Book Review: Chris Hadfield, “The Apollo Murders”

Review by Duncan Lunan

Chris Hadfield, “The Apollo Murders”, hbk, 463 pp. + 7, £20, Quercus, 2021.

Chris Hadfield is now perhaps best known for playing the guitar on the International Space Station, but he had a long career as a military aviator and test pilot before becoming an astronaut in 1992.  Since then he flew three times by Space Shuttle and once by Soyuz to the Mir space station and to the ISS.  All that background shows in the novel, but he’s also very interested, not to say preoccupied, with what happened before his time, and particularly the era of the Moon landings.  I saw similar familiarity with the past in astronaut Joseph P. Allen’s 1985 non-fiction book Entering Space, understandably, because he became a scientist-astronaut in 1967, though he didn’t fly until the 5th Space Shuttle mission in 1982;  but Chris Hadfield has really immersed himself in what went on before his time. 

Fig. 1. Original Apollo 18 crew, Harrison (Jack) Schmidt and Dick Gordon, training at KSC 1971 as backups for Apollo 15.

The novel is set is 1973, just after the cancellation of the last Apollo missions to the Moon.  Hoping against hope, NASA had been training a crew for Apollo 18  (Fig. 1), with a mission patch featuring Stonehenge as a symbol of continuity from the early astronomers  (Figs. 2).  Harrison Schmitt would have commanded it, but was swapped with Joseph Engle when it became clear that Apollo 17 would be the last chance to put a scientist on the Moon.  Speaking at the UK Charterhouse Conference in 2007, Joe Engle said that while he wasn’t a professional geologist, he reckoned he “could have picked up rocks on the Moon just as well as Jack Schmitt did”.  But although NASA also had astronauts assigned and patches designed for Apollo 19 and Apollo 20, none of the last three ever happened.

Fig. 2. Apollo 18 mission patch before Schmitt was reassigned to Apollo 17

In the 1960s the US military had two manned spaceflight programmes, independently of NASA.  One was the Boeing X-20 DYNA-SOAR spaceplane, cancelled in 1963, whose main mission was to inspect and possibly to disable spacecraft of other nations.  Given that unmanned satellites are much cheaper than crewed ones, it always seemed to me that it was highly vulnerable, and a few booby-trapped satellites would soon put a stop to the interceptions.

The other was the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory, cancelled in 1969 but not fully declassified until 2015.  Details were then published in Rod Pyle’s Amazing Stories of the Space Age  (Prometheus, 2017).  It was to be launched on a Titan III booster, with a Gemini capsule on the top, and there was a test flight in November 1966, reusing an early Gemini – the  first time a spacecraft was reused in the US space programme  (Fig. 3).  The rear section was a ‘laboratory module’, filled with a large telescope, and the main mission was orbital surveillance.  The Soviet counterparts were the Salyut space stations, of which seven were flown before replacement by Mir  (Fig. 4).  Salyuts 2, 3 and 5 were military missions.  A comment at the time was, “What’s the difference between a military Salyut and a civilian one?  It’s which way up the telescope is mounted”, and it turns out that not only was that true  (Figs. 5 & 6), but the military ones were actually a different spacecraft called ‘Almaz’  (Fig. 7). 

Fig. 7. 1976 Salyut 5, aka Almaz 3

In 1994 I met Michael Lisun  (Fig. 8), the intended commander of Salyut 5, and he still declined to say just what his mission was. 

Fig. 8. Left to right,. Michael Lisun, intend commander of Salyut 5, DL, Igor Popov, Museum of Cosmonautics, Oscar Schwiglhofer, founder of ASTRA – Airdre Arts Centre, 1994

It didn’t include rehearsing to repel American boarders, because the Soviets had previously flown anti-aircraft guns for that purpose, and test-fired the one on Almaz 2  (Salyut 3), but there wasn’t one on Salyut 5.  In his book War in 2080, the Future of Military Technology  (1979), David Langford pointed out that most future space conflicts are likely to be hand-to-hand combat, and Rod Pyle’s book describes the hand weapons which would be used to defend the USAF’s proposed lunar base against attacking cosmonauts.  Pyle also describes the handgun developed for the Soyuz spacecraft’s survival pack, to fend off wolves or bears in landings off-track in remote territory, which also features in The Apollo Murders.

As backup to Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell joked in 1984 that he had followed Armstrong around for weeks, opening manhole covers and laying other traps, all of which failed.  But the backup Commander of the military Apollo 18 takes it to the next level, sabotaging the training helicopter of the Mission Commander he’s shadowing in order to take his place.  That’s not his only secret, though:  he was brought to the USA as an orphan at the end of World War 2, he still speaks fluent Russian, and he has a brother in the USSR, which gives the KGB a hold over him.

Whom he really has to fear, did he but know it, is a former MOL trainee who lost an eye in a bird strike, during a low-altitude test flight in a Phantom.  Banned from high-performance aircraft, he went into mission control, first as a CapCom and then as a Controller, which puts him in place for liaison between the USAF and NASA as the military mission takes shape.

As Russian science writer Sergei Kapitza remarked, at the IBM ‘Science Revisited’ conference in London in 1990, if you want to know the capability of your enemy’s reconnaissance satellite, you can either spend 20 years infiltrating a spy into the programme, or you can give its dimensions to a first-year physics student who will work it out from the laws of optics.  The Soviets have taken the former approach with the new Mission Commander, who doesn’t even know at the outset that he is a ‘sleeper’;  but US military intelligence has done the numbers on the first Almaz, which has reached orbit successfully, unlike its failure in our history, and they’ve concluded that its potential for surveillance makes it a threat to US assets around the world.  The first assignment for the Apollo 18 crew is to confirm that with a close inspection, and to disable it if possible.  The supposed threat is one of the few things in the book which I find hard to believe:  surely in 1973 the secret assets on US bases would be camouflaged, as a matter of course.

The mission goes completely wrong – there’s already a crew on Almaz, and spacesuited astronauts and cosmonauts start flailing at each other with bolt-cutters and wrenches, as David Langford foresaw.  When Soviet mission control cuts loose with the gun, the spread is greater than anticipated and it takes out a combatant on each side, before ripping the Almaz itself to shreds.  The retreating Apollo commits to Lunar Orbit Injection before realising that they have one astronaut dying in his suit, and the surviving cosmonaut clinging on outside the capsule.

Fig. 9. Lunokhod on Moon

The second mission objective is to investigate the landing site of the Soviet Lunokhod 2 rover  (Fig. 9), which has mysteriously changed its landing site to the crater Le Monnier on the rim of Mare Tranquillitatis, where it really did land  in 1973  (Fig. 10).  There was a story at the time that Lunokhod 2 had found a mysterious ‘monolith’ on the Moon, and the late Prof. Edwin Morgan wrote a poem about it, ‘Instamatic the Moon 1973’, in which scratches at its base proved to read ‘K space BRI query space K query’.  But there are no photographs, nothing in Lunokhod’s driving log, and nothing in overhead photos of the site by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (Fig. 11), though the rover and its tracks are clearly visible.  What everyone’s after in the novel turns out to be a highly radioactive rock, which the controllers spotted in high-resolution coverage by Apollo 15 and 17, in an area where radioactivity is not particularly higher than normal.  When Apollo 18 gets there, Lunokhod 2 is standing guard over it.

Exactly what caught the planners’ eyes is never exactly explained, but once the Lunar Module is on the surface, Chris Hadfield really comes into his own.  The jacket copy compares the text to The Martian and The Hunt for Red October, and the praise is merited.  The astronaut and cosmonaut are constantly out-manoeuvring each other, trying to secure the rock, without revealing what they’re doing to the watching TV audience, on whom they each repeatedly pull the plug, only to have the other reconnect it as the situation changes.  The astronaut needs to get at the Lunokhod off-camera to disable it, while the Russian controllers are trying to get it into every shot, to show that they’re on the Moon as well.  They’re less interested in photographing their own cosmonaut, since she’s in an American suit, but she needs to stay visible in case the American tries to kill her.  Despite her efforts to stop him, which include shooting at him twice, he disables the rover by dumping lunar soil on its on-top radiator, which did kill it in real life  (Fig. 11), in a brush with a dark-floored crater  (Fig. 12).  The KGB can talk to the sleeper or their cosmonaut, without being overheard, by line-of-sight, when Russia is facing the Moon, but neither can reply even when the USA is beyond the horizon, because of the worldwide Deep Space Network.  Richard Nixon, Bob Haldeman and Henry Kissinger, all still in office but unaware of what’s really happening up there, want the burial of the dead astronaut in a lunar pit to be a full national TV event, milking it for all the public relations they can get– regardless of the risk to the two live ones, who come close to falling in after the corpse, but  can’t say anything on live mic…  Chris Hadfield has gone to great lengths to choreograph all this, while staying within the limitations imposed by the lunar environment and the spacesuits.

Fig. 12. ‘Crossing the Crater’ by cosmonaut artist Andrei Sokolov

In his final notes, Hadfield states that highly radioactive materials are unlikely to be found on the Moon.  In that he disagrees with Dr. David Antia, of Glasgow University, who said in his lecture at the Edinburgh Festival in 1978 that as molten lava cooled in the Moon’s large impact basins, differentiation could build up large deposits of heavier elements in the depths, including radioactive ores.  Just that happened at Oklo in the Gabon, 1.7 billion years ago, when a sufficient concentration was reached to generate a natural nuclear reactor, running for several hundred thousand years.

That said, it’s perhaps worth remarking  (as no-one else has, as far as I know)  that the Chinese Chang’e 4 lander set down on the lunar Farside in the crater Van de Graaf, with the highest concentration of radioactive ore in the strips scanned by the Scientific Instrument Modules on Apollos 15, 16 and 17.  Just to add to the coincidences, last year its Yutu-2  (Jade Rabbit)  rover then spotted what appeared to be a monolith, or at least a cube, on the rim of a crater in the middle distance  (Fig.13).  It took several weeks to reach, and turned out to be a boulder which was itself shaped like a crouching rabbit, ‘with two small potatoes in front of it’ – smaller rocks, positioned just like the one being guarded by Lunokhod in The Apollo Murders  (Fig. 14).  Will more of the novel be re-enacted before long?

I found the battle engrossing – like The Martian with a murderer on one side, an armed cosmonaut on the other and Mission Controls on both sides trying to outmanoeuvre one another from quarter of a million miles away.  But how will it work for other readers?  I’m not really the person to ask, because I familiarised myself with the Apollo hardware during the missions and I’ve revised the Lunokhod one recently, as it happens.  I can imagine fans of The Martian following it raptly with the relevant Haynes Manuals to hand, and maybe enjoying it even more than I did as they compare it with what really happened.  But would the ordinary thriller reader find it hard going, or confusing if they half-remember the historical events?  Apparently not, to judge from other reviewers’ comments online:  Publishers Weekly compared the writing to Tom Clancy’s, and James Cameron said he couldn’t put it down.  But if a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps to bring it to a general audience – like The Martian – the big question is, will Cameron or somebody film it?