Steely-Eyed Missile Men

There’s an old saw common in the professional story-telling trade, and that is this: you may know what hole the rabbit went into, but that doesn’t mean you know what hole he’s going to come out of.

When I did the first draft of Aurora in 2005, my overriding passion of the ‘no magic’ ethos was pretty simple really: after watching the miracles of the Mercury, Gemini and especially the Apollo programs, and the subsequent forty year fumble as we went precisely nowhere and learned precisely nothing, I was determined to show that we could build the ship with the technologies we have available today and launch her on her mission tomorrow.

But as I got deeper into it I realized it was even worse than that, because while some of the elements I was incorporating into the design – featherweight composite structures, primarily – did arrive somewhat later in the four-decade running nap, the key elements of power and propulsion weren’t just available now. They had been available since the early 1970’s. I wanted the American public to learn about NERVA.

And not just in an intellectual way. I wanted to the American people to see what we had walked away from in terms of vision and skill, and finally, I wanted them to realize that in many cases that vision and skill is dying out and had to be retrieved from the past before it went completely extinct. NASA today, and even in the waning years of the Space Shuttle Program, was but a ghost of what it was when I was a boy. And so I wanted the movie to reach into the past and drag forward a little piece – if the heart is a little piece – of Apollo and bring that spark of American genius and ingenuity forward and build the ship around that.

Project NERVA was a program to develop a solid core nuclear rocket engine. It’s the soul of simplicity:

Chemical Engines create expanding gases in the chamber by mixing highly energetic fuels and adding the tremendous multiplier of liquid oxygen: so don’t ever throw some liquid oxygen on a regular fire; you’ll find out in unpleasant fashion how much reserve energy there is in ordinary fuel in combustion limited to ambient air pressure.

 

 

Solid core nuclear rockets are, as I say, as simple a device as can be. You basically collect a lot of enriched (but not weapons grade) Uranium. With the control rods removed, this nuclear core gets very, very hot indeed. Then just pour some clear, cool, delicious liquid hydrogen through the middle of it and WHOOSH! A two-times more energetic expansion per pound of propellant – twice the Isp -- than with chemical engines.

I have a fictional character named Ed Mallik. He was originally a three-line character, but with every draft I liked him better and better, and finally I realized he was far better fleshed out than some of my major characters. Like I said, you know which hole the rabbit goes into, but not necessarily which hole he comes out of. Mallik was 22 years old at the time he joined NERVA. He’s in his late eighties at the time of the Aurora mission, and as I grew to like him more and more he has taken on an ever-more-central role in the Back to the Future theme that runs through the movie.

As a matter of fact, as I got into researching the actual history of NERVA I was trying to choose one of the many designs they tested as the actual rocket they are forced to use on Aurora, when their experimental engine explodes and takes out the primary flight and engineering crews in a test run.

And then, like the Red Sea parting before Moses I saw something that actually happened historically; something so perfect for what I needed that I actually just sat with my mouth open for a full minute.

I’ll let Ed tell you. Here’s a snippet of dialog between Mallik and Administrator Sam Graefe, who has been searching for surviving members of the NERVA team and only found just this last one:  

And sure enough, they take an unmarked white semi truck to the abandoned Nuclear Rocket Development Station (“Nerds!”) out in the Nevada desert, cut open the rusty chains on a large hangar with bolt cutters, and there, under a tarp where he left it sixty-five years earlier, sits this:

 

 

(to be continued…)

Published Dec 10, 2013