Monday, November 1, 2021

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield (author), Ray Porter (narrator)

Random House of Canada, ISBN 9781039002791, October 2021

This is a murder mystery that's also an alternate history about the late Apollo program and the Cold War.

We start with an Apollo mission that's a departure from our own history. Apollo 18 was planned, and planned as a fully military mission, but canceled due to both budgetary and political reasons. In this story, Apollo 18 escapes cancelation, and is focused on checking out the site on the Moon that an unmanned Soviet Moon rover has been investigating. Kazimieras "Kaz" Zemeckis, a test pilot and astronaut eliminated from space launches after an in-flight bird collision costs him an eye, is appointed as flight controller for Apollo 18, responsible for the safety of the crew from Mission Control. But once he thinks he's settled in and well connected with all the crew, several unsettling changes occur.

First, US intelligence has made the alarming discovery that the Soviets have launched a space station, with the same basic purpose as the (canceled) US Military Orbital Laboratory (MOL)--taking high quality photographs for military intelligence purposes. And as they gather more information about the quality of the photographic and telescopic equipment on this Soviet space station, the plans for Apollo 18 are changed. The intelligence shows that the station won't be manned yet, so there's no reason not to take the opportunity to disable it. Apollo 18 is going to be stripped down as far as possible without completely canceling the original mission, launched at a different angle than planned, and rendezvous with the Soviet MOL-equivalent. At a minimum, they will thoroughly photograph it; if possible, they will disable it.

Then they'll be launched toward the Moon, and the reduced version of their original mission, which is to find out why the Soviet Moon rover is exploring that particular area and what they've found, and if possible disable that, too. This will mean fewer Moon walks, but also a previously unplanned space walk.

The other alarming change is that the Apollo 18 mission commander, Ted, and I'm sorry, listening to the audiobook I didn't retain his last name, is killed in an apparent helicopter accident. But what caused the accident? An intense investigation begins, but meanwhile, the Apollo 18 mission needs a new commander.

The choice falls on the logical person, Chad Miller, the commander of the backup crew. This is deemed to be less disruptive than replacing the entire crew at what is painfully close to the last minute.

Miller is a midwestern farm boy, and it's the early 1970s. He's got more of a temper than Ted had, but he's very capable and gets the job done. We learn, when he and Kaz talk about their backgrounds and Kaz reveals that his family are Lithuanian Jews who escaped just before the Nazis arrived to wipe out most of the Jewish community there, that Miller is a bit of an antisemite. It's no surprise when we also learn, due to the command module commander, Michael (possibly Edshail, but another last name I didn't get reliably due to listening to the audiobook), is the first black astronaut to go into space.. The third member of the crew is Luke Hemming (I'm almost sure of that name), and despite the irritants, they're all going to be professional about it, right?

Once we are into space, we have vomiting, the unpleasant discovery that the Soviet space station is manned after all, brawls in space, deaths, an unexpected rearrangement of the crews (really, I can't say any more than that), and more unexpected discoveries on the Moon.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Kaz is cooperating with local police, NASA, and military authorities in investigating the death of the original mission commander. It's discovered to be sabotage, and they have to look at the people with both opportunity and at least the potential for motives. The more information he gathers, the more Kaz suspects that on of the astronauts on Apollo 18 isn't who he seems to be.

This is a very nicely done murder mystery, spy thriller, and utterly convincing alternate history of the early 1970s space program and Cold War. Hadfield obviously knows the space program, and has done his research on both the space program and world politics of the period. I found the characters interesting and convincing, and the story very solid.


I bought this audiobook.

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