AT Book Club

Toasters Reads: The Pilgrim Project


A few weeks back we looked at a speech memo written for the US President in the event that some catastrophe befell the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and they were unable to return to Earth.  In the write up for that, I mentioned that some other posts sort of along a similar vein would be forthcoming, and this look at the science fiction book The Pilgrim Project, by Hank Searls, is the first of those.  When I came across that memo, this story was the first thing that popped into my head.  This book seems to be somewhat of an unknown, and was one of those books that my family just happened to own when I was growing up, and my brother and I read it as our interest in space and technology began to grow.  For those of you [Professor, cough, cough] that might have been around, you may recall a film entitled Countdown, make in 1968 and based on this book.  Reviews indicate the film was somewhat forgettable, and likely overshadowed by the actual Moon landing the following year.

The Pilgrim Project seems to have been inspired by actual ideas tossed around during the early days of the space race, and that always made it more interesting to me.  In 1962, at a symposium in New York, members of the Institute of Aerospace Sciences proposed sending an astronaut on a one-way trip to the Moon.  This was no suicide mission, but a long term mission.  The theory was that we had rockets powerful enough to get someone to the Moon, but not to execute the then early plans for an Apollo type mission, where an orbiting capsule would send a lander down and then back up, then safely return to Earth.  Instead, a simple capsule would land the intrepid astronaut on the lunar surface, and a separate launch from those same less powerful boosters would sent up a living quarters.  Then those same rockets would launch re-supply containers at frequent intervals, until such time, perhaps a year or two in the future, the Saturn booster was ready for a full Apollo mission, at which point our lonely explorer would stand relieved and return to Earth.

Why go to extremes to get to the Moon? To beat the Russians, of course!

The novel is a balance of prediction of the Apollo program, the Soviet space efforts, real astronauts and NASA figures, and the fictional story.  The characters at times seem a bit overwrought and stereotypical, which to me feel like many novels, sci-fi or otherwise, from this similar time period.  We open with Apollo Three, crewed by a Colonel, one of the original 7, and 2 new class astronauts, one of whom is a civilian.  Their mission, a simple Earth orbit wring-out of the Apollo spacecraft, gets cut short by what seems to be an emergency.  Soon, the real reason comes out, the Soviets are pushing towards the Moon, and the President is strongly considering moving forward with Project Pilgrim, the launch of one man one-way to the Moon in a Mercury capsule, following the plan outlined above.

The story follows the training and development of the mission, with some political intrigue from the Senate and the President and NASA thrown in for good measure.  What are the Russians’ intentions, does the country support the mission, can the president stay in office if it fail, what does it mean if the US send the senior man, The Colonel, who happens to be active duty military, or should they send one of the NASA civilian astronauts?  The civilian vs. military debate and the discussions for what losing the space race could mean feel very real and representative of the times.  The pros and cons of sending the mission and the science and research behind taking the chance all feel very real as well.

I recommend giving this book a try; if you can dig it up, it is worth the read, and it’s relatively short if you don’t like the idea of digging into some massive tome.  Searls gives a very realistic portrayal of what could have been if the Russians had pushed a little harder during the Moon race.  I recently re-read this book and enjoyed it just as much as when I first read it.  It also made me a bit curious, so I went looking for some of those early alternatives to the Apollo mission and came across a couple of good ones that will be forthcoming soon here on your weekend Toasters.  If you know of such a alternative proposal, and you don’t see it in the upcoming weeks, drop us a line at the tips email, and we’ll add it to the list!

Image via; info from and

  • jserf

    I loved that book. It had an interesting ending, as I recall, though I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I should find out if the book is available for the Kindle; it could be worth a re-read.

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