‘The Rescue’ – A Story of Outer Space
Scott Kelly has made history after spending a year in space. For me his mission brought back memories of July 1969 when everyone, everywhere, watched the moon landing on TV. (If you aren’t old enough to remember, maybe your parents or grandparents told you about that memorable occasion.) It’s easy to believe that the excitement of the “race to the moon” era in the ‘60s inspired my dad, Harry Zubkoff, to write the following story. And, since he had a “front seat to history” in the Pentagon, as a friend of his suggests, perhaps some little-known drama from that decade further incited his imagination. Please enjoy one more of the many unpublished stories I found in his files since his passing in 2014.
The story stunned a world grown over confident at the seeming ease with which man had conquered space. Now a ship lay helpless on the moon. The two gallant men aboard were doomed to die. There was no possibility of rescue. It would take months, even if nothing went wrong, to prepare another ship to go to the moon. But the two men had barely ten days’ worth of oxygen aboard, and that only if the equipment aboard their crippled capsule continued to function. Their death was inevitable, made all the more poignant by the emotionless radio exchanges broadcast for worldwide consumption.
* * *
Aboard the damaged vessel, Pete Turner absently rolled a piece of hard candy around his mouth and stared at the instrument display panel. As from a distance, he heard Commander Earle Nelson, lying on the couch to his right, bite off a groan.
“It hurts like blazes,” Earle muttered.
“Okay, I’m going to give you a shot,” said Pete. There were six shots of morphine in the first-aid kit, not enough to keep Earle comfortable for long, he thought grimly. The shot administered, he cut away the overall from Earle’s leg. “I should have done this sooner,” he said, noting the swelling.
“We had to report first,” said Earle. “Besides,” he grinned weakly, “what difference can an hour or two make?”
“Well,” Pete looked around, “I’ll need something for a splint.” His eyes settled on a plastic-coated arm rest of his reclining seat. He picked it up, hefted it thoughtfully. “Okay, pal,” he turned to Earle, “brace yourself. Here, bite down on this.” He placed the rubber exerciser in Earle’s mouth and winked at him before setting the leg and securing the splint with adhesive tape. Before he was done, Earle had passed out.
* * *
“You’re absolutely sure? There’s nothing we can do?” The President’s hard eyes bored holes in the Administrator of the Space Agency, who turned helplessly to the Director of the Lunar Landing Program. Both men were silent.
“Well,” the President sighed heavily, “we should have expected it to happen sooner or later. I guess I better make an announcement.” He turned to his Press Secretary. “Set up a nationwide TV broadcast for this evening, Shep, and start drafting up a statement. Now,” turning back to the others, “what about their families?”
“Well,” the Administrator said, “Earle Nelson’s wife is okay. And Pete Turner’s not married, doesn’t have a family.”
“Thank God for small favors,” the President muttered. “Well, make sure Nelson’s wife has company, anyway. This thing,” he added darkly, “is sure to put a crimp in our space program. There’s a lot of pressure building up to cut out the program altogether.” He got up and moved purposefully toward his desk, while the others quietly left.
“Comrade General,” the premier impatiently waved aside the others’ objections, “I am not asking for explanations or details. I ask only a simple question. Is it possible of accomplishment? Can one person carry out such a mission?”
“Your Excellency,” the General licked his lips, “it theoretically can be done. It is a great risk, you understand, highly dangerous, but perhaps Cheplerovitch can do it.”
“Ah, good.” The Premier rubbed his hands with satisfaction and rose. “Good,” he repeated. “Then, come. I shall present the proposal to the Committee at once.”
The members of the Central Steering Committee, seated around the oblong table in the huge, dark paneled Kremlin conference room, rose as the Premier entered.
“General Charnikov has assured me,” the Premier addressed the group, “that it is technically feasible. Think of it, comrades. Here is an unprecedented opportunity to show the whole world the humanity of the Soviet peoples. We shall send a rescue vessel to save the unfortunate Americans stranded on the moon. In one move, we shall clearly demonstrate both the superiority of the Soviet science and the interest of the Soviet Union in the peaceful uses of outer space. Furthermore, the cosmonaut who performs this heroic feat will be Rania Cheplerovitch, who is not only an accomplished cosmonaut, but is also a medical doctor. If she succeeds, it will be a tremendous propaganda coup for the motherland. And if she fails, then the Soviet Union will have made a gallant attempt and she will die a great martyr.”
He paused, gauging the reactions of those around him and noting by a curved lip, a raised eyebrow, a telltale squint, that he would win this one.
“Those in favor?” he banged the gavel. The decision was unanimous, though not simultaneous. The names of those who hesitated, however fractionally, were quietly noted.
* * *
Col. Ken Murdock checked his chronometer automatically as he flashed over the lunar module lying on its side below.
“Hello, Pete,” he said into the mike, “what’s new?”
“Nothing much,” Pete’s voice came back. “How’s your orbit?”
“On the circle,” said Ken, “as planned.”
“How long you gonna hang around?”
“I dunno yet, Pete. Still waiting for instruction.” He glanced at the timer, set for Maximum Countdown to the return flight. “Max is just about ten days,” he reported. “Anything you want, old buddy? Anything I can do for you?” There was nothing he could do, but there was nothing else to say. When there was no response, he added, “How’s Earle?”
“Still sleeping,” said Pete, “and I don’t want to wake him. I set his leg as well as I could.” Reception was growing fainter as the orbiting command module got further away.
“Well, take it easy, Pete,” said Ken hastily. “I’ll see you next time around.” His ship continued it’s nearly circular orbit 30 miles above the surface.
The radio suddenly crackled to life with the powerful transmission from Mission Control. “Hello, Ken,” it was Jake Walker, in charge of the flight. “Do you read me?”
“Loud and clear, Jake,” he turned up the volume. In about five minutes he would pass around to the back side of the moon where he would be cut off from all communications for some thirty-five minutes.
“I’ll give this to you fast, Ken,” Jake’s voice was urgent. “The Russians have just informed us that they’re willing to try a rescue. They’ve got a ship just about ready to go. We have to iron out the details and procedures, of course, but we can work it all out, I hope. Anyway, think about it. Talk to you later.”
* * *
Rania Cheplerovitch was an unusual woman. At the age of thirty-two, she had three graduate degrees, including medicine, biology, and astronautical engineering, and spoke four languages fluently, including Russian, Chinese, French, and English. To top it off, she was a black-haired, black-eyed beauty who could easily have passed for a motion picture star.
Now she had been entrusted with a most momentous space flight. The eyes of the world were focused on this flight and she was determined to uphold the honor and prestige of the motherland. The problems were monumental, but not insurmountable. They had cut corners to make this ship ready in time, but she was sure she could carry out the mission.
* * *
“Hey, Earle,” Pete shook him gently, reluctant to disturb him, yet conscious of the passage of time. It was the eighth day, and the Russian cosmonaut was due to land in a few hours. He felt Earle’s shoulder tighten as he tried to sit up.
“We got about three hours,” said Pete, “before she gets down. Meanwhile, we better get into our space suits.”
It took him almost an hour to get Earle suited up and another thirty minutes to get his own suit on. Their helmets could wait till they were ready to leave. Carefully, he checked the air conditioning-heating unit on each suit, and then their oxygen tanks. Everything in order, he sat and surveyed the cabin thoughtfully. There were two extra oxygen tanks attached to the floor. He released them, and tied them together with a piece of the 100-ft. nylon cord from the survival kit. Each tank held four hours of precious air.
“Hello, Pete,” Ken’s voice, from the orbit which had gradually shifted far to the north over the past five days, grated faintly from the speaker. “Are you with me?”
“Roger, Ken. How long?”
“She’s in orbit now, Pete, and will be coming down in a half hour. I just gave her your frequency, so she’ll be calling you.”
Suddenly, the capsule was filled with a deep, throaty voice. “Hello, Tovarich, here is Soviet Cosmonaut Cheplerovitch coming. Time of arrival is twenty minutes.”
“Hello, Soviet Cosmonaut,” Pete yelled, seized with a sudden excitement. “Welcome to the Moon.”
He turned to Earle and started putting their space helmets on. When both were securely fastened and the suits were working properly, he popped the hatch, crawled out and dropped to the surface, just two feet below. Then he helped Earle, who had inched his way over to the hatch, out and down, lowering him to a sitting position, the broken leg held awkwardly out. Directly overhead he saw the flaring light of her rocket as her ship came drifting down. It seemed to be headed directly toward them, but as he watched, fascinated, he saw that it was moving away toward the horizon. He followed it all the way down to the point where it disappeared beyond a ridge just before landing, and noted a few landmarks to guide him toward it. Then her voice came over the earphones in his helmet.
“Okay, Mr. Turner. Did you see me?”
“Yes,” he answered. “You’re about a mile and a half, maybe two miles away. We’re starting now and should be there in ten minutes.”
“Ha!” she said. “Is good navigation, no?”
“Is good,” he smiled. “Is very, very good.”
He swung around to Earle and reached down to help him up, but saw at once that something was wrong. He had fainted.
“Come on, Earle,” he shook him and saw the eyelids flutter behind the face-plate, but only a groan answered him. He felt the beads of sweat form on his own forehead. He bent down and tried to lift him, but he was too bulky a bundle. A faint trace of panic hovered in the back of his mind. Now let’s see, he mumbled to himself, you weigh about 180 lbs. and your suit and gear together weigh about 200. That makes 380 lbs. on Earth, so on the moon you weigh one sixth of that or about 63 lbs. He tried again, but could not lift him, and even if he could, he knew he would not be able to carry him.
He climbed back into the capsule and ripped out Earle’s reclining seat to use as a stretcher. Back outside, he laid it on the ground, rolled Earle on to it, and tied him carefully down. Two more lengths of rope made a pair of handles. He hesitated a minute, then doggedly retied the two spare oxygen tanks, one on each arm of the stretched-out seat.
“Hey, Tovarich,” the voice in his ear startled him. “Where are you? Is already twenty minutes.”
“Just a slight delay, sweetheart,” he replied. “We’re leaving now.” He bent, twisted the rope handles around his thick mittens and over his shoulders like a sled dog, and started trudging forward. It was incredibly difficult going. The lunar surface was a mixture of dust, pebbles, rocks and boulders, with ups and downs and slants at crazy, unexpected angles. The dangling oxygen tanks caught on rocks or stuck in the loose soil and time and again he had to free them. Each time he stopped, it required an almost superhuman effort to start again. But start he would, tugging, straining, jerking and cursing, head down and shoulders forward, his body aching, his limbs trembling and every inch of him bathed in rivers of sweat. Every few minutes he would look up to get his bearings, to make sure he was still headed for the Russian ship. The terrain never changed and he had the desperate feeling that he was on an endless treadmill, doomed to an eternity of trudging on a forsaken, lunar landscape.
It took an hour to cover a mile, and then, reaching to top of the ridge, he finally caught sight of the ship, still a half mile away, gleaming in the direct rays of the sun. At the same time, he heard her voice.
“Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, please come in, please come in.” The anxiety could still not mask the sultry, throatiness of that voice.
“I’m here, sweetheart,” he gasped.
“Oh, Mr. Turner,” she exclaimed, with relief, “where have you been? What is wrong?”
He looked up at the ship, trying to think of an answer. It seemed to shimmer in the bright light and a gossamer thin veil was rising from the ground, enveloping it in haze, partially obscuring it. He closed his eyes, squeezing them, and shook his head as though to clear his vision. Suddenly, with an unreal sense of horror, he realized that the ship had sprung a leak and the escaping fuel was misting in the airless void.
“Hey, Comrade,” he called, “are you there?”
“Yes, Tovarich,” the answer came immediately. “Answer me, what is the trouble?”
“You’re losing fuel,” he said. “Can you see it?”
“Yes,” she replied after a long moment. “I can see it.”
“Well,” he licked his lips, his mouth suddenly parched dry, “I’m about a half mile to the East and moving toward you. Let me know when you see me.”
He took a deep breath and started again on the backbreaking, walk toward the ship, wearily dragging Earle’s inert weight behind him. In less than a minute, her voice came through.
“I see you, Mr. Turner,” she said excitedly. “I see you. But what are you pulling?”
He stopped. “It’s Commander Nelson,” he panted. “He’s out cold.”
“Out cold? I do not understand.”
That last half mile was a nightmare. A hundred times he stumbled and fell, lurching erect to stumble and fall again. For minutes at a time, he stood in one spot while his feet moved up and down and his shoulders from side to side in a mockery of forward motion. Through it all her voice was constantly in his ear, urging him on, directing him, guiding him. It became a part of him. A little to the left, a little to the right, stop, get up, there’s a boulder ahead, go around to the left, now turn right, now step up, up, down, straight ahead … and on and on till he imagined it was his own voice.
He was unaware when he reached the ship and stopped blindly at her order, unaware when she donned her own space suit and came out to help him wrestle Earle into the small cabin. He was also unaware that from the time he left his lunar module to the time he reached her ship, three hours had elapsed and her time was running out. But she gave no hint of it when, the cabin atmosphere replenished, she removed their helmets and her own. He blinked his way back to awareness to find her bending over him.
“Sweetheart,” he said, looking up into the black Russian eyes, “nobody told me you were so beautiful.”
She bent over, and kissed him full on the lips. It was as much medicinal as physical, a need for human contact, for her as well as for him. The effect was like a shot of adrenaline. His arms came up and enfolded her, crushing her to him, and she responded, eagerly. At last, gradually, he released her and she straightened up on her knees.
“Ah, Mr. Turner,” she sighed, “you are a Cossack.”
“You can say that again,” it was Earle, eyes open and a weak grin on his face. Instantly she was all business. She felt his forehead, peeled back an eyelid, told him to stick out his tongue, and, finger on the faint pulse in his temple, looked at her watch.
My friend,” she said gravely, “you are a sick man.” She looked at him speculatively a moment longer, took two gigantic pills from a medical box and opened a small canteen. “Here,” she held his head up, “take these.” He got them down and subsided weakly.
“I cannot remove his space suit,” she said quietly to Pete, “so I can do nothing for his leg. And you will soon need the space suits anyway, when you transfer to your own vehicle. Now we must prepare to take off.” While Pete strapped Earle down, and then himself, she triggered her radio. Instantly, there came a torrent of Russian through the speaker. Then, as he listened to the incomprehensible exchange, the torrent gradually subsided and he saw her face pale.
“What is it?” he asked. “What’s going on?”
“It is too late,” she turned and looked him straight in the eye. “We cannot complete the rendezvous with your command ship for two hours and forty minutes,” she said, “which will be past my deadline.”
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“It means,” she replied gently, “I will not have enough fuel to get back home.”
“But, I don’t understand.”
“The fuel leak,” she explained simply.
He could not believe his ears. “Then why did you stay?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you go?”
He stared at her, wordless, painfully aware that he could not let this remarkable woman die on his account, one part of his mind already busy trying to find an alternative.
* * *
The Director of the Lunar Landing Program sighed eloquently and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Mr. President,” he said. “Pete Turner is the commander of that vehicle out there. He didn’t ask us for permission, he just asked for figures on oxygen and fuel consumption. Then he told us what he was doing.”
The President bit down so hard on the stem of his pipe that it cracked. He placed it gently on his desk, controlling himself admirably.
“But he’s risking all their lives for that Russian girl.”
“Well, Mr. President, she risked her life for them. Besides,” the Director added, “Pete is an extremely resourceful man. If anybody can beat the odds he can, and if there’s a fighting chance, he’ll make it.”
“All right, all right, I’ll accept that for the moment. Now tell me, and you,” glancing at his Press Secretary, “pay attention to this, Shep, just what he’s planning to do.”
The Director hid his relief. “His problem,” he said, “is twofold: oxygen and fuel. There is not enough oxygen aboard to support the four of them for the three days it takes to get back to earth. He’s overcoming that in two ways: first, the Russian woman is a doctor, you know, and she’s keeping Earle Nelson sedated, which reduces his oxygen intake considerably; and second, he and Ken Murdock and the Russian are taking turns living in their space suits. They have enough oxygen in their air tanks and spares to spend a total of 26 hours in their suits, which may be just enough to do it.”
“Where did they get it all?” the President asked.
“Pete brought the spare tanks from his landing module and from her ship.”
“What made him do that? Did he know, even then?”
The Director spread his hands. “I told you,” he said, “he’s a remarkable guy. He thinks ahead.”
“Okay. I’ve accepted that,” the President smiled. “Now what about the fuel?”
“Well, that’s a tough one, because the fuel was precisely calculated to bring the three of them back and no more. The Russian girl weighs about 130 lbs., which could mean the difference between getting back or being stuck out there forever. The first thing Pete did was tear everything out of the capsule that he could. You know,” a fleeting smile crossed his face, “we thought we had that capsule down to rock bottom weight, but Pete pulled out almost 100 lbs. That still leaves 30 lbs. of extra weight though, so he decided on no mid-course correction maneuver in order to save fuel. Instead, they’ll go right into a reentry maneuver as soon as possible. That means they’ll come in fast, at a little better than 26,000 miles per hour, but one of our birds came in almost that fast before, you remember, so we’re not too worried about it. The critical thing is that we won’t be able to tell until a few hours beforehand just where they’ll come down. If they come down on land, they’ve had it. If they come down at sea, they’ve got a chance.”
“What kind of a chance?”
“Well, if it were anyone else up there, I’d say the odds were about 10 to 1 against. With Pete up there, I’d say he’s got an even chance.”
The President looked astounded. “You rate him that high?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. President. I do.”
“All right then,” abruptly the President turned away. “I better get the Premier on the line and fill him in.”
* * *
By the time the ship entered the Earth’s gravitational influence, the world’s airwaves were saturated with the story. Even more important than the general concern, however, was the wave of good feeling which swept the Russian and American peoples in their reaction to a commonly shared problem. And out of this joint experience there gradually emerged a new sense of purpose and a new resolve. The interminable discussions about the two space programs and the differences in hardware convinced both countries that each could learn something from the other. And only by entering a new era of cooperation in this highly sophisticated technological field could they do so.
Though they were quite aware of the furor their flight was generating at home, the astronauts were more concerned with the immediate problems of survival. The three of them checked and rechecked, calculated and recalculated their oxygen and fuel consumption figures. And every hour Rania examined Earle Nelson with increasing anxiety.
The reentry maneuver, when it came, was executed flawlessly, but the fuel burned out a full second short. As a result, they entered the atmosphere at 26,500 miles per hour far from the prearranged point. The metal skin turned white hot in the intense heat of atmospheric friction, so hot that they felt as though they were baking even inside the protective layers of their space suits. For over thirty minutes communications were blacked out, while the whole world held its breath.
The hastily recomputed impact point turned out to be two hundred miles northeast of Australia, but it was too late to dispatch any recovery ships to the area. There were two ships, however, already cruising those waters, a Red Chinese submarine and an Australian aircraft carrier playing a deadly game of hide and seek with each other. The spacecraft splashed down less than two miles from the submerged sub, and was still hissing and steaming when the sub surfaced and pulled alongside.
The captain of the submarine was a professional sailor. He greeted the three astronauts as they were brought aboard and personally supervised the transfer of Earle Nelson to the deck of his gently bobbing vessel. Then, because the facilities aboard his vessel were severely limited, he radioed the Australian carrier, which arrived in just under three hours.
* * *
“A Red Chinese submarine!” the President exclaimed with wonder. “Shep, draft up an open letter to them conveying the deepest thanks of the American people. Now, have you got that speech ready for this evening? Good. Let’s see now, the Soviet premier and I will both arrive in Sydney tomorrow night. Good. Now we’re moving.” He positively chortled with glee. The whole world shared in his excitement when he spoke on TV that evening.
“We thank God,” he intoned solemnly, “that our astronauts survived these unprecedented dangers. As a result of this episode, we are about to enter a new era of peaceful purpose with the peoples of the Soviet Union. At the conclusion of this broadcast, I shall take off for a meeting with the Soviet Premier in Australia, where with God’s help we shall succeed in promoting further cooperation between our two great countries, and, at the same time, open wider the door to peaceful commerce with others. In this connection, I want to mention with special warmth the people of the great mainland of China, whose representatives played so essential a role in rescuing our astronauts.”
There was more of the same, but Pete and Rania, watching the satellite-relayed message together, were no longer paying attention. They were otherwise occupied, locked in a fierce embrace and looking forward to the prospect of spending a lot of time together.
Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman