THE LAST OPTION
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA, 1957
“We have sixty seconds to launch, sir,” a nervous technician announced.
Air force colonel Mike Adams, a big man with an executive presence, nodded as he leaned forward on the control panel, looking out the thick plateglass window at the launch site below.
“Satellite beacon is active and operating,” another tech said, and the steady beep, beep, beep of a small satellite—the payload atop the slender rocket on the launch pad below—could be heard transmitting over speakers in the control room.
“What makes you boys think this one’s gonna fly?” Adams asked without bothering to look back at the half-dozen men in the small room. With his deep, low voice, at once folksy but commanding, Adams struck them as someone who in another life might have run a Nebraska cattle operation.
“My team has tested and retested every piece of hardware on that rocket,” a navy lieutenant said.
“And that’s in addition to the safeguards provided by each and every subcontractor,” a white-coated scientist added.
Colonel Adams scratched his belly, pressing it up against the control panel, eliciting a glance from the navy lieutenant.
It was clear that the lieutenant didn’t like his operation’s being second-guessed by some Pentagon administrator, no matter how superior, and he wasn’t going to make a secret of it—this project warranted Washington’s full support. “We have absolute confidence in the Vanguard rocket, Colonel.”
“You had absolute confidence the last two times you tried to launch her,” Adams said, finally turning to the men.
“Did we hit a few snags?” the scientist asked. “Sure. And we found them and fixed them.”
“Fifteen seconds!” a tech called out.
“Colonel Adams, that rocket down there is the sum of America’s best minds,” the navy lieutenant said, his tone deftly straddling reassurance and rebuke. “Have some faith, sir.”
Beep, beep, beep, the satellite’s transmission reverberated throughout the room. It was a sound filled with the promise of technology, the expense of tens of millions of dollars in funding, the dreams of a nation, and the security of a way of life.
“I have plenty of faith.” Adams looked back down at the slender Navy Vanguard TV3 rocket, seventy-two feet tall, steam rising from beneath her as the launch sequence continued. “It’s the people of this country that don’t. They don’t care about your snags and fixes. They just want to know why the Russians beat America into space. They want to know why they have a Soviet satellite flying over their heads right now when ‘America’s best minds’ can’t seem to throw a grapefruit over a barn, let alone get our own satellite up there. Gentlemen, this bird had better fly.”
“Five, four, three, two, booster is ignited, and—liftoff! We have a liftoff! Vanguard TV3 is a go!”
All the men leaned toward the glass window, watching with rapt attention, the stakes of this mission apparent on their faces.
* * *
All across America, people watched the launch on their television sets.
In Sacramento, a family of five gathered in their living room eating breakfast on standing metal trays, gripped by the images of the launch on their bulky black-and-white set.
In Manhattan, a young man threw open the front door of his apartment, tossed his hat, and ran into the kitchen to join his pretty wife, an infant in her arms. Without turning her face from the television, she reached out and took his hand.
In Wichita, a farmer in dusty coveralls stood on his front porch and peered in through a wide-open window at the television set in his living room, his family congregated around it. He wiped his brow, a look of wonder on his face.
* * *
On an unfurling ball of golden flame, fueled by just the right mix of liquid oxygen and ethyl alcohol, the rocket began to defy gravity and rise, slowly, gracefully, like a ballerina going en pointe. It was a thing of grand beauty to behold.
In the control room, the glass window vibrating with the steady rumbling of the ascending rocket, several of the men began to applaud. A couple cheered.
About four feet over the launch pad, the pillow of roaring fire and smoke expanding underneath it, the rocket hung in midair, levitating, and then abruptly lost thrust, dropping back down to the concrete launch pad, fuel tanks rupturing and bursting, causing the entire rocket to explode and quickly burn up in its own flames.
Propelled out of their stupor by the oncoming debris, the men quickly ducked down as shrapnel flew up toward the control room window. A toaster-sized chunk of blackened rocket engine slammed into the glass, cracking it from top to bottom, leaving a web of wavelike lines in its wake.
Then there was silence, except for the beep, beep, beep.
Tentatively, the men rose, looked out the damaged window, and saw lying below in a nearby patch of tall grass, the small aluminum sphere that was supposed to be in the heavens above them. Thrown from the top of the rocket, it was dented and charred but still transmitting what now seemed a wretched earthbound sound.
Beep, beep, beep. It was mocking them.
Stunned, the men silently watched the widening trail of black smoke float out over the Atlantic in the distance.
Finally, Adams picked up a phone. “Get me the executive officer at Redstone.”
“You’re going to the army?” The navy lieutenant asked.
“We’re done here.”
The scientists and technicians immediately exchanged worried looks. No one wanting to be the first to object—it was common knowledge among them that former enemies were on staff at the highly classified Redstone army base.
“Sir—” The navy lieutenant raised his voice. “You can’t put the Germans on this.”
“I don’t have any other options.” Adams turned away, phone to his ear, looking down through the shattered glass at the disaster below.
Pushing aside the rolling chair separating their bodies, the navy lieutenant got in his face. “Colonel, with all due respect—and interdepartmental politics entirely aside—this is a matter of national security. The highest kind. You can’t put the Germans on this.”
Adams met his eyes and held them until it was very clear who had the power in this room. “Actually, Lieutenant, I can.”
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey Stepakoff