Part I Post #1: Teaser
Part I Post #1: Teaser
Wernher von Braun was not a happy man. Entering his Cocoa Beach hotel room, he slammed the door behind him and headed straight for the minibar. Grabbing a bottle of Bourbon, he poured himself a large glass and gulped down a mouthful.
He’d just left a celebration party. His celebration party.
The launch had gone perfectly, of course, just as he knew it would. Just as he’d been telling everyone it would since Project Orbiter began. A slight modification to the Redstone missile, add a cluster of solid rockets to the top and Bingo! A simple, effective space launcher, ready to go at minimal cost. And it had worked. This afternoon the Juno rocket – his rocket – had placed a satellite into Earth orbit.
That rocket was the culmination of a dream for von Braun. He had dedicated his life to rocketry and the goal of exploring outer space. The pursuit of that dream by any means had led him from the suburbs of Berlin to the Baltic coast, and finally all the way to the United States. And now here it was! The dream fulfilled – a rocket into space!
Von Braun gulped down the rest of the Bourbon and poured another, eyes turned downwards. Yes, a great triumph, for him personally and for the United States – but to be second! For a man as driven as he, it was almost too much to bear.
If only they’d listened! He had been ready to make an orbital launch almost two years ago, but he’d been forced to hold back, even to add ballast to the rocket to make sure it didn’t enter orbit by mistake! And before that, the years wasted at Fort Bliss, he and his team of German rocket experts left kicking their heels whilst the Americans debated what to do with them. Given the support he’d asked for, the United States could have entered the Space Age in 1953 instead of 1958!
Even given all that, von Braun might have been able to take some small comfort from this belated success. But after all his hard work, to have been beaten into space! Beaten... by the Navy!
Three Months Earlier…
Vasily Mishin was not a happy man. He should have been. He had been dreaming of space since the 1930s. Inspired by the works of Tsiolkovsky, he’d joined that happy group of rocketeers at GIRD, then stayed with them as they had been re-formed into the Reaction-Engine Scientific Research Institute. Happy days, before the purges, with Tsander, Glushko, Tikhonravov and the others, working on the cutting edge of science and technology. And here he was, a quarter of a century later, watching his country’s first space rocket as it prepared to launch the satellite he and his bureau had worked so hard on stand ready on the pad under the bright Kazakh sun.
The rocket should have been inspiring. Mishin found it sinister.
“Blow my brains out! If it isn’t my old comrade Vasily Pavlovich! When did you escape exile in Miass?”
Mishin turned to see Aleksei Isaev emerge from the bunker, cigarette in hand. “Hello, Aleksei,” Mishin replied. “I came with Mikhail Kladiyevich to see off his satellite. Assuming that poisoned firecracker can make it off the pad.”
“Come now Vasily,” Isaev admonished him. “It’s not like it was before you left. Vladimir Nikolaevich has solved the teething problems now. They’ve made it two successful launches out of two since his team went through the project. Ol’ Number Six will deliver your package, don’t worry.”
“I hope so,” replied Mishin. “If that thing explodes on the launch pad, how do you suppose they'll clean up such a toxic mess? Assuming of course we survived that long.”
“Vasily, Vasily, still with this argument?” Isaev blew smoke and shook his head. “I know it’s a risk. I was here at Tyuratam during the accident, remember? I saw what can happen. But procedures have been tightened since then. Everyone takes much more care. It won’t happen again.”
Mishin’s eyes flashed anger. “But it’s not necessary, Aleksei! If they’d just listened to me, we could have an effective, safe rocket with which to journey into space!”
Isaev was about the answer, but just then a siren sounded and an announcement came over the tannoy:
“Attention! Your attention please! Launch in ten minutes! Ten minutes to launch!”
Isaev turned to his old comrade, placing a friendly hand on his arm. “Come on,” he said. “There’s no point re-fighting lost battles. Let us go together to the launch control room and see if our Comrade Chief Designer Chelomei can make it three out of three.”
Nineteen Years Earlier…
Cold. Hunger. They were his world.
When he’d first received word of his transfer from Kolyma, his fellow prisoners had found as many spare clothes as they could and given them to him, to keep him warm on the journey.
Forced to make his own way, one of the sweaters they’d donated had to be handed over as the price of hitching the 150 kilometres to Magadan on a passing truck. But even had he kept the sweater, the Siberian winter would still have found him.
Cold. Minus forty degrees centigrade. The snow thick upon the ground. A few extra shirts were no defence.
Perhaps if he’d left one day earlier, he’d have made it in time to catch the ship. But that ship, the last of the season, was already far out in the Okhotsk Sea by the time he reached the town.
Instead he was forced to stay in Magadan. He’d sought shelter in a local Army barracks, but had been discovered. The soldiers kicked him out of their warm wooden shelters, back out into the snow.
Hunger. Two days now since his last meal. At Kolyma he’d learned to be grateful if that day’s soup ration was just slightly thicker than the day before. Two days ago had been a thin day.
Here there was no soup. Even a crust of bread might have been enough. But there was nothing.
If he were less hungry, less cold, his last thoughts might have dwelled on his former life. Moscow in the summer. His RNII comrades and their rockets. Xenia. As it was, when the time came all he could feel was a numb weariness.
Alone and forgotten on a freezing Siberian night, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev closed his eyes for the last time.