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Monday, September 16, 2019

Reading List: Public Loneliness

Brennan, Gerald. Public Loneliness. Chicago: Tortoise Books, [2014] 2017. ISBN 978-0-9986325-1-3.
This is the second book in the author's “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Each stand-alone story explores a space mission which did not take place, but could have, given the technology and political circumstances at the time. The first, Zero Phase (October 2016), asks what might have happened had Apollo 13's service module oxygen tank waited to explode until after the lunar module had landed on the Moon. The third, Island of Clouds (July 2019), tells the story of a Venus fly-by mission using Apollo-derived hardware in 1972.

The present short book (120 pages in paperback edition) is the tale of a Soviet circumlunar mission piloted by Yuri Gagarin in October 1967, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and the tenth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. As with all of the Altered Space stories, this could have happened: in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had two manned lunar programmes, each using entirely different hardware. The lunar landing project was based on the N1 rocket, a modified Soyuz spacecraft called the 7K-LOK, and the LK one-man lunar lander. The Zond project aimed at a manned lunar fly-by mission (the spacecraft would loop around the Moon and return to Earth on a “free return trajectory” without entering lunar orbit). Zond missions would launch on the Proton booster with a crew of one or two cosmonauts flying around the Moon in a spacecraft designated Soyuz 7K-L1, which was stripped down by removal of the orbital module (forcing the crew to endure the entire trip in the cramped launch/descent module) and equipped for the lunar mission by the addition of a high gain antenna, navigation system, and a heat shield capable of handling the velocity of entry from a lunar mission.

In our timeline, the Zond programme was plagued by problems. The first four unmanned lunar mission attempts, launched between April and November 1967, all failed due to problems with the Proton booster. Zond 4, in March of 1968, flew out to a lunar distance, but was deliberately launched 180° away from the Moon (perhaps to avoid the complexity of lunar gravity). It returned to Earth, but off-course, and was blown up by its self-destruct mechanism to avoid it falling into the hands of another country. Two more Zond launches in April and July 1968 failed from booster problems, with the second killing three people when its upper stage exploded on the launch pad. In September 1968 Zond 5 became the first spacecraft to circle the Moon and return to Earth, carrying a “crew” of two tortoises, fruit fly eggs, and plant seeds. The planned “double dip” re-entry failed, and the spacecraft made a ballistic re-entry with deceleration which might have killed a human cosmonaut, but didn't seem to faze the tortoises. Zond 6 performed a second circumlunar mission in November 1968, again with tortoises and other biological specimens. During the return to Earth, the capsule depressurised, killing all of the living occupants. After a successful re-entry, the parachute failed and the capsule crashed to Earth. This was followed by three more launch failures and then, finally, in August 1969, a completely successful unmanned flight which was the first in which a crew, if onboard, would have survived. By this time, of course, the U.S. had not only orbited the Moon (a much more ambitious mission than Zond's fly-by), but landed on the surface, so even a successful Zond mission would have been an embarrassing afterthought. After one more unmanned test in October 1970, the Zond programme was cancelled.

In this story, the Zond project encounters fewer troubles and with the anniversary of the October revolution approaching in 1967, the go-ahead was given for a piloted flight around the Moon. Yuri Gagarin, who had been deeply unhappy at being removed from flight status and paraded around the world as a cultural ambassador, used his celebrity status to be assigned to the lunar mission which, given weight constraints and the cramped Soyuz cabin, was to be flown by a single cosmonaut.

The tale is narrated by Gagarin himself. The spacecraft is highly automated, so there isn't much for him to do other than take pictures of the Earth and Moon, and so he has plenty of time to reflect upon his career and the experience of being transformed overnight from an unknown 27 year old fighter pilot into a global celebrity and icon of Soviet technological prowess. He seems to have a mild case of impostor syndrome, being acutely aware that he was entirely a passive passenger on his Vostok 1 flight, never once touching the controls, and that the credit he received for the accomplishment belonged to the engineers and technicians who built and operated the craft, who continued to work in obscurity. There are extensive flashbacks to the flight, his experiences afterward, and the frustration at seeing his flying career come to an end.

But this is Soviet hardware, and not long into the flight problems occur which pose increasing risks to the demanding mission profile. Although the planned trajectory will sling the spacecraft around the Moon and back to Earth, several small trajectory correction maneuvers will be required to hit the narrow re-entry corridor in the Earth's atmosphere: too steep and the capsule will burn up, too shallow and it will skip off the atmosphere into a high elliptical orbit in which the cosmonaut's life support consumables may run out before it returns to Earth.

The compounding problems put these course corrections at risk, and mission control decides not to announce the flight to the public while it is in progress. As the book concludes, Gagarin does not know his ultimate fate, and neither does the reader.

This is a moving story, well told, and flawless in its description of the spacecraft and Zond mission plan. One odd stylistic choice is that in Gagarin's narration, he speaks of the names of spacecraft as their English translation of the Russian names: “East” instead of “Vostok”, “Union” as opposed to “Soyuz”, etc. This might seem confusing, but think about it: that's how a Russian would have heard those words, so it's correct to translate them into English along with his other thoughts. There is a zinger on the last page that speaks to the nature of the Soviet propaganda machine—I'll not spoil it for you.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at September 16, 2019 22:41