Ocean of Storms: A Timeline of A Scientific America

Perhaps sufficiently so that a mission could go there that dispenses with the use of Olympus.
But like the Shackleton mission, it would have to be significantly shorter than more accessible sites. I imagine six days would be enough to gather some interesting samples, but if the entire rim is too rocky to use a rover, then there is the danger of overworking the astronauts if they have to walk everywhere for six days, especially in a spacesuit.
Too rocky for a rover implies that it might be too rocky for a safe landing.

Well, that *was* the debate, and it was never really resolved. Tycho got cut mainly because its risk/benefit calculation did not measure up to Apollo planners as highly as Alphonsus crater, Gassendi crater, or Taurus-Littrow - at least, based on the data they had on the Tycho site, which was admittedly limited. There were other risks, after all:

The USGS/Bellcomm team acknowledged that the Tycho site contained challenges beyond its position outside the Apollo Zone. The site was sufficiently rugged and undulating that the astronauts were likely to lose line-of-site contact with their LM's radio antennas as they walked, causing them to lose radio contact temporarily with Earth. In addition, the site had not been imaged from orbit at sufficiently high resolution. If this were judged to be a major constraint, the team suggested, then the Apollo Tycho mission could land closer to Surveyor 7, where the surface had been well characterized. This would, however, create its own problems, the most serious of which would be to place much of the Traverse III loop beyond the planned 2.5-kilometer operational radius of the mission's moonwalks.​
In early 1970, NASA engineers, never enthusiastic about the Tycho proposal, rejected the region as being too rugged for an Apollo landing. Some scientists, however, continued to sing the site's praises. They pointed to the fact that Surveyor 7 had successfully landed without the precise terminal guidance an astronaut could provide. They hoped that Apollo 16 or 17 might be diverted to Tycho. In the end, no Apollo mission visited Tycho, leaving to Surveyor 7 the honor of having the highest-latitude landing site of any spacecraft that has soft-landed on the moon.​

At some point, however, we'll surely get a mission there, and finally clarify just what could have been possible at Tycho - and much more besides.

For an alt-history where Apollo continues, and continues to grow in capabilities, however, it almost surely would have gotten renewed attention. Especially if an orbital mapping mission could deliver favorable imagery for Tycho.
OK, admit it. How much of this pining for Tycho is a subliminal need to locate and excavate Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One?
Especially if an orbital mapping mission could deliver favorable imagery for Tycho.
I mean that was the point of Apollo 14 ITTL, if they had access to Keyhole-level imagery then they would be able to tell just how rocky the terrain near Tycho is. If Tycho truly isn't suited for manned exploration maybe Copernicus? But then again, IOTL the Copernicus site was deemed unnecessary because Apollo 12 sampled Copernicus ejecta. Still would be a hell of a place to land though.
you are probably right, i have a preference for the crater Plato (because of space 1999)
There's also the wreckage of the destroyed military base from the humans who originally colonized Earth in one of the walls of Gassendi Crater.
(Edmond Hamilton's "The Haunted Stars")
Take a look at the chapter "Mischief Managed."

And for the record, I'm still working on this timeline. The next post is about 1/2 finished. I look forward to sharing with all of you the upcoming chapter: Icewar
Not about the upcoming post, but would you be able to clear up some of the Tycho things we were talking about?
Take a look at the chapter "Mischief Managed."

And for the record, I'm still working on this timeline. The next post is about 1/2 finished. I look forward to sharing with all of you the upcoming chapter: Icewar

"Icewar" eh?
Odd, a chapter on a late-70s micro-wargame about a Soviet-Analog invasion of Alaska... Not sure what that will have to do with the timeline but willing to wait and see... :D

Not about the upcoming post, but would you be able to clear up some of the Tycho things we were talking about?
The style of Ocean of Storms is specifically designed for me not to answer questions like the ones that came up about Tycho. I could not possibly come up with explanations or solutions better than my readers, so I'm not going to try. If anyone else wants to take a crack at it, feel free. If you want telemetry data and delta-vee calculations there are a bunch of timelines that can give that to you. I can't play at that level, so I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to.
The style of Ocean of Storms is specifically designed for me not to answer questions like the ones that came up about Tycho. I could not possibly come up with explanations or solutions better than my readers, so I'm not going to try. If anyone else wants to take a crack at it, feel free. If you want telemetry data and delta-vee calculations there are a bunch of timelines that can give that to you. I can't play at that level, so I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to.
Aye, fair enough. If I was writing that I either would have made Tycho an Apollo 21-style shorter stay with more consumables for the CMP, or made Apollo 17 a mission to Copernicus if you really want an interesting scenic crater. Tycho is just too south for the CSM to drop off the LM, make a plane change to rendezvous with Olympus, then make the plane change again to pick them up.
XLII: Icewar New

29 July 1988

Site 112

Baikonur Cosmodrome

45° 59′ 45” N 63° 33′ 50″ E

Artem was getting angry. Three times this week, the commissary had been out of chicken by the time he’d gotten there. His coworkers would down their tools and scramble as soon as the clock reached 11:45, but he took pride in his labor. A job could not be left half-complete. If it was, he would never be able to enjoy his lunch, chicken or no chicken.

But he was getting tired of being at the back of the line and being forced to eat the horrific waste that the commissary insisted on calling meatloaf.

It was a Friday. Tomorrow morning, he’d catch a flight back to civilization. Moscow was beautiful in August and he was determined to let nothing spoil his mood.

For once in his life, the work would wait. It was now 11:36 and he would not eat that meatloaf yet again.

There were only eight bolts left to check on the cargo truss. He had finished twenty-four already. It was time to delegate a bit. He called over the kid who had joined his work detail back in the spring. The eager twenty-two-year-old was always excited to be working on anything related to the rockets. This would be the thrill of the year for him.

“Lev, come here, I want to show you how to do this.”

The young man leaned in to study this latest task. He took a few minutes to show the boy how the bolts were tightened and then verified.

Artem’s watch now read 11:43. Lev would be fine eating meatloaf.

“добро, now, do the same for the last seven. Then you can get some lunch.”

“Спасибо, товарищ,” Lev said. Artem wasn’t listening. His stomach was growling.


9 August 1988

Central Intelligence Agency

Directorate of Science and Technology

Langley, VA

Sam Donovan was displeased.

“Did they not understand what I needed?” he asked.

TJ answered, “I think they did, but they just didn’t care.”

“We do serious work over here,” Sam said.

“So do they,” TJ answered.

“I’m looking at considerable evidence against that theory,” Sam said.

The young man in the polo shirt and khakis looked nervous, his eyes darting back and forth between the two men who had summoned him.

“Can I speak now?” the young man said.

“We’d prefer you didn’t,” Sam said.

The young man blanched, “Um… okay. Can I ask…”

Sam Donovan held up a hand to cut him off, “How long have you been at the Iran desk?”

“Um… about six weeks,” he responded.

“Have you got a name?” TJ asked.

“We don’t care about his name,” Sam Donovan said.

“Um.. my name is Isaac Sinclaire,” said the young man.

“Isaac Sinclaire? Seriously? That’s your real name?” TJ asked.

“Yeah,” Isaac said.

“Buddy, you work for the CIA. Never tell anyone your real name!” Sam said.

“Sam, stop screwing with him,” TJ admonished.

“Why shouldn’t I?” Sam asked.

“Interdepartmental relations,” TJ said.

Sam scoffed, “I’m looking at what interdepartmental relations has done for me so far today. I’m not impressed. Isaac, what’s your suit size?” Sam asked.

Isaac’s eyebrows went up, “Um… forty-two.”

“Are you asking me or telling me?” Sam said.

“I’m a forty-two,” Isaac said.

Sam called out to the row of cubicles behind Isaac, “Jimmy! Run down to operations, tell them I need a suit for this man. Forty-two, and tell them I need something that looks like something that somebody over the age of thirty would wear,” Sam said.

Isaac couldn’t see Jimmy, but heard a quick, “Got it, chief,” followed by the sound of loafers running fast on carpet.

“And a tie, for Christ’s sake!” Sam called out.

“Can someone please tell me what is going on?” Isaac said.

“Excellent question,” Sam said. “Answer mine first. How old are you?”

“Twenty-five,” Isaac said.

“Oh dear God in heaven!” Sam said.

Isaac looked ever more like a frightened rabbit.

“Sam, would you please stop scaring the crap out of this guy? It’s only going to make today harder,” TJ said.

“I’m the only one taking this seriously!” Sam said.

“They sent who they could spare,” TJ said.

“Ugh,” Sam said, walking back into his office, exiting the bullpen and the conversation.

“If someone could just tell me what’s going on,” Isaac said.

TJ put a hand on his shoulder and steered him towards an empty desk, “Isaac, relax, you’re about to have the easiest day of government employment anyone has ever had. All we need you to do is wear a suit and look important.”

“I don’t understand,” Isaac said.

“And that’s a big benefit to us in this situation,” TJ said.

“I don’t…” Isaac started.

“In about an hour, you, me, Sam, and a few other people are getting on a plane to Houston,” TJ said.

“What’s in Houston?” Isaac asked.

“NASA,” TJ said.

Isaac’s eyes went wider, “Okay… why?”

“Again, you ask good questions. I can see why they like you at the Iran desk,” TJ said.

“Thanks,” Isaac replied.

TJ decided to help him out, “You’re here because somewhere in the KGB, they have dossiers on everyone who works for the CIA. Believe it or not, that includes you.”

“That makes sense,” Isaac said.

“Also, somewhere between the front entrance out there, our friendly local military base and Ellington Air Force Base there are Russian spies,” TJ said.

“Um… seriously?” Isaac asked.

“Don’t get excited. It’s not like James Bond. These are the boring kind of spies that just take pictures for their bosses to look at later,” TJ said.

“Then what…”

“We want them to take your picture,” TJ said.

“Again, why?” Isaac asked.

“So that when their bosses look at the photos, they see someone from the CIA’s Iran desk was on this flight. That way, they’ll assume the meeting we’re going to is about protecting U.S. space assets from potential Iranian retaliatory attacks.”

“Like the Rogers bombing?” Isaac asked.

“Bingo! If the Iranians could bomb the wife of a Navy Captain, who’s to say they couldn’t do the same to the VAB?”

“The VAB?” Isaac asked.

“It’s the big building where we put the rockets together, Ike. Try to keep up. You’re in the CIA after all.”

“Okay. Okay. Why is your boss so pissed at me?” Isaac asked.

“Because to sell the ruse to the Russians, we were hoping for someone a little… let’s say older,” TJ said.

“I’ve been here for six weeks,” Isaac said.

“Yeah, we were hoping they’d send someone who looks important,” TJ said.

“I’m sorry,” Isaac said.

“We all are, buddy. We all are,” TJ said.

“Is there something I can…”

“Nah, it’s fine. We’re gonna get you a suit and a briefcase. Make you look good and then we’ll walk out to the van and, again, all you have to do is look like you’re in charge. Point at people and say things like, ‘I need you to get that report to me by the end of the week.’” TJ said.

“So I’m part of a cover?” Isaac asked.

“Now you’re getting it. We want the Russians thinking we’re going to Houston to talk about Iran,” TJ said.

“What are we going to talk about?”

TJ clucked his cheeks, “It’s like that movie Top Gun: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

9 August 1988

Johnson Space Center

Houston, TX

29° 33’ 47” N 95° 05’ 28” W

With the kid from the Iran desk leading them through the parking lot, Sam Donovan had time to take a look around. It seemed that a lot of NASA employees were going electric these days. The solar chargers at the end of each row were connected to a small fleet of vehicles. Federal employees were allowed, and in many cases, encouraged to use power stations at their jobs to keep their new solar-powered cars charged up. The push to decrease dependence on foreign oil had been the market’s response to the volatility of the Middle East in the last two decades. With the recent tensions with Iran, there had been a run on solar-powered cars as a patriotic gesture.

A few years ago, Ford had come out with the Starfire, which wasn’t really popular until the Suez incident in ’83, when oil prices spiked. That fall, Chevy had come out with the Lightning, which everyone agreed was a better name, but the sales numbers hadn’t shook out that way. Pontiac’s Sunbird-E was still cutting into a share of the market, and was well-represented in the parking lot.

Sam had been considering making the switch from gas to electric and this was certainly a good ad for it. NASA didn’t employ stupid people and if this many smart people thought it was a good call, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree.

The conference room inside was chilled. Sam was thankful for industrial AC given Houston’s weather in August. The team handed out binders which would have to be collected at the end of the meeting. Isaac had been left in the hallway, with a soundproof door between him and the answers he’d been looking for all day.

The assembled NASA brass was not what it used to be. Sam counted four women among the decision-makers in front of him, and he was pleased to see a more diverse cast of characters than he tended to find in Langley.

The center director called the meeting to order and gave him a quick introduction and Sam took the lectern with some of the government’s most brilliant minds giving him their undivided attention.

“Ladies and gentlemen, in the past five days, we’ve seen a flurry of activity from the Soviets at Baikonur. It’s become clear that their activities may represent a threat against American assets in orbit and on the lunar surface. We are here today to brief you on these activities and prepare you for what may occur in the near future.”

“On Friday evening, under the cover of darkness, this ship was rolled out to the launch pad.”

The slide came up on the screen and he took a moment to allow for the audible gasps and rumblings to take their course.

“Big son of a bitch,” someone said.

“This is the Soviet’s newest craft. We believe she’s called the Buran. Buran is Russian for blizzard, or snowstorm. As you can see, she’s got a very large cargo bay. Stem to stern she runs more than one hundred and twenty feet long. Buran is outfitted with the latest in Soviet NERVA technology,” Donovan said.

“A nuclear engine?” Judy Resnik asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Donovan confirmed. “The ship represents a great leap forward in terms of Soviet launch capabilities. We believe that she’s designed to be a kind of space… shuttle. Taking men and equipment to and from orbit, both low-earth and lunar orbit, that is. Doing the job of both our Clippers and our Trucks.”

A whistle sounded through the room.

“What are they launching her on?” Lunney asked.

Donovan queued the next slide which showed Buran being raised. The big white tank and boosters were clearly visible.

“This is called the Energia, or ‘Energy’ system. Energia is a completely new launch platform. It’s powered by the four boosters seen here. Each of which has the Russian RD-170 engine. The main core has four of the RD-120’s. There are outlines for both if you look at the second tab in your binders.”

He gave everyone a moment to catch up. Frantic turning of the pages and speed reading ensued.

Glynn Lunney spoke first, “This is bigger than anything they’ve used previously.”

“With the notable exception of the N-1 which never had a successful launch,” Donovan confirmed. “If Energia can successfully bring Buran to orbit, she would be the most powerful proven launch system on the planet.”

“What’s Buran’s payload?” asked Resnik, twirling a pen between her fingers.

“That has not been made clear at this time,” Donovan said.

“You have photos of the rollout, but you don’t know what’s aboard? Don’t you have spies or something that can…”

“I’m not able to speak on our assets abroad, but unofficially, I can tell you that, since the Venus disaster, the Soviet space apparatus has been incredibly quiet,” Donovan said.

“But clearly busy,” Lunney added.

“What we have now is a situation where the Soviet left hand often doesn’t even know that there is a right hand, much less what it’s doing,” Donovan said. A silent nod passed through the assembled personnel.

“You came all this way. You must have a theory about the payload.” Resnik said.

“Based on some of the handling operations, there is a concern that the payload has a nuclear component,” Donovan said.

A moment of pause hit the meeting like a shockwave.

“A nuclear component?” Resnik asked. “Like a bomb, or like a reactor?”

“All I can tell you is that there have been similar handling procedures that were used during the launch of the Venus project. Some of those procedures would not be necessary unless the cargo had a radioactive element.

“An element not related to the engine?” Lunney asked.

“We can’t say for sure,” Donovan said.

“Comforting,” Resnik said. “So, the next $64,000 dollar question. Where’s it going?”

“We are assuming that, given the capabilities and payload, Buran will be going to the Moon,” Donovan said.

“What’s that based on?” Lunney asked.

“The payload, whatever it may be, is positioned on what appears to be a landing module. See tab four in your binders. The lander has no heat shield for reentry, and that would lead us to believe that it’s designed for a lunar landing.”

“Looks like what they used for their old LK’s,” Resnik said.

“It’s a similar design, as far as we can tell,” Donovan confirmed.

“Wouldn’t that indicate that it’s a reactor?” Resnik asked. “If it was a bomb, wouldn’t it be easier just to have it blow up prior to landing and not bother with putting a rocket on it?”

“That is certainly a valid line of thought,” Donovan said, “But in another way, if you wanted to attack Moonbase, the safest way would be to soft-land a bomb on the surface and then confirm its positioning prior to detonation. Trying to arm, steer, and detonate a nuclear payload by remote would present a challenge all its own.”

“Is Buran carrying a crew?”

“We believe it is,” Donovan said. “Though it’s capable of flying by remote control from the ground.”

“I hope you brought more than just bad news. Do you have a recommendation for our people?” Resnik asked.

Donovan nodded and moved to another tab in his binder, “The only things interesting at the South Pole are ice, the sun, and the base. Nuclear means they don’t care about the sun.”

“So, either they want the base, or they want the ice,” Lunney said.

“Or both,” said Resnik.

“That’s our consensus,” Donovan replied.

“If it’s the base…” Lunney said.

“Then they’ll take it,” Resnik said declaratively. She continued, “And it’ll be an act of war. But we don’t have weapons up there. If cosmonauts hop out of that lander with AK-47’s, then the only thing we can do is lock the doors and hope they go away.”

Donovan cleared his throat, “We’ve been preparing a report on how to fashion some weapons for a counter-assault based on the materials available…”

“David Abbott is the base commander and he’s not going to do anything like that,” Resnik said, cutting him off.

“It may be necessary to…”

“David Abbott flew combat missions over Hanoi and came home and became a fervent anti-war protester. He’s not going to pick up a pistol, let alone cannibalize the life support systems to make one,” Resnik said.

“Judy, you want to let him talk?” Lunney said.

“We don’t have time to waste time. Talk about ice,” Resnik said.

Donovan turned a few pages, “Moonbase’s water supply has not ever depended on the local lunar ice. The well of darkness has not been explored for a variety of reasons and because of that, the claims on local resources are still legally dubious.”

“We wanted to be very careful. We’re talking about exploring an area that hasn’t seen light in a few million years,” Lunney said. “We’re working on specialized hardware that can handle the terrain. It’s not like the ice is going anywhere.”

“That’s understandable, but our orbital surveys and the unmanned ground scouts have indicated a significant amount of water ice and at the moment, if the Soviets aren’t as careful as we are, they will be able to make a claim to the ice. It’s not enough to know it’s there. We have to do something with it.”

“So we’ve got to send our people on dangerous maneuvers because the Russians might be landing in the heart of darkness?” Lunney asked.

“That is our recommendation at this time. If we can show that we’re utilizing the resource, even in small amounts…” Donovan said.

“I’m not having our astronauts drinking this stuff. We’d need a battery of tests back on Earth to verify safety,” Lunney said.

“Scientific research should be enough to satisfy a right of claim,” Donovan said.

Resnik turned to the director, “What about just evacuating Moonbase?”

The director shook his head, “I spoke with the President this morning. We are not evacuating the Moon.”

“A bit macho, isn’t it? This is still a civilian endeavor, right?” Resnik asked.

“If we abandon our position on the Moon, it’s possible that the Russians could access our base and claim it as salvage.”

“You’re kidding me,” Resnik said. “There’s no way…”

“International space law is largely unwritten. Imagine the coup it would be for them, and how easy it would seem to pull off. We’d see something nuclear coming, assume the worst and evacuate. When the lander reaches the surface, two cosmonauts pop out and walk into Moonbase, find it empty, and then set up inside, claiming the right of salvage. You’d catch up twenty years of spaceflight with one mission,” the director said.

“Do we really think they’d be that crazy?” Lunney said.

Donovan spoke up, “There’s a theory that’s going around that says we are less than four years out from the Berlin Wall coming down. It’s a fringe theory at the moment, but, it’s possible that this is all just a gambit to exploit a weakness in American space security.”

“Stealing Moonbase? C’mon,” Resnik said. “That’s a little out there.”

“Is it any worse than strapping two men to a nuclear rocket and sending them to Venus?” Lunney said.

A beat passed. The thought went around the room.

“The Soviet space program has a history of Hail Mary plays,” Sam Donovan said.

“And Buran is a hell of a quarterback,” Lunney said.

10 August 1988


Expedition 15

Day 27

“So… the Russians are coming and you’re ordering us to make snow cones?” David Abbott said.

“David, that’s a bit of an oversimplification,” Lunney said.

“No, I get it. The whole thing is crazy, but I get it. Honestly, it’s long overdue. We should have been down there back in ’85.”

“We are working on plans for a survey using Rover 2.”

“That’s the only rover that can handle this type of thing. Rover 1 is for construction and the buggy is just for running around. I’ll have James and Tina start charging Rover 2. We’ll need to get some supplies together. This isn’t just an out-and-back. They’ll have to spend at least a day or two down there if you want this done right.”

“Geology agrees with you, Commander. We’re going to send up a basic outline and logistics needs by tomorrow morning,” Lunney said.

“It’s always the stuff we don’t think about, isn’t it?”

“Speaking of which, we need you to switch primary communications over to the C-band. We need you to have someone keep radio chatter on Alpha and Omni as if normal operations are proceeding,” Lunney said.

“Say that again?” Abbott said.

“You heard me right. We can’t let on that we’re going into Shackleton. If we did, people would ask why. There are folks out there who know our schedules better than I do. Kids. You know,” Lunney said.


“And we can’t very well say that there’s a secret Russian ship coming to the Moon and so we’re in scramble mode. It’d start a panic,” Lunney said.

“Ai-yi-yi, can’t you just make up a cover story or something so we don’t have to compromise basic communications?” Abbott asked.

“The people who know our schedules also know when we’re bullshitting them. Nothing leaks from our end. It’s the last thing we need right now,” Lunney said.

“Okay, okay, I get it. I’m just not a fan,” Abbott said.

“Did you ever see that Twilight Zone episode about the shelter?” Lunney asked.

“Yeah. Chilling,” Abbott said. A beat passed, “When is Buran launching?”

“She’s on the pad now. We really don’t know more than that.”

10 August 1988

Pad 31/6

Baikonur Cosmodrome

45° 59′ 45.6″ N 63° 33′ 50.4″ E

“три, два, один,” came from the radio.

Anatoly didn’t hear the call. The sound of those massive engines below drowned out any hope of hearing the radio. He and Sergei were consumed by the roar of the rockets, sending the Motherland’s great white hope into the heavens.

“Flite Control, this is the Buran. We are free and flying,” Anatoly said.

The ship came through its automatic roll and pitch maneuver. The computers chugging to correct the course for low Earth orbit. Not for the last time, Anatoly was grateful for the programming engineers who had so lovingly created these computers. Their labor meant that he was not required to fly this beautiful giant manually. It would have been agonizing to twist and pull the control yoke under the weight of four gravities. He allowed himself a groan and heard a chorus as Sergei joined him. The thrust at his back was not forgiving.

Minutes went by as the pair watched the skies turn from a searing blue to an infinite black. Along the way, the rumble and roar had subsided and they felt the gentle thuds of their Energia booster falling back into the vicious gravity well that they had barely escaped.

With a brief burn from their orbital engines, the Soviet Air Force's proudest sons brought Buran into a stable orbit around the planet. Coming over the coastline of California, the Moon slowly rose before them. Anatoly pointed a gloved finger from the left-hand seat.

Sergei nodded, “красивая.” Beautiful indeed. He would have to agree. Flite Control gave them just a single orbit to check Buran’s systems. When they reported all was well, the command was given.

With their helmets stowed, Anatoly and Sergei each reached for the necklaces concealed by their flight suits. The thin chains each held a single key. With practiced precision, the pair inserted their keys into the panel marked ядерный двигатель. In unison, the locks were turned and the panel activated.

Anatoly knew it bordered on treasonous, but he couldn’t help but mouth a silent prayer as he entered the command sequence to ignite the engine. He had looked up to Yuri Romanenko as a trusted mentor. Not a day went by where he didn’t think about Yuri’s final moments.

His body clenched as the engine fired. Fearing a cruel ending to his great adventure, he was braced for a much more violent motion than what was achieved. The escaping hydrogen, flung off at incredible speed, simply gave a slow, steady push at his back, flinging Buran and her precious cargo into the infinite.

Anatoly allowed himself a glance at the horizon, daring to take his eyes away from the instrument panel for a moment to enjoy this view of Earth. It would be a while before he would have a horizon to view, rather than the Earth as a whole. While it was still close enough to enjoy fine detail, he took a moment to take in this incredible oasis of life in the cold, uncaring darkness.

As he had on his first flight, he winced at the thought that men down there could spread their hatreds into the stars. The violence of men had no place in the heavens.

Then, with the devotion to duty that had defined his successes in life, he returned to monitoring the sensors that held his fate in their readouts.
Buran orbit.png

14 August 1988

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)

Colorado Springs, CO

38° 44′ 33″ N 104° 50′ 54″ W

Luke Haysey had stared at the photographs for long enough. He decided to check in with his supervisor.

“Captain?” he said, poking his head in the door.

Captain Sharon Richards looked up from her reports with bloodshot eyes. She checked her watch, sighed and waved him in, “Your shift ended three hours ago. What are you still doing here?”

The young lieutenant shrugged.

Richards continued, “What have you got, Luke?”

“Uh… not quite sure. It’s Baikonur from last week,” he said, handing her a folder.

She opened it. It showed a hangar seen from directly above. There was a wingtip sticking out from the hangar door, “This is Buran.”

“That’s the thing. I don’t think it is. The timeline doesn’t match up. Based on our estimates, Buran would have already started to be fitted to the Energia at this point.”

Richards took off her glasses and wrinkled the corner of her mouth, “Well, either our intelligence on their prep work is a little off or…”

“Or…” Haysey echoed.

“Oh… no way,” she said, reaching for the phone on the corner of her desk.

14 August 1988


Expedition 15

Day 30

“Base, this is Rover 2. We are cresting the summit now. Please light up the Christmas tree for us, over.”

“Copy, Rover 2. Lights coming on, now.”

At the crest of the crater, by the old solar arrays, a small tripod had been constructed with a radio repeater and four floodlights taken from the emergency system inside the habitat. The kludge of parts, lovingly referred to as “the Christmas tree,” now cast light into the depths of Shackleton crater for the first time in human history. Rover 2 passed within ten yards of the tree as it drove over the crest. Tina Knight, formerly of the University of Wyoming and the US Geological Survey, activated the rover’s headlights as it entered the bowl of darkness, an area where sunlight was simply never seen.

“We’re entering the crater now. Seeing fairly standard rock and boulder layouts,” Scott MacDonald said. MacDonald, of the Citadel, United States Marine Corps, and the Thunderbolts of VFMA-23 was used to handling equipment that went much faster than the leisurely five miles per hour of Rover 2. Still, with a father who handled eighteen-wheelers, MacDonald understood the basic trucker’s advice of “don’t outdrive your headlights.” This was advice that was as pertinent on the Moon as it was on I-95. He didn’t mind the slow descent one bit. Indeed, this little babysitting ice hunt made him feel every inch of Star Trek nostalgia. For the first time in his career at NASA, he was truly going where no man had gone before.

Ahead, the grey landscape was haloed by a ring of blackness. The lights could only do but so much in this pool of darkness. Despite the knowledge that this was virgin terrain, ancient fears could not be so easily sated. All three astronauts tensed at each new rock and ridge that was encountered, silently nervous at the prospect of meeting some unfathomable monster unknown to science. In a place that did not know light, there was always something to fear.

Rover 2 made frequent pauses to allow the two onboard geologists to consult with Houston. For more than two hours, the descent continued down the seven-mile radius of the crater. After a few backtrackings, something had become clear: there were now very few large rocks in sight.

“Houston, we’re seeing a smoothing out of the terrain. I think we may be approaching a new type of area. Can you ask geology if they concur, over?” MacDonald said.

Silence came back.

“Houston, Rover 2, do you read me?”

Instead of Mission Control, he heard the voice of David Abbott in his headset, “Scott, Houston’s having some trouble getting you on relay. I’m telling them what you’re seeing, but the TV transmissions are kind of in and out. Per their recommendation, switch over to channel three and let’s see if they can work with that a little better. Do you read?”

“Copy you, Dave. Give us a second to switch over,” MacDonald nodded to his other charge, Mission Specialist Jerry Lu. Lu turned a knob to the “3” indicator and gave a thumbs-up.

“How’s that looking, Dave?” Scott asked.

“Give ‘em a minute to confirm,” Dave said.

The second-in-command of Moonbase took a moment to stare at the two geologists that he was in charge of on this little field trip. He felt very protective over the scientists that he had ferried down to the lunar surface. He was going to take very good care of these two. No redshirts on his team.

“Scott, they’re putting us on a hold right now. I think if you want to have Jerry and Tina start to prep, that wouldn’t be a bad idea, but they’re saying stop and wait at this point, over,” Abbott said over the radio.

“What’s their reasoning? We’re stable here. Is there a problem?” MacDonald asked.

Buran just launched its payload.”

14 August 1988

Buran OK-1.01

Lunar Orbit - Altitude: 120 km

MET: 101:15:32

Anatoly fired the thrusters to push the ship forward and starboard. From the back of the flight deck, Sergei called out the relative positioning of the payload.

At fifty meters clearance, Flite Control affirmed their authorization for turn-around. Slowly, Anatoly spun the ship around so that it was nose to nose with its free-floating cargo.

“Flite Control, this is Buran. Requesting authorization to activate payload auto-program,” Sergei said.

A few seconds passed and Anatoly was reminded of how far from home they truly were.

Buran, this is Flite Center. Activate the payload, and change attitude for Earth-Return-Maneuvering.”

14 August 1988

SR-71 Blackbird

Altitude: 77,000 ft

Over the Caspian Sea

One could not be at this altitude without marveling at the beauty of the upper atmosphere. The gentle curve of the earth dazzled the eyes with wavering blues, blacks, and browns that marked the transitions between terra firma and the face of God. It was simply too grandiose to go unobserved. Blackbird pilots were no more immune to the beauty of their workplace than astronauts. Neither lark, eagle, nor luxury airliner would ever reach these heights. It seemed sacrilegious to tread the path of the angels on so lowly an assignment as spying, but the Air Force cared nothing for divinity, so on they flew.

If the visual was flawless, such could not be said for the audio. The incessant whine of the big engines was drowned out only slightly by the Darth Vader stylings of their breathing masks. Chatter broke up that monotonous sound.

“So, basically, we’re here because a guy sitting in an air-conditioned room in Colorado saw a smudge he can’t identify?” Jonesy said.

“I mean, that’s usually what brings us here,” Terry said.

“Oh man,” Jonesy groaned.

“Hey, it’s not always Colorado. Sometimes the guy is sitting in a room in Washington. Or Alaska. Or that place in Maryland we’re not supposed to talk about.”

“Fort Meade?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Terry said.

“My God, that’s really true, isn’t it? We go where the smudges point,” Jonesy said.

“Hey, don’t think of it as ridiculous. Think of it as job security,” Terry said.

“I guess,” Jonesy replied.

“Besides, we’ve got one hell of a view,” Terry said.

The view from an SR-71 cockpit was like nothing that was available to any member of the Air Force. At this altitude, the atmosphere was just a pale reminder of the biosphere below. The curve of the Earth bent the horizon like a bow. The eternal twilight of the upper atmosphere was not quite night or day. The sky’s color toyed with deep blacks that were challenged by the rainbows of refraction of an atmosphere that acted more as a lens than a buffer.

“What’s weird to me is the lack of ELINT. Usually, when we get these snatch and grab jobs, we’re trying to intercept a satellite signal or something. This time, we’re going the old-fashioned way with good old Kodak film. Why do you suppose?”

“Ours is not to reason why,” Terry said. “But I figure they’ve got something down there that the eggheads want to look at and all our expensive spysats are off doing other things.

“So we get to play chicken with the Soviet Air Force and all their SAMs?”

“Again, over a smudge,” Terry said.

“Ain’t this a hell of a way to make a living?”

A beat passed between them.

“If I’m gonna dodge SAMs, I’d at least like it to be over something interesting.”

“You won’t be dodging SAMs today,” Terry said.

“How do you figure?”

“Do you know how expensive a surface-to-air missile is?”

14 August 1988


Expedition 15

Day 30

Tina and Jerry emerged from the rear hatch of Rover 2. The lack of a direct signal meant that, technically, they weren’t in violation of any orders. Mission control might want them to wait inside, but if Buran was here to bomb them, they’d be just as dead in space suits as they would be in the rover. And there was no need to hold up the work on account of a slight chance of nuclear bombing. The show must go on.

Like passengers in a thick 1930’s London fog, they had exited their vehicle and were now walking a slow path in front of it. The lights from Rover 2 cut clean cones of light into the abyss of darkness before them. Their suit-mounted lights gave a bit more illumination, but this was like searching for a particular blue shirt in a walk-in closet during a blackout.

Tina was the first to find it. And oddly enough she made the discovery with her feet. The crunch of dirt under her boots came back with an odd sensation and an odd sound through the walls of the suit. Something didn’t feel right.

She checked her gauges and all was well. She took another step and felt the same unfamiliar crunch. She’d walked on regolith enough times that her toes knew it intimately. This wasn’t typical. This was slippery.

“Jerry, look down,” she said.

Tilting her suit lights as far as she could did not help in the slightest. The angle simply wasn’t there. Instead, she looked at Jerry and tried to get a light on his feet. In turn, he did the same for her.

“Hey… hey… that’s it!” Lu said.

“Have you got it?” Scott MacDonald asked over the radio.

“Tell Dave to get his snow cone maker,” Tina said, “We got ice!”

Before she could say more, a flash of light appeared overhead. For a moment, she thought she was seeing a meteor, but here on this airless stone, meteors cast no photons. The streak of flame was not glowing rock, but glowing rocket.

14 August 1988

Buran OK-1.01

Lunar Orbit - Altitude: 120 km

MET: 101:25:32

Sergei’s entire world was focused on the grainy black and white image on the six-inch screen in front of him. The landing craft had to be put down with grace and precision. Remote operations had been the pride of the Soviet space program. The Lunakhod rovers were just the most memorable example. Today, he would add his own contribution.

The camera mounted on the forward landing leg showed a snowy image of the abyss of Shackleton crater reaching out for his precious cargo. The ridge beyond was the last hurdle he had to clear. The landing point indicator was telling him that he would clear the crest, but he wasn’t as satisfied with the data. A small adjustment changed the arc that lunar gravity would complete. The rock face neared.

He let out a breath that he didn’t know he was holding as the ridge fell under the range of the camera view. The moon spread out before him like a carpet. A flat meadow of grey regolith appeared in the near field. He increased the throttle.

At fifty meters, he killed all horizontal velocity. The pitchover robbed him of the view that he needed. He switched to the secondary camera. The remote control worked perfectly. His fuel gauge indicated no trouble. At fifteen meters he put the throttle to maximum.

Final impact was at a paltry two meters per second. The lander settled into the surface, kicking up a starfish of scorched dust. He watched the slight shift of the view as the landing pads sank ever so slightly. Then a perfect stillness.

“Flite Control, this is Buran. Deployment complete.”

While Sergei confirmed the payload’s health, Anatoly monitored Buran’s internal systems. They’d done their job for the Motherland. Now they were flying for themselves.

14 August 1988

Rover 2

Expedition 15

Day 30

Jerry’s back straightened. Something was different. The vibrations through his feet changed slightly. From a soft rumble to a smaller, faster hiss of motion.

“Uh, guys?” came the call over the radio.

He turned to look back at the rover. It was ten meters away, up the slope of the crater. He could see the muddled trail of footprints that they’d made near the wheels. As he looked at them, the prints were destroyed by the rover’s big tires. It was moving.

“Scott, check your motion. We need you to stay where you are,” he said.

“It’s not me,” he said. “It’s slipping!”

Jerry felt Tina grab by the shoulder as the tires reached the edge of the ice. She pulled him close and unclipped his safety line, then did the same on her own suit.

“What are you…?” he said, not comprehending the situation.

The back tires of Rover 2 reached the ice sheet. It was skidding faster, downhill, right for them.

“Move!” Tina yelled, putting a gloved hand on his backpack and shoving him to the right.

Now Rover 2 loomed large, bearing down on them like a runaway semi.

Jerry stumbled from the push, tripping over a small frosted rock and then falling forward, landing on his side. The impact was no worse than bumping into a wall, but he was still surprised by it.

Turning back, he saw Tina leaping away from him like she was diving into a pool. His view of her was cut off by the front of Rover 2 skidding down further into the crater.

“I’ve lost control, brakes are ineffective,” Scott said.

Soundlessly the rover began to slip sideways. At the controls, Scott did all he could to turn into the skid, but to no avail. A low, flat boulder made an ideal lever point and as Jerry watched, Rover 2 tumbled around it, landing on its side further down the crater. Its wheels pointed uselessly back at the two geologists that had narrowly avoided its rapid, unplanned, descent.

The added friction of the rover’s starboard side skidding along the ice brought Rover 2 to a stop. Jerry was still too stunned to properly react. Mouth agape, he looked at the lumbering, mechanical elephant which lay helpless on the floor of the crater below him.

Tina was already up and heading towards the crash. He saw her slip slightly as she raced to the scene. Walking on the Moon might be routine, but walking on lunar ice was an artform that had only been developed about twenty minutes ago.

“Scott, are you reading me?” she asked.

“I read you. I’m okay. Jammed my shoulder though. Am I venting?”

“I don’t see anything,” she said.

“Pressure gauges are steady,” he said, then groaned.

“Are you hurt?” she asked.

“I’m on my side. Landed on my shoulder. My arm got twisted under the seat. Hurts like the devil,” he said.

“We’re coming to you,” she said. Jerry realized he needed to move and started to follow her.

“Yeah, what happened?” Scott asked

Jerry snapped back into the situation, “It must be subsurface ice. The shelf extends underground past where we can see. Where you were parked was icy with just a thin layer of regolith on top. The real edge of the sheet is farther up.”

“How did it get covered up? There’s no erosion,” Scott asked.

“No, but there’s a billion years of micrometeoroid impacts and gravity slowly pulling regolith down the crater wall. Like everything else in geology, just give it time.”

“Well, that’s just great,” Scott said, sarcastically.

By this point, the pair of scientists had reached the stricken rover.

“It is when you think about it. It means there’s a lot more ice we can use up here than we thought.”

“Will you two focus?” Tina said. “We’ve got to get him out of there. We’ve got to get this rover back on its wheels.” She was already moving to the airlock at the back of the rover.

“Don’t touch that hatch!” Scott said.

Jerry could see Tina’s hand pull away as though the rover was scalding hot. Such was not the case.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Don’t cycle the airlock. If something cracked in the rollover, we don’t know how it’ll react. Just get the winch.”

“And secure it to what?” she asked.

“How about that boulder I was trying to avoid?” Scott said.

“Stand by. Jerry, snap to. Give me a hand here,” Tina said.

Jerry moved to join Tina at the front of the rover. They began to unbolt the winch from the front bumper.

14 August 1988

SR-71 Blackbird

Altitude: 77,000 ft

Three hundred miles to Target

“What are the MiGs doing, Jonesy?”

“Still trailing. I think we’re teasing them at this point. It’s got to drive them up the wall to see us and not be able to do anything about it.”

“Agreed. I assume some old communist is furiously working on a high-alt interceptor just for this situation.”

“Yeah, and it’ll be ready any decade now.”

Their mirth was interrupted by the angry buzzing of the threat indicator. “Launch detection,” Jonesy said.

“Oh, you gotta be kidding me. A SAM?” Terry asked.

“Radar ping is strange. Looks like the origin is ahead of us. We may need to get evasive.”


“Uh, that can’t be right.”

“What can’t be right?”

“Radar has it heading away from us.”

“What? Is it a misfire?” Terry asked.

“Can’t tell. Radar still shows it moving away. Heading uphill awfully fast. Maybe they’re trying to box us in. Signature looks weird. I can’t really…”

“What the heck is that?” Terry said. Had his hands not been occupied, he might have pointed out the front window. Jonesy looked up from the radar.

The plume from the launch was visible. It billowed from the ground and glowed as if a golden cloud has sprouted from the earth.

“That’s not a SAM launch,” Jonesy said.

“It’s huge! My God, what are they throwing at us?”

“They’re not throwing at us. It’s Baikonur. This is a launch launch. We need to abort,” Jonesy said.

“We can’t. Fair bet this thing is why we’re here.”

“Our cameras only point down. We missed our chance. Break right and haul ass.” Terrence didn’t argue. If there was nothing to film, then there was no point in being here.

Turning in a blackbird wasn’t like turning in a fighter. As big as she was and as fast as she was, the blackbird wouldn’t just bank and fling off in another direction. Deny a path for the thin air to reach her engines and they’d flame out. If that happened, it’d take a minor miracle to keep her in the sky. With a subtle tilt, Terry began to ease off his right throttle and the big black bitch began to slip her nose ever so slightly. A full turn took the better part of five minutes and she had flown more than a hundred miles by the time she had come full circle. It was enough time to see their target head for altitudes that even their fabulous spyplane would never reach.

14 August 1988

Ptichka – OK 1.02

Altitude: 45 km

MET: 00:02:01

The centrifuge had trained his body for this. The Soviet Air Force had made sure he could handle the strain on his body. Nikolai Andrepov, former commander of the 473rd Fighter Aviation Regiment had traded the snug cockpit of a MiG-23 for the roomy interior of the Motherland’s finest spacecraft. “Flite Control, this is the Ptichka, roll complete. Please confirm telemetry downlink, over.”

On his right, Vladimir kept a watchful eye on the control panel. Nikolai was still a little surprised that Vladimir had actually fit into his seat. The Ukrainian bomber pilot had been a boxer in his youth and still had the frame of a formidable hulk. Still, his knowledge of the ship’s systems was second to none. Had he been able to avoid Baikonur’s recent outbreak of influenza, he would have been over the far side of the Moon right now, heading home about Ptichka’s sister ship, Buran.

Ptichka, this is Flite Center, your trajectory is nominal. Were you have a visual on the American aircraft?”

If his eyes weren’t glued to the instruments, he would have rolled them, “Negative, Flite Center. We have seen nothing.” They had a better chance of spotting an alien spaceship than an American plane that was now far behind and below them.

The ship’s automatic circuits adjusted the pitch. Ever the pilot, he kept a grip on the control yoke, feeling the ship move on its preprogrammed ascent pattern. So far, Ptichka had followed the path that Buran had blazed a few days prior.

Twenty-five meters behind him, in the packed darkness of the cargo bay, the bolts that Lev Dyomin had so lovingly secured sixteen days ago experienced a shearing failure. The frame on which the landing module was secured bent sharply, then snapped in two locations. The sudden movement created a tear within the landing module’s fuel tank. While the onboard fuel did leak, it did not ignite. The sudden shift in the center of gravity did exceed the limits of Ptichka’s compensation programs by 17%. Within five seconds of the initial failure, the combined weight of the lunar command post, the landing craft, and the fuel were now loose and creating an undue moment arm which acted on the center of gravity of the combined Ptichka-Energia stack.

This failure translated to a violent lurch that caused the flight harness to dig sharply into Nikolai’s right shoulder.

“What was that?” Vladimir asked.

The big boxing bomber pilot was silent. That was when the fear set into Nikolai’s bones. If Vlad didn’t know what was wrong, then no one did.

“Flite Center, we’re experiencing a vibration, over,” Nikolai said.

The loud bang drowned out the Flite Center’s response. The ship entered a precession. Nikolai needed no prompting. He immediately cut the autopilot program and assumed manual control.

Vladimir took a breath and gave his assessment as the rotation increased. “This is not correctable. Beginning separation procedures.”

Static crackled in their headsets. The onboard communications gear was not able to maintain a lock on any helpful line of sight.

Nikolai kept a cool head as he rotated the abort handle. The pyros under Ptichka’s black belly fired, separating the Energia booster stack. Nikolai resisted the urge to pull hard on the control yoke to gain distance on the now-uncontrolled rocket pack as it made its way skyward. If he gave Ptichka too much pitch, her underside would bite the upper atmosphere at full speed and she would tumble so hard that no pilot, no matter his time in a centrifuge would be able to maintain consciousness.

The roar of Energia was so much louder from the business end of the rocket. The light of the motors blinded him as the rocket stack passed underneath. Ptichka suffered a bit of scorching, but nothing that her reentry systems could not handle.

With the monster rocket now gone, Nikolai could focus on saving the ship. What he now was able to sense was that Ptichka was carrying all her weight in her rear. He could not bring her nose down.

Up and up the little bird rose, peaking at the top of its now ballistic trajectory. He felt such an overwhelming sense of shame that he would never be able to deliver the main component of the Soviet’s lunar shelter to its final destination. Now his focus had to be on saving the payload, the ship, and the two souls on board.

At the top of the sky, he put the ship into a roll, desperate to get some measure of control. Looking down, he could see the endless blue of the Pacific, as though the Earth was nothing but water. Ideally, Ptichka could glide to a safe landing, but that would require land and a controllable center of gravity. Neither were luxuries available to her pilots.

“Flite Center. This is Ptichka in the blind. I’m not sure how much we will be able to do,” Vladimir said.

Nikolai’s blood ran cold. For the first time he thought this might not be salvageable.

Vladimir flipped some switches to reconfigure the instrumentation for landing. Nikolai nodded as he watched the lights before him flicker. The auxiliary power unit was up and running.

He could not gauge their position. Before him was a gorgeous tapestry of competing blues, sky, and sea. Ptichka sank further and further. Despite the best efforts of both cosmonauts, the nose simply would not lower. An analysis of the telemetry would later confirm that nothing could have been done to save the ship.

Nikolai honestly wondered if his arms would break from the strain handling the control yoke. The tremors numbed his fingertips, even through the thick gloves. He fought the ship to an altitude of ten thousand meters before Vladimir put a hand on his arm.

“Prepare for ejection,” the laconic Ukrainian said.

Nikolai let go of the controls and nodded.

He pulled down the visor on his helmet. It might be an empty bit of preparation, but there was time for every precaution. The handles of the K-36PM ejector seats were smooth and comforting. Vladimir gave them a countdown so that their release was coordinated.

The world erupted as his spine compressed. The blast of cold air seemed like it would soak through the impermeable space suit. He looked over and saw Vladimir’s seat had cleared the Ptichka. He gave his copilot a little salute, but it was not returned. He called for him over the radio: no response. Looking over, he saw Vlad’s head lolling around. He was unconscious.

As the seats fell away, Nikolai pushed off with his heels and angled his body towards Vlad. With arms outstretched, he grabbed the bigger man and wrapped him in a bear hug. It took a moment to find the ripcord. Vlad’s olive parachute opened like a massive flower, blooming into the first sign of hope that Nikolai had seen in ten minutes. He watched Vlad and his parachute recede into the endless blue above them. His altimeter began to buzz as he pulled his own cord.

With the release of his own parachute, he now began to think about survival gear. He kept his eyes on Vlad. First priority once they hit the water would be to keep him from drowning.

14 August 1988

Rover 2

Expedition 15

Day 30

Jerry and Tina watched with relief as Rover 2 resumed its rightful posture. An hour of rigging lines, followed by another hour of painfully slow winching had done the trick. The rover settled back onto its wheels and rocked slightly on its industrial shocks. The wiggles shook the chassis back and forth as the mass-damper equations played themselves out. Inside, Scott carefully restarted the motors within each wheel. Six green lights illuminated the instrument panel. The systems came back online as expected.

He depressed the accelerator and the rover responded. Scott felt the dirt under the wheels. The pain in his arm was considerable, but he didn’t think it was broken. Probably just a sprain.

“Tina, Jerry, I think we’re back up and running now. How’s it look out there?” he said.

“Not seeing any major damage. You scuffed up the paint job pretty good though,” Tina said.

“Aww man, you know they’re gonna bill me for that,” Scott said.

“Hey, you break it, you buy it,” Tina said.

“Anyone else vote we get out of here?” Jerry asked.

“Let me ask the home office,” Scott said.

“Home office says mount up and come home,” said David Abbott over the radio.

“Are we cleared to come back inside?” Tina asked.

“Yeah, grab some ice and get aboard,” David said.

“What about the stress on the airlock?” Scott asked.

“The situation has changed. I want everyone back here now. Make sure you get good ice samples, but then come straight home. I’ll brief you when you’re inside,” David said.

“Uh… commander, be advised, you’re broadcasting on Alpha. That’s not the designated channel for this assignment,” Scott said.

“Believe me, secrecy is not a priority anymore. Just get back here. I’ll explain in person,” David said.

“Copy that.”

GNN Earth.png

15 August 1988

GNN Special Report

“A good early morning to you. GNN’s Newsdesk is reporting a developing situation in the South Pacific. Within the last hour, reports have been confirmed of a downed Soviet spacecraft crashing into the waters five hundred miles off the coast of Fiji. The rocket, which was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome earlier today was apparently approached by an unidentified aircraft before developing a problem. Soviet officials have issued a formal condemnation at the United Nations in New York City. Soviet leaders are claiming that the spacecraft, called Ptichka, or Little Bird, was shot down in an intentional act of malice by American forces. Soviet statements indicate that there will be an appropriate military response to this attack.

“The US Ambassador to the United Nations declined comment. Unconfirmed reports are coming in of rapid activity among Soviet military assets. We also have unconfirmed reports of a heightened state of readiness of American air and ground forces. According to anonymous sources, the relations between the two superpowers has not reached this level of conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis of a generation ago.

“The White House has stated that the President is in consultation with the Joint Chiefs and intelligence officials. A press conference is scheduled for six a.m. Eastern time. We will, of course, carry live coverage of the statements of President Bush and any further statements from Soviet leadership. At the moment, there has been no civilian alert issued within any part of the continental United States.

“I’m being told that we have further unconfirmed reports indicating that a ship from the French Navy may have recovered the Soviet astronauts who were aboard the Ptichka. That is still an unconfirmed report. We will attempt to gain further information about the condition of the Soviet crew.

“At this time, neither the campaigns of Senator McCain, nor Senator Hart have offered any comment on these developments. Tonight marks the start of the Republican National Convention, where Senator McCain will, presumably, be confirmed as the nominee for the Republican Party this fall.

Please stay tuned to GNN’s coverage of the continuing standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

15 August 1988

The White House

Washington, DC

38° 53′ 52″ N 77° 02′ 11″ W

When they’d pulled him out of bed at two in the morning, he knew it was bad. When the President loses a night of sleep, that usually means people have died, or will soon.

The combination of coffee and the revelation of a second Soviet space shuttle were enough to truly wake him up. He listened intently as the assembled officials from State, CIA, and the military briefed him on the current tensions.

“They’re claiming we shot it down,” Frank Carlucci said.

“With what? A telephoto lens? They know full well that our spyplanes aren’t armed. That’s kind of in the name.”

“They know that. This is saber-rattling.”

“Easier to shout J ’accuse than mea culpa,” Bush said.

“Indeed, sir.”

“Okay, so that’s the inning and the score. Who’s on first?”

“I’m sorry, sir?” Carlucci wasn’t as familiar with Bush’s particular turns of phrase.

“What’s their military response?” the President restated.

“We’re seeing increased activity at Polyarny and Vladivostok. There’s also some troop movements we’re not wild about, and they’ve stepped up their military alert. Our equivalent of DEFCON three.”

“Oh boy. What did SAC do?” the President asked.

“SAC went to condition three. They’ve got bombers on stand-by.”

“There are guys sitting in B-52’s right now waiting for me to tell them to bomb Russia?” Bush asked.

“They’re there if you need them, sir.”

Bush put down his glasses and rubbed his eyes, “We’re not starting World War Three because a rocketship blew up.”

“What would you like, sir?”

“What is intel saying was on board the Ptichka?”

“Likely the main module for their base,” Carlucci said.

“The first landing was a reactor. The next thing you’d want is to land some kind of housing module and expand from there,” said NASA administrator Fletcher.

“And that’s at the bottom of the Pacific now?”

“The remaining pieces are, yes sir,” Fletcher confirmed.

“So, two weeks ago they thought they were getting a moon base. They’re blaming us for ruining it.”

“That’s a fair assessment.”

“Let’s give them a moon base.”

“Sir?” Carlucci asked.

“I’ll get on the red phone and offer them seats on a Clipper flight. Their guys can land with us and we’ll provide some token assistance to help them set things up.”


“I want to keep this argument non-nuclear and off-earth. Anyone else disagree?”

A chorus of silence swept through the Oval Office.

A hand was raised, “If they’ve lost their assets, then there’s not going to be anything for us to help them build.”

“Then we’ll help them tack on to ours. A joint effort. Just like John Kennedy always wanted. I’ll tell them we’ll let them build their stuff next to ours with some kind of joint hallway or something. The bases can work together for mutual benefit, science, whatever. Side by side in the spirit of peace and exploration and whatever crap the speechwriters come up with.”

A beat passed as the room considered this proposal.

“Sir, our Clipper flights are already scheduled for the next two years,” said Jim Fletcher.

“Jim, the Russians are screaming. I’ve got B-52’s on standby. Do you really want to talk about scheduling right now?”

The room was silent as Bush stood and walked back to the Resolute Desk. He picked up the red phone.

15 August 1988


Expedition 15

Day 30

There were certain kinds of work that a commander did himself. Checking out a potential nuclear weapon certainly qualified. Abbott had wanted to go alone, but mission rules prevented it. Now that it was clear that the new arrival wasn’t a landing craft filled with invaders, there was less pressure to rush into danger. No reason not to follow procedure, no matter how it rankled his sense of bravado.

Carefully he slid into the driver’s seat of the little dune buggy. The vehicle had been cobbled together out of an excess of spare parts. It had become a fun little ongoing project for each successive crew that occupied the base. Every engineer found a way to make small improvements and no crew had left the buggy exactly as they had found it. Houston hadn’t been wild about the allocation of parts that technically belonged in storage, but it was hard to argue with utility. Some of the work areas were nearly half a mile from the base. It was helpful to have a way to move around without the fuss and bother of pressurizing a large rover for each out and back. It was agreed that the little buggy would be cannibalized immediately should any component be needed for use on one of the pressurized rovers, but each expedition brought more spares, so the long-term fate of the little buggy was not greatly in doubt.

Tina settled into the passenger seat. Two would be enough for this trip, and they were the only Russian speakers on the moon right now (or so it was assumed). With a thumbs-up, Abbott depressed the accelerator pedal which was just a rounded bit of unneeded floor panel. The little sand rail’s rear tires kicked up twin geysers of dust and the buggy sped away at the blistering pace of eleven miles per hour.

Houston still wanted to keep this under wraps. The Russians weren’t talking to the press, no reason this needed to be out there now. Silent operations had been a part of military life, but it still rattled Abbott not to be giving a running commentary of their activities. He admitted to himself that it was very peaceful to enjoy a quiet drive on the moon without all the usual confirmations and advisements. He could feel the whirr of the motors through the chassis. He felt the little rover respond to his touch. He was driving a convertible a quarter-million miles from the nearest highway. If the Soviets had sent a nuke after all, his biggest complaint would be that it ruined his fun.

For more than an hour, the pair drove in silence around the rim of Shackleton. The crater ridge loomed large on their left as they ran the circumference of the basin. The Russian landing had been far enough away that Abbott was no longer as concerned about the potential of a bomb. If this was an attack, it suffered from incompetent planning or execution.

Tina pointed to a lump in the distance. He acknowledged her gesture with a nod and a hand motion, careful to keep off the radio.

The lander was military green. From the look of the legs, it was a slight upgrade from the old, unproven LK landers that they might have used in the sixties, had they been able to get their act together. The four relatively spindly legs held a rather bulky cylinder with a rounded top. The familiar red star was emblazoned on the side.

David parked the buggy about fifty yards away. Tina immediately whipped out a Hasselblad and started taking photos. Documentation was everything in a situation like this. She snapped off several images and David drove around, keeping a constant distance from the new arrival. She photographed every side of the spacecraft, putting a hand on his knee to signal that she needed to stop for longer to focus on a certain area. When their circle was complete, David powered down the buggy and they climbed out of their seats.

After so long walking on metal floors or surface regolith near the base, it was novel to feel fresh dirt under his boots. No one had ever walked here before. Each footstep came with a faint but satisfying crunch, like biting into a perfect piece of fried chicken.

They closed to within ten feet of the lander. He looked for any sign of a proximity sensor, or a camera, or a window, but none were apparent. The Russians likely had just concealed their sensors well enough to avoid his notice. Houston had been very clear that under no circumstances should they touch or interact with the spacecraft. Besides the implications under international law, they couldn’t risk even inadvertent contact, lest something be damaged or triggered by their actions. Observation and documentation was the order of the day.

Tina handled the documentation. He saw her swap out a new film canister as she focused on some of the markings on the outer structure. He took a closer look at the landing legs and the small rocket motor underneath. Taking a knee, he tried to get a sense of whether this little ship represented a great leap forward in Soviet space development.

It took a wild gesticulation to pull Tina’s attention from the Cyrillic lettering. He signaled to her to take shots of the legs and engine. She acknowledged with another thumbs-up. He moved around to the other side, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

After ten minutes of careful examination, he made his way back to her. She held up a hand to arrest his approach. Taking a few steps back, she aimed her camera at him. He understood now that she needed his body in the shot to establish scale. More photos followed and then she pointed to a small area in the regolith a few feet away.

He went and looked at the spot she called out. In the dust was a metal rod taken from the buggy and seven letters that had been scratched into the surface: REACTOR. Her conclusion matched his, but that could wait until they were safely ensconced within the base’s airlock. Having nothing better to do while she concluded her work, he wiped the letters away with his foot, and then, having a little free time on his hands, he picked up the rod and made his own scratchings on the surface.

Tina returned to him just as he put the finishing touches on. Every mark in the regolith was darker than the light grey that time and the sun had so lovingly produced. With only two colors to work with, no one would say his result was sophisticated, but it got the job done.

Thirteen stripes in alternating light and dark grey guarded a dark grey square with a few divots spaced as well as he could manage. His flag had not half the required stars to be official, but Old Glory was so well known that he figured the Russians would get the idea, if and when any of them came to take a look.

Concealed behind the gold sheen of her visor, Tina smirked at this exercise in diplomacy. She pointed to the buggy and David nodded. Together, they mounted up and drove off. The crew of Expedition 15 would sleep better tonight with the assurance that their new neighbor was designed for power and not obliteration.

6 December 1988

Johnson Space Center

Houston, TX

29° 33’ 47” N 95° 05’ 28” W

Judith Resnik swung by Glynn Lunney’s office on her way back from lunch.

“Are you on the conference call at three with D.C.?” she asked.

“The Russia thing?” he asked.

“Yeah. We’re supposed to get new marching orders from up top,” Resnik said.

“No, I’m not going to that. Come January, McCain will likely change it all anyway,” he said.

“Maybe so. What’s your afternoon like?” she asked.

“I’m sitting in on an engineering presentation,” Lunney said.

“Who’s doing the presentation?” Resnik said.

“Someone from outside. A guy who’s been sending us C-mails like crazy. I think he’s trying to be the second coming of John Houbolt or something,” Lunney said.

“That’s… ambitious. What’s the abstract?” she asked.

“Basically, this guy wants us to make fuel on Mars,” Lunney said.

Resnik blinked, “We can do that?”

“This guy seems to think so,” Lunney said.

“What’s the guy’s name?”

Lunney leafed through a few scattered papers on his desk, “Uh… Zubrin. Robert Zubrin.”

“You mind if I sit in on it?”
Also,is it bad that I now want to read an actual book or see an actual movie or something where Buran can go to the Moon? haha