« Reading List: Pursuit of Honor | Main | Reading List: I Am Charlotte Simmons »

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Reading List: Damned to Heaven

Mahoney, Bob. Damned to Heaven. Austin, TX: 1st World Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0-9718562-8-8.
This may be the geekiest space thriller ever written. The author has worked as a spaceflight instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for more than a decade, training astronauts and flight controllers in the details of orbital operations. He was Lead Instructor for the first Shuttle-Mir mission. He knows his stuff, and this book, which bristles with as many acronyms and NASA jargon as a Shuttle flight plan, gets the details right and only takes liberty with the facts where necessary to advance the plot. Indeed, it seems the author is on an “expanded mission” of his NASA career as an instructor to ensure that not only those he's paid to teach, but all readers of the novel know their stuff as well—he even distinguishes acronyms pronounced letter-by-letter (such as E.V.A.) and those spoken as words (like OMS), and provides pronunciation guides for the latter.

For a first time novelist, the author writes quite well, and there are only a few typographical and factual errors. Since the dialogue is largely air to ground transmissions or proceedings of NASA mission management meetings, it comes across as stilted, but is entirely authentic—that's how they talk. Character description is rudimentary, and character development as the story progresses almost nonexistent, but then most of the characters are career civil servants who have made it to the higher echelons of an intensely politically correct and meritocratic bureaucracy where mavericks or those even remotely interesting are ground down or else cut off and jettisoned. Again, not the usual dramatis personæ of a thriller, but pretty accurate.

So what about the story? A space shuttle bound for the International Space Station suffers damage to its thermal protection system which makes it impossible to reenter safely, and the crew takes refuge on the still incomplete Station, stretching its life support resources to the limit. A series of mishaps, which may seem implausible all taken together, but every one of which has actually occurred in U.S. and Soviet space operations over the last two decades, eliminates all of the rescue alternatives but one last, desperate Hail Mary option, which a flight director embraces, not out of boldness, but because there is no other way to save the crew. Trying to thwart the rescue is a malevolent force high in the NASA management hierarchy, bent on destroying the existing human spaceflight program in order that a better replacement may be born. (The latter might have seemed preposterous when the novel was published in 2003, but looking just at the results of NASA senior management decisions in the ensuing years, it's hard to distinguish the outcomes from those of having deliberate wreckers at the helm.)

The author had just about finished the novel when the Columbia accident occurred in February 2003. Had Columbia been on a mission to the Space Station, and had the damage to its thermal protection system been detected (which is probable, as it would have been visible as the shuttle approached the station), then the scenario here, or at least the first part, would have likely occurred. The author made a few changes to the novel post-Columbia; they are detailed in notes at the end.

As a thriller, this worked for me—I read the whole thing in three days and enjoyed the author's painting his characters into corner after corner and then letting them struggle to avert disaster due to the laws of nature, ambitious bureaucratic adversaries, and cluelessness and incompetence, in ascending order of peril to mission success and crew survival. I suspect many readers will consider this a bit much; recall that I used the word “geekiest” in the first sentence of these remarks. But unlike another thriller by a NASA engineer, I was never once tempted to hurl this one into the flame trench immediately before ignition.

If the events in this book had actually happened, and an official NASA historian had written an account of them some years later, it would probably read much like this book. That is quite an achievement, and the author has accomplished that rare feat of crafting a page-turner (at least for readers who consider “geeky” a compliment) which also gets the details right and crafts scenarios which are both surprising and plausible. My quibbles with the plot are not with the technical details but rather scepticism that the NASA of today could act as quickly as in the novel, even when faced with an existential threat to its human spaceflight program.

Posted at October 17, 2010 21:01