Could NASA scientists build an elevator to space? Science fiction author William Forstchen explores that and many other cosmic questions in his newest novel, "Pillar to the Sky" (Tor Books, February 2014).
"Pillar to the Sky" is the first book released under the NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction program, an initiative to pair up scientists and authors to create exciting, and science-minded fiction. The book follows two scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as they go on a mission to make their space elevator concept into a reality.
Forstchen wrote about space elevators for "Boy's Life" magazine in the 1980s and he is a professor of history at Montreat College in North Carolina. Forstchen has co-authored books with former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and he also authored "One Second After," a science fiction novel about the dangers of an electromagnetic pulse-emitting weapon. Forstchen and his publisher Tor Books send Space.com this one-chapter preview of "Pillar to the Sky," which is now available in stores and online:
Eighteen Years Earlier
Goddard Space Flight Center
Erich Rothenberg, director of the division of advanced propulsion designs, and who oversaw interns assigned to the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, looked up over the top of his wire-framed glasses. There was no welcoming smile, just a cool gaze as Gary Morgan stood nervously in the doorway.
"So you are one of my new interns for the summer?" Erich asked. "I already told them there is no need for interns here—at least, those who want a solid future. May I suggest you just go back to the personnel office and ask for a different assignment."
Gary didn't move. He had been warned by "veterans" who had served as interns with Dr. Rothenberg that this was his typical greeting, the first winnowing-out process in which more than one graduate student had taken him at his word and fled.
He stood his ground.
"I volunteered for this division, sir. It is why I came to Goddard for the summer and asked to be assigned to you."
"Oh? Pray tell why." Still there was no welcoming gesture to take a seat.
"I've read most of your papers, sir, at least the unclassified ones: your prediction that Apollo would turn into a political dead end after the first landing, objections to the space station rather than an effort on advance propulsion systems and setting Mars as the next goal ..."
"I sail against the wind," Erich said gruffly. "Not a good path for career advancement."
Gary didn't move.
"Oh, damn it, come on in and sit down," Erich sighed. Gary was smart enough not to show any emotion; he had at least passed the first test. He was, at least, literally through the door and into the office. Very few ever made it that far.
Leaning back in his chair, Erich pulled out a battered Zippo lighter adorned with the faded insignia of his old commando unit and puffed his pipe back to life. It was now a violation of the new no-smoking rule for the facility, but like all such rules, Erich had a few choice words in reply, either in High German or Yiddish, depending on who he was addressing—though he did compromise by keeping the door closed and a noisy air purifier running.
"Let us skip the sentimental formalities of greetings," Erich announced. Gary had yet to learn it, but beneath the tough exterior of a German disciplined in war with nearly six years of service with the British Army, he was a sentimentalist at heart. His forty years of marriage to his recently departed wife had never produced children, and thus the ebb and flow of young interns and wide-eyed graduates had become his extended family. The honor of admission to this special club, "Erich's Dreamers"—or, as some called them behind his back, the "Warp Factor Club"—meant guidance, late-night sessions at his modest home just outside the gate, and dreams of what was and what should be.
The mainstream of work at Goddard now was on the beginnings of the international space station and post-Challenger recovery, and start-up on work for a second-generation shuttle design. There were even teams waiting for the word to develop a return to the moon and some talk that the president might even ask for funding of preliminary plans for Mars. But as for Erich's team, they were off in a far corner, their work buried deep in the yearly budget. They had been written off as dreamers …
Some wag, as a prank, had pinned a picture of Yoda on the door with the name "Erich" printed across it. Rather than tear it down, Rothenberg laughed softly and let it stay. It was now faded but still there.
"Erich's Dreamers." In their cramped quarters and with their marginal budget, they kept alive visions of ion drive; of solar sails that would actually use the minute pressure of sunlight and that theoretically could accelerate a payload up to a sizable fraction of light speed; of hypersonic and ramjet engines mounted on first-stage airplane-like "carriers" that would lift rockets to the edge of space and launch from there …
They even had plans—seriously worked on back in the 1950s and now at times tweaked a bit—to use nuclear power microburst engines that could cut the transit time to Mars from months to just weeks.
This had become Erich's domain after Apollo slipped away with barely a whimper.
For any ambitious graduate intern, when offered a variety of choices, the advice was to stay away from this collection of fantasists who read too much sci-fi and had seen too much Star Trek and could lip-synch every episode. Better to stick with the programs that had a real future, such as the next generation of the Space Shuttle, if they wanted to advance.
For Gary (who would not admit he could lip-synch every episode of the original Star Trek series), that was a challenge, not a warning, and he had specifically requested the assignment. Of the fifty-five graduate student internship applicants that summer, only two had been advised on how Erich would greet them.
Before making the long trek to this office in a small out-of-the-way office complex, he knew that Erich had at least approved the interview, along with the only other intern’s, the first exchange intern from the Ukraine, now a former member of the collapsed Soviet Union. That had caused a bit of a stir, and during his placement interview earlier in the day someone sitting in on his interview (who never identified herself) casually suggested that if he noticed anything unusual with this other intern to let security know.
Erich pointed to a chair, took Gary's dossier, thumbed through his transcripts for several minutes without comment, then started into his typical Germanic grilling.
"Why in hell do you want to get into aerospace engineering when thousands of my old coworkers have been laid off and are trying to land jobs as high school teachers, and the rest are just praying to make it to retirement?"
Before Gary could even form an answer, Erich fired off the next question.
"Why are you even here in this office? Bright young man like you should try for the Jet Propulsion Lab out in California, or one of the private contractors like Boeing or Lockheed, and angle for a job once you graduate."
"Your work intrigues me, sir," Gary finally replied, a bit nervously.
Erich sat back and shook his head, and laughed softly as he continued to thumb through Gary's file.
"Because I believe a day will come when humanity realizes space is the only answer left to us if we are going to make it to the twenty-second century."
"Why care about the twenty-second century? You plan to live that long?" Erich laughed softly. "I sure as hell don't. I've seen enough in this century to fill half a dozen lifetimes."
"No, sir, but maybe my children will. My great grandparents came to America eighty years ago. Before my grandfather died, he said they came here because of me."
Gary fell silent with that. He knew it sounded sentimental, and he had yet to realize how sentimental Erich truly was. But it was true. Three of Gary’s four ancestors had come through Ellis Island and all spoke of the dream that brought them there: it was always about a better world for their children and grandchildren and how he should dream the same. Though only twenty-two and with all four of his grandparents gone—along with both his parents, lost in a small plane crash two years back—he knew that his reply to Erich’s question would have been theirs as well.
His father had been a navy aviator who even tried for the astronaut corps in the mid-1960s—and almost made it—and this had encouraged Gary's fascination with flight. He actually should have been with his parents on the day they died, but a chronic sinus infection kept him home. His dad promised they’d go up together the following week, but there was no following week. An idiotic accident—a pilot pulled out onto the active runway just as they were touching down—had taken both his parents. As usual with such things, the fool who caused it walked away with barely a scratch.
Perhaps that was why he had tried to learn to fly—although, on the advice of his instructor, he had given it up. He didn't have the "instinctive" feel his father had, and frankly he was always on edge when aloft: that could be dangerous. Though grounded in a literal sense, his dreams were still "up there."
* * *
Gary's paternal grandfather—his beloved "Tappy"—had taken over as parent until he slipped away just the year before his internship interview, truly leaving Gary alone, at least in a physical sense. Yet all of his grandparents had instilled in him "the dream." Tall, gangly, rather uncoordinated—branded a nerd by many when that term was not the compliment it would become in the Internet age—Gary lived in a world of devouring works on aviation and space history, and at least found a few friends in the realm of fantasy gaming. Girls? That was something that left him tongue-tied and self-conscious; his friends even joked that maybe he should join a monastery, since that was the way he seemed destined to live. A favorite novel of his, Walter L. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, did involve a religious order devoted to science, and he actually thought at times that if such an order existed, he would just give up on the rest of the world and join it.
Erich Rothenberg, who was five foot seven, wiry, and at best 145 pounds soaking wet, also had something of the nerd look as he continued to gaze at Gary over the rims of his glasses. But then there was the other, legendary side of the man, a commando who had survived five years of combat, been wounded three times, and had been awarded the Victoria Cross—all before gaining his reputation as a brilliant space science engineer. No one would ever dare to apply the term “nerd” to him and expect to leave the office in one piece.
"So Mr. Morgan, you are here because you want to save the world, is that it?" Erich asked, but there was no mockery in his voice.
Gary did not answer for several seconds, then replied, "Maybe I can help in some way, sir."
"Then go over to the design team for the shuttle replacement."
"That’s the past, sir."
"What do you mean? I helped with some of the design, you know."
"And I read where you howled all the way, from the day they shifted the original plan from a two-stage liquid fuel launch that would take off like a plane—and continued to voice your concerns right up to the day Challenger lifted off—that putting men and women on top of solid boosters would one day end in a tragedy. And it happened."
They were both silent for a moment. Challenger, for everyone at NASA, was still an open wound. Gary still could not look at the footage without getting a lump in his throat when Houston radioed, "Challenger, you are go at throttle up ..."
"That is the past," Erich said, breaking eye contact and gazing off as if to some painful memory.
Gary leaned forward. He could sense that Dr. Rothenberg was showing some interest with this brief breaking down into an emotional response.
"Chemical rockets are to space travel what steam trains are to magnetic levitation or even diesel electric locomotives."
"Go on." Erich took his Zippo out again, relit his pipe, and leaned back in his chair, unflinching gaze again fixed on Gary.
"Well, sir, we all know Newton's law about thrust and opposite reaction. Even the most efficient chemical rockets have a maximum velocity, which we are already approaching. And the fuel-weight-to-energy-produced ratio forever limits just how much we can loft up. Apollo burned millions of pounds of fuel to get less than 20,000 pounds of spacecraft into a lunar trajectory. To save weight they even shaved off a few ounces of metal on the steps leading down to the lunar surface and back. The steps were calculated to be able to hold the load at one-sixth gravity but would collapse if used on earth. To go to Mars in any reasonable amount of time—it is a dead end, sir. Every day added because of lower velocity means that much more water, food, and other supplies for the astronauts, which means yet more weight of fuel to put it up there ... It is a dead end."
Erich nodded sagely then smiled.
"I was the one who suggested shaving down the steps on the module to save those few ounces."
"It's like building a 747 to fly three people across the Atlantic," Gary continued, "then junking the plane after landing."
"You took that line from me, Mr. Morgan," Erich said, with just the hint of a smile.
Gary nodded, acknowledging his appropriation of what was now a much-quoted line.
"So tell me, Mr. Morgan"—Erich looked at the file—"Mr. Gary Morgan: What wisdom do you bring to me, along with your youthful idealism, to solve this dilemma?"
"I don't know, sir," he replied truthfully. "But I do sense we are at the limits of what we can do to get into space. It is so damn frustrating, because out there limitless resources await, but we are stuck in a deep well—the gravity well of the earth—and it costs tens of thousands of dollars per pound just to crawl out of that well. I don’t have the answer that fits within our realm of aerospace engineering, and that is why I volunteered to be on your team—because maybe you do have the answer."
"Right answer. If you had said one word about folding space or wormholes—a bunch of rubbish—you'd be back at Personnel. And outside this office, if you say 'warp' even once, you are fired. I am barely hanging on to a budget as it is without some intern bubbling over in front of a jaundiced member of Congress, like one of our critics who just the other day was asking why couldn’t NASA make fuel out of corn from his state and then he’d support us."
Erich stared up at the ceiling, still puffing on his pipe, motioning for Gary to close the door so that there would not be any complaints while he reached back over his shoulder to open the window to air the room out.
"You are right. We're at an ultimate dead end. The ratios of required fuel to cost to get a given number of pounds into space, combined with the risks of chemical rockets, is a paradigm that has been with us ever since my old friend Von Braun was told to start shooting V-2 rockets at London. Even he admitted that he knew the folly of it all: one rocket to deliver one ton of explosives just two hundred miles cost far more than the planes America and England were building and pounding Germany with in a thousand-plane raid every night. It was a dead end, but in Von Braun’s case he was praying that his employer would get what he deserved and end the madness, but the rockets would become the foundation for the American victors to get into space. But the math of launching a rocket in 1944 is still the same nearly fifty years later, whether it is two hundred miles or to a translunar or trans-Mars trajectory.
"So they throw a fraction of the budget, less than a tenth of one percent of the budget that finally comes to NASA, to the NIAC and a few other teams like us at JPL, White Sands, telling us to try something different—and, of course, to come in under budget. As for you as an intern, your college gives you a small stipend so your work to us is for free, other than helping you a bit with nearby housing. But from small acorns there have been times when a mighty chestnut has grown, Mr. Morgan."
He finally made direct eye contact with Gary and smiled.
"You report at 0730 every morning. I do not like these new coffee shop chains with their French names for what even we Brit soldiers called 'joe.' There’s a diner just down the road south of the main gate. Tell them you are my new assistant; they know what I want. Get copies of The New York Times and The Washington Post as well while you’re there. You need coffee, get some for yourself; they’ll put it on my tab."
"Thank you, sir."
"You'll need it," Erich said with a sardonic smile, and then pointed to one of the bookshelves sagging in the middle from the heavy weight of volumes and papers.
"Start with that book in the upper left corner; it will take you back to the beginning of all things. A good aerospace engineer is also a good historian. An old friend of mine, L. Sprague de Camp, wrote that first book up there about ancient engineering. You will read how the Romans built roads, how Prince Henry of Portugal designed ships that could sail round the world ... Ever hear of him?"
Gary could only shake his head.
"Well, start with the book by de Camp. A book a day, young man."
Gary all but gulped openly as he looked at the rows of books. He was there for ten weeks, not ten years, and besides, though he could devour math in any form, his parents had been told he had some sort of learning disability called dyslexia and reading of regular texts came very slowly.
"I want you to start with that, the history of it all, even before Von Braun in Germany and Goddard here in the States began their work. I want you to get inside the minds of the inventors, the engineers, the dreamers."
"Yes, the dreamers. I want you to learn what they went through and find out if you have the stomach to face what they faced.
"Ever hear of Brunel?"
"What in hell are they teaching you at Purdue?"
"Well, they should throw in a history class or two. Isambard Brunel. In the 1850s he built an iron ship nearly as big as Titanic, but he was fifty years ahead of his time. There were no docks big enough in the world to handle his dream, no market big enough to fill the hull for a profitable journey, including the amount of fuel it would need to cross the Atlantic—though they finally found a use for it when it was used to lay the transatlantic cable. It is said the mockery about ‘Brunel’s Folly,’ as they called it, is what killed him. Fifty years later he was hailed as a visionary. I want you to learn that now."
"Is that what keeps you going, sir?" Gary ventured.
Erich looked at him crossly and did not reply.
"By the end of the week I want you up to speed on through Brunel; Eads; Ericsson; the Roeblings; Herman Haupt, a railroad engineer as important to the Union cause as Grant or Sherman; the private entrepreneur Hill, who built a transcontinental railroad on his own, the Great Northern, without a dime of government money only twenty-five years after the first transcontinental, which proved to be one of the great boondoggles of its time—names few know but you will know. Then we'll start talking about space."
Gary was a bit surprised. He had come here to learn what was the cutting edge, not some darn boring history lessons.
"In time you will see why I make you learn the past, then learn how to shape the future and have the strength to do it.
"So, I expect to see a book a day off that shelf. Don’t forget the book by de Camp on your way out. Have it read by tomorrow."
Erich looked down at the paper he had been reading and for several minutes focused on it, ignoring Gary, so that he wondered if he had been dismissed. Erich had a red pencil out and began scratching some notes along the margins, then folded it over.
"This was given to me by the other new intern." He looked up at the old-style clock hanging on the wall. "And in another minute that person will be late."
There was a knock on the door with thirty seconds to spare.
Gary could not help but gaze in admiration. He had noticed her in the group orientation for new interns the day before. Blond; tall, at least for Gary, at about five feet ten inches; startling green eyes; and classic Slavic high cheekbones. She was tastefully dressed in a modest skirt and blouse—actually, rather formal for the facility, where “dressing down” to jeans and T-shirts had become the norm with the younger staff over the last few years, though the “old-timers” still wore white shirts and neckties.
"Am I interrupting?" she asked politely. The accent revealed by those three words told Gary she was the Ukrainian exchange intern.
"Not at all, young lady," and Old World charm took hold of Erich as he stood, nodded slightly, and pointed to a chair next to Gary. Erich made a polite offer of tea, which she gracefully accepted. Gary, a bit flustered, because he hated tea, accepted a cup as well but was a bit chagrined that Erich had not offered him tea or coffee when he came in.
Erich made the introductions, and Gary stood to shake Evgeniya Petrenko’s hand, unable to avoid those green eyes, which seemed to bore into him. He sensed that she was the type who on a daily basis brushed off the attention of fellow male grad students and perhaps many a professor as well. Then he nervously sat down again, self-consciously pushing his own glasses, which had slid down a bit, back up on his nose.
"Your translation of this paper," Erich said, holding up the printout. "May I ask, is it accurate?"
Evgeniya seemed to bristle slightly at this question about her English ability.
"I assure you, sir, it is accurate."
"I've not seen it before, though I've, of course, heard of the theory. Some years back Arthur C. Clarke even wrote a novel about the idea. But even he said when he wrote it he thought it would be two hundred years or more from now before we had the technology to do it."
"The paper was published in, of all places, a popular journal in Moscow in 1960. I am surprised your CIA did not grab it and rush it here."
Shadows of the Cold War still lingered in the way she had said "CIA."
"Perhaps the KGB blocked it," Gary said softly.
She looked at him crossly.
"It was in a popular magazine like your Scientific American, which I should add we read every month within a day or two of its release."
"Free flow of information," Gary could not help but reply.
She seemed ready to snap back, and Erich extended a hand in a calming gesture.
"The Cold War is over, you two," he said with a smile. "And I am glad to see a Russian intern on my staff."
Though he had been in this man's presence for less than an hour, Gary sensed something of a line, but the response by Eva caught him off guard.
"I am not Russian, sir," she replied, with a hint of irritation. "I am Ukrainian. It just so happens that to pursue my field no such schools exist in my country, so I had to go to Moscow to study."
Erich was a bit taken aback but then smiled.
"My apologies, Miss Petrenko. I know the history of the persecution your people suffered by both Hitler and Stalin. I am surprised they would let a Ukrainian study aerospace engineering."
"My grandfather was a hero of the Great Patriotic War, and received our highest decoration Hero of the Soviet Union. I was first in my class, and friends and admirers of my grandfather helped me to gain admission and now this assignment."
"And your plans after your summer here?"
"To return to Moscow, of course."
"Dr. Rothenberg. Your government and mine have already signed accords and understandings about building the space station. Would it not be helpful for me to work for that once I return home?"
Erich nodded in agreement even as he poured her another cup of tea.
"Then if that is the case, Miss Petrenko, why did you feel it necessary to give me this paper?" He nodded to the document on his desk.
"Because the space station is just a beginning. Perhaps even a dead end. I came here to learn about what is beyond that. And to bring along this suggestion as well."
"Bringing this to me might cause problems for you."
She laughed softly.
"Sir, it was published, as I told Mr. Morgan here"—she shot him a look of disdain—"in a popular magazine. Not classified, if anyone here had bothered to take the time to look. No harm in sharing it."
"And may I guess that this is what you wish to research further?'
"I plan to write my dissertation on it. But I will need access to computers here that are not yet available in Moscow to run some algorithms to test out some theories. That is what I hope you will give me the freedom to do."
Erich gave a mischievous smile and tossed the paper over to Gary.
"Regarding access to our Cray, I’ll have to ask security about that, but I think we can arrange it under proper supervision."
She beamed with delight.
"But"—again that smile—"since this is, as you say, public information in your country, I will ask this young man to take a look at your paper. Perhaps he can help, as his transcript shows some unique skills in programming."
She looked over at Gary with an icy gaze.
"Sir, I hardly think—"
"Miss Petrenko, we work as a team here. I am intrigued with this idea—very intrigued. Mr. Morgan tells me he has a visionary soul and is looking for some sort of 'dream' while here this summer. Maybe what you present openly to us here is it. So, Mr. Morgan, after you read de Camp, I want you to read this paper, because it is so visionary it borders on the absurd, then pick up coffee for three ..."
He looked at Evgeniya.
"Do you like your coffee with or without cream?"
"I prefer tea, sir," she said, with another cold glance at Gary.
"Fine, then. I doubt if my friend George down at the diner even knows what tea is, so I’ll just boil some water here. I'll brew your cup of tea and see both of you at 0730 tomorrow. Coffee for two, then, Gary. You may go now."
As Gary walked out the door, clutching the dusty book by Erich's old friend and the dozen-page printout, he could almost sense daggers from Evgeniya’s eyes going into his back.
He muttered a curse to himself. He already had a crush on her—and had from the moment their eyes met.
Copyright © 2014 by William Forstchen