The Russians Used a Pencil
When man first went to the Moon, there was always the chance that those astronauts would never return to Earth. Many things could go wrong with any of the equipment, at any time. This was a reality of space travel, and so President Nixon had a speech prepared should disaster beset the crew of Apollo 11. It was never needed, as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins all returned safely to Earth on July 24th 1969. The speech includes the line: ‘Others will follow, and surely find their way home,’ and this rang true for twelve subsequent astronauts in Apollo missions 12, 13, 14 and 15. It’s currently 7am Earth time on April 24th 1972, the final day of the Apollo 16 mission, and President Nixon is preparing to finally deliver this speech.
EIGHT HOURS EARLIER
Charles Duke and Commander John Young had returned not long ago from the North Ray Crater and Shadow Rock, their final mission on the lunar surface. The Commander remained now in the cramped Lunar Module, bagging and tagging their samples while Charles continued to explore the surrounding area in the Rover. As he looked out across the monochrome landscape he couldn’t keep a grin off his face – he wasn’t sure the excitement of being an astronaut would ever wear off. He spoke to John as he drove, reporting on what he saw sometimes. Mostly they reminisced, joking about the past three days – how John had broken the fender on the Rover and Charles teased him, until John shut him up by breaking the lunar speed record. Charles felt the camaraderie of being completely alone, together.
John Young had always reminded Charles of his old Scouting Troop leader, with his serious demeanour and fatherly advice. But he was always good for a laugh, and there was no one Charles would have rather been stuck on the Moon with than his Commander.
‘Tell you what Commander,’ said Charles, the Rover bouncing him as it trundled over the uneven ground. ‘I don’t really want to leave. It feels so right being here.’
‘I know the feeling. All those years of work for only a few days here,’ the Commander replied.
‘I still want to know what it was I saw down at Cinco yesterday. It can’t have been nothing. I know I saw something metallic out there it–’
‘Duke,’ said the Commander. ‘If Mission Control said it was nothing, it was nothing. They know what’s out here better than we do. We have strict orders, and they do not include a field trip out east.’
Charles huffed, choosing not to say anything in reply, and returned to narrating what he saw. Charles was convinced that just because NASA said it was nothing, didn’t mean it actually was nothing. Maybe they lost track of something. Their telescopes were only so powerful, and Charles refused to change his mind, there was something out there! It might be debris from a jettisoned Module, crashed onto the Moon from orbit; or part of a Soviet rocket. Plenty of junk ended up on the Moon.
The journey in the Rover was nearing its end, as the Lunar Module was in view to the right of Charles, and he announced his return.
’Good,’ the Commander replied. You can help me finish storing these… wait that’s not good that’s… CHARLES STOP GO BACK NOW!’
The Lunar Module started to tremble and Charles’ reply was lost in loud static. Charles was about to drive closer when the Lunar Module exploded. He hurled himself out of his seat and sheltered behind the Rover from debris that didn’t quite reach him, feeling like he couldn’t breathe. The static cut out and was replaced by Mission Control shouting something unintelligible at him. As Charles stood up and turned to look at the wreckage, the shouting resolved into words. The ground in front of him was littered with pieces of the Module.
‘This is Mission Control to Duke, do you read me? I repeat, Mission Control to Charles Duke. Do you read me?’
Charles had forgotten how to speak, staring dumbfounded at the charred remains of their Module.
‘This… This is Charles Duke,’ he replied, taking a tentative step away from the Rover. ‘I read you. What happened?’
‘Duke, are you okay? Are you hurt? Do you see the Commander? We cannot make radio contact.’
‘I’m fine,’ he said, looking down and examining his suit. ‘Nothing hit me. I… I don’t see the Commander. I’m going to investigate the Module. What happened in there?’
There was hardly anything left of the Module, just the landing struts keeling over. Everything else had been propelled outward. The Commander is dead, Charles thought. No spacesuit could survive being in the centre of an explosion like that.
‘We don’t know, Duke. Our data readings give no indication of what happened until it… failed. A fire must have started somehow, or a fuel leak… It’s too soon to tell.’
On the other side of the Module, Charles saw the body. About twenty metres away, lying face down and splayed unnaturally. There were tiny shards of glass around the helmet, glinting in the light.
Oh god. No. No no no. Charles turned away and stared at his own feet, wanting to throw up.
‘Mission Control,’ Charles said, his voice catching. ‘I found Commander Young. He’s… He’s gone. The Lunar Module is unsalvageable.’
‘Duke,’ Mission Control started to say, pausing.
Charles concentrated on the low hum of static, trying not to panic about the fact that his ride home was now in hundreds of scorched pieces, and his Commander was no more than a carelessly discarded ragdoll.
‘Duke. We’re so sorry,’ said a soft voice, interrupted by a familiar military staccato. ‘Duke, this is Gene Kranz.’
The Flight Director? Charles thought. He never spoke to any of the Flight Crew, preferring to sit back and oversee. Charles had only spoken to him once before.
‘Son, you know that thing you think you saw at Cinco? Well, it ain’t nothing, and it’s time for you to go. There’s no time to waste.’
‘Yes sir,’ Charles replied, standing up straighter out of instinct in response to the commanding tone. ‘Excuse my asking, but what exactly am I going to, sir?’
‘We’ll let you know when you get there, son. Your coordinates are nine degrees south and fifteen degrees east. It is 3.7 miles from your current position. Now get in that Rover and drive like it is the Indy 500.’
‘Yes sir, on my way, sir.’
As Charles drove, he paid just enough attention to aim his Rover in the right direction, but his mind was racing with possibilities. He focused on those, so he wouldn’t have to think about Commander Young. He had been expressly forbidden to investigate this, and now he was being rushed towards it? It must be something important, something worth keeping secret, even from their own people. Like a spacecraft. It couldn’t be NASA, every move they made was a matter of public record. Unless it was never released…
As he drew closer, he urged the Rover onward, trying to get a clearer view of his target. He realised the coordinates he was heading to were very close to the planned landing site of the Apollo 17 mission, due in only eight months. Something was starting to take shape, looking more and more like an intact spacecraft, some kind of lunar lander he guessed.
And there it was. The Lander had come into focus. It looked Soviet, shining like chrome. There was a red insignia on the side, but he couldn’t make out the letters yet. Charles thought he could see a lump of something beige resting against the struts.
‘Mission Control, I am arriving at the site now and I cannot believe my eyes. The Soviets really made it to the Moon?!’
Charles pulled up near the craft and got off the rover. He realised now that the lump resting against the struts was a spacesuit. A body. The CCCP insignia was clearly visible on the side of the Lander.
‘They sure did, son,’ said Kranz, back on the line. ‘Through sheer luck I assume. Now look, as far as we have discovered, this Module failed and was unable to return to orbit. We are unsure what exactly went wrong, and we need you to investigate. Enter the Module, determine what’s broken, and report back. Be as quick as you can, this might just be your way home.’
‘Yes sir. This is an LK Lander, from the Soyuz program, correct? I thought they never got past low Earth orbit…’ Charles trailed off, walking closer to the Lander. Mission Control continued to answer his technical questions as he looked around the Lander.
There was a set of footprints, just one, around the base of the Lander, leading off behind it and returning. Charles walked toward the spacecraft, moving around it in a wide circle and looking for any external flaws. He returned to the spacesuit at the front and attempted to crouch next to it in his own bulky suit. There was a plain, leather bound book sitting near him, a pencil resting on top of it. Charles saw his own reflection in the suit’s mirrored gold visor, his bright white suit taking on a yellow tinge. The name tag on the suit’s chest read ‘Yuri’. Charles slammed the visor on the suit up, not wanting to look at another dead body but forcing himself to, not realising it would be the most recognisable face in the Soviet space program. He recoiled in fright, nearly falling backwards.
‘I thought Yuri Gagarin died in 1968, in a fighter jet crash,’ Charles said, out of breath. ‘What is his body doing up here?’
‘The Soviets faked it, and sent him to space,’ replied Mission Control. ‘We will explain later, but for now you need to get inside the lander, Duke.’
Yuri’s eyes stared back at Charles, unblinking, his face a sickening grey colour. His stomach churned, producing a sour taste in his mouth. Charles crawled forward and pushed the gold visor back down before standing back up, grabbing the Lander struts for support. Charles backed away from the body, keeping an eye on it as he moved toward the Lander’s ladder. He was half expecting the suit to get up and follow him like a zombie. Forcing himself to look away from it, he climbed up to the main vessel, opened the hatch and stepped inside.
‘Control, I’m inside the lander now. It looks like someone tore it up intentionally, just enough to disable it.’
The panels of the control console had been pried off, and the wiring underneath must have been ripped out, as it was now scattered on the floor or left hanging out of the original cavities. He started rifling through it, trying to work out what was busted. He wasn’t too sure what all of the parts were, but all the components were intact, only the wires had been disconnected. It looked worse than it was, Charles reported, but it would take some time to fix.
‘Duke,’ said Kranz. ‘For right now, you need to get the satellite uplink and the remote navigational systems operational again.’
‘Yes sir,’ Duke responded, trying not to panic. He only had about half an idea what was going on in the ancient lander. ‘I’ll try sir.’
‘Failure is not an option, son.’
Duke fiddled around with all the wires, trying to work out what connected where and what was actually important. It didn’t help that everything was in Russian, but there were plenty of familiar components, and Mission Control was able to point him in the right direction. Somehow, despite having to do it all in his space suit, Charles reconnected the Communication and Navigation panels – in record time, he might add.
‘Mission Control, I have fixed what I can. Attempting to power up now.’
Charles flipped the necessary switches and held his breath, waiting for some sign of success. Nothing. He flipped a few more switches, pressed some buttons and hoped. He gave the control panel a good kick and it whirred to life. The panels lit up and an alarm starting blaring which he spent an embarrassing amount of time trying to switch off.
‘I did it! She’s going!’
Charles heard Mission Control cheering, and he couldn’t be more relieved. He might just have a chance of getting back home, but he felt a pit in his stomach knowing he had to trust this unreliable antique. Mission Control informed him that establishing the satellite link would take some time, so he should go outside to check again for external damage, but mostly he just had to wait for NASA to do their part. Charles climbed out of the Lander, feeling like he was one hundred pounds lighter now that NASA had taken the reins. He walked over and stood by Yuri’s feet, staring down at him, trying not to look at his own reflection.
‘Alright, Yuri. What are you doing here?’ he said.
His eyes fell on the little notebook by the body. He picked it up and fumbled with it, trying to turn the pages with his bulky gloves. It was a diary, filled with notes written neatly in pencil, in what he assumed was Cyrillic. No space crew had used pencils for years, they all used the Fisher Space Pen. No one had used pencil since… Yuri Gagarin. After accidentally crumpling a few pages, Charles found a section near the end written in English. He started to read it, to stop himself thinking about everything that could go wrong in the Lander.
‘My name is Yuri Gagarin. March 27 1968 Russian government faked my death in jet fighter crash. This was done to keep secret USSR lunar missions, and prevent US sabotage. September 25 1968, Soyuz LK reached Moon orbit. 19:05 I launched LK Lander. At 19:18 I touched down on surface of Moon. I, Yuri Gagarin, am now both first man in space, and first man on Moon. I will also be first man to die on Moon. My commander, Vladimir Komarov believes LK Lander suffered complete failure upon landing, and is unable to return to orbit. This is true and false. Lander is unable to return, but did not fail. I pulled out wires, enough to make them think it failed. I had no intention of returning to Earth. All that waits for me there is death. For me, for wife, for daughters, for brothers and sisters. If never return, they not killed too. I am traitor to country, and now KGB know. For seven years, I work with United States to try prevent Russian sabotage to NASA missions. This sabotage destroy us all. Petty and political. You, whoever read this, you understand. When fly here, to space, to Moon, away from Earth, all things fade away. We are so small, universe is so big. We have duty to self and other humans to explore. Does not matter who goes first.
Soviet Union will keep me secret forever – dying cosmonaut is not glorious. Apollo 11 will come to Moon in seven months. I wish best luck to them. I hope I have done enough to stop Soviet sabotage, so they will be here safely. They will not land near me, they will not know I am here. I may not be found for many years. I do not think this will be possible, but please to bring this message to my family if you can.’
The next section of the diary was written in Russian, except for three words in English; I love you.
It then continued in English:
‘To person who reads: If you are reading this, that means I (or US comrades) prevented sabotage. US space program lives. I hope you see what I see. It is beautiful. Goodbye, comrades. Goodnight.’
Charles closed the diary and placed it back beside Yuri. He sat down beside the space suit, looking across the horizon.
‘Thank you, Yuri. Thank you for helping me get here. And don’t worry buddy, I see it. It sure is damn beautiful.’
The Earth was just beginning to rise, a ball of green, blue and white that he could cover with his thumb if he closed one eye. It made Charles feel very small. Everything he had ever known, blotted out by his thumb.
‘You know,’ said Charles, looking over at Yuri. ‘You sure are an overachiever. First man in space, first on the Moon. Not Neil Armstrong after all. And to think, while we were cheering for him in 1969, you were already here. I’m so sorry.’
Charles looked back towards the Earth, still feeling an odd twinge of disappointment that he had to leave. There was a certain romance to being on the Moon, all those grand problems on Earth just fell away, and there was only Charles. Sitting next to Yuri Gagarin, staring back at his tiny home.
‘Duke, we’re about ready for take-off,’ said Mission Control, breaking Charles out of his reverie. ‘You need to return to the Module and get strapped in. We’ll handle most of the procedure, but you need to be ready to assist if something goes wrong.’
Charles picked up Yuri’s diary, and climbed into the Module, sealing the door behind him. He would finally be able to say goodbye to his family. Charles stowed the diary in his suit pocket, and secured himself in the pilot’s seat. He was finally going home!
‘Duke, prepare for take-off. Launch in 5, 4, 3, 2….’
The Module shuddered as the engines roared to life, and the craft began to rise. Charles breathed deeply and held on tight to the sides of his seat, watching the Moon disappear from view beneath him. He wasn’t sure who was cheering louder, himself or all of Mission Control.
Alarms started blaring, drowning out the cheers. It seemed like every single light was flashing in the cabin, and several different alarm tones rang in his ears. Charles leaned over the console trying to find some combination of switches and buttons to shut it off but he couldn’t think straight with the flashing and the squealing and Mission Control shouting a thousand things at once. His suit felt too tight and too hot and sweat was dripping into his eyes as he tried to fix something, anything!
And then he was free. His chair, with him still strapped in, smashed through the window, ripping his suit and breaking his helmet. The vacuum of space tore Charles apart as the Module tore itself apart around him.
‘Mr President, it’s time.’
Richard Nixon took a deep breath, and stepped into the Briefing Room.
‘Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.’