June 1, 1943
In the first light of morning, the B-29A Superfortress Hollywood Babe hovered above the Pacific a hundred miles west of the Washington coast. The sun had just risen, its golden light tinted the bomber’s silver skin and reflected off the panes of its bullet-shaped cockpit. No clouds in the dark sky above the plane; the stars were still visible but were beginning to fade with the approaching day.
A little more than a half hour ago, Hollywood Babe had lifted off from McChord Field near Tacoma and flown due west, gradually ascending to its present altitude of thirty-one thousand feet, the bomber’s maximum ceiling. Since then, the plane had flown in circles, its contrails forming an overlapping series of figure eights which would have puzzled any fishing boats that might have spotted it from below. In this way, the B-29A held its position above the ocean, allowing its crew to perform its mission: watch the skies and report anything unusual.
Inside the pressurized fuselage, a young airman first class moved forward to the cockpit, a Thermos bottle and two tin cups in his gloved hands. Passing the radio compartment and the crewman half-asleep at its panel, the corporal ducked his head to step through the forward hatch. He ignored the civilian huddled in a rear seat as he approached the two men seated in the bomber’s transparent nose.
“Here y’go, sir.” The corporal handed the cups to the pilot and copilot, then opened the bottle and poured black coffee into them. “Sorry it’s a little lukewarm. Hard to keep it hot at this altitude.”
“That’s okay,” Captain Bennett replied, his voice barely audible over the drone of the B-29’s four engines. “This time of morning, even cold coffee will keep me awake.”
The airman grinned, then turned to head aft. Again, he deliberately ignored the passenger seated behind the captain and first officer. Although the civilian wore a fleece-lined leather flight jacket lent to him by a supply sergeant at McChord, the absence of a uniform made him conspicuous. He gazed at the airman, silently requesting coffee as well, but the crewman pretended not to notice him as he left the cockpit.
Bennett sipped his coffee, grimaced. Cold. He cradled the cup between his legs as he grasped the yoke and twisted it to the left, making the port turn that would begin another elongated figure eight. On the other side of the glass nose, the rising sun slowly traveled from right to left before disappearing behind the plane, replaced by a black sky gradually becoming dark blue.
Boring stuff, flying in circles. McChord Field was a training base for B-29 crews, and there wasn’t a man aboard Hollywood Babe who wouldn’t rather be bombing the hell out of the Japanese . . . except perhaps their a passenger, a civilian scientist who looked like he should be playing with test tubes. Lloyd Kapman wasn’t much older than any of the Babe’s crew, but for some reason the brass regarded him as a vital intelligence asset. For that reason, Hollywood Babe was given the assignment of providing support to him and his classified mission . . . a mission that, in the captain’s opinion, was totally nuts.
Bennett completed the turn, then leaned back as far as his cramped seat would allow. “Ever read the funny pages, Bill?”
“Nope.” The copilot, Bill Carlton, shook his head. “Can’t say as I do, Cap.”
“Well, I do. Favorite part of the paper, next to the sports pages. Alley Oop, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates . . . I love all those guys. But you know which one’s my favorite?”
“I couldn’t guess, sir.”
“Buck Rogers . . . Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.”
Kapman looked up. Bennett wasn’t speaking to him, but it was clear that his words were meant for him. An annoyed expression crossed his face, but he remained quiet.
“I mean,” the captain said, “here’s a guy who can climb aboard a rocket ship and, boom, off he goes. The Moon, Mars, Venus . . .”
“Uh-huh, Jupiter, and it’s just as easy as flying this plane. Doesn’t have to worry about wasting fuel flying in circles.”
Kapman slowly let out his breath. This wasn’t the first time he’d heard jokes about Buck Rogers. If Bennett or Carlton heard him, though, they didn’t show it. “Of course, it’s the future,” Bennett went on, “so anything can happen. But rocket ships?” He shrugged. “Maybe one day we’ll go to the Moon, but not in my lifetime. No, sir, not in my life . . .”
“You got a point, Captain?” Kapman asked.
Hearing him, Bennett feigned surprise. “Not at all, Mr. Kapman,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at him. “Just talking about the funnies, that’s all.”
Carlton hid his amusement by turning his gaze toward the windows on the starboard side. The last stars had vanished, but the western sky was still dark. Still, it seemed as if he could make out something high above the ocean. Bright and unblinking, leaving behind a pencil-thin vapor trail, it looked a little like a shooting star except that it was moving upward from the horizon, not downward as a meteor would.
“Then maybe you should discuss Nancy and Sluggo,” Kapman said, “because I assure you . . .”
“Skipper?” Carlton stared at the thin white streak racing across the cloudless sky. “Bogey at one o’clock high.” He pointed to the window. “See it? Right there.”
Bennett arched his neck to stare up through the top of the nose and suddenly forgot what he was saying. Eyes wide with astonishment, he glanced back at his passenger. “Is that . . . ?”
Kapman had already risen from his seat. Leaning forward, he peered in the direction the copilot indicated. “It’s not Buck Rogers,” he muttered. Then he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. Turning away from the canopy, he stuck his head through the hatch.
“Call Alamogordo now!” he yelled, causing the radio operator to bolt upright in his seat. “It’s coming!”
The morning sun had just touched the peaks of the Sacramento Mountains as Klaxons howled across the southern New Mexico desert. Inside a fenced-off compound near Alamogordo Army Air Field—a top secret base within a base, unknown to anyone except a very few—soldiers and technicians were running from pine barracks, some still stuffing shirttails into trousers pulled on just seconds ago. Only the soldiers who’d been on overnight sentry duty were wide-awake; they began blowing whistles, waking up anyone in the base who’d managed to sleep through the noise.
In the radio shack, the sergeant on duty at the shortwave wireless hastily typed the last words of a report. He ripped the page from the typewriter roller and shoved it into the hands of a nearby private. “Get this to Doctor G! Move!”
The private didn’t bother to salute but instead sprinted through the door. As he dashed across the compound, he barely managed to dodge a small van coming the other way. The MP driving it swore at him, then hit the brake and twisted the wheel, fishtailing to a halt in front of a Quonset hut marked private—secure quarters. The uniformed lieutenant in the passenger seat—a tall, skinny black man in his midtwenties—leaped from the van before it came to a full stop. Another MP standing guard outside held open the door for him as he ran inside.
“Skid!” he shouted. “It’s on the way!”
“Yup. Kinda figured that out.” With the assistance of two technicians who shared quarters with him, Lt. Rudy “Skid’ Sloman was pulling on his pressure suit, an inflatable one-piece outfit with an aluminum midsection and tubular segments for its arms and legs. “Grab my helmet, willya, Jack?” he asked, as calm as if he were doing nothing more than getting ready for a game of touch football. “I could use my gloves, too.”
“Oh, for the love of . . . !” Lt. J. Jackson Jackson—sometimes known as Jack Cube—snatched the padded rubber gloves from the nearby suit locker and tossed them to one of the suit techs, then carefully removed a bubblelike glass helmet from the top shelf. “Get your ass in gear! We’ve got the van waiting outside!”
“Why the hurry?” There was mischief in the test pilot’s dark brown eyes as he stood up to let a technician close the back of the suit. “Linda’s not going nowhere without me.”
Jack Cube was about to answer when he was cut short by a voice booming through loudspeakers outside: “Attention all personnel! This is not a drill! Report to firing stations immediately! Repeat, this is not a drill . . . !”
Tank trucks and utility vehicles barreled across the desert, kicking up sand as they raced toward a distant structure: an enormous steel tower, shaped like an upside-down U and painted bright red, enclosing something that looked like a giant dart poised on an elevated ring above a concrete trench. Soldiers had already opened the gates of the chain-link fence surrounding the launchpad; they stood aside and watched as the vehicles rushed toward the gantry.
The trucks pulled to a halt beside the tower. Their doors banged open, disgorging a crew of technicians in white jumpsuits and hooded silver garments. Wasting no time, the fuel men hauled insulated hoses from the tanker and dragged them toward the winged craft nestled within the gantry. Within minutes, the launchpad was shrouded by a haze of fumes, cold and clammy in the desert’s early-morning warmth.
Other technicians boarded an open-cage elevator that carried them to the catwalk leading to the cockpit, located midway up the vehicle’s sleek white hull. Sliding open its canopy, they began preparing the spacecraft for immediate takeoff. Another team began checking the six solid-fuel rockets clustered around the spacecraft’s base aft of its swept-back wings. Everyone’s actions were coordinated and rehearsed; they’d spent weeks practicing for this event. Each second counted, and they knew they had just one chance to do this right.
The fuel men were still pumping liquid oxygen, nitrogen, and gasoline into the spacecraft when the van glided to a stop in front of the tower. The MP and another Army soldier jumped out and ran around back. They opened the rear door and pulled down a loading ramp, and a couple of seconds later, Skid Sloman and Jack Cube emerged from the vehicle.
Lieutenant Sloman was wearing his pressure suit, his head completely encased within the bubble helmet. Lieutenant Jackson carried the portable air conditioner that temporarily fed the suit with a low-pressure oxygen-nitrogen mix. Rudy walked slowly down the ramp. The suit made it difficult for him to move, and as he and Jack Cube stepped off the ramp and turned toward the gantry, the MP who driven them to the pad snapped to attention and gave them a rigid salute.
Rudy responded as best as he could with a half-raised hand. He was clearly amused. When they were out of earshot, he gave Jack Cube a conspiratorial wink.
“Who’da thunk it?” he said, his voice muffled by the glass helmet. “A goy saluting a Negro and a Jew.”
Jack Cube wanted to laugh at this, but he couldn’t. They stopped at the bottom of the tower to wait for the elevator to come back down. As the cage descended—slowly, much too slowly—his gaze traveled up the side of the craft standing before them. He knew every inch of its seventy-five-foot frame, from the six strap-on boosters to the radar array crammed into its pointed nose. The last sixteen months of his life had been completely devoted to the design and construction of this fuming, groaning beast; there wasn’t a single rivet of its steel hide that was a stranger to him. And yet, in this moment of truth, he was scared of his own creation . . . not just the consequences of its failure but the fact that it could kill a man he’d come to respect.
“Rudy . . .” he started to say.
“Willya look at that?” Skid wasn’t paying attention to him. Instead, he leaned back to peer up at the spacecraft. Just forward of the cockpit, on the port side of the fuselage, was a hand-painted picture: a bare-breasted woman sitting astride a rocket, lusty smile across her face as she clutched a ten-gallon hat against her long, dark hair. Beneath the rocket was a scroll: Lucky Linda.
Despite himself, Jack Cube grinned. “Think your girlfriend would appreciate it?”
“Yeah . . . yeah, I guess she would,” Skid muttered. “Oh, man . . . the things a guy’s gotta do to impress a woman.”
A second later, the elevator reached the bottom of the tower. As the pad tech operating it opened the door, Jack touched Rudy’s arm. “C’mon. We don’t have much time.”
“Yep. Let’s get it on the road.”
A half mile away from the launchpad, a voice blared from a loudspeaker outside a sun-bleached concrete igloo: “X minus fifteen minutes and counting . . . repeat, X minus fifteen and counting . . .”
Within the blockhouse, nine men had gathered to shepherd Lucky Linda to her destiny. Six were seated at consoles arranged in a semicircle around the blockhouse’s windowless walls. Their view of the pad came from fuzzy, flickering images displayed on cathode-tube televisions above their stations, but for the moment they ignored the screens and instead focused their attention on the dials and meters arrayed before them. Loose-leaf notebooks lay open before them; every now and then, someone picked up a slide rule and double-checked the numbers on his console. They murmured to one another, speaking an arcane dialect of technicalia only they could understand. No one knew more about the distant spacecraft than these men, and for good reason: They’d designed and built it.
An Army Air Force officer in full uniform quietly stood at the back of the room, arms folded across his chest, eyes regarding the men from beneath the bill of his cap. Colonel Omar Bliss had been Blue Horizon’s project director from the very beginning; for the last year and a half, his every waking moment had been spent bringing this scenario to reality. Normally accustomed to leadership, though, he knew better than to interfere with what was going on around him. Events were now beyond his control; all he could do was watch, wait, and pray.
Bliss’s gaze shifted to the center of the room, where a tall, thin man with a balding head and a trim grey mustache stood before a submarine-style periscope, peering at the distant pad. Although the most senior man in the room, he had a frail vulnerability that made him seem even older than sixty-two. Bliss had a sudden urge to walk over and stand beside him, if only to offer support, but he restrained himself. Just then, the distraction would be unwelcome.
“X minus ten minutes and counting.” The pad talker sat at the center console. A lean, red-haired man in his twenties, Henry Morse was the team member tasked with maintaining contact between Lucky Linda and men in the blockhouse—the 390 Group, the classified name for this team. Henry switched off the loudspeaker and listened for a moment to his headphones, then turned to the man at the periscope. “Just heard from Jack at the tower. Skid has entered the cockpit.”
“Radio check,” Dr. Robert H. Goddard said, not looking away from the eyepiece.
Harry turned to the mike again. “Lucky Linda, this is Desert Bravo. Radio check, over.”
A few moments passed, then Skid’s voice came over the blockhouse speakers: “Wilco, Desert Bravo. Radio check one, two, three, over.”
“We receive you loud and clear, Lucky Linda. Stand by for checklist.”
Henry glanced at the notebook in front of him, then looked over at a Chinese-American physicist sitting nearby. “Initiate liquid oxygen and nitrogen tank pressurization,” Harry Chung said, carefully watching the gauges on his console.
“Initiate liquid oxygen and nitrogen tank pressurization,” Henry repeated.
Another moment passed. “LOX and nitrogen pressurization, go,” Skid said.
Goddard raised his eyes from the periscope and looked at the master clock on the wall above the consoles. “Clear the pad,” he quietly told Morse.
Once again, Klaxons bellowed near the launchpad, followed by Henry’s voice: “X minus eight minutes and counting. All personnel, vacate the launchpad immediately. Repeat, X minus eight and counting . . .”
Lucky Linda’s canopy was still open. Within the cramped cockpit, Rudy Sloman lay upon an overstuffed leather acceleration couch, feet above his head. His air hose had been connected to a valve at his feet, and his hands moved across the instrument panel before him, flipping toggle switches in sequence with the checklist printed in a small spiral notebook strapped to his left thigh. Jack Cube and a technician stood on the catwalk; the technician grasped the canopy’s recessed handles and started to slide it shut but stopped as Jackson reached into the cockpit and tapped his friend on the shoulder.
“Good . . .”
“Don’t say it!” Skid snapped.
Jack Cube stopped himself before he spoke the words Skid considered to be ill omens. “Happy landings,” he said instead.
Skid responded with a wink and a quick thumbs-up. “See you when I get back,” he replied. Like he was just going out for beer and a pack of smokes.
There was nothing left to say or do, so Jackson and the technician slid the canopy into position and locked it down, sealing the pilot within his craft. The technician stooped to pick up his toolbox, then both of them left the catwalk. Once they were off the platform, the technician bent down again and swiftly turned a wheel that withdrew the catwalk from the Lucky Linda. That done, he and Jackson headed for the stairs; the elevator was too slow, and they needed to get off the gantry as fast as possible.
They were the last people to leave the pad. Everyone else was climbing into trucks and jeeps, and a diesel locomotive was already hooked up to the gantry. Jack Cube hopped into the back of a jeep; as it roared off, he looked back to watch the locomotive pull the gantry away from the launchpad. Lucky Linda stood gleaming in the morning sun, the clamps of its launch ring and the electrical umbilical leading from the nose to the adjacent launch tower its sole connections to Earth.
“Good luck, Skid,” Jack Cube whispered beneath his breath.