Fiction: To Leap The Highest Wall

By Richard Foss – All rights reserved, Copyright 2009

The coffee mug embossed with the NASA seal danced as Dan Mc Cauley banged his fist on the Mission Control instrument panel. “Three months! Another three months and we would have beaten them there. Ten years we’ve been racing the Soviets to the moon, and they beat us by three months. ” He turned away from the panel and started to pace angrily, pausing only to kick a chair that rolled away on rubber wheels.

“We ran a good race, Mac,” said Frank Conley in a slow Georgia drawl. The lanky chief engineer stubbed a cigarette out in the ash tray that sat atop an instrument console, looked in the coffee mug and grimaced at the layer of sludge on the bottom. “Matter of luck, partly. We hadn’t had that fire on the launch pad back in ‘67, we’d have been on the Moon last July. Our technology’s better, no question on that. Their designers build a cat, it would have three hind legs.”

“Three hind legs must be what’s needed, because right now their guys are in lunar orbit and we aren’t.”

Frank scratched his head thoughtfully. “D’know. If there are, they’re keepin’ quiet. The spooks say they’re pretty sure this bird is manned, but who can tell with the Russkies? Even if there are guys in that tin can, we don’t know if they’re going to land or not. Doesn’t matter much anyway. I won’t be happy if Leonov or one of his boys is the first to walk on the big green cheese, no sir, but bein’ first isn’t everything. I hear tell that Vikings were the first to sail to America, but last I noticed there’s a real shortage of them around here now.” With that, the southerner ambled to a nearby workstation where a technician was fiddling with a meter and looking concerned.

“I always thought the first man on the moon would be an American,” Mc Cauley muttered at his back. He paced for a moment, then kicked the radar console. The coffee cup trembled again, and the nearby communications specialists looked up from their instruments, not sure what to do when their boss flew into a rage. Embarrassed, Mc Cauley retreated into his office and started shuffling through some paperwork, only to have some of it fall to the floor. As he knelt to gather it up, a shadow fell over him.

“Can I have a word with you, Mac?” Conley asked softly. Mc Cauley followed him through the two doors and past a security station, and the humidity hit them like a stifling blanket as they went outside. They walked out on a grassy area, and the cicadas that had been calling into the Houston night fell silent. The engineer gazed into the distance, inhaled deeply and then let his breath out in a long sigh. “Ahhhh, a perfect April evening. Nine thirty PM, ninety degrees, and ninety five per cent humidity. Jes’ like home. I do dislike that canned air in there.”

Mc Cauley relaxed a bit, unable to stay mad while talking to his calm, easygoing friend. “The computers like it cool and dry. If it gets hot in there, your boys will be crawling through cabinets of electronics replacing transistors.”

“Integrated circuits, these days. A hundred transistors on one chip, do you believe it? My daddy’s still listenin’ to the news on a tube radio that heats up the whole corner of the room. The old stuff runs hot and slow, the new stuff runs cold and fast, but it doesn’t make me like the cold any better. Like a hospital or a morgue, in there, and I make it a policy to stay out of both places.” He paused for a moment and turned to face Mc Cauley. “You’ve been runnin’ a little hot yourself the last few days, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. You got a responsibility to your crew there – a man’s boss stays angry, complains all the time about us losin’ to the Russkies… well, it’s bad for morale. Makes it hard to focus on things that go right, longer term goals. More than that. If there’s really three guys up there, they aren’t the ones who are our enemies. They’re probably a gaggle of hotshot pilots just like our rocket jockeys, and they’d ride with anybody who might give them a lift. Us, the French, the British if they ever get their Black Arrow booster working. Heck, they’d take a ride from the Chinese on the back of a skyrocket.”

Mc Cauley laughed at the idea of a Chinese space program. “Hope they don’t confuse the main boosters with New Year’s fireworks.”

“Well, the Russkies and us have sent up a few fireworks ourselves,” reminded Conley somberly. “Some good men went up and didn’t come back down.”

They both were silent a moment, remembering a flare in the sky and the brief screams in the last transmission from Apollo 8. “God rest their souls,” said Mc Cauley quietly.

“Their guys and ours, even if theirs didn’t believe in God,” replied Conley.

“They knew it was dangerous, all of them. Now we’ve retrofitted our capsules with better escape systems and added fuel cutoff valves, and blown a two year lead doin’ it, D’know what they’ve done over there. The way they’ve kept launching, probably just gave their guys a couple of extra pillows for hard landings.”

“You really think this one’s manned, instead of another test?”

“Yeah, I do. Friend of mine who teaches political science in Savannah has been predicting something like this for a while, on account of the Soviets are just nuts on commemorating anniversaries. Lenin was born on April 22nd of 1870, and they want a great big hundredth birthday present to prove he’s still god. I figure this is it. At the very least, they’re going to have some guys up there to sing happy birthday dear comrade. If they can upstage the capitalists by landin’ somebody on the moon tomorrow, they will. It’s dead certain they’re gonna try.”

“With their lousy equipment.”

“It’s primitive compared to ours, but it does work sometimes. For now, all we can do is watch and see if it does this time. We gotta go back in there and observe, and even help with telemetry data if Moscow asks us nice. The stakes are high, and not just for the flyboys up there. If someone on the duty crew slacks off and doesn’t record everything that happens, I think I can imagine which Mission Control officer would have his ass in a sling for not catchin’ it. Anyway, the day will come when the shoe is on the other foot and it’s our guys up there, and them watching from the ground. We’re building better stuff than they are, and you know it.”

“They sure seem to be able to do some things right.” Mc Cauley replied, gesturing toward the rising moon. The haze tinted it a light orange, but the dark patches of the Mare Imbrium were still clear.

“Well, I see it as our turn to do some things right for a change. Things had gone a little different, it’d be an Apollo rather than Soyuz up there. Heck, if congress hadn’t gotten in the act demanding investigations and redesigns, it’d be our guys circling the moon. If the Soviets go for the gold this time, it’s still a human getting off the planet, and we’ll run laps around them puttin’ a base up there. The long term, we got ‘em beat. For now, let’s prove that we can handle our part of it.”

“Fair enough.” Mc Cauley checked his watch. “Maybe we can overhear some transmissions and prove there’s someone in that capsule. Let’s get to it.”

The southerner nodded. “Let’s go run a railroad. We’ll ride it later.”

Even before the two men made it all the way inside the cavernous mission control center, they could hear the sound of a loud argument.

“You can’t tell them that! That’s revealing capabilities they don’t know we have!” barked one voice.

“It’s standard procedure to reply as soon as we receive any distress signal!”

“From a friendly or neutral, not the enemy!”

“What’s going on here?” Mc Cauley interrupted as he strode through the door. He saw two men almost nose to nose, a tall, bulldog-faced man with a graying crew cut facing off against a shorter man who glared at him intensely. Mc Cauley pointed at the smaller of the two. “Bob Butler, isn’t it? What’s this about?”

“We have received a message from the spacecraft, asking to talk to the head of NASA about plans for an emergency landing if needed.”

“From the spacecraft? You’re sure?”

“It came in on our highest gain receiver just as the communications window to their orbiter was disappearing. They were just about to go behind the moon.”

“For us. Asking about emergency recovery. Not from Moscow.”

Conley moved to his elbow. “Moscow hasn’t confirmed that it’s a manned launch yet,” he said softly. “At least, not as I’ve heard. This could be on their own.”

“You sure this wasn’t a message for Moscow? What did they say, something like ”Houston, we have a problem?”

The sarcasm had no effect on the small man. “It came in on our emergency frequency, not one they use. It recorded automatically, and I listened as soon as I saw that there was activity. I have it right here.” He stabbed at a button, and they strained to hear a heavily accented voice through layers of crackle and static.

“To NASA Houston, this is Volkov of Soyuz 11. Please advise ability to recover capsule from parachute landing in California or Arizona desert. Will await communication ninety minutes from now for reply, this frequency. Over.”

They stood in silence for a moment, listening to background hiss on the tape. “It’s a trick!” announced Butler suddenly. “That signal came in on a system that is better than anything they have, better than anything they’re sure we have. If we reply, they know our capabilities.”

The larger man broke his silence. “I was in the Navy for six years, and we learned a few things. You don’t ignore a distress call, not ever. You don’t make a frivolous distress call, not ever, or real ones get ignored. The North Koreans didn’t do it back during the war. Even the Nazis didn’t do it. The Russkies would be fools to break that protocol now. We have to treat this as real!”

Butler looked ready to argue with him again, but Mc Cauley held up his hands to shush them both. “This is too big for us. I’m going up the chain. Transcribe that message and log it, and give me a copy within five minutes. Nobody in this room is to leave this building, and outside lines are to be shut off now. Got that?” Both men nodded. “I’m getting on the phone to Washington. Frank, you come with me.”

The two men walked rapidly into Mc Cauley’s cramped, cluttered office. “Thoughts?” asked Mc Cauley after a moment.

“Got lots of ‘em. Bet you do too.”

“Some kind of equipment failure. Tight window for the return trip, maybe fuel too low to make an extended burn. They have to land wherever they’re aimed.”

“And Moscow hasn’t told us because they’re real bad at admitting when things go wrong. Brezhnev’s boys probably don’t think they’ll make it, so they’d rather have us think their bird is empty.”

“Fits with something else.”

“What?”

“They sent the message just before they go behind the moon, out of contact with us and Moscow for about an hour. They know we have to contact Washington, and they’re probably going to be in contact with Moscow. If Moscow doesn’t have a solution, they’ll want to know if they can land here as a last resort.”

“So we have about ninety minutes to figure out if we’re willing to have some very unwelcome temporary guests,” Mc Cauley finished. “Not much time to get a decision from the politicos. I’m calling Washington now.”

Conley turned to leave. “Reckon I don’t have the security clearance to listen to this call, much as I’m dyin’ to.”

“Sit down, Frank. You know too much already to go anywhere, and anyway, I want you in on this.” He picked up the phone and told the operator, “Administrator Low, top priority, secure line.”

“That’s actin’ administrator, isn’t it?”

Mc Cauley covered the phone with his hand. “Yeah, I’m sure he wants to be reminded of that. He and Von Braun don’t get along, or he’d be confirmed by now. I hear President Nixon has a permanent appointment in mind, but…” He sat up straighter in his chair and stopped covering the handset. “Hello Administrator Low, this is Dan Mc Cauley in Mission Control, Houston. We’ve received a transmission from the capsule the Soviets launched a few days ago… Affirmative, sir, there is strong evidence that it is manned. No sir, they’re not gloating, we think they may be in trouble. They’ve asked about assistance in case of an emergency landing on US territory. Affirmative, sir, they mentioned the California desert, We suspect that they had to make some unexpected maneuver that used up fuel, and their only landing window is somewhere on the West Coast. We’re plotting out their orbits right now to see when they’ll be lined up for that region. Transmission was very brief, and they’re out of contact now. They expect an answer in about ninety minutes. The President? At this time of night? Yes sir, I’m aware that this could be an international incident. Will do, sir.”

He hung up the phone, looking slightly dazed.

“Well?”

“Don’t just sit there, start doing what I told him we’re already doing.”

“Checkin’ trajectories, right. Anything else?”

“Coffee. Real coffee, which means somebody other than you making it.”

“Awww, Mac, you cut me deep. I’m on my way.”

The next twenty minutes was a flurry of paperwork and phone conversations – the report received and double-checked, confirmation calls from State Department functionaries with increasingly impressive titles, some of whom had obviously been rousted out of bed, and the consumption of a full pot of very bad coffee. If Conley hadn’t made it himself, he had managed to find someone else with an equal lack of skill. Mc Cauley was ready to kid him about it until he saw the look on Conley’s face when he entered the office again.

“It’s more complicated than we thought,” he said without preamble. “If they’re just gonna orbit, they can go around one more time and slingshot back clean as you please to a hunk of Siberia that they’ve used for landings before. Next straight shot to California after that isn’t for almost a day.”

“You’re sure?”

“Ran the numbers past one of your pet eggheads twice. Ran it past another one to be sure. Got the same answer each time, which is enough of a miracle that I pinched myself to see if I was dreamin’. Only one way I can think of that it makes sense, and I’ve got both of them calculatin’ to see if I’m right.”

“Which is?”

“They used more fuel than they expected gettin’ to lunar orbit, but they have enough to swing around the moon a few times and trot back home. Or they could make a landin’ and get back to Earth, but just barely. They’ll have no control over where they’ll come down, but the Southwest is a likely spot. They’re up there right now tryin’ to make a go – no go decision, and they want to know if we’ll help.”

Mc Cauley sat completely still for a moment and then nodded. “That fits,” he said slowly. “They have two choices. They can play it safe, make the birthday broadcast, call it a successful science mission, and land anywhere they want. Or they can go for the gold, do the landing, and come down wherever chance puts them. Odds are better than even it will put them somewhere inconvenient. Do you remember the most recent briefing we had on the capabilities of the Soyuz capsule?”

“Yep. Our guys say they’re kinda marginal for a splashdown. Darn silly way to build a spacecraft. Two-thirds of the planet is water, and they design a craft that doesn’t float much better than a brick. Ours sit up on the water like fishing bobbers, even look a lot like ‘em.”

“And their navy doesn’t have a quarter the coverage area of ours anyway, so if they have to splash down anywhere, we’re likely to get there first.” He thought a moment. “If you’re right, then if we say no, they won’t risk the landing. We still have a chance to be first.”

“If things are as we think, and if they think the way we think they think, then maybe.”

“That’s got to be the least definite thing anybody anywhere ever said.”

“We’re making a lot of assumptions from two sentences. Based on the data we have, I think we understand the situation they’re in. When it comes to the choices they’re making, we’re on shakier ground. What would we do if the first men on the moon landed here on their way home? Shoot ‘em, arrest them for trespassing, or give them a parade and send them home in first class style? I can’t predict it myself, so it’s darn sure that they don’t know. They may be scared. If it was me landing in Russia after twisting the bear’s tail, I’d be pretty pessimistic about my welcome. Remember the U2 incident, when they shot down Gary Powers. What was it they sentenced him to, ten years at hard labor?”

“This is different…”

“How? To who? They could come down anywhere. Can you guarantee that some hick sheriff wouldn’t shoot a guy in a Soviet uniform on sight?”

“Well no, but…” The argument was interrupted by the phone ringing, and Mc Cauley snatched it up. “Hello? Yes it is… Yes, sir. A conference call with the President? Of course I’ll wait.” He covered the phone with his hand and whispered to Conley. “That was Administrator Low. He’s at the White House now briefing the President, and they have questions. Sit right there and don’t move.”

“Nowhere else I’ve gotta be,” Conley drawled as he leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk.

I can’t believe it, I’m going to talk to…” His voice returned to his usual volume level, but higher pitched than usual. “Yes sir, thank you sir. Gentlemen, Mr. President, less than an hour ago we received a very long distance call…”

It took about ten minutes for Mc Cauley to get through the explanation. His sentences were interrupted by long silences and then explanations, each prefaced by “Yes, Mr. President,” or “No, Doctor Kissinger.” When he finally hung up the phone, he was sweating and looked exhausted.

“Just a casual little chat with a couple of buddies,” observed Conley cheerfully. “What’s they say?”

“President Nixon told me to tell them we’ll help. Administrator Low didn’t sound too happy about it.”

“Nope, he wouldn’t. He’s got no use for the Russians, none at all. I met him once when he was visiting the missile test range down in the Bahamas, back when I was launch supervisor there. We had a subcontractor engineer from GE down there, guy named Olenikov or something, from New York City but his parents came from somewhere near Moscow. It got Olenikov’s goat that I kept calling his company Generally Hectic, and one time he grumbled something at me in Russian that I’d imagine wasn’t too complimentary. Well, Low overheard this and just about came unglued. He ordered the guy out, and as soon as he left the room, changed every security code on the base. Olenikov had every clearance in the book, checked and double checked, but Low didn’t want him near those missiles. Too bad, because as GE techs go, the guy was pretty good, actually fixed some problems instead of always explainin’ how they were caused by somebody else’s equipment.”

“Well, Administrator Low was probably just concerned about security…”

“I think he just hates the Soviets, individually and collectively. He’s from Austria, but he’s got relatives right across the border in Czechoslovakia. He hasn’t heard from some of them since the Soviets rolled tanks last year to smash that Prague Spring thing. He seems to have taken it personally. Wouldn’t bother him a bit if those guys in the capsule returned to Earth without slowin’ down.”

“He did argue with Dr. Kissinger a lot. Henry is all for it, sounds like he figures it’s going to happen anyway, so we might as well make it so they owe us some favors. Low thinks it’s a trick, same as that communications tech, what’s his name?”

“Robert E. Butler, named after a certain citizen of Virginia. I’d have liked Bob even if he wasn’t named after a southern gentleman, because he’s a good man. Solid as a rock. Only one of the four comm guys on duty that kept his head about him when Apollo Eight went up,” He paused a moment, as everyone did when they mentioned that day. “Brought his kid to visit last week, and the brat was all over the place, trying to touch everything. Kept two men busy tryin’ to stop him, and I was findin’ greasy fingerprints on the equipment for hours. Kid must eat nothin’ but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all day and never washes his hands.”

“We’ll have to reexamine that policy about allowing children here on visiting days.”

“You’re a born administrator, goin’ from talking with the President one minute to petty personnel issues the next.”

“Maybe I am. I’m stuck in the details these days. I used to dream about going up myself.”

“Like we all have,” observed Conley. “I reckon it’s the reason we’re here. For now, it’s about someone else coming down instead of us going up.”

“And in about ten minutes they’ll in range again and we can tell them the welcome mat is out. Let’s go stand by our end on the phone. ”

Despite the order not to tell anybody about the message, the Mission Control center was packed with people who all had that look employees only get when the boss arrives suddenly. Heads were down, men shuffled from place to place with papers clutched in their hands, and technicians peered intently at meter needles that weren’t moving and screens that were blank. Conley snorted and Mc Cauley almost laughed. What did he expect? The word was out. There was no putting the cat back in the bag, so he might as well make sure that they all knew where things stood.

“All right, gentlemen, listen up!” The room went quiet and every head snapped in his direction, eyes wide with interest. “I just got off the phone with President Nixon. The President of the United States directs that if the Soviet spacecraft needs to make an emergency landing, we will give any assistance needed.” There was a sudden buzz of conversation, and he noted that some faces looked relieved, others blank or stubborn. What the heck, tell them the rest.

“Gentlemen!” he said again louder, and the room was still again. “You know that there has been speculation that the Soviets were going to go for a moon landing on this trip. Well, we’re not certain yet, but it seems likely that they will, and they’ll be setting down here in the US after they do it. I know that you all have been working for years so an American will set foot on the Moon first. Well, I want that to happen too, but if the Soviets make it before us, we must consider how our children’s children will see it. They’ll remember it as the day a man landed on the Moon, not a Russian or an American, a man, and they’ll ask what you were doing on that day. You will say that you remember, you were where you could help, and you did your part. That’s what will matter.” He was silent for a moment. ”Gentlemen, to your duties,” he said in a low voice that carried through the huge room. Mc Cauley walked over to the console where Butler, the man who had received the first message, was staring at an electronic clock. “How long, Bob?” he asked.

“Four, three, two, one…” the senior communications tech counted down. “Ready to broadcast, sir.” Butler handed Mc Cauley a headset, then looked at him questioningly. Mc Cauley pointed at the switch that would broadcast the conversation throughout the room, and Butler flipped it.

“This is Houston Mission control, over.”

The answer came back a few seconds later through a crackle of static. “To Houston, this is Volkov of Soyuz 11. Please advise if assistance will be forthcoming.”

“To Volkov, this is Mc Cauley of NASA mission control. The President wishes me to assure you that we will help in every way possible. Over.”

Despite the growing interference as the craft went out of range, they could hear the relieved tone in the Russian’s voice. “My friends Patsayev and Dobrovolski, and of course I myself, are grateful for your offer of hospitality. We will not be arriving for some days yet, so you will have a little time. We know the weather is nice in California, because we are looking at it right now, and we see only a few clouds.”

“There are no clouds where you are going right now.”

“Yes, but the weather there is not so good for a barbecue. Colder outside even than Siberia in winter.”

”We promise a good barbecue as soon as you’re safely down.”

“This cheers us. We are bored with the food we have brought with us, and have heard that American steaks are the best. We will remain in contact. Thank you, or as we say, spasebo.”

“You are welcome, gentlemen. Safe voyaging. Over.”

There was a brief, unintelligible noise, then only a hiss of static. Mc Cauley put down the microphone and turned to the communications tech. “They’re going for it,” he said to himself, then turned to the technician.

“Butler!”

“Sir.”

“Please contact our tracking stations in Hawaii and Australia on secure lines. They’ll be able to see them for a bit longer. Tell them I need to know about any change in the orbit of that Soyuz. Tell them to start right now.”

Yes, sir!”

Conley followed him back into his office.

“You’re looking for a burn this soon?”

“If they’re short enough on fuel and oxygen that they’re talking to us in the first place, they’re not going to waste what they have. It’ll take them half an orbit for that little toy lander of theirs to separate and decelerate, so if they start the process now, it’ll be almost on the ground the next time they’re in radio range. I figure they’ll want to do their broadcast in the afternoon, Moscow time, so they’ve got to drop their lunar module soon. I need to call Administrator Low now.”

Just then, the phone rang. “Hmmm, seems that Administrator Low can calculate orbits too,” Conley observed. “Wouldn’t have thunk it with him out of school so long.” Mc Cauley picked up the receiver and listened for a moment.

“Yes sir, we told them we will give assistance. They said they won’t be arriving for some days yet, so they evidently plan to come here after a landing attempt.” He listened for a moment. “They have? About time. Probably wanted to make sure the guys up there were OK before they admitted they were there in the first place. Yes sir, I will. I anticipate that they’ll broadcast about 1:30 in the morning, my time. Yes sir, I’ll still be here. Yes sir, I’ll let you know if anything changes.” He hung up he phone and exhaled a long breath, the tension visibly draining out of him. “I think I’m actually getting used to the idea of calling the White House to brief the President.”

“So what did they say this time?”

“News from Moscow. Premier Kosygin just confirmed that it’s a manned mission, but didn’t say anything about fuel shortages or emergency landings.”

“So what’s new? If they launched the thing and it went straight into the Marianas Trench, they’d call it an oceanography mission and claim it was a success.”

“Hell of a way to run things.”

“As opposed to dithering for a year while congressmen who flunked high school science tell us how to redesign our escape procedures?”

“I’m willing to bet that they’ve got dumber bureaucrats who have flunked worse science classes.”

“They just know not to listen to them. Or to shoot them when they’re wrong, which means they don’t make that mistake twice.”

“And now I’m beginning to think we should learn something from them.”

“Nah, you really shouldn’t start shooting people, in case it becomes a habit.”

Their conversation was interrupted by respectful knock at the open door, where the tall, crew-cut communications officer was waiting respectfully.

“Honolulu reports a burn, sir. Timing is right for lunar module separation.”

“Darn it, I didn’t bet any money on this, when I probably could’ve gotten two to one. Another wasted opportunity,” mused Conley intro the silence. Mc Cauley ignored him.

“That’s as expected,” said Mc Cauley crisply. “Contact NASA Edwards in California and don’t tell them why, but tell them to run a full dress drill of their search and rescue teams three days from now. And… what’s your name again?”

“Yeager, sir. Bill Yeager.”

“You’re ex-Navy.

“Ensign, sir.

“Sounds like you dealt with some dicey situations in Korea.”

“A few, sir.”

“And you were arguing with Butler over what to do about that distress call.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why do you think you two disagree?”

“He’s a Marine, sir.”

“And?”

“They’re trained to think they can beat anything, sir. Don’t like it when they can’t.”

“And?”

“Spend a bit of time at sea, sir, and you know the ocean’s bigger than anybody. Soldiers on opposite sides don’t help each other, mariners do. Space is even bigger than the ocean.”

Mc Cauley and Conley waited for a moment, but the tall man didn’t say anything else. “Thank you, Mr. Yeager,” said Mc Cauley finally.

“Sir,” he responded, made a stiff turn, and walked away.

“I think you made a heap of points with that man when you said we had to help those Russkies.” observed Conley after he was gone. “You’ve gone from being his boss to being his commanding officer, and he respects that a lot more.”

“We’re civilians, Conley. I am his boss.”

“We’ve sent people out to explore or die, Mac. Civilians don’t do that much.”

“True enough. Now it’s their turn over in Moscow, but we’re doing our bit. I was less certain about that than you were. Washington could have said no, and then they wouldn’t have made the landing and you’d have lost your bet. I didn’t want to help them myself, at first, but I’m glad we’re doing it. Somehow when you’ve talked to someone, joked about having a barbecue with him, it all becomes less abstract.”

“And it all comes down to you making the contact. Ironic, ain’t it. If our side had a bird flying, Low would be standing here making sure it was him handling the communications, bossing everything, on television every day. Since the shot wasn’t ours and we didn’t expect to talk to anybody, Low gets to hear about everything secondhand. I wonder when he’s just gonna tell you to route all calls to him, and he rolls in the TV cameras.”

“Probably not long.”

“I dunno. Come to think of it, this is a pretty weird situation, contact being not exactly official. He may like to keep it at one remove, so if it all goes wrong, he has somebody to blame it on.”

“You’ve cheered me up so much by saying that.”

“Well, now you get to figure out what to do next.”

“Yep, we do.”

“We? I’m just a country boy who keeps this chair from gettin’ all dusty by sittin’ in it.”

“So sit in it and tell me what you think we ought to do to get ready.”

“How about asking the President to find some excuse to get the army to do training in the California desert, so they’re where we need them? Maybe explain it as emergency practice of some sort. They just had an earthquake in a place called Sylmar a few months ago, maybe they can practice in case another one comes along.”

“”Nah, they wouldn’t call out the army, they’d muster the National Guard for that. We’d have to go through the governor, and he’s that actor that used to be on Death Valley Days. I can’t remember his name, but he was pretty good in Bedtime for Bonzo.”

“Reagan. Ronald Reagan. I liked him better in Cattle Queen of Montana. Forget him, those Hollywood people are too unreliable. See if you can find an excuse to get the army out instead of the guard. They just got a delivery of new choppers, and the next time you call the White House maybe you can ask them to schedule some training.”

“The next time I call the White House,” mused Mc Cauley. “I had almost managed to forget for a minute that I could do that.”

“I reckon anybody can call the White House. The difference is, when you do it, they pick up the phone.”

The two men laughed for a minute, then Mc Cauley made a face like he’d eaten something sour.

“What is it, Mac?”

“I’m putting my career on the line to help three guys I’ve never met, and I’ve never even talked to two of them. And they’re Soviets, and about to land on the Moon ahead of us.”

“And, as you reminded a passel of folks out in that mission control center, they’re people. Humans. From this planet, never mind which chunk of it. And sixty years ago the Soviet Union didn’t exist, and sixty years from now something else might be there.”

Mc Cauley was silent for a moment. “I’ve got to believe that something else will be there, because I don’t want to believe their system can go on that long. Turning a country into a cage.”

“Yep. Even allowin’ for a little exaggeration on the part of the journalists who go over there, that seems to be the size of it. They haven’t been able to squash the spirit out of people, though. Look at the Hungarians in ’56, the Czechs last year, those Germans that try to get into West Berlin any which way they can. The Russians build a wall around the place, but they tunnel under it, climb over it, or swim around it. Won’t be long before they decide to make pole vaultin’ the national sport so they can all defect to the West. I can’t see how the Soviets think they can keep people in line forever, much less why they think it’d be a good idea. I guess they’ve got propaganda tellin’ people it’s for their own good. ”

“Well, it looks like tomorrow they’ll have one more piece, because their guys will be on TV singing ‘Happy birthday, dear Vladimir,” from the Moon.”

“And if they need our help to get back home, everybody will remember that they couldn’t do it themselves. It ain’t all bad. We’ll get a good look at their equipment as soon as it hits our turf, a fact that probably hasn’t escaped the folks back there in Washington. Won’t surprise me if there’s a slight shipping delay in getting’ it back to them due to unexpected circumstances. I’ll bet they’re roundin’ up every expert on Soviet technology they can find and getting ready to go over that capsule with a fine-tooth comb.”

“You’re not going to get any takers on that bet either.”

“Shucks, if everybody keeps declinin’ my bets, I’m gonna have to give up gamblin’.”

“You win all the time, so people stop playing.” He yawned, then glanced at his watch. “Almost one AM, and another half hour before we get to watch their dog and pony show. Think I’ll walk around a bit.”

The big mission control center was even more crowded now, since new people had come on shift and the old ones hadn’t left. A few of the specialists and technicians who were assigned to other areas looked at Mc Cauley with concern, but he waved his hand dismissively. “Relax, I understand. I’d want to be here too. Anything urgent that needs to be done at your station?”

Most of the men shook heads no, but one thought for a moment and started walking quickly toward the door. Mc Cauley had a sudden idea and pointed at a weather forecasting team.

“You! Who in your unit makes the best coffee?” When three people pointed at the same man, Mc Cauley addressed him. “Go make as much as you can and bring it here. Just make sure one cup of it stops at my desk.” He glared at Conley. “We have an excess of engineering talent and a shortage of culinary skill around this place.”

Conley smiled back at him, unfazed. “Wasn’t hired for my looks or my cookin’,” he said mildly. “Not that either one is my strongest point, I’ll grant you.”

Mc Cauley didn’t answer, as something had caught his eye. In the midst of the crowded, noisy room, Butler was writing in a notebook, the spacing of the lines making it clear that it was a poem. He paused in mid-line to glance at a clock and flip a pair of switches, then went back to his writing. Mc Cauley walked silently to his side.

“What do you have there?”

“Oh, just an idea that came to me.”

“May I see?” He picked up the notebook and read out loud,

“Ours was the time when dreams were spun

In sculpted shapes of shining steel

And trips to distant worlds begun

Where strange configured starfields wheel

So when our lives are long forgot

Remember we in pride did say

We visualized the ships you fly

As first we launched ours on their way.”

There was a long moment of silence, and then Mc Cauley asked, “Is there more to it?”

Butler shrugged. “Is there more that needs to be said?”

“No, I think that about covers it.” He contemplated the room full of people who awaited a landing on the Moon and then gave the notebook back. “The important stuff is all there.”

The cup of hot coffee arrived at the console just as a phone rang. The engineer at that desk picked it up and gestured to Mc Cauley. “Call transferred from the switchboard, sir. It’s Washington.”

Mc Cauley took the receiver and listened for a moment. “Yes sir, we’ll watch for the feed.” He listened for a moment, looked at some papers that a mathematician had just given him, then spoke into the phone again. “We have the numbers, sir. If he only stays down for one full orbit and then fires the lander’s engines for rendezvous with the Soyuz, they’ll rendezvous about four hours from now. If they’re low on oxygen, that’s probably what they’ll do. If their problem is fuel, he could stay there for another orbit, so call it six hours. After that, two and a half days to touchdown. Yes sir, thank you.”

He hung up the phone and glanced at Yeager. “Channel eight, large screen, all non-critical stations. It’s a news feed.” The tech nodded and started flipping switches on his console. About half of the flickering screens that lined the huge room went momentarily blank, then lit up with pictures of a huge parade float traveling a snowy street. On the front was a huge statue of Lenin on a red carpet emblazoned with the dates 1870-1970. Thousands of people in overcoats and hats clapped obediently and cheered, and the tinny sound filled the Mission Control room. Over the faint music of a military band they could hear the voice of the translator, obviously from the Radio Moscow English language service.

“Here, the Soviet people show their solidarity with the workers of this world, at the same time as they explore a new world, inspired by the glorious thought and irrefutable logic of Comrade Vladimir Lenin…”

“Turn that down, please,” Mc Cauley requested, his voice flat. At Conley’s questioning look, he explained, “Administrator Low said that there’s going to be a live broadcast from the Moon in a few minutes. We might as well watch it.”

At a nearby console, Butler jerked in his seat and adjusted his headphones, then turned to Mc Cauley. “Sir, message received from the Soyuz orbiter.”

“For us?”

“In English, two words. “Please record.”

“Reply, ‘Affirmative, Luna.” He swallowed hard. “And tell them congratulations.”

“Sir.”

“They’ve been having communications problems with their own station, probably want to make sure the moment gets preserved,” observed Conley. “Well, the day will come when it’s our turn. When our guys are up there, we’ll want a nice clean signal relayed via Moscow.”

“Not Moscow, Baikonur,” corrected Mc Cauley. “That’s where they launched this bird from…”

“Well, knowin’ the Russians, if sending the message through bacon-ear is the right thing to do, they’ll send it through Moscow.”

Everyone in earshot laughed at the joke, even as the screens showed high-stepping soldiers with the Kremlin in the background. “An early lead ain’t everything,” continued Conley. “The South won all the early battles in the War Between the States, and look how that turned out.”

“With the United States’ centers of space operations in Florida and right here in Texas, both loyal states of the Confederacy,” added a nearby man whose accent proclaimed him a local. “Next time we feel like leavin’, we’ll have the high ground.”

“Let’s not start that again,” intervened Mc Cauley. He was interrupted by a blare of trumpets from the tinny speakers, and the screens showed a solemn group of elderly men in dark suits sitting next to a podium. A jowly man with thinning silver hair walked ponderously to the microphone while everyone else applauded stiffly.

“Workers of the glorious Soviet Union, oppressed peoples of the world…” the translator began.

“Turn the sound off,” ordered Mc Cauley. “It’s bad enough to watch this, but listening to Brezhnev is too much. It makes about as much sense with or without the translation.”

The camera cut to a picture of Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, then of the embalmed corpse in its glass case, then back to Brezhnev.

“That last one looks deader’n the one that came before it,” observed Conley.

Mc Cauley was about to fire back with a smart remark, but the action on the screen caught his attention. Brezhnev made a gesture toward a huge projection screen, which suddenly came to life. There was a gasp throughout the control room as a barren landscape of small craters and distant mountains came into view.

“Turn up the sound,” yelped several voices immediately, and Yeager twisted the volume control.

“…This live broadcast from the surface of the moon, from a camera mounted on the Lunniy Orbitalny Korabl, the jewel of Soviet technology and proof of superiority over the efforts of the decadent capitalists of the United States.”

“Turn the sound back down,” complained a couple of voices, but more people shushed them.

Butler jerked in his seat again. “Message incoming from the orbiter, sir. I am recording.”

Mc Cauley nodded, still transfixed by the image on the screen. A suited figure came into view from the left side, moving slowly down a ladder while carrying something under his arm. The image seemed to blur, and Mc Cauley reached for a handkerchief to wipe the tears from his eyes.

“Oh… My…God,” he heard Butler gasp. He heard the sound of other men sobbing, muttering curses, or praying. Even the pompous English translator had shut up in that majestic moment.

The suited figure paused on the last rung of the ladder and unfurled a Soviet flag, the hammer and sickle bright even in the foggy TV picture from the moon. He announced something in Russian, held the flag outward in salute, then dropped it. It took a moment to fall to the ground in the feeble lunar gravity. The cosmonaut stepped on it, then took another step onto the surface of the moon.

The picture suddenly cut away to a view of the communist party functionaries, one of whom had fallen over and was receiving medical attention. Brezhnev’s mouth was moving, but either he wasn’t actually saying anything or the translator wasn’t translating. Butler flipped a switch, and though the picture stayed the same, the Mission Control room was filled with a different voice, intelligible despite the speaker’s accent and the distortion from the great distance.

“…Have decided we can not celebrate the lies of Lenin, who promised prosperity, while fifty years after the revolution of 1917, the only ones who are well fed are the apparatchiki and the generals. Lenin promised peace between all communists, but on the border with the Chinese we await a war. Lenin promised freedom, but the walls and barbed wires keep our people in cages.”

“That video feed is still coming from the moon. Get it for me,” Mc Cauley demanded. While Butler flipped channels, the speech from the orbiter went on.

“We therefore will do what other Soviet citizens can not, which is to make our own choice of where we will travel.”

“Got it!” shouted Butler, and the screens around the room showed the lunar surface again. A piece of paper with a hand-drawn American flag was on a short pole, and a man in a pressure suit was saluting it.

“We have decided that will not be landing in the Soviet Union,” the accented voice continued while shouts and cheers rang out in mission control. “We will try life in a new country.”

“You got your wish, Mac.” marveled Conley from somewhere just behind him. “The first man on the Moon is an American. Unless you think that the State Department will refuse his citizenship request.”

“That paperwork is going to be processed faster than any other application in history,” exulted Mc Cauley.

“Meanwhile, you have any friends in Southern California? I think you might want to call and tell them you’ll be visitin’ real soon, and they should stock up on charcoal, beef, and liquor. Our friends expressed a wish for a really good steak, and I think you have about three days to develop a taste for vodka.”

Over the noise in the room, Mc Cauley could hear the line from Washington ringing. He ran to answer it.

Notes:

1. Reviews of this story were strongly divided, with some writers referring to it as “jingoistic” or as a pastiche. I tried to reflect the attitudes of the time, based on interviews with several people who worked with NASA during that period. I also deliberately tried to write it in the style of the Analog stories that were published in the late 1960’s, and apparently that confused some people who thought that the some of attitudes portrayed are my own.

2. The poem “Apollo,” that was used in this story was written by NASA Mission Control technician Robert E. Butler in 1969, and was previously unpublished. Thanks are due to Chris Butler and the late Robert E. Butler for technical assistance with this story. I put Robert in this story doing what he actually did, and wish he had lived to see it published.

3. William P. Yeager was also a real person, and the character of Frank Conley was based on Frank Connor, who was briefly a GE representative on the Atlantic Missile Test Range. He told me that the other techs actually did call the company Generally Hectic.