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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Reading List: Zero Phase

Brennan, Gerald. Zero Phase. Chicago: Tortoise Books, [2013, 2015]. ISBN 978-0-9860922-2-0.
On April 14, 1970, while Apollo 13 was en route to the Moon, around 56 hours after launch and at a distance of 321,860 km from Earth, a liquid oxygen tank in the service module exploded during a routine stir of its cryogenic contents. The explosion did severe damage to the service module bay in which the tank was installed, most critically to the other oxygen tank, which quickly vented its contents into space. Deprived of oxygen reactant, all three fuel cells, which provided electrical power and water to the spacecraft, shut down. The command module had only its batteries and limited on-board oxygen and water supplies, which were reserved for re-entry and landing.

Fortunately, the lunar module was still docked to the command module and not damaged by the explosion. While mission planners had envisioned scenarios in which the lunar module might serve as a lifeboat for the crew, none of these had imagined the complete loss of the service module, nor had detailed procedures been worked out for how to control, navigate, maneuver, and provide life support for the crew using only the resources of the lunar module. In one of its finest moments, NASA rose to the challenge, and through improvisation and against the inexorable deadlines set by orbital mechanics, brought the crew home.

It may seem odd to consider a crew who barely escaped from an ordeal like Apollo 13 with their lives, losing the opportunity to complete a mission for which they'd trained for years, lucky, but as many observed at the time, it was indeed a stroke of luck that the explosion occurred on the way to the Moon, not while two of the astronauts were on the surface or on the way home. In the latter cases, with an explosion like that in Apollo 13, there would be no lunar module with the resources to sustain them on the return journey; they would have died in lunar orbit or before reaching the Earth. The post-flight investigation of the accident concluded that the oxygen tank explosion was due to errors in processing the tank on the ground. It could have exploded at any time during the flight. Suppose it didn't explode until after Apollo 13's lunar module Aquarius had landed on the Moon?

That is the premise for this novella (68 pages, around 20,000 words), first in the author's “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Now the astronauts and Mission Control are presented with an entirely different set of circumstances and options. Will it be possible to bring the crew home?

The story is told in first person by mission commander James Lovell, interleaving personal reminiscences with mission events. The description of spacecraft operations reads very much like a post-mission debriefing, with NASA jargon and acronyms present in abundance. It all seemed authentic to me, but I didn't bother fact checking it in detail because the actual James Lovell read the manuscript and gave it his endorsement and recommendation. This is a short but engaging look at an episode in space history which never happened, but very well might have.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at October 27, 2016 22:51