Sunday, February 12, 2017
Reading List: Pale Blue
- Jenne, Mike. Pale Blue. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-084-0.
This is the final novel in the trilogy which began with
Blue Gemini (April 2016)
and continued in
Blue Darker than Black (August 2016).
After the harrowing rescue mission which concluded the
second book, Drew Carson and Scott Ourecky, astronauts of the
U.S. Air Force's covert Blue Gemini project, a manned satellite
interceptor based upon NASA's Project Gemini spacecraft,
hope for a long stand-down before what is slated to be the
final mission in the project, whose future is uncertain due
to funding issues, inter-service rivalry, the damage to its
Pacific island launch site due to a recent tropical storm, and
the upcoming 1972 presidential election.
Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, progress continues on the
Krepost project: a manned space
station equipped for surveillance and armed with a nuclear
warhead which can be de-orbited and dropped on any target
along the station's ground track. General Rustam Abdirov, a
survivor of the
disaster in 1960, is pushing the project to completion
through his deputy, Gregor Yohzin, and believes it may hold the
key to breaking what Abdirov sees as the stalemate of the
Cold War. Yohzin is increasingly worried about Abdirov's
stability and the risks posed by the project, and has been
covertly passing information to U.S. intelligence.
As information from Yohzin's espionage reaches Blue Gemini
headquarters, Carson and Ourecky are summoned back and plans
drawn up to intercept the orbital station before a crew can be
launched to it, after which destroying it would not only be
hazardous, but could provoke a superpower confrontation.
On the Soviet side, nothing is proceeding as planned, and
the interception mission must twist and turn based upon limited
and shifting information.
About half way through the book, and after some big surprises,
the Krepost crisis is resolved. The reader might be
inclined, then, to wonder “what next?” What follows
is a war story, set in the final days of the Vietnam conflict,
and for quite a while it seems incongruous and unrelated to all
that has gone before. I have remarked in reviews of the earlier
books of the trilogy that the author is keeping a large number
of characters and sub-plots in the air, and wondered whether and how
he was going to bring it all together. Well, in the last five chapters
he does it, magnificently, and ties everything up with a bow on the
top, ending what has been a rewarding thriller in a moving, human
There are a few goofs. Launch windows to
inclined Earth orbits occur every day; in case of a launch delay,
there is no need for a long wait before the next launch attempt (chapter 4).
Attempting to solve a difficult problem, “the variables refused
to remain constant”—that's why they're called
variables (chapter 10)!
Beaujolais is red, not white, wine (chapter 16).
A character claims to have seen a hundred
stars in the Pleiades from space with the unaided eye. This is
impossible: while the cluster contains around 1000 stars, only
14 are bright enough to be seen with the best human vision under
the darkest skies. Observing from space is slightly better than
from the Earth's surface, but in this case the observer would have
been looking through a spacecraft window, which would attenuate
light more than the Earth's atmosphere (chapter 25). MIT's Draper Laboratory
did not design the Gemini on-board computer; it was developed
by the IBM Federal Systems Division (chapter 26).
The trilogy is a big, sprawling techno-thriller with interesting and
complicated characters and includes space flight, derring do in remote
and dangerous places, military and political intrigue in both the U.S.
and Soviet Union, espionage, and a look at how the stresses of
military life and participation in black programs make the lives of
those involved in them difficult. Although the space program which
is the centrepiece of the story is fictional, the attention to detail
is exacting: had it existed, this is probably how it would have been
done. I have one big quibble with a central part of the premise, which
I will discuss behind the curtain.
The rationale for the Blue Gemini program which caused it to be funded is largely as a defence against a feared Soviet “orbital bombardment system”: one or more satellites which, placed in orbits which regularly overfly the U.S. and allies, could be commanded to deorbit and deliver nuclear warheads to any location below. It is the development of such a weapon, its deployment, and a mission to respond to the threat which form the core of the plot of this novel. But an orbital bombardment system isn't a very useful weapon, and doesn't make much sense, especially in the context of the late 1960s to early '70s in which this story is set. The Krepost of the novel was armed with a single high-yield weapon, and operated in a low Earth orbit at an inclination of 51°. The weapon was equipped with only a retrorocket and heat shield, and would have little cross-range (ability to hit targets lateral to its orbital path). This would mean that in order to hit a specific target, the orbital station would have to wait up to a day for the Earth to rotate so the target was aligned with the station's orbital plane. And this would allow bombardment of only a single target with one warhead. Keeping the station ready for use would require a constant series of crew ferry and freighter launches, all to maintain just one bomb on alert. By comparison, by 1972, the Soviet Union had on the order of a thousand warheads mounted on ICBMs, which required no space launch logistics to maintain, and could reach targets anywhere within half an hour of the launch order being given. Finally, a space station in low Earth orbit is pretty much a sitting duck for countermeasures. It is easy to track from the ground, and has limited maneuvering capability. Even guns in space do not much mitigate the threat from a variety of anti-satellite weapons, including Blue Gemini. While the drawbacks of orbital deployment of nuclear weapons caused the U.S. and Soviet Union to eschew them in favour of more economical and secure platforms such as silo-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines, their appearance here does not make this “what if?” thriller any less effective or thrilling. This was the peak of the Cold War, and both adversaries explored many ideas which, in retrospect, appear to have made little sense. A hypothetical Soviet nuclear-armed orbital battle station is no less crazy than Project Pluto in the U.S.Spoilers end here. (Hide Spoilers)
Posted at February 12, 2017 00:03