The Pilgrim Project

The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls
McGraw-Hill, 1964
Price I paid: nary a thing

Oh my goodness I thought I’d be able to find a reliable copy of this book’s jacket copy, but I can’t! If anybody happens to have a copy and can send it to me, I’d really appreciate it.


First off, props to the library at The University of the South for sending me a copy of this book via interlibrary loan. And also props to my friend John for recommending the book to me. Yeah, it’s the same John that recommended Pirates of Venus. It’s also the same John that wrote that guest review of Cybernarc all those years ago, so two outta three ain’t bad.

I remember John reading this one a while ago and suggesting I do so as well. He took great pains not to spoil anything for me, so I had no idea what I was in for when I started. I don’t remember how John was made aware of it before I was, so I hope that if he reads this review he’ll leave a comment with that relevant information. Could I just text him and find out? Yeah. But here we are.

Since I nabbed the book via interlibrary loan from a library that takes the outer jacket off, I had to snag the cover art from isfdb.org. And it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t have any jacket copy until just now, but in a way that’s neat. Without that, I had no idea what I was getting into when I started the book. Completely fresh. It’s kind of nice, to be honest. It’s a neat feeling to go in with no preconceptions, but also it’s nice not to have been completely lied to. My gut tells me that the summary information would tell us that our astronaut heroes have to save the galaxy or something, because that is absolutely nowhere near what happens in this novel.

What we get instead is a deeply human, introspective, and philosophical look at the life and struggles of an astronaut about to do something he really shouldn’t do. And up front, the strangest thing about the book is that I don’t know whether I wanted him to do it or not. I know that doesn’t mean anything yet, but I just want to make it clear that this wasn’t a straightforward book about how engineering is cool. There’s a little of that. This is a very hard science fiction novel. In fact, it’s so hard that I’m not actually sure it’s science fiction. I’ll get to that, too.

Our hero is a fella named Steve Lawrence. He is an Apollo astronaut. The year is never quite given but the book was published in ’64 and the book has a very strong mid-sixties NASA feel to it. In fact, one of the book’s strengths was how well I could just close my eyes and sink into the feeling of that time and find myself sitting in Mission Control, looking at a big glass screen with blinky lights, smelling the coffee, cigarette smoke, sweat, and hair tonic. Everybody wearing a white shirt with a tie, unable to leave the building without their hat. Magnificent.

We first meet Steve in orbit of the Earth onboard Apollo Three. He and two other astronauts, Rick Lincoln and a guy known only as “the colonel,” are practicing rendezvous maneuvers in preparation for the biggest moonshot of them all…the shot for the Moon.

In our reality, Apollo 3 was never launched due to the tragic accident on Apollo 1. More specifically, no mission with that name was ever launched by NASA. Popular Science has a good writeup on how all that went down. Of course, this book was written before that accident, so Hank Searls had no way of knowing any of that.

This fictional Apollo 3 mission is cut short when the crew, and in particular the colonel, receives a mysterious message saying to abort. The astronauts find nothing wrong with the situation but the colonel orders they abort the mission on the next orbit, so they do. In the midst of all this, Steve thinks he hears the capcom say something like “program” or “pogrom” or maybe…”pilgrim?” Hey, that’s the name of the book, it might be important!

The majority of the rest of the book takes place on Earth. There are politics at play, both national and international. There are secrets and conspiracies and all sorts of Space Race stuff. It turns out that the Russians have just come closer than ever to putting a person on the surface of the Moon. The US is about to lose, even if Apollo is perfectly on schedule. We follow the points of view of several people throughout the first third or so of the book, from politicians to engineers to astronauts to former Nazis (hey’s it’s NASA in the 60s, bud, you expected there to be no former Nazis?) to our main guy Steve to his wife and their neighbor Gus who is a doctor for the Apollo program…there’s a lot. I started to get it scrambled and it was right around the middle point of the book when I could confidently tell what character was doing what at the time.

It didn’t help that Steve’s wife is named Mickey and I totally thought that was a guy’s name.

And you know what else doesn’t help? Despite being really descriptive with some things in the book, like how space ships work, the author is extremely cagey with some other stuff. Some characters are outright not given names, and I wonder what’s up with that. Was Searls thinking of real people and didn’t want to risk getting sued? He couldn’t just make them up? The President and Vice-President are both major players here. Never are they named, and not even their parties are identified. We just know they’re both big into the space program, and in particular beating the commies to the moon.

And then there’s “the colonel.” He’s never given a name, ever. What we do know is that he was one of the Mercury 7. Which one? Well, plenty of the Mercury astronauts are named in the text. I wish I’d thought to make notes but I remember the book mentioning by name Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Al Shepard. That leaves Scott Carpenter. But Carpenter was a Navy man, and to my knowledge the Navy doesn’t have colonels. Very curious!

Deeper in the book we meet a senator from California named Ralph Fellows, so he gets a name but all references to party are omitted except in the vaguest terms. We know he has a personal dislike for a “young senator from Ohio” and is friends with a journalist that is only ever referred to as the Old Man (and, once, a “Wobbly relic,” which made me smile). He makes it his mission to stop Project Pilgrim when he hears about it, but that’s largely a matter of party politics.

I dunno, the whole thing’s weird and I spent an awful lot of time thinking about it, but in the end it has very little bearing on the rest of the book, which is great.

It turns out that since Apollo isn’t going to be fast enough to beat the Russkies to the Moon, there is a backup plan. It’s extremely dangerous and letting knowledge leak to the press that it’s even a possibility is a terrible idea. It’s called Project Pilgrim, and the colonel explains it to us.

Instead of a Saturn V taking a lunar lander that is also a recovery vehicle to the moon, which will detach, land, and then rendezvous with the return module after taking off again, what if we…skipped all that?

What if, instead, we stuck a single astronaut in an old Mercury capsule and gave it just enough power to get to the Moon and then hang out for a while? It would be a lot lighter! Wouldn’t need something nearly as powerful as a Saturn V, which is still under development.

And that’s exactly the plan for Pilgrim. A single astronaut, stranded on the moon to be picked up later. How much later? Well, projections for a proper Apollo shot are around a year from now. NASA will also launch a small shelter for the astronaut to spend his time in until such a rescue mission can be carried out. This will be on a separate rocket.

Who else would be willing to do something that reckless? Well, a Mercury astronaut is a good choice. And in fact that’s who the choice is! The colonel is happy to be the one to go. He’s delighted to go. It’s his whole life’s mission. You might say that he thinks he’s the only person with the right stuff.

So of course it gets yanked out from under him at the last minute. It turns out that the Russian that came really close to orbiting the moon previously was a civilian. The colonel, as you might have expected, is military, and higher-ups decide that responding that way sends the wrong message. Their decision, instead, is to ask our civilian astronaut protagonist, Steve, if he wants to do it. (He’s ex-military, resigned after being a pilot in Korea).

Steve agonizes over the decision, with good reason. For one, he feels like he’s personally betraying the colonel. But more important is his home situation. He has a wife and a young kid. The wife weighs most heavily on his mind.

She lost a beloved brother in the Korean War and never quite got over it. Her method of coping with the grief was alcohol. It got to be a problem, and throughout the early parts of their marriage, Mickey responded to Steve’s test-piloting and astronautics by drinking more and more. This eventually led to a car accident that was a wake-up call, and she’s been sober ever since, for around six years.

But now Steve is being asked to do something that stands a very good chance of getting himself killed. And furthermore, even if he lives, he’s subjecting his wife to an entire year of worry over it.

But they talk it over and he decides to go. I’m not thrilled with that decision but I also kinda get it. Being The First is a pretty big deal, and even though things like patriotism and beating the commies wouldn’t really factor into any of my decisions, especially today, Steve is a product of his time and his environment. I might think that many of his reasons for going are asinine, but I can’t deny that they make sense to him. Would I still think that if I’d led his life? If I were even remotely a possibility of being the first man on the moon? I can’t answer that. His emotional struggle had me very invested.

And even with all that, you can tell that his heart isn’t really all the way in it, or maybe that’s just me projecting? Whenever there’s a setback, I found myself glad. Oh good, maybe now he won’t have to go! And I thought he felt the same. It’s certainly true that Mickey felt that way. She even considers certain schemes that might get him to change his mind, or get booted, but she can’t bring herself to do it. Her emotional struggle also had me invested.

And plenty of other characters were the same way. Steve’s neighbor and doctor, Gus Scarbro, is so disgusted by everything to do with this project that he risks court-martial to go on TV and whistleblow the entire project to the nation, thinking that public opinion would result in cancelling the program. It doesn’t work. The president manages to spin it all in a way that makes it all work.

The book takes place over three weeks. At first, the colonel is extremely pissed off at Steve, but he comes around and helps him train. The training sessions were pretty harrowing and brought home just what a situation Steve has gotten himself into. Back in 2009 I visited Canaveral and they had a mockup display of a Mercury capsule that you could crawl in and out of. I’m a short guy and it was a tight fit. The idea of spending three days in one of those on the way to the moon is a nightmare. But even without that personal bit of experience, Searls manages to convey the situation just as well. This will not be a pleasant journey.

And there are so, so many things that can go wrong. Micrometeorite impacts on his shelter. Cosmic radiation. Extremes of heat and cold. Equipment failures. Medical emergencies.

One final thing almost scrubs the mission. Steve’s moon shelter is launched and it has a perfect trajectory, but after it lands, NASA loses contact with its radio signal. They know it landed successfully, but they don’t know exactly where. Moreover, there’s no telling if that radio signal will be easier to detect once Steve is closer to the moon. He might have to eyeball it. Impossible, says everybody, kill the mission.

But then there’s word that the Russians have launched another rocket, and this one looks like it’s on a trajectory to land.

Now if it were me, I’d breathe a sigh of relief, declare that we lost, and then wait for something like Apollo to go to the moon. If we’re gonna be second place, it doesn’t matter how much longer we wait, right? And some of the people in the book would agree with me, but nevertheless, the mission goes forward.

The very end of the book is Steve coming in on the moon. He thinks he sees the shelter and lands his capsule, only to find that no, it was a mistake. What he’s found instead is the Russian lander, or what’s left of it. Something exploded and the cosmonaut is dead. Steve is stranded on the moon to die.

Until right at the end of the book, he sees a blinky light that could only be the shelter. It’s far off, but he might just make it…

And that’s the end.

I’m not giving this book the review it deserves. The more I think about it, the more ridiculous some parts of it seem, but also we live in a ridiculous world and this stuff is less ridiculous than some of that. This whole thing was quite believable.

But moreover, it was a book about emotional struggles more than anything, and the struggle was all about which of the stakes were more important to whom. Is beating the Russians to the Moon more important than a single human life? What if he offers to go? What if he’s just itching to go? Does that make it ethical? And sure, it’s one life, but what about all the connected lives? Wife, child, friends? Do their opinions matter? And what if some of them, against their own wishes, tell him to go anyway?

Damn this is a lot to think about!

I hesitate to call this book science fiction, even though it’s about space and stuff, since it’s pretty much real life. There’s not much in the way of speculation going on here, at least not about science. All of the tech is real stuff that existed in ’64. It’s a book about the future, but not that far into the future. We could probably argue about this all day, but in the end, that also doesn’t really matter, because this book isn’t really about a lot of that stuff. It’s about hopes and dreams and loss and victory and struggle. And it’s really good about all that.

Oh hey, and Robert Altman made a movie out of this book, too! It was called Countdown and it came out in 1968. It starred Robert Duvall and James Caan. I wonder if it’s any good? It’s an early one for Altman, pre-M*A*S*H, so I’m curious.

I have a pretty low tolerance for Macho Bullshit, but at the same time, I have a real soft spot for stories about astronauts doing Macho Bullshit, and this book did a good job of hitting that spot. Now I want to read The Right Stuff again, or at least watch the movie. Maybe both? Maybe dig up some of the old mission logs from those missions and read over them. Damn, that sounds fun.

7 thoughts on “The Pilgrim Project

  1. I hesitate to call this book science fiction, even though it’s about space and stuff, since it’s pretty much real life.

    More akin to “Technothriller” than Near-Future SF?
    Or right on the borderline between SF and Mainstream?

    In our reality, Apollo 3 was never launched due to the tragic accident on Apollo 1. More specifically, no mission with that name was ever launched by NASA. Popular Science has a good writeup on how all that went down. Of course, this book was written before that accident, so Hank Searls had no way of knowing any of that.

    The Dilemma of Near-Future SF:
    Once you write it, that Future becomes fixed. But since it’s only “Twenty Minutes into The Future”, you have to plug it into an ever-moving Present laying down its own Fixed Future.

    My previous type example was how the Second Russian Revolution in the early Nineties block-obsoleted all the Futures where the Cold War continued indefinitely (up to literally The End of TIme) or ended in the only way the USSR could possibly go down — launch-everything Global Thermounclear War.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Thomas and also H-U-G,

    Yes, I’ve read a lot of books in the sub-genre, “So close in the future that it — oops, there it went, it’s in the past already!” Every mainstream writer seemed to be writing them throughout the sixties. None were so over the top as the Mike Mars juveniles about a space program called Quicksilver which had young pilots doing the same thing as Project Mercury, but sooner and in secret.

    My paperback of The Pilgrim Project came today and I’ll send you a copy of the back blurb, as promised, but it is dull. Maybe because they used the same blurb as the hardback.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Slipping it in here and there between other work, I finished The Pilgrim Project and I have to say it is the best thing I have read in years. It took me back to the era of my youth in ways that no more straightforward story could have done. It was full of complexity and humanity, two dozen stories wrapped seamlessly into one. Eventually I will have to write at length about it, but for now, just a simple thanks for finding it.

    Liked by 1 person

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