Thursday, 16 April 2015

"Tight Squeeze" by Dean C. Ing

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Astounding Science Fiction, 1955

First of all, the picture that goes along with this is weirdly troubling. Is it just me, or does it look like there's a decapitated astronaut's head bobbing along there in zero gravity? Except for the disembodied head, though, it's a good picture for the story. This is not science fiction with aliens or interplanetary rocket ships.

What it actually is is a very pragmatic story about a manned rocket having trouble as it goes to rendezvous with a space station. A lot of it seemed to me to be prescient shades of Apollo 13. Something goes wrong in space, a small mechanical linkage, and they have to try to fix it.

Because it's 1955, that gives us an interesting look at what 1955 thought the space program would like, and what Ing thought the nitty gritty of problems in space would look like. (Ing is still around, wikipedia tells me writing "technothrillers," but he also an aerospace engineer and a Communications Theory Ph.D.)

This is not going to be a review that is trying to catch him out - I hate that kind of "that science was later proven to be wrong so this is bad science fiction!" dismissal of old SF. (Although I do admit to poking a bit of fun when the answer is always pseudo-mystical "vibrations.")  It's not that. It's how this very practical look at space exploration thought astronauts would operate, and perhaps why. In other words, what things became apparent as they actually built things that could make it out into space that could not have been anticipated before they actually happened.

Most of the engineering stuff sounds very good to this layperson. It's not overly dramatized (in the long run, perhaps a weakness, but fine in a short story), and goes step-by-step. It's interesting that Ing was predicting that they'd be sending mechanics into space instead of fighter pilots, for the most part, given early assumptions about the space program. It's not a bad guess.

One thing jumps out at me, though, in the midst of this very down-to-earth story. (That I actually liked quite a lot - although I should note that I'm not surprised that in 1955, Ing would assume all astronauts would be white men. I'm pretty sure most were making that assumption, so it's not an accusation. Just an observation.)  And that is the idea that one man, one mechanic, could know the entire rocket so well that he could make repairs from memory in the middle of a space flight.

Of the three who went up, the one who is the engineer is entirely in charge of fixing things when they go wrong. Not only does he personally inspect the entire rocket just before he gets suited up to fly, he's practically built the thing. Knowing how much NASA drills its astronauts in every possible occurrence and then still gives them checklists to follow for virtually every procedure, trying to eliminate making one simple mistake in such an unforgiving environment, I was most startled by the end of the story.

Over the course of the story, we find out that the mechanic on the flight has recorded verbal instructions on how to do everything to play back to make sure he won't miss any steps. (Written seems more useful, as it doesn't presume a pace, but fine.) But he finds it so irritating that the story ends by him saying he'll jettison the tapes, as they weren't useful, and just rely on knowing what to do next time.

Again, this isn't that Ing is wrong as that it's indicative of how vastly complex space flight was once they got into it, how little it can be all held in the head of one man, and how much they learned about not relying on human memory alone in the case of emergency.

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