Books by Johnson, Les

Taylor, Travis S. and Les Johnson. Back to the Moon. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3405-4.
Don't you just hate it when you endure the protracted birthing process of a novel set in the near future and then, with the stroke of a politician's pen, the entire premise of the story goes ker-plonk into the dustbin of history? Think about the nuclear terror novel set in the second Carter administration, or all of the Cold War thrillers in the publishing pipeline that collapsed along with the Soviet Union. Well, that's more or less what we have here. This novel is set in, shall we say, the 2020s in a parallel universe where NASA's Constellation program (now cancelled in our own timeline) remained on track and is ready to launch its first mission to return humans to the Moon. Once again, there is a Moon race underway: this time a private company, Space Excursions, hopes to be the first enterprise to send paying passengers on a free return loop around the Moon, while the Chinese space agency hopes to beat NASA to the Moon with their own landing mission.

Space Excursions is ready to win the race with their (technologically much less demanding) mission then discovers, to the horror of their passengers and the world, that a secret Chinese landing mission has crashed near the lunar limb, and the Chinese government has covered up the disaster and left their taikonauts to die unmourned to avoid their space program's losing face. Bill Stetson (try to top that for a Texas astronaut name!), commander of the soon-to-launch NASA landing mission, realises that his flight can be re-purposed into a rescue of the stranded Chinese, and the NASA back-room experts, with the clock ticking on the consumables remaining in the Chinese lander, devise a desperate but plausible plan to save them.

Thus, the first U.S. lunar mission since Apollo 17 launches with an entirely different flight plan than that envisioned and for which the crew trained. Faced with a crisis, the sclerotic NASA bureaucracy is jolted back into the “make it so” mindset they exemplified in returning the crew of Apollo 13 safely to the Earth. In the end, it takes co-operation between NASA, the Chinese space agency, and Space Excursions, along with intrepid exploits by spacemen and -women of all of those contenders in Moon Race II to pull off the rescue, leading one to wonder “why can't we all get along?”

Do not confuse this novel with the laughably inept book with the same title by Homer Hickam (April 2010). This isn't remotely as bad, but then it isn't all that good either. I don't fault it for describing a NASA program which was cancelled while the novel was in press—author Taylor vents his frustration over that in an afterword included here. What irritates me is how many essential details the authors got wrong in telling the story. They utterly mis-describe the configuration of the Constellation lunar spacecraft, completely forgetting the service module of the Orion spacecraft, which contains the engine used to leave lunar orbit and to which the solar arrays are attached. They assume the ascent stage of the Altair lunar lander remains attached to the Orion during the return from the Moon, which is insane from a mass management standpoint. Their use of terminology is just sloppy, confusing orbital and escape velocity, trans-lunar injection with lunar orbit insertion maneuvers, and a number of other teeth-grinding goofs. The orbital mechanics are a thing of fantasy: spacecraft perform plane change maneuvers which no chemical rocket could possibly execute, and the Dreamscape lunar flyby tourist vehicle is said to brake with rockets into Earth orbit before descending for a landing which is energetically and mass budget wise crazy as opposed to a direct aerobraking entry.

What is odd is that author Taylor has a doctorate in science and engineering and has worked on NASA and DOD programs for two decades, and author Johnson works for NASA. NASA is rife with science fiction fans—SF is the “literature of recruitment” for NASA. Without a doubt, hundreds of NASA people intimately acquainted with the details of the Constellation Program would have been thrilled at the chance to review and fact-check this manuscript (especially because it portrays their work in an adulatory light), and almost none of the revisions required to get it right would have had any significant impact upon the story. (The heat shield repair is an exception, but I could scribble a more thrilling chapter about doing that after jettisoning the service module with the Earth looming nearer and nearer than the one in this novel.)

This is a well-crafted thriller which will keep you turning the pages, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny if you really understand orbital mechanics or the physical constraints in going to the Moon. What is regrettable is that all of the goofs could have been remedied without compromising the story in any way.

January 2011 Permalink