Books by Hickam, Homer H., Jr.

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Back to the Moon. New York: Island Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-440-23538-5.
Jerry Pournelle advises aspiring novelists to plan to throw away their first million words before mastering the craft and beginning to sell. (Not that writing a million words to the best of your ability and failing to sell them guarantees success, to be sure. It's just that most novelists who eventually become successful have a million words of unsold manuscripts in the trunk in the attic by the time they break into print and become well known.) When lightning strikes and an author comes from nowhere to bestseller celebrity overnight, there is a strong temptation, not only for the author but also for the publisher, to dig out those unsold manuscripts, perhaps polish them up a bit, and rush them to market to capitalise upon the author's newfound name recognition. Pournelle writes, “My standard advice to beginning writers is that if you do hit it big, the biggest favor you can do your readers is to burn your trunk; but in fact most writers don't, and some have made quite a bit of money off selling what couldn't be sold before they got famous.”

Here, I believe, we have an example of what happens when an author does not follow that sage advice. Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys (July 2005), a memoir of his childhood in West Virginia coal country at the dawn of the space age, burst onto the scene in 1998, rapidly climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and was made into the 1999 film October Sky. Unknown NASA engineer Hickam was suddenly a hot literary property, and pressure to “sell the trunk” was undoubtedly intense. Out of the trunk, onto the press, into the bookshops—and here we have it, still in print a decade later.

The author joined NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1981 as an aerospace engineer and worked on a variety of projects involving the Space Shuttle, including training astronauts for a number of demanding EVA missions. In the Author's Note, he observes that, while initially excited to work on the first reusable manned spacecraft, he, like many NASA engineers, eventually became frustrated with going in circles around the Earth and wished that NASA could once again send crews to explore as they had in the days of Apollo. He says, “I often found myself lurking in the techno-thriller or science fiction area of bookstores looking unsuccessfully for a novel about a realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon. I never found it. One day it occurred to me that if I wanted to read such a book, I would have to write it myself.”

Well, here it is. And if you're looking for a thriller about a “realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon”, sadly, you still haven't found it. Now, the odd thing is that this book is actually quite well written—not up to the standard of Rocket Boys, but hardly the work of a beginner. It is tightly plotted, the characters are interesting and develop as the story progresses, and the author deftly balances multiple plot lines with frequent “how are they going to get out of this?” cliffhangers, pulling it all together at the end. These are things you'd expect an engineer to have difficulty mastering as a novelist. You'd figure, however, that somebody with almost two decades of experience going to work every day at NASA and with daily contacts with Shuttle engineers and astronauts would get the technical details right, or at least make them plausible. Instead, what we have is a collection of laugh-out-loud howlers for any reader even vaguely acquainted with space flight. Not far into the book (say, fifty or sixty pages, or about a hundred “oh come on”s), I realised I was reading the literary equivalent of the Die Hard 2 movie, which the Wall Street Journal's reviewer dubbed “aviation for airheads”. The present work, “spaceflight for space cases”, is much the same: it works quite well as a thriller as long as you know absolutely nothing about the technical aspects of what's going on. It's filled with NASA jargon and acronyms (mostly used correctly) which lend it a feeling of authenticity much like Tom Clancy's early books. However, Clancy (for the most part), gets the details right: he doesn't, for example, have a submarine suddenly jump out of the water, fly at Mach 5 through the stratosphere, land on a grass runway in a remote valley in the Himalayas, then debark an assault team composed of amateurs who had never before fired a gun.

Shall we go behind the spoiler curtain and take a peek at a selection of the most egregious and side splitting howlers in this yarn?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow region, not “Frau [sic] Mauro”. Apollo 14 landed at Fra Mauro.
  • In the description of the launch control centre, it is stated that Houston will assume control “the moment Columbia lifted a millimeter off the Cape Canaveral pad”. In fact, Houston assumes control once the launch pad tower has been cleared.
  • During the description of the launch, the ingress team sees the crew access arm start to retract and exclaims “Automatic launch sequence! We've got to go!”. In fact, the ingress team leaves the pad before the T−9 minute hold, and the crew access arm retracts well before the automatic sequence starts at T−31 seconds.
  • There are cameras located all over the launch complex which feed into the launch control centre. Disabling the camera in the white room would still leave dozens of other cameras active which would pick up the hijinks underway at the pad.
  • NASA human spaceflight hardware is manufactured and prepared for flight under the scrutiny of an army of inspectors who verify every aspect of the production process. Just how could infiltrators manage to embed payload in the base of the shuttle's external tank in the manufacturing plant at Michoud, and how could this extra cargo not be detected anywhere downstream? If the cargo was of any substantial size, the tank would fail fit tests on the launch platform, and certainly some pad rat would have said “that's not right” just looking at it.
  • Severing the data cable between the launch pad and the firing room would certainly cause the onboard automatic sequencer to halt the countdown. Even though the sequencer controls the launch process, it remains sensitive to a cutoff signal from the control centre, and loss of communications would cause it to abort the launch sequence. Further, the fact that the shuttle hatch was not closed would have caused the auto-sequencer to stop due to a cabin pressure alarm. And the hatch through which one boards the shuttle is not an “airlock”.
  • The description of the entire terminal countdown and launch process suffers from the time dilation common in bad movie thrillers: where several minutes of furious activity occur as the bomb counts down the last ten seconds.
  • The intended crew of the shuttle remains trapped in the pad elevator when the shuttle lifts off. They are described as having temporary hearing loss due to the noise. In fact, their innards would have been emulsified by the acoustic energy of the solid rocket boosters, then cremated and their ashes scattered by the booster plume.
  • The shuttle is said to have entered a 550 mile orbit with the external tank (ET) still attached. This is impossible; the highest orbit ever achieved by the shuttle was around 385 miles on the Hubble deployment and service missions, and this was a maximum-performance effort. Not only could the shuttle not reach 550 miles on the main engines, the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) would not have the velocity change capability (delta-V) required to circularise the orbit at this altitude with the ET still attached. And by the way, who modified the shuttle computer ascent software to change the launch trajectory and bypass ET jettison, and who loaded the modified software into the general purpose computers, and why was the modified software not detected by the launch control centre's pre-launch validation of the software load?
  • If you're planning a burn to get on a trans-lunar injection trajectory, you want to do it in as low an Earth orbit as possible in order to get the maximum assist to the burn. An orbit as low as used by the later Apollo missions probably wouldn't work due to the drag of having the ET attached, but there's no reason you'd want to go as high as 550 miles; that's just wasting energy.
  • The “Big Dog” and “Little Dog” engines are supposed to have been launched on an Indian rocket, with the mission being camouflaged as a failed communication satellite launch. But, whatever the magical properties of Big Dog, a storable propellant rocket (which it must be, since it's been parked in orbit for months waiting for the shuttle to arrive) with sufficient delta-V to boost the entire shuttle onto a trans-lunar trajectory, enter lunar orbit, and then leave lunar orbit to return to Earth would require a massive amount of fuel, be physically very large, and hence require a heavy lift launcher which (in addition to the Indians not possessing one) would not be used for a communications satellite mission. The Saturn S-IV B stage which propelled Apollo to the Moon was 17.8 metres long, 6.6 metres in diameter, and massed 119,000 kg fully fueled, and it was boosting a stack less massive than a space shuttle, and used only for trans-lunar injection, not lunar orbit entry and exit, and it used higher performance hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Big Dog would not be a bolt-in replacement engine for the shuttle, but rather a massive rocket stage which could hardly be disguised as a communications satellite.
  • On the proposed “rescue” mission by Endeavour, commander Grant proposes dropping the space station node in the cargo bay in a “parking orbit”, whence the next shuttle mission could capture it and move it to the Space Station. But in order to rendezvous with Columbia, Endeavour would have to launch into its 28.7 degree inclination orbit, leaving the space station node there. The shuttle OMS does not remotely have the delta-V for a plane change to the 51 degree orbit of the station, so there is no way the node could be delivered to the station.
  • A first-time astronaut is a “rookie”, not “rooky”. A rook is a kind of crow or a chess piece.
  • Removing a space shuttle main engine (SSME) is a complicated and lengthy procedure on the ground, requiring special tools and workstands. It is completely impossible that this could be done in orbit, especially by two people with no EVA experience, working in a part of the shuttle where there are no handgrips or restraints for EVA work, and where the shuttle's arm (remote manipulator system) cannot reach. The same goes for attaching Big Dog as a replacement.
  • As Endeavour closes in, her commander worries that “[t]oo much RCS propellant had been used to sneak up on Columbia”. But it's the orbital maneuvering system (OMS), not the reaction control system (RCS) which is used in rendezvous orbit-change maneuvers.
  • It's “Chernobyl” (Чорнобиль), not “Chernoble”.
  • Why, on a mission where all the margins are stretched razor-thin, would you bring along a spare lunar lander when you couldn't possibly know you'd need it?
  • Olivia Grant flies from Moscow to Alma-Ata on a “TU-144 transport”. The TU-144 supersonic transport was retired from service in 1978 after only 55 scheduled passenger flights. Even if somebody put a TU-144 back into service, it certainly wouldn't take six hours for the flight.
  • Vice President Vanderheld says, “France, for one, has spent trillions on thermonuclear energy. Fusion energy would destroy that investment overnight.” But fusion is thermonuclear energy!
  • When the tethered landing craft is dropped on the Moon from the shuttle, its forward velocity will be 3,700 miles per hour, the same as the shuttle's. The only way for it to “hit the lunar surface at under a hundred miles per hour” would be for the shuttle to cancel its entire orbital velocity before dropping the lander and then, in order to avoid crashing into the lunar surface, do a second burn as it was falling to restore its orbital velocity. Imparting such a delta-V to the entire shuttle would require a massive burn, for which there would be no reason to have provided the fuel in the mission plan. Also, at the moment the shuttle started the burn to cancel its orbital velocity, the tether would string out behind the shuttle, not remain at its altitude above the Moon.
  • The Apollo 17 lunar module Challenger's descent stage is said to have made a quick landing and hence have “at least half its propellant left”. Nonsense—while Cernan and Schmitt didn't land on fumes like Apollo 11 (and, to a lesser extent, Apollo 14), no Apollo mission landed with the tanks anywhere near half-full. In any case, unless I'm mistaken, residual descent engine propellant was dumped shortly after landing; this was certainly done on Apollo 11 (you can hear the confirmation on my re-mix of the Apollo 11 landing as heard in the Eagle's cabin), and I've never heard if it not being done on later missions.
  • Jack connects an improvised plug to the “electronic port used to command the descent engine” on Challenger. But there were no such “ports”—connections between the ascent and descent stages were hard-wired in a bundle which was cut in two places by a pyrotechnic “guillotine” when the ascent stage separated. The connections to the descent engine would be a mass of chopped cables which would take a medusa of space Barney clips and unavailable information to connect to.
  • Even if there were fuel and oxidiser left in the tanks of the descent stage, the helium used to pressure-feed the propellants to the engine would have been long gone. And the hypergolic combustion wouldn't make a “plume of orange and scarlet” (look at the Apollo 17 liftoff video), and without a guidance system for the descent engine, there would be no chance of entering lunar orbit.
  • The tether is supposed to be used to generate electrical power after the last fuel cell fails. But this is done far from the Earth, where the gradient in the Earth's magnetic field across the length of the tether would be much too small to generate the required power.
  • Using the tether as an aerodynamic brake at reentry is absurd. The tether would have to dissipate the entire energy of a space shuttle decelerating from Mach 36 to Mach 25. Even if the tether did not immediately burn away (which it would), it would not have the drag to accomplish this in the time available before the shuttle hit the atmosphere (with the payload bay doors still open!). And the time between the tethered satellite entering the atmosphere and the shuttle hitting the stony blue would be a matter of seconds, far too little to close the payload bay doors.
  • “The space agency had gotten out of the operations business and moved into the forefront of research and development, handing over its scientific and engineering knowledge to American commercial space operators.” Now here we have an actually prophetic passage. Let's hope it comes to pass!
  • “[W]hen the sun goes down into the sea, just as it sinks out of sight, its rays flash up through the water. If you look fast, you'll see it—a green flash.” Well, no—actually the green flash is due to atmospheric refraction and has nothing to do with water.

Apart from these particulars (and they are just a selection from a much larger assortment in the novel), the entire story suffers from what I'll call the “Tom Swift, let's go!” fallacy of science fiction predating the golden age of the 1930s. The assumption throughout this book is that people can design fantastically complicated hardware which interfaces with existing systems, put it into service by people with no training on the actual hardware and no experience in the demanding environment in which it will be used, cope with unexpected reverses on the fly, always having the requisite resources to surmount the difficulties, and succeed in the end. Actually, I'm being unfair to Tom Swift in identifying such fiction with that character. The original Tom Swift novels always had him testing his inventions extensively before putting them into service, and modifying them based upon the test results. Not here: everything is not only good to go on the first shot, it is able to overcome disasters because the necessary hardware has always providentially been brought along.

Spoilers end here.  
If you've trudged through the spoiler block at my side, you may be exasperated and wondering why I'd spend so much time flensing such a bad novel. Well, it's because I'd hoped for so much and was sorely disappointed. Had the author not said the goal was to be “realistic”, I'd have put it down after the first fifty pages or so and, under the rules of engagement of this chronicle, you'd have never seen it here. Had it been presented as a “spaceflight fantasy”, I might have finished it and remarked about how well the story was told; hey, I give my highest recommendation to a story about a trip to the Moon launched from a 900 foot long cannon!

I'll confess: I've been wanting to write a back to the Moon novel myself for at least thirty years. My scenario was very different (and I hereby place it into the public domain for scribblers more talented and sedulous than I to exploit): a signal is detected originating from the Moon with a complex encoding originating at a site where no known probe has landed. The message is a number: "365", "364", 363",… decrementing every day. Now what it would it take to go there and find out what was sending it before the countdown reaches zero? The story was to be full of standing in line to file forms to get rocket stages and capsules out of museums, back channel discussions between Soviet and U.S. space officials, and eventual co-operation on a cobbled together mission which would end up discovering…but then you'd have to have read the story. (Yes, much of this has been done in movies, but they all postdate this treatment.)

Since I'll probably never write that story, I'd hoped this novel would fill the niche, and I'm disappointed it didn't. If you know nothing about spaceflight and don't care about the details, this is a well-crafted thriller, which accounts for its many five star reviews at Amazon. If you care about technical plausibility, you can take this as either one of those books to hurl into the fireplace to warm you up on a cold winter evening or else as a laugh riot to enjoy for what it is and pass on to others looking for a diversion from the uncompromising physics of the real world.

Successful novelists, burn the trunk!

April 2010 Permalink

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Rocket Boys. New York: Doubleday, 1998. ISBN 0-385-33321-8.
The author came of age in southern West Virginia during the dawn of the space age. Inspired by science fiction and the sight of Sputnik gliding through the patch of night sky between the mountains which surrounded his coal mining town, he and a group of close friends decided to build their own rockets. Counselled by the author's mother, “Don't blow yourself up”, they managed not only to avoid that downside of rocketry (although Mom's garden fence was not so lucky), but succeeded in building and launching more than thirty rockets powered by, as they progressed, first black powder, then melted saltpetre and sugar (“rocket candy”), and finally “zincoshine”, a mixture of powdered zinc and sulphur bound by 200 proof West Virginia mountain moonshine, which propelled their final rocket almost six miles into the sky. Their efforts won them the Gold and Silver award at the National Science Fair in 1960, and a ticket out of coal country for the author, who went on to a career as a NASA engineer. This is a memoir by a member of the last generation when the U.S. was still free enough for boys to be boys, and boys with dreams were encouraged to make them come true. This book will bring back fond memories for any member of that generation, and inspire envy among those who postdate that golden age.

This book served as the basis for the 1999 film October Sky, which I have not seen.

July 2005 Permalink