The Apollo Murders
reviewed by Barbara Saffer
Chris Hadfield is a Canadian former military test pilot and astronaut with a string of accomplishments in space, including being a mission specialist, operating the first Canadian robotic arm, doing spacewalks, flying on a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, visiting the Russian space station MIR, and commanding the International Space Station.
Hadfield even made a video of himself singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on the International Space Station (available on YouTube). Hadfield uses his space experience to good purpose in this thriller, a superb blend of fact and fiction set in the midst of the Cold War.
After World War II the United States and the Soviet Union were in a race to conquer space, for national security reasons, foreign policy objectives, and bragging rights. The Soviets were frustrated when the United States was the first to land a man on the Moon, and closely followed America’s subsequent space program, especially Apollo 18 – which was to be America’ s last manned Moon flight, scheduled for Spring 1973.
Navy test pilot Kaz Zemeckis was well on his way to being an astronaut when a collision between his F-4 Phantom and a seagull took his left eye, which is now a glass prosthesis. So Kaz became an expert in space-borne electro-optics and is currently the crew military liaison for Apollo 18, America’s first all-military spaceflight.
The designated Apollo 18 astronauts are Tom Hoffman, Luke Hemming, and Michael Esdale, and the benign goal is for Tom and Luke to walk on the Moon and collect samples while Michael pilots the lunar orbiter. The astronauts repeatedly practice in NASA’s simulator, as well as in planes and helicopters, to prepare for their mission.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union isn’t sitting idle. The Russians launch the Almaz Space Station, an armed spy station with enough resolution to see everything America does. Russia also lands a sophisticated lunar rover called Lunokhod, which seems especially interested in a particular site on the Moon.
When the military gets wind of these developments Kaz is instructed to convey new instructions to the Apollo 18 astronauts. In the strictest secrecy, they’re to sabotage Almaz in Earth orbit before they head for the Moon. And on the lunar surface, the crew is to destroy Lunokhod and take samples from its area of interest. These new goals require complete rejiggering of mission preparations as well as flight plans, landing site, space walks, and so on.
During rehearsals for the Apollo 18 mission there’s a deadly incident that results in a change in the crew, and the subsequent investigation – while the astronauts are in space – leads to suspicion of murder. Moreover, additional ominous things are happening. The disabling of Almaz has unexpected developments; the Soviets are blackmailing an Apollo 18 astronaut; and Russia can communicate with Apollo 18 without NASA’s knowledge. All this results in a cat and mouse game between Apollo 18, the United States, and the Soviet Union, with each trying to outmaneuver the other.
Kaz notices small oddities during the Apollo 18 mission, but nothing immediately rings alarm bells in his mind. Thus, for most of the expedition, Kaz believes things are proceeding as scheduled. But a test pilot is trained to trust his instincts, and Kaz has excellent intuition.
The story includes real-life structures, such as the Almaz Space Station and the Lunokhod rover, as well as real people, including President Richard Nixon; NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz; Apollo Program Director Sam Philllips; American astronaut Al Shepherd; KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov; Almaz designer Vladimir Chelomei; Lunokhod specialist Gabdul Latypov; and many more, whom Hadfield lists at the end of the book. Hadfield also includes scads of technical details about the helicopters, planes, rockets, spacecraft, and equipment in the story, as well as descriptions of things like g-forces; weightlessness; re-entry; and vomiting, peeing, and pooping in space. Science and engineering nerds will be entranced while lay readers may be tempted to skim a bit, but it’s all quite informative.
The book is fascinating alternative history and is so authentic, one can almost believe it really happened. There’s room for a sequel, and with luck Hadfield will write one.