By Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson
Baen Books, 2010
$16.50, Hardcover; $6 eBook
Reviewed by Edward Reynolds
Written by a couple of authors with extensive NASA backgrounds in physics, astronomy, and aerospace engineering, Back To The Moon is a thrilling, fictionalized account of America’s return to the lunar surface some fifty years after astronaut Gene Cernan left his footprints in moon dust as the last human to walk there. What makes Travis Taylor and Les Johnson’s novel so believable is their ability to weave technical, rocket-science accuracy into their tale. Their knowledge is paramount, and their incorporation of the current state of America’s space exploration capabilities—including the inclusion of private companies’ attempts to replicate what was once exclusively NASA’s territory—makes the book nothing short of intriguing.
The novel is a new twist on the Cold War space race to the Moon between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Set in the 2020s, America’s nemesis is now China. Taylor and Johnson spin yarns of spy activities as the Chinese snoop on a private company based out of Kentucky called Space Excursions.
The plot involves a Chinese attempt to beat Americans back to the Moon. When Dreamscape, Space Excursions’ lunar-bound spacecraft carrying billionaires on a trip around the Moon, receives a plea for help via radio transmissions as it passes sixty-five miles over the lunar surface, NASA decides to make an emergency rescue journey to save the stranded Chinese astronauts, or taikonauts. The crew from China includes a commie antagonist who’d rather die than be rescued by America, setting the stage for science fiction drama.
The flirtation with danger is all too real. While communicating with mission control when his commander gets stuck outside an Orion space capsule (the actual name for the Constellation spacecraft until President Obama canceled the program) during an EVA (spacewalk) to unfurl a stubborn solar panel while returning to Earth, astronaut Tony Chow receives this chilling message:
Tony, I wish there was something we could do. In a few
minutes, you’re going to skim the outer part of the Earth’s
atmosphere at more than twenty thousand miles per hour. Let
me put that another way; the relative wind velocity around
the outside of the Orion will be twenty thousand miles per
hour. And as you begin to enter the atmosphere, the
atmospheric friction will superheat much of the atmosphere
around the Orion to many thousands of degrees. There is
simply no way that an astronaut in a spacesuit can survive
that. Even if Bill could anchor himself to the ship, he
would be fried.
At the book’s end, Taylor and Johnson share their opinions about the shambolic state in which the Bush and Obama administrations have left NASA, giving the reader a unique, expert criticism that other science fiction writers cannot match. If you want to understand the real-life dilemma that America’s role in space exploration faces, Back To The Moon is the adventurous ticket. Feb. 2010
Edward Reynolds is a writer in Birmingham.