fucking idiot he thought sourly. Ask about her, not your picture!
“It’s looking fine. You look fine,” she assured, “Though I’m not sure I am a fan of that beard you’re sporting.”
He couldn’t help but laugh at that. “We’re a bit short on razors here, y’know.”
“Shall I send a care package?”
A real astronaut’s wife, Sam prided himself in her. Even in the face of certain doom, Kathy was still radiant as ever. “I wish I had a screen up here too, that way I could see your face.”
Kathy nodded, realized he could not see her respond, and said “I must look a fright anyhow.”
“It’s nice to hear from you, anyway- oh!” He gave a cry of sudden realization. The members of mission control listening in eagerly leaned forward, wondering what marvelous discovery Robbins had made. From his helmet, Sam brought forth a slip of something that looked like paper.
It was a photograph. He held it up to the cabin’s camera. There, projected to all those down in Houston on the massive screen at the head of the room, was a photograph of Kathy. She was smiling, and decidedly younger. It was taken shortly after they had been wed.
Robbins placed it in between the small gap where the lens of the camera screwed onto the main section. “There, now we can have a proper conversation,” he contentedly remarked. “You can see me, and I you.”
Kathy giggled, some color restoring to her cheeks. “You always know how to make me laugh,” she remarked wistfully.
“You have incredibly low standards of humor.”
Rob Perry was seated a ways from Kathy, watching the two banter back and forth. He found himself, despite his remorse, smiling at their interactions. It was a touching farewell, reluctant as he was to give up.
Kathy suddenly sighed, looking wistfully at the image of her husband. “Why does this feel like a goodbye?”
Sam curiously regarded what she had said, his face riddled with confusion. “Kathy…” he nodded somberly, “It's only for a little while. We'll be seeing each other someday again, I'm sure.”
Now she was the confused one. Switching the subject, she said “Charles wanted me to remind you to bring back a souvenir for him. A piece of a moon rock or something. It’s the least these boys can allow after what you’ve been through.”
Silence. Sam’s face was sullen, a broad frown of perplexity twisting and contorting his expression. “K-Kathy?” he stammered, perplexed.
“I said Charles-” Then it hit her, like a freight train. Her emotions all at once burst, and she wailed at the realization that her husband was indeed going to remain marooned.
Perry leapt from his station and wrapped his arms around Kathy, guiding her to the door. Her limp body was practically dragged. Dead-weight and despairing, she was taken to the hall where a couple of flight boys took care of her. The booming voice of Robbins was heard coming from the speakers. “You didn’t tell her?”
Perry took the headset from CAPCOM to talk to Robbins. “It was my fault, Sam. I thought you were going to break it to her.”
“Why the hell...Jesus!” He kicked the wall of the LM, knocking loose Kathy’s picture from the camera lens where it drifted in ⅙ gravity to the floor of Trailblazer.
“You’ve still a couple of days before your air runs out, Sam-”
“Bull shit! I’m done,” he resignedly cried.
Perry saw Robbins reaching for his helmet. “Sam, don’t.”
“Go to Hell, Rob!” the astronaut yelled, suiting up. An uncomfortable silence ensued as he depressurized the cabin.
Out in the hallway, Kathy Robbins continued to cry. Her chest heaved as she uncontrollably hyperventilated and tears streaked like great rivers across her cheeks. It felt like a rug had been torn from underneath her feet, and that she was drifting in the air, falling helplessly, alone in her plight.
She wondered, amid all her other emotions, if that was the same sense of falling Sam had felt while en route to his deadly rendezvous with the moon.
“We can help, can’t we?”
“Tycho?”scoffed Korolev. “Out of the question. Rupes Recta it is.”
Viktorenko scowled. “Tycho is only a few miles to the south. The result should be negligible.”
“Negligible? You forget, my young cosmonaut friend, that Tycho is rough terrain, full of boulders and escarpments, ridges, such as that one the American took shelter in! Why, you saw it on the television when Apollo 18 broadcasted the landing live! Imagine how confused you would get to see the crater walls and mountains rising about you. No, out of the question.”
“Can it be done?”
Korolev pondered, deciding to take his pupil’s question seriously. “It isn’t a question of if it can be done, it is the probability of whether or not it can be done.”
“Can it be done?” Viktorenko reiterated.
Korolev locked eyes. He knew what the pilot was driving at. He stared at him from his desk, thinking of how to respond honestly while not giving in to such a preposterous scheme.
“With the right ship and the right man, yes.”
“You trust the LK spacecraft?” Viktorenko asked, knowing full well how proud Korolev was of it.
“I do,” he relented.
“And I am equally confident in myself that I am the right man. We could do it.”
Korolev pounded an iron fist upon his desk to intimidate the steadfast pilot. “Even if you managed the landing, it can carry one man! How would you take off with this Robbins in tow?”
“I don’t gather samples. His weight is under the 200 pounds we expected to collect.”
“When a man’s life is at stake and we have the capabilities to save him, what good are the samples with him in question? We can always send another once our craft is proven to work, and in much more extravagant locations than we anticipated.”
“Ah, but it hasn’t the capabilities! As the Soyuz orbiting the moon can hold only two, with no place for a third. He would be pulverized on the hull during reentry, or you would all die of oxygen deprivation.”
Viktorenko was determined. “We don’t return in the Vostok. Leonov flies back to earth alone.”
A red faced Korolev stood from his desk. “Alone? How do you propose to get back? The LK hasn’t the fuel aboard to send you home, nor reentry equipment for a landing.”
“We would not come back in the LK.”
“In what then?”
Before Korolev could bark a response, his eyes widened. He suddenly realized what Viktorenko had in mind. The N-1 would send him to the moon. He would pick up the American and rendezvous with the other Western rocket, Apollo 19.
“Get me a line to the Kremlin. We will get them to pass through this offer to the United States.”
Viktorenko beamed a broad smile and was out the door in an instant.
It certainly was a hellish landscape. Soaring peaks sealed in Robbins, creating a strange, arena-like claustrophobia. The cold, sharp stars stabbed at him like needles. As his oxygen ran lower and lower, he imagined them falling like raindrops- no -like tear drops. The sky was weeping for him, but they would strike him like pelting rain.
Robbins’ eyelids were heavy. If he strained hard enough, he could see the weights tied to them, pulling them closed, signifying the end. He struggled to keep them open, feeling them water up. He imagined them drying up and cracking apart like dry riverbeds. No doubt they would if he opened his helmet.
Perhaps they would crystalize? He’d never know the answer. Each time he had tried to remove the helmet, he would throw his arms away. He had the courage to die, but not like that. Robbins much prefered to fall asleep as the oxygen seeped away into his body, replaced by the poisonous gases ejected from his lungs.
The teardrops began to wheel about him, falling from the sky in droves. A massive one, the sun, was melting from above, dripping like molasses. Only the bright blue earth stood out from the falling skies. In a brief moment of clarity, Robbins held up his thumb and blotted out the earth. He imagined himself to be a giant. But it slowly dawned on him, as his eyes closed for what he supposed would be the last time, that he had come from that minor blue pebble in the sky. Commander Samuel Robbins was no giant.
He was infinitesimally small.
All at once, his knees gave out, and he crumbled to the sand, like a collapsing foundation. His white suit became another part of the stark landscape, just another piece of the cosmic rubble.
“Sam!” a frantic voice beamed, but he could not hear it.
“Sam!” it came again.
An alarm whirred about his helmet, bouncing off of his ears and the plexiglass. He opened his eyes, startled, and shut them. Instinctively, he tried to rub his eyes, but was unable due to the suit.
“Get back in the LM. That’s an order.”
“Orders be damned. You can hang ‘em!” he stuttered groggily.
“You don’t understand. We’ve got a way to get you off the moon. To get you home.”
“Get back in that damned module if you ever want to see Kathy again!”
“Kathy?” he whispered. His delirious mind thought What have they done to Kathy? What’ll they do to her if I don’t listen? “Alright, you bastards, I’m walking.”
Robbins was thankful that he had remained near the Trailblazer. He wanted to be in view of his spacecraft should any future pioneer stumble across the mess he left behind.
Drunkenly, he shambled up the ladder (after repeated falls) and closed the hatch, pressurizing the cabin.
Once of sound mind again and the teardrops and molasses and arena were back in the sky and on the horizon, Rob Perry delivered the fantastic news to Robbins about the Russians’ now declassified moon mission, courtesy of a scientist named Korolev and a bright, new cosmonaut, Viktorenko.
8: Apollo 19
When Gus Burke had originally been told that 19 was scrubbed, he refused to leave the Command Module sim. Rich Clerval stayed with him for another twenty minutes before heading out. Gus remained, continuing his simulations, this time as if he were the only one to fly the module.
As a contingency, the NASA engineers had ensured that an Apollo capsule could be flown solo, in the event that the two men on the surface became stranded, which was why 18’s CMP John Taylor had returned to earth successfully just two days prior.
In denial that his friend Sam was well and truly marooned, Gus simulated a launch on his own. It was no surprise to him that he did it almost flawlessly. Kathy’s motivation from a few days ago had served to set him straight; it was this determination that drove him to run through the motions of a Trans Lunar Injection.
By the time he had simulated a flight to the moon, a few orbits about it, and the return to earth, Rob Perry had stuck his head through the mock-hatch.
“Your flight is green lit, Gus.”
Gus made no answer. He was watching his instruments.
“This time it’ll just be you. No LMP, no Rich. You’re to go all the way and get Sam and the Russian that’s retrieving him from the surface.”
Still no response.
Burke gave a cry of elation, tossing his headset aside. “Splashdown!” he cried, then turned to face the flight director. “Sorry, sir, didn’t want to break focus so close to the finish. When do I leave?”
Perry chuckled. “Ass-crack of dawn, tomorrow morning.”
Now here he was, sitting atop a 360 foot monster, running through the same switches on his own. He glanced to the side and looked wearily at the two empty seats. Gus hoped to God that in five days’ time they’d be occupied.
Switching his gaze from his right, Gus looked up through the Command Module hatch to see a blue sky, with the faded face of the Man in the Moon smiling down at him. He smiled right back.
Several states over in Houston, Texas, Rob Perry was seated at his station as Flight Director. Usually he and Gene Kranz would switch back and forth between even and odd numbered missions, but this time around Perry was determined to see this one through and bring his boy back home.
Over in a corner of the room, there was a television set broadcasting the live coverage of the launch in Florida. The color image kept switching back and forth between wizkid Ted Clarke detailing the lift off procedure and images of the thousands of spectators come to see the last manned American rocket take off for the moon.
Suddenly, a Sousa march began to play, and a slender, dark haired man with a comically large nose could be seen weaving his way through the bleachers to an open seat. It was President Richard Nixon, Project Apollo’s biggest enemy, now that the Russians were a necessity.
“First time since 12 the bastard’s come to a launch,” mused Rich Clerval, who was serving as CAPCOM. He’d been in a sour mood since he was bumped from the flight.
Perry laughed. It was no secret that Nixon was no fan of the space program. He realized its potential for drawing public favor, but now that men had been to the moon, a glory he had soaked up in full during his historic phone call to Tranquility Base, Nixon was all but an ally. He had opposed every plan set forth to continue Apollo, cutting the last three flights until being coerced into green lighting one more. No doubt after this fiasco he would have NASA grounded permanently if billions hadn’t already been poured into Skylab. Mars was out of the question. Perry often wished Johnson had sought reelection.
It would have saved him the trip he had taken to Washington, D.C. the previous day. While he had convinced Fletcher that Apollo 19 was worth the risk if it meant saving Commander Robbins, his final go-ahead had to come from the President himself.
“Absolutely not,” came the gruff response after Perry had laid out the plan.
“I’ve got a dead American on my hands because of your lousy program. I also have one that’s about to waste away in four days. I’m not gonna risk losing a third one, I’m not gonna be tied three to three with Johnson for astronauts lost!”
Actually, the number was much higher than three for Johnson if you counted Bassett, See, Williams, but that just went to show how much Nixon really knew and cared about NASA. “We’ve got our top men on this project. Yes, in light of the tight launch schedule we have done away with many of our safety procedures. Usually the rocket has been assembled and ready for months before the launch, not days, but circumstances have really forced our hand.”
“And I’m forcing yours too. You are not going to launch Commander Burke on that firecracker alone. It’d be signing off on the most expensive death wish in history.”
Now was the optimal moment, Perry knew, to play into the man’s weakness. “But the Russians, sir?”
Nixon’s eyebrow cocked curiously. “What about ‘em?”
“Well, they’re going to launch with or without us. They have the capability to get our man. How’s it going to look to the nation, to the world, when communists from behind the Iron Curtain manage to pluck our boy from danger just in the nick of time when his own country could have come to his aid. Instead of Robbins returning home in one of their junky diving bells, he’d be coming with a Russian in tow in our sleek Apollo.”
In actuality, the Russians didn't have the space in the Soyuz for a third person, hence why Burke and Apollo were needed, but Perry decided to leave out that tiny detail. It was a mere five minutes after his comment that Perry had left with the permission he needed to proceed with the launch.
Ted Clarke was still behind on sleep, but today he made an effort to look less disheveled. He was seated at a table with several television cameras pointed in his direction. Behind him, through a wall-sized plate glass window could be seen the rocket, many miles away. The towering white spire glistened in the morning sun.
“We are at T-5 minutes and counting,” Ted announced to the newsmen present. He scratched at an eyelid, self-conscious of the heavy bags beneath it. Shifting his glasses to conceal this, Ted continued. “We have received reports from the Russians that they have had a successful launching of their N-1 rocket earlier today during their sunrise. The spacecraft Gagarin has completed three orbits of the earth as the crewmembers Alexey Leonov and Klaus Viktorenko busy themselves with checkouts of their ship. This is the first successful manned launching of a Soviet moon rocket the East reports, and was planned to be kept a secret until the safe return of the cosmonauts. Due to the necessity of cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union to ensure a completed mission, the Russians dropped all pretenses and graciously offered their support.
“To join these two men and Commander Samuel Robbins on the moon is Commander Gus Burke of the Apollo 19, which you can see behind me on the horizon. Commander Burke is in charge of retrieving the returning astronaut and cosmonaut from the moon’s surface…”
While he babbled on about the details of the flight, Ted was subconsciously wondering to himself. The rocket behind him had been slapped together in six days’ time, retrieved from storage at some backwoods museum. It wasn’t man-rated, nor had it been put through the proper tests. Fueling of the rocket had been sped up on account of the swift greenlighting of the flight, and the man trained to fly her had only practiced a solo flight once before.
Now, in his brief time as the head of public relations, Ted was fully confident in NASA and their big, beautiful machines. He couldn’t help but wonder however whether they had outdone themselves this time? It was all so unbelievable, the events of the past week. It was unparalleled in the history of mankind. Never before had so many people, of two different nations, scrambled together to ensure the survival of one man’s life.
He didn’t dare confess his fears to the press before him, not if he wanted to keep his job. Ted was looking forward to the much more relaxing position of detailing the Skylab flights to the public, which would go nowhere beyond earth orbit. One flight to the moon had been enough for him.
In the end, seated here before every major news outlet in the country, Ted hoped for one thing: he wanted that rocket to take off successfully. He’d look like a damn fool if the thing were to topple over behind him on live TV.
Sometimes he hated to be the face of NASA.
Ted broke his private thoughts to briefly glance at his watch. “This is it, ladies and gentlemen. T-10 seconds…”
Kathy had been invited by Rob Perry to watch the launch from the nearby mission control facility, but she had refused. Kathy made sure to always be present at the launchings of her husband, so she wanted to be there for the man who was going to save him.
Family friend John Young flew her from Houston out to the Cape, where she had a reserved seat on the grandstand to view Gus take off aboard his spacecraft for the moon. She watched the rocket in the distance, marvelling at its beauty. The previous launch of her husband filled her with dread; she’d had a sinking, regretful feeling watching him depart the earth. She had hated that rocket so. This one was different to her. It was a symbol for hope, its pure white hull shining gracefully, reflective like the surface of the alien world it was to dance with.
Kathy spied the moon and regarded it with awe. She could see the brilliant crater Tycho with its rays stretching out from it like a star. It reminded one of a bullseye, almost purposefully drawing in her attention to say ‘Your husband is here.’
The rocket, in response, was saying ‘I’m coming to get him.’
When Ted Clarke’s voice was echoed over the spectators at the Cape, counting the last few seconds before firing, she beamed. It was really happening.
These people were going to bring her Sam home.
A cloud of orange flame erupted from the base of Apollo 19. Slowly, it surged past the tower and upwards into the sky. Gus gave a cry of relief. Ted wiped the sweat from his brow. Kathy cried gratefully.
“Go get him, Gus,” she whispered, staring through watery eyes as the rocket became a tiny black speck in the sky before it vanished altogether, leaving a trail of white smoke arching across the heavens.
“I don't want to see you looking out that window!” Commander Leonov ordered. “There's work to be done.”
Viktorenko sighed. For the entire four day journey, he had hardly even glimpsed the moon. Now that they were circling about it, he thought he might get a chance to see its surface. But, due to their approach angle, he had not spotted it prior to the orbital burn, and now that they were on the farside it was total darkness.
He wished that Leonov was just a bit lighter on the orders. After all, it was a momentous occasion: after years of being behind in the race, the Russians were finally orbiting the moon. In just a few hours, Viktorenko would be the first to land on its surface. Perhaps his commander was bitter at not being the one to pilot the LK. He could not blame him if it were so.
Pushing himself off of the bulkhead, Viktorenko drifted through the hatch that led from the Soyuz to the landing craft. It was a relatively spacious, bulbous vehicle, reminding him somewhat of the Vostok simulator he had trained in. He ran through some checklists, and barring minor difficulties was positive that everything was in perfect working order. Even though it was still dark outside, he decided to steal a brief look out of the porthole. There were myriads of stars brilliantly dotting the heavens. These pinpricks of light did not twinkle as they do on Earth; there was no atmosphere to obscure them.
He took note of a massive patch of darkness where no star seemed to shine, a tremendous orb of jet-black nothing. Essentially a hole in the sky. All at once, it dawned on him. The moon he regarded with awe, I'm looking at the moon.
Glancing about, he figured it would be best to construct a makeshift seat for the American astronaut from some cushions furnished for protecting the now scrubbed samples.
As Viktorenko was finishing up, he heard Leonov call down (or up? It was difficult to tell in microgravity) “All finished with LK power up, Klaus?”
“Excellent,” then a pause. “Why not come up here and take a look?”
Viktorenko smiled broadly and launched himself into the command compartment of the Soyuz. He found his commander laughing as he looked out of the porthole. Moving aside to let Klaus have a look, Leonov drifted to his seat.
At first, it looked like oil was streaking across the glass, trickles of black and grey creating a vein through the window. Viktorenko quickly realized it was in fact the mountains of the moon whizzing by below. He let out a gasp and leaned closer. “We must be flying over the north right now,” mused the cosmonaut. “There, on the horizon! The crater Harpalus! And to the south, the Sinus Roris plateau.”
After watching for a time, he frowned. “What is the matter, Klaus?” Leonov inquired.
“The shadows are worse in this mountainous terrain than I'd hoped,” Viktorenko responded. “Stretches as long as rivers across the landscape. It may make the landing more difficult.”
“If anything, it should increase your wariness of hazardous obstacles.” The commander slapped the pilot on the back. “You'll be fine, my boy. If things don't look good, don’t hesitate to abort. No-one will blame you if you do.”
Viktorenko smiled. Suddenly, a voice exploded over the radio in English. “Spacecraft Gagarin, are you reading me, over?”
Leonov responded, also in English. “Yes, we read you. Is this Commander Robbins or Burke?”
“Robbins, Commander Leonov! Boy, is it good to hear you,” the American sobbed. Then “I think...yes, I think I see you! A bright star buzzing by overhead! I can see through the LM window-”
“No, that cannot be us, we are currently over Sinus Medii at the moment.”
“Hiya, old buddy,” another American voice came on the air. “It's your pal, Gus Burke, over.”
“Gus, you magnificent bastard!” Robbins cried. Leonov and Viktorenko were confused as to why an insult would be a friendly greeting between Americans. “Glad to hear from you, over.”
“Rog, Sam, but you won't be hearing for too long,” Gus replied. “I'm about to swing on over to the farside to plant myself in orbit. Catch ya on the other side, friend.” There was no sign off.
Again, Leonov was confused by the lack of formalities between the astronauts. Their camaraderie was to be admired. It made Viktorenko all the more excited to meet the two.
“Coming up on LOS,” Gus said to Houston, and was then off the air.
Not long after, the Gagarin was cruising over the vicinity of Tycho. Viktorenko studied his landing site as it rolled over the horizon. It dwarfed anything for hundreds of miles, the largest of craters he had seen yet. Its magnificent peak jutted upwards into the sky, defying the low lunar gravity. It reminded Viktorenko of a titanic, unblinking eye, watching peacefully as they went about their business overhead, but ready to lash out once he got too close. It was apparent even from this height that it was riddled with boulder fields and deep, settled ridges.
Viktorenko felt a tap on his shoulder. “Let us prepare for your embarkation,” Leonov smiled. An eager Viktorenko complied.
The landing was undoubtedly going to be a hazardous one.
As the Gagarin approached the North Pole from the farside, the LK craft Titov undocked from the Soyuz. With a searchlight, Leonov inspected the LK. When no defect was found, he gave Viktorenko a go to begin the descent initiation burn. With the flick of a switch, he ignited the Block D retrorocket on the underside of the Titov. It shook the spacecraft a good deal. He felt a definite jolt from below, held tight to his perch by reinforced straps. After only a few seconds, he shut down. “Cut off was a bit mushy,” Viktorenko reported to the Gagarin. “Korolev may want to adjust that for the next trip.”
Back on Earth, Korolev scribbled a note in his little journal.
The Titov emerged into the sunlight above the lunar North Pole. Observing through the port, Viktorenko frowned. “The ground doesn't look too near yet. I'm sure it will soon rise to meet me the farther South I travel.”
That it did. It wasn't long before the grey and black craters lunged upwards into crisper view. The cosmonaut burned for another few seconds to slacken his rapid plunge from orbit. He could've sworn that the surface was only a few hundred feet below, but his altimeter read 25 miles.
“This reflective light is hell on the senses,” Viktorenko groaned, struggling to make out the terrain ahead. Suddenly, he gave an exultant cry. “I see the outer rim of Tycho! This is the final approach.” He spied a glint of light on the ground below. For a moment, he thought it was the Trailblazer spacecraft, but confusedly frowned. It can’t be he thought. That’s not in the crater, it's far from its edge.
He radioed back to Earth inquiring about it. “It’s the Surveyor 7 spacecraft, no doubt,” Korolev mused. “Landed on the Moon by the Americans back in ‘68.”
Klaus watched, fascinated by this lunar inhabitant, alone for five years on the surface. That length of time dwarfed the mere ten days Robbins had spent on the Moon by himself. He imagined the stories it would tell, the knowledge it could relate had it been alive.
He snapped out of his daydreaming to focus upon the final approach. To his horror, he appeared to be falling too soon. The LK had slackened speed so much that it was going to miss the cliffs of Tycho and land on the battle-torn higher flats. Tipping the spacecraft forward, Viktorenko burned the engine for a few more seconds, soaring past the plains and descending into the crater. The Block D was now spent; the cosmonaut flipped a few switches and heard a loud clang as the lower stage was jettisoned. With short bursts from the main Block E engine, he hovered the several miles in the direction of the central peak.
“I am nearing the sight of the Apollo vehicle,” Viktorenko related to Earth.
“Have you sighted it?” ground control asked.
“I have not. I’ve only a few moments left before I am forced to set the ship down.”
“Keep looking, Klaus.”
His tired eyes scoured the scorched landscape. It was a grotesque, ancient, forbidding world, not suitable for anyone to set foot upon. Jagged ridges jutted forth from the cracked surface, and fields of tumbled boulders littered the ground as far as the eye could see. His fears had come to fruition; the shadows of the night stretched across the ground, almost trickling through the crevices like great rivers of tar. Tycho was indeed a terrifying locale, and he appeared to be in the worst of it. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he tried to see the Trailblazer against the stark landscape.
“You have fifteen seconds to commit to a landing or an abort,” ground control reminded. “Have you sighted the Apollo?”
He hadn’t. Viktorenko remembered the words Leonov had said to him before they had parted one another. If things don't look good, don’t hesitate to abort. No-one will blame you if you do.
“Five seconds, Klaus,” a resigned voice crackled over the radio.
“I-” he hesitated, “I believe I have sighted the spacecraft…”
“You’ve seen it?”
“Affirmative. I’m going to set her down now.” In fact, he had not seen it, but Klaus could not give up after all that they had strived for. Perhaps Korolev had been correct. Perhaps Tycho was a bit beyond the capabilities of the early LK.
Viktorenko scoured the ground for a smooth location to land. Everywhere the ground seemed uneven. He thought he spotted a flat expanse among the jungle of rocks, and blasted in its direction. When he was a hundred feet up, dust clouds began to billow around the spacecraft. Struggling to catch sight of the ground, it suddenly loomed up from the billows.
“Shit!” he cried. The ground was in fact a steep slope, and he would surely be toppled if he touched down upon it. Giving one final burst of the engine, Viktorenko sent the Titov soaring into the air, falling with the smallest bit of faith that where he would come down would be suitable terrain.
At the bottom of the slope was a patch of land enshrouded in darkness, and his LK was headed straight for it. He could no longer maneuver about, this had to be it; there was no more fuel to be spent. Slowly, he fell into the pit, praying to anyone or anything that would listen.
Seeing the contact light blaze into life, Viktorenko closed his eyes, anticipating the swinging motion that would be the LK falling on its side.
No such motion happened. He opened his eyes and looked out of the port. The dark patch at the base of the hill had proven to be flat.
“It’s been a long way, Dr. Korolev,” he announced into his mic, “but I’m here.”10: Faith
For the first time in several days, Ted Clarke had had an open fourteen hours to rest and, hopefully, sleep. Unfortunately, it was spent on an uncomfortable plane crowded with noisy passengers, en route from Florida to Moscow. When he arrived, he had been taken to the control center for the Gagarin spacecraft, where he was to relate back to Perry in the States on the progress of the Russian vehicle.
He hoped that all future international space endeavors would go to hell.
Groggily, Ted got on the phone to explain to Perry what had happened. “Viktorenko landed about five minutes ago, Rob. Intact, fortunately.”
Perry gave a gruff sigh of relief and surprise. “Guess the Ruskies were far more advanced than we’d anticipated. Especially for a first landing. How long until Robbins is picked up? He can’t have more than a few hours left of oxygen.”
“Three hours in the cabin and eight in his EVA pack to be precise.”
“So, what’s the distance?”
Ted took off his glasses and rubbed his weary eyes. Finally, “He’s estimated to be at least four miles from Trailblazer,” he groaned.
“Four miles?!” boomed Perry. Ted jumped from the receiver, accidentally smacking his dazed head on the wall. “That isn’t acceptable. They might as well have landed in Tsiolkovsky crater!”
“It isn’t that bad, Rob…”
“It is, it’s that bad. Can he take off and land a bit closer? All it would take is another minute or so of firing.”
“Negative. He set down with the fuel he had spent, and then some. We’ll be lucky if the two of them can make orbit.”
“Fine. I suppose if Sam can hustle it, he may make it in time. It’s gonna be tough in the low gravity and that heavy suit. Anything else I should know about?”
“Yes, there is one thing,” Ted hesitated. “The Titov landed in a dark patch, it’s gonna be a bitch to spot him.”
After finishing his talk with Perry, Ted hung up the phone and trudged to the control room. At the head of the room, similar in fashion to Houston, was a tall screen broadcasting the Titov spacecraft. Not far from the foot of its ladder was Viktorenko, unfurling the Hammer and Sickle. Being in a small expanse of night, only the upper half of the cosmonaut was illuminated, creating a strange, hovering illusion. The men in the room were clapping and cheering. It was giving Ted a headache, so he left the Russians to rejoice on their own, in search of a water cooler.
He found one down a long brick hallway, placed between a set of doors. Stooped over it was a stout, heavyish man with some grey fronds of hair lining the top of his head. He was scowling at the machine, impatient at the rate his water was being produced. Ted chuckled, seeing this scientist was no doubt as tired as he was, if not more so.
Then, it suddenly clicked. “You’re Dr. Korolev, aren’t you?”
The man let the water latch go and faced Ted. Now standing straight, he wasn’t quite as stout as Ted had made him out to be. “You’re the American representative, yes?” he asked, extending his hand.
“I am sir.” They shook for a moment. “Congratulations on this well-earned achievement.”
Korolev somberly nodded and began to lumber off. He then turned to Ted, who was now filling his cup. “You know a great deal has been sacrificed by our nation to save this one man.”
Ted regarded the Russian with a sense of curiosity. “Sacrifices were made on our end too, sir.”
“Fair enough,” Korolev admitted. “Forgive me, I am tired.”
“I can’t blame you,” Ted sighed. “I am as well.”
Korolev chortled. “You? So young and full of life, tired? I envy you, young man.”
Ted chuckled. “No you don’t. I’m merely a newsboy, a messenger, at least you're an integral part of your program. And yet I haven’t had a night’s sleep in ten days, and probably won’t for the next few, not until both capsules return with either four men or two.”
“Every man’s place in this project is important here. And they will get back. All of them.”
Quietly, Ted turned to face the cooler again before responding. “You think so?”
“You doubt our Russian engineering?”
“A few days ago, I didn’t know you even had a program. Now I’m praying that you guys can pull through.”
Korolev silently contemplated. “I designed my rocket to convey a man to the moon and bring him home with samples. When Viktorenko proposed this hair-brained scheme to retrieve your astronaut, I thought him daft. Surely, I thought, the rocket could make it, but not the man. I scoffed at his speculations, part of me selfishly thinking that, if we were to go ahead with them, there would be no samples to return to Russia for analyses. The sample weight would be attributed to your man.”
What is he getting at, Ted wondered. Why is he rambling to me?
“Soon, though, I realized the trouble lay not within the man, but the machine. Have faith, my American friend. The LK hadn’t the fuel capacity to reach your friend; this fault lies with me. But the man flying her, Klaus Viktorenko? He has my every bit of confidence. He will bring Robbins to you.”
Korolev suddenly grimaced and grabbed at his heart. “You all right?” Ted asked, putting an arm around the scientist.
“It is nothing,” he gasped, “I assure you. I’m just too old for this excitement.” Ted tried to help him back to the control room but was shrugged off. “Please, I can go on my own.”
While he watched Korolev walk off, Ted marvelled at the renewed sense of confidence he had. For the first time in days, he actually believed they were going to pull it off.
Not quite as tired as before, he returned to the control room, ready for any hurdles that might merit his reporting.
11: The Search for the Titov
Robbins lay in his hammock aboard the Trailblazer, listening to the humming of the batteries as they slowly drained away. The oxygen hissed from vents situated around the craft. It was only a matter of time before it would run out.
It was funny, for not one hour ago, he saw a tiny pinprick of light, no doubt the Titov, fall from the sky to a point on the not so distant horizon. His rescue had finally arrived, and yet he dreaded going back out on the surface. The Titov was estimated at four miles from the Trailblazer, which would run his oxygen pack dangerously low, if not to the point of asphyxiation. His last experience with such a demise was enough to make him sweat at the prospect.
Turning over to face the two triangular windows above the hatch, Robbins saw a tiny black dot, streaked onto the pane with a marker, indicating the direction of where he thought the Titov had come down.
Here in the heavy LM he had at least another two hours’ air supply, and then in his packs eight more hours. He could prolong his life for at most ten hours if he stayed put, relaxing. He did not have to commit to anything just yet.
“Fuck it,” Robbins muttered as he latched on his helmet.
The LM ladder had always proved cumbersome, be it in the sims or in the low gravity environment of the moon. Being his third and final EVA of the mission, Robbins was almost glad to be ridding himself of the uncomfortable Trailblazer. He leapt from the bottom rung, slamming down onto the footpad. A sharp pain shot up through his ankles to his groin, and he uttered a small groan of disdain. It reminded Robbins of his boyhood days of jumping off swings and coming in for a rough landing on the grass, where invariably he wreaked havoc upon his heels and ankles.
Before striking out across the rolling hills of Tycho, he turned back to the Trailblazer, saluting his home for the past ten days. She had served him well (Up until I found out she couldn’t fly he thought sourly). Still, he could not deny her service in the face of disaster.
“Farewell, Trailblazer, and I thank you. You sure were a good ship,” he said meaningfully.
Robbins also looked in the direction of the rift that had spared him from the solar explosion. He desperately wanted to give Clay a burial, even if it meant lowering his corpse into the miniature canyon. There was not enough time for it though.
A thought crossed his mind: if I could rewire the rover like I did the LM, I could make it to the Russian in less than three hours…
Weighing the odds, Robbins shook his head and began walking in the opposite direction. If he took the time to work on the rover only to discover it was inoperable like Trailblazer, it would waste precious time in getting to his rescue vehicle. And now that he had depressurized the Trailblazer, he had spent the last of its oxygen stores.
Walking on the moon was an awkward process. It was more of a shuffle across the surface, leaping from place to place. Without the need to carry experiments, Robbins found himself making good time in the supposed direction of the Russian vessel. Now and then he’d take a sip of water. It was irritating to have sweat pouring down his face, as he was quite unable to wipe it off due to his helmet. He merely shrugged it off; it was a minor inconvenience in the face of his current position.
Going uphill was not quite as difficult as he’d supposed. It was arduous, alright, but not an insurmountable challenge. The real fear for Robbins was going downhill. As he’d experienced days before at the rift, the lunar soil was slick in some places, and he was afraid that he would be tumbling down the hills, risking a puncture in his suit. Whenever he topped a hill, he was careful to take it slow on the way down, especially since, as it was nearing the lunar night in Tycho, the shadows hid unknown perils.
After about an hour of shuffling along, Robbins found himself coming down a rather precarious slope. His right boot set itself upon a sizeable rock, likely breccia. Suddenly, the breccia gave way, and Robbins tumbled over.
“Shit!” he cried in shock.
“Apollo 18, Houston, are you okay?” CAPCOM asked.
“Fine,” Robbins surmised, lying face down in the lunar dust. “I fell, but there are no evident holes in my suit. It’s gonna be a bitch to get back up without help.” For nearly twenty minutes, a drained and weakened Robbins found himself doing forceful push ups off of the ground, slipping and sliding down the hill, hoping to right himself with enough force.
Eventually, using the slanted ground to his advantage, he managed to bounce himself upright in his cumbersome suit. “I’m up again,” he reported, and began to shuffle down the slope at a brisk pace, hoping to make up lost time.
This grueling process continued for another five hours. To keep himself occupied, Robbins would often talk to CAPCOM about the weather, sports stats, etc. At one point, to himself, he muttered “Thanks a lot, Deke.”
Klaus Viktorenko had caught this quip over the hot mic. “What is Deke?” he inquired.
Robbins chuckled at the Russian’s lack of understanding. “More like who. Deke Slayton was one of the first seven astronauts. He never flew because of a heart condition.”
“I do not comprehend…”
“When he was pulled from the flight roster, they needed an active astronaut to take his place. I was brought on board, having almost been selected the first round, and was given Deke’s flight, Miracle 7. It was the last of the Mercury flights. From there, I went on to Gemini and then Apollo. So it’s because of him that I’m really in this whole mess,” Robbins laughed.
“Ah,” Viktorenko sighed with realization, “now I understand.” He joined in on the laughter.
“Yup. Along with Wally Schirra, we’re the only astronauts to have flown all three American spacecraft.” He paused, taking a moment to scratch an itch on his nose with some velcro on the inside of his faceplate. Then, “Grissom would’ve been on the list too.”
A silence followed this statement. “I am sorry about your, comrade Grissom.”
“We were too.”
After mounting innumerable hills, Robbins spied a glint on the horizon in the midst of some slopes. “Houston, I believe I have sighted the Titov.”
Cheers exploded in mission control, as well as Baikonur. Hands were shook, flags of the Stars and Stripes and Hammer and Sickle waved vigorously, tears were shed.
“Can’t wait to have you aboard, sir!” a heavily accented voice came in over the radio.
“Thank you, Mr. Viktorenko,” Robbins laughed. “You look mighty fine to me from here. I estimate another half hour before I reach you.”
A sense of renewed energy filled Commander Robbins as he continued his brisk walk to the LK. There was no mistaking it, whatever he had seen was artificial in origin. “It was a lucky thing I caught you glinting in the sun. I might have otherwise missed you.”
A silence followed. Back on earth, Ted Clarke turned to look at the screen at the head of the Russian control center. He saw the video feed of the LK, and it was almost entirely in darkness.
“Oh my God,” he muttered.
“What?” Dr. Korolev asked him.
“Whatever he’s seen up there...I don’t think it’s the Titov.”
“Well, what else could it be?”
Not too long after calling in his sighting of the lander, Robbins arrived at what he had seen: a crumpled metal framework full of crushed fuel tanks. The buckled craft had popped several rivets into the soil about him. Snakelike fuel pipes had traced odd patterns in the soil, and wires hung in jumbled clumps about the object. A disk, no doubt the engine of this mysterious craft, had been shattered by the hard impact it had had on the surface.
“It...it’s not the Titov, Houston,” Robbins reported somberly.
“What the hell is it then?” Rob Perry demanded.
It was the Block D engine that had been jettisoned by the LK during its approach to Tycho. After its fuel was spent, the craft continued on to the moon at an incredibly fast pace where it would come to a hard impact about four miles from the Trailblazer. The object that Robbins had seen from his base was not in fact his rescue.
He frantically searched about, unsure of where to go next. The Titov was nowhere in sight.12: Rendezvous
There was, at most, another hour and a half of oxygen left in Commander Robbins’ EVA pack. While it was possible that Viktorenko might embark to search for him, he could not bring Robbins extra oxygen; it was unlikely that their excursion packs would be compatible. Thus, Viktorenko was ordered to stay put at his Tycho base.
Robbins could not help but burst out in a fit of laughter. Of course this would happen, he thought, nothing has gone right so far on this mission, why should it now?
Deciding that lamenting on his almost certain concrete fate was pointless, Robbins tried to figure a direction to walk in to find the Titov. Though the odds were low, he was not going to give up when he was so close. It could not be much further, he figured, it had to be nearby!
Utilizing the Block D as a clue, he tried to ascertain from which angle it had come down from based on the crater it had created. It had definitely arrived on the moon from a sideways trajectory, and by roughly tracing the path it had likely followed as it arced downward, he decided upon a route that would take him over yet another mount. Sighing, Robbins got to it again.
Along with his feet, his hands were aching horrendously. The tips of his gloves were pinching his fingernails. He was afraid that, when (or if) he took his suit off, his fingernails would fall out. The pressure was nearly unbearable, but he pushed on, desperate to find the LK.
After about forty five minutes of climbing, he reached the summit. Looking out over the floor of the crater to the North, Robbins scanned the ground, hoping to find some sign of his rescue. A vast amount of the crater was covered in shadows, almost like massive ravines were splitting apart the floor of Tycho. It was an inky black spider web, networking itself across the surface of the moon-
Good God, I’m beginning to hallucinate again, he realized, terrified. It appeared that climbing the arduous terrain had drained more oxygen than he’d anticipated. Frantically, his head darted about, searching for the smallest sign, just a pinprick of light against the dull grey and black of the moon.
On one of these haphazard whips, his eyes caught sight of a glint. His vision focussed on it for at least a minute, trying to ascertain whether it was a vision or in fact real.
Whatever it was, it was genuine. Unsure of whether or not it was man made, the commander decided it was the only logical target for him on the bleak, unvarying surface of the crater. Robbins began to tumble towards it down the steep slope, ignoring any efforts at caution. He practically fell to the base of the hill in a desperate attempt to reach whatever the object was before his oxygen ran out.
“Comrade…” a voice called to him on the radio.
Through heavy rasps and heaves, Robbins managed to say “Yes, Klaus?”
“I see you,” the Russian said. Both Houston and the Baikonur Cosmodrome fell silent, listening to the garbled messages as they came in. “I see you,” the cosmonaut reiterated. “A great billow streaking down a hill facing my forward hatch...I see the sun reflecting from it out the window. Unless it is a boulder-”
“No!” Robbins said, a little too loudly, “No, it’s me. It’s me...God, can’t breathe!” he was hyperventilating, his lungs aching for air.
“Breathe normally, commander. You are almost here. I see you, not half a mile off I am sure!” Viktorenko watched intently as the tiny speck on the horizon grew in size to a crisp, white suited figure shambling to his craft.
“I can’t believe it,” Korolev muttered. “He has made it.”
“But how did he see it from such a distance, when it landed in that shadow?” Ted asked.
Korolev pondered, then pointed at the relay at the head of the room. “There’s your answer, young man.” Ted turned to look and noticed that the docking hatch at the top of the bulbous LK spacecraft was just barely poking into the sunlight.
“I’ll be damned,” Ted laughed amusedly.
Meanwhile, Viktorenko could see Robbins was struggling to make rendezvous. “I’m going out to get him.”
“Nyet, Klaus,” Korolev insisted. “The Apollo is swinging into its approach to meet with you two. You must make sure the LK is powered up and ready for liftoff once Commander Robbins arrives.”
“Commander Robbins won’t arrive without my assistance! The LK is working just fine, I’m going out.”
Korolev, try as he might, was 240,000 miles away, and thus powerless to stop him. Within moments, the Titov’s atmosphere was vented and the hatch opened. For the second time, Klaus Viktorenko walked upon the surface of the moon. As he bounded for the dying American, he forlornly caught glimpses here and there of beautiful rock specimens and dust clumps that would make for marvelous studies back in the institutions in Moscow. However, it was not to be, for the weight they would take up was to be occupied by his American friend.
Robbins had overheated and collapsed into the lunar sand. His world had gone dark, the visor embedded in the soil. He gagged and croaked like a fish out of water, his esophagus feeling like sandpaper, breaths coming in and out like hot bursts of gas. Suddenly, blinding light exploded into his world of darkness and momentarily rendered him sightless. He was reeling towards a strange, metallic spider.
No he thought it looks more like a giant virus.
The surprisingly strong Viktorenko, assisted by the low gravity, managed to haul Robbins back to the Titov and force him through the circular hatchway, twisting the astronaut to and fro in an effort to fit his outrageously large box of a life-support system. Sadly for Viktorenko, his last steps on the moon were hurried and rushed, and as quickly as he had exited his craft, he was back in, rapidly pressurizing the compartment. When most of its atmosphere was restored, he tore off Robbins’ helmet. Removing his glove, Viktorenko felt for a pulse. Though weak, it was still there. He seized an oxygen canister and mask and, pressing it to Robbins’ face, helped restore the commander’s breathing patterns. After a few moments, his eyes opened, and Sam looked up at the first human he’d seen in ten days.
He was young, not much beyond twenty seven, with a pale face and straw-colored hair. His blue eyes gazed concernedly. “Commander Robbins, I welcome you to Russian territory,” the boy said.
Robbins began to weep, awkwardly clutching Viktorenko’s head with his left arm, burying his face into his neck. Viktorenko, rather than pulling away, tried to soothe the American, who had up until then believed his fate was certain.
Cheers erupted in both terrestrial hemispheres, not only in their respective mission controls, but across the countries of both America and Russia. Millions listened on radios and watched Cronkite on television as he removed his glasses, crying tears of relief. Ted Clarke cupped his mouth with his hands, falling back in his chair in disbelief. On the other side of the world, Rob Perry pounded his flight director’s desk, whooping and hollering with delight. Kathy Robbins, who had been listening to one of the NASA squawk boxes, clutched her children, weeping with joy. A thousand pounds had been lifted from her, now that she could tell her children with assuredness that their father would be alright.
High overhead, in Apollo 19, Gus Burke held a lonely vigil, clapping enthusiastically that their end of the mission had been completed successfully. Now, it was up to him.
The LK spacecraft stood silently on the floor of Tycho, leaning a few points to starboard. The eerie silence and stillness of vacuum made it look like a crisp picture postcard. Everything was calm and serene. Then, in an instant, the engine on the base of the craft once again ignited, and several sets of clamps were released, leaving the landing leg framework behind as a permanent monument to the Soviet lunar expedition. The bulbous, Voskhod-looking uperstage steadily began to arch upwards into the inky black heavens, matching the orbit of its waiting sister that was quickly approaching.
Soon, the engine ceased firing, and once again, Commander Robbins was back in orbit, finally free of the moon. Unstrapping himself, he relished with delight the free-fall sense of weightlessness. After ten days of the toxic lunar gravity, it was nice to have wings again.
“How does it feel to be in microgravity after having spent the longest amount of time on the moon?” Viktorenko asked, cheerfully watching the American swim about the slightly cramped capsule, meant for one occupant.
“Like a dream!” laughed the astronaut. He almost asked how it felt to have spent the shortest time on the moon of any explorer, but decided against it. After all, the cosmonaut had given up his own voyage to save Robbins, and the commander felt such a comment would be in poor taste.
“What happens now? Perry left me out of the mission debriefing beyond this point,” Robbins inquired.
“Nothing. I was assured your friend Gus would handle the docking with his retro apparatus.”
Robbins grunted. He was relieved it had been Gus to come get him. They had flown Gemini together, and he knew that Gus was a damn fine pilot who had studied for months to fly Apollo before his mission was torn away from him. Despite all that Sam had had to go through, at least it gave Gus his flight back.
“I think I see him, comrade!” Viktorenko uttered a cry, peering through the Titov’s hatch window.
“Rog, Titov, I have visual on you. Looking mighty fine from here,” drawled Burke.
“Just wait till you get up close, she looks like an ugly fish eye,” Robbins jeered. Viktorenko had to stifle a laugh so he would not upset the listening Dr. Korolev back home.
Gus began to break out in a sweat. Back when he flew Gemini, he nearly rammed the Agena spacecraft with the docking probe. Then a few days ago in the sim, he practically obliterated the LM several times. He took solace however in knowing that he would not be making contact with the LK, rather pulling up alongside it so then its occupants could make an EVA over to the Apollo capsule. Still, he had to slow down enough so that this was feasible.
“Distance...three hundred meters, closing in at fifteen meters per second.” Burke decided to announce the distance in meters rather than feet to assist the Russian pilot.
“Easy does it, cowboy,” Robbins muttered.
“Hey, you got us in this fine mess, let me do the flying,” Burke chuckled back. Viktorenko watched as the silver, sleek, American spaceship rapidly approached.
“He’s coming in awful fast,” Viktorenko worriedly observed.
“The bastard’s a West Point man,” joked Robbins, “he’ll probably pull some neck breaking maneuver to impress us.”
“Easy, Annapolis,” Burke responded to hide his nervousness. He watched the Titov loom up from the darkness as it whirled about over the surface of the moon. “Distance, twenty meters, speed five meters per second,” he announced before blasting his forward thrusters. This last burst served to slow the craft enough.
“Well, I’ll be damned, he can fly!”
“Up yours, Sam.”13: Transfers
“Alright boys, suit up! Chop-chop!” urged Burke, eager to have the final leg of his lunar stay completed.
Viktorenko cocked a curious brow. “Chop-chop?”
Robbins nodded. “Lingo for ‘hurry up.’ As if he’s the one in a rush to leave this place!”
Nevertheless, the astronaut and the cosmonaut donned their helmets and depressurized the cabin. Then, Viktorenko pulled the hatch inwards, and allowed Robbins the opportunity of going over first, that way he could help the American if anything went wrong.
Robbins drifted over to the circular hatchway. He looked out and above him, where Apollo 19 seemingly hovered, slowly drifting away, inch by inch, but this was a negligible factor. It would not be difficult to make the transfer, he thought. However, it was to be the first time in history that any pilot, astro or cosmonaut, was to be untethered from a spacecraft, as the Apollo was a good twenty-five feet above. What’s more, there was no maneuverability jet for them to utilize. They were literally to jump from one ship to the next, and hope that Gus would catch them from the open hatch. As he watched, he saw the Apollo rotate, like a spit roaster, until the hatch was perpendicular above him. Out popped Burke, standing half in, half out of his spacecraft, waving to his fellow crewmates. Robbins enthusiastically waved back.
“Are you ready?” asked the eager Viktorenko. Robbins gave him a thumbs up, and the cosmonaut nudged him lightly forward. Ever so slowly, Robbins began to drift upwards. He tried to keep his view on Gus, but found his gaze wandering below him.
It was a big mistake.
He looked downwards, where he caught sight of the LK as it got further and further from him. Under that was the reeling surface of the moon, craters and mountain ridges racing by at a brisk pace. Robbins began to feel ill, a horrendous feeling of vertigo creeping into his system. He noticed that he was alone in space without a guide, without a tether, nothing but his forward momentum to deliver him once and for all to safety.
It was at the moment of crying out that he felt a heavy glove grasp him about the torso. He had made it successfully to Gus, who counteracted his momentum, bringing him to a halt in front of the hatch. “You okay, buddy?” an emotional Burke asked.
“Just fine, Gus,” responded the commander. “Just fine.”
Gus lowered himself into the Apollo and Robbins pulled himself into the open hatch. Once he had himself tethered, he then assumed Burke’s role and poked his head out of the ship to capture Viktorenko.
Now it was the Russian’s turn to be anxious. “You’ll have to be careful!” cautioned Robbins. “My transfer took too much time, we’ve drifted a bit diagonally from you, but it shouldn’t be too hard to manage.”
Viktorenko took one last look at his reliable craft. It had served him- and the American -well. Sighing, he thrust himself from the cabin of the Titov and into limitless space. His push however, in an effort to reach the Apollo quickly before it drifted too far away, had been a bit too forceful. Up, up he drifted, gliding past the downward side of the CSM. He reached out his arm for Robbins, who also reached his, and missed.
Viktorenko continued to sail upwards. In a panic, he leaned forward, beginning to clumsily cartwheel end over end, having changed his momentum. Still, he drifted away.
“Shit!” cried Robbins. Wasting no time, he turned down to Burke in the Apollo. “Gus, throw me an extra umbilical, quick!”
Burke did as requested, and tossed the white air hose to Robbins. Then, the tethered astronaut pushed himself forcefully from the hatchway in the direction of the cosmonaut to give himself an extra few feet. “Grab this on your next tumble!” he urged.
The dazed cosmonaut managed to regain some of his senses, long enough to reach out and grasp the umbilical, which wrapped about him lengthwise. His momentum checked, Viktorenko stopped turning and halted, bouncing towards the Apollo as if he’d hit an invisible wall. “Keep a tight grip,” said Robbins.
“I’m hanging on!” he insisted.
Once Viktorenko was aboard the Apollo, he clapped Robbins on the back. “Thank you, Sam.”
“Just returning the favor,” Robbins said, “It was my turn to save you.”
Soon, the three space travelers could take off their suits inside the sealed Apollo. They went to strap themselves in to prepare for the Trans-Earth Injection on the next orbit over. Logically, Viktorenko assumed the role of Lunar Module Pilot and took the seat all the way over to their right. He would not be assisting in the shakedown as he was unfamiliar with the craft. No matter, though; the Apollo astronauts were more than qualified to figure the task at hand.
“Just saying, Houston,” Burke said to control, “if you plan any future missions with the Russians, how about a docking port, eh?”
Robbins, by instinct, began to assume the commander’s seat. “Uh-uh!” objected Burke, surprising his friend. “Apollo 19 is my flight, you take the other chair!”14: The World's Finest Hour
Three days later, Apollo 19 became a fireball that streaked across the South Pacific sky. After a blackout of four minutes and forty seconds, her three parachutes were seen deployed high in the heavens, three great, billowy guides for the capsule’s short trip to the ocean.
“How about that, comrade?” Burke asked of Viktorenko. “Smoother than your Soyuz?”
“I would not know, it is my first reentry,” admitted the cosmonaut. “But, as is always the case, I’m sure it is second rate to our ship, as all American crafts are.”
The three men busted into laughter, as did the listening control centers. Rob Perry watched as the conical vessel drifted to a nice splashdown into the ocean, not two miles from the recovery ship USS Hornet. A chopper cleaved its way across the surface and hovered above the bobbing capsule.
At that moment, Ted Clarke entered the room, having just returned from a long flight from Moscow. “Did I miss it?” he cried. “Are they down?”
“Down and safe, my friend!” Perry gleefully declared.
Ted let out an exasperated sigh and fell into a chair beside Perry. “Christ, what an ordeal this shit show was.”
“You’re telling me.” Perry sat there, marvelling at the scene displayed at the head of the room. Television screens across the world were watching this splashdown; the audience was estimated to be more than that of Armstrong and Aldrin’s first steps on the Sea of Tranquility. “Y’know, Gene said of Apollo 13 it was NASA’s finest hour. For me...well, I think that this is the world’s finest hour. And you played a big part in it, kiddo,” he said of Ted. “I couldn’t have done it without your help keeping those reporters at bay-”
A loud rumble erupted from the seat next to Perry. There, slumped over, snoring, Ted was finally getting that sleep he so rightfully deserved.
Viktorenko had been the first to be raised from the Apollo capsule to the helicopter. He had enjoyed being lifted in the breeches buoy to safety, and there awaited his fellow crew members. He watched the eager figure of Sam Robbins being carried next. When the commander boarded the chopper, he beelined for the seat right next to his savior. “Here,” he said, forcing an object towards Viktorenko.
The cosmonaut was confused. “What is it?”
“A means of making up for your losses on this flight.”
Looking at what had been placed in his hands, Viktorenko saw it was a sample bag full of a few pounds of lunar soil and chunks of moon rock. “But...how? When did-”
“When I fell into the crevasse on my first day, I gathered a contingency sample that I stowed in my leg pockets. I forgot all about it until we were part way home. Since you gave up your opportunity to collect samples, I want your center to have it for analysis.”
“Commander Robbins...Sam...this is too much, we cannot take from you.”
“Oh no, I saved a little bit for our agency too. Go on, it’s yours. The deepest sample of lunar material ever recovered.”
Viktorenko could not help but marvel at the specimen he held, priceless beyond all powers of description. Dr. Korolev would surely be thrilled.
She stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier. Though not typical of a splashdown, Rob Perry and James Fletcher and Chris Kraft and all the other head men at NASA had pulled a few strings with Admiral Noel Gayler of the Pacific Fleet to let her have this special pass. Around her, dozens of sailors were cheering and whooping with joy. A brass band blared triumphantly. A hyper-masculine bravado barrage exploded around her. She felt dwarfed, shy, out of place. Ironically, it was an alienating reception for her.
Then she caught sight of it: a chopper, flying over from a bobbing gumdrop on the ocean waves. Its human cargo was swiftly brought to the deck of the carrier. A red carpet and podium had been set up for Commander Robbins to deliver some kind of speech, something rousing like Borman had done after Apollo 8.
But when the doors opened, her heart leapt from her chest. All of a sudden, Kathy Robbins had returned from her free falling experience. Her feet found their proper footing again at the sight of him, and she began to run towards him.
He ran too.