Copyright ?1996 by Jerry Oltion
First Appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
ABANDON IN PLACE
by Jerry Oltion
Six hours after Deke Slayton, the astronaut, died of cancer, his racing airplane
took off from a California airport and never came down. The pilot didn't respond
to the control tower, and the plane vanished from radar shortly after takeoff,
but witnesses clearly identified it as Slayton's. Which was impossible, because
that same airplane was in a museum in Nevada at the time. The story made the rounds at the Cape. Engineers and administrators and
astronauts all passed it along like scouts telling ghost stories around a
campfire, but nobody took it seriously. It was too easy to mistake one plane for
another, and everyone knew how fast rumors could get started. They had heard
plenty of them over the years, from the guy who'd claimed to be run off the road
by Grissom's Corvette after the Apollo 1 fire to the Australian who'd supposedly
found a piece of Yuri Gagarin's spacesuit in the debris that rained over the
outback when Skylab came down. This was just one more strange bit of folklore
tacked onto the Apollo era, which was itself fast fading into legend. Then Neil Armstrong died, and a Saturn V launched itself from pad 34. Rick Spencer was there the morning it went up. He had flown his T-38 down from
Arlington right after the funeral, grabbed a few hours of sleep right there at
the Cape, then driven over to the shuttle complex before dawn to watch the
ground crew load a communications satellite into the Atlantis. The ungainly
marriage of airplane and rocket on pad 39A would be his ticket to orbit in
another week if they ever got the damned thing off the ground, but one
technicians forgot to mark a step off his checklist and the whole procedure shut
down while the foreman tried to decide whether to back up and verify the job or
take the tech at his word when he said he'd done it. Rick was getting tired of
waiting for somebody to make a decision, so he went outside the sealed payload
mating bay for a breath of fresh air.
The sun had just peeked over the horizon. The wire catwalk beneath his feet and
the network of steel girders all around him glowed reddish gold in the dawn
light. The hammerhead crane overhead seemed like a dragon's long, slender neck
and head leaning out to sniff curiously at the enormous winged orbiter that
stood there sweating with dew beneath its gaze. The ground, nearly two hundred
feet below, was still inky black. Sunlight hadn't reached it yet, wouldn't for a
few more minutes. The ocean was dark, too, except near the horizon where the
brilliant crescent of sun reflected off the water.
From his high catwalk Rick looked down the long line of launch pads to the
south, the tops of their gantries projecting up into the light as well. Except
for pads 34 and 37. Those two had been decommissioned after the Apollo program,
and now all that remained were the concrete bunkers and blast deflectors that
couldn't be removed, low gray shapes still languishing in the shadow of early
dawn. Just like the whole damned space program, Rick thought. Neil had been
given a hero's burial, and the President's speech had been full of promise for
renewed support of manned exploration in space, but it was all a lot of hot air
and everyone knew it. The aging shuttle fleet was all America had, and all it
was likely to get for the foreseeable future. Even if NASA could shake
bureaucratic stupor it had fallen into and propose a new program, Congress would
never pass an appropriations bill for the hardware.
Rick looked away, but a flicker of motion drew his attention back to pad 34,
where brilliant floodlights now lit a gleaming white rocket and its orange
support tower. Rick blinked, but it didn't go away. He stepped closer to the
railing and squinted. Where had that come from? Over half of it rose above the
dawn line; Rick looked over the edge of the Atlantis’s gantry and made a quick
guess based on his own height. That rocket had to be over three hundred feet
Three hundred and sixty-three, to be exact. Rick couldn't measure it that
exactly, but he didn't need to. He recognized the black-striped Saturn V
instantly, and he knew its stats by heart. He had memorized them when he was a
kid, sitting in front of his parents' black-and-white tv set while he waited for
the liftoffs. Three hundred sixty-three feet high, weighing over three thousand
tons when fueled, the five F-1 engines in its first stage producing seven and a
half million pounds of thrust--it was the biggest rocket ever built. And it had also been over thirty years since the last of them flew. Rick closed
his eyes and rubbed them with his left hand. Evidently Neil's death had affected
him more than he thought. But when he looked to the south again he still saw the
brilliant white spike standing there in its spotlight glare, mist swirling down
its side as the liquid oxygen in its tanks chilled the air around the massive
Rick was alone on the gantry. Everyone else was inside, arguing about the
payload insertion procedure. He considered going in and asking someone
out and tell him if he was crazy or not, but he abandoned that thought immediately. One week before his first flight, he wasn't about to confess to
It sure looked real. Rick watched the dawn line creep down the Saturn's flank,
sliding over the ever-widening stages until it reached the long cylinder of the
main body. The spectacle was absolutely silent. The only sound came from closer
by: the squeak and groan of the shuttle gantry expanding as it began to warm
under the light.
Then, without warning, a billowing cloud of reddish white smoke erupted from the
base of the rocket. The eye-searing brightness of RP-1 and oxygen flame lit up
the cloud from within, and more exhaust blasted sideways out of the flame
Rick felt the gantry vibrate beneath him, but there was still no sound. The
exhaust plume rose nearly as high as the nose cone, roiling like a mushroom
cloud over an atomic blast, then slowly the rocket began to lift. Bright white
flame sprayed the entire launch pad as the thundering booster, gulping thousands
of gallons of fuel per second, rose into the sky. Only when the five bell-shaped
nozzles cleared the gantry--nearly ten seconds after liftoff--did the solid beam
of flame grow ragged at the edges. A few final tongues of it licked the ground,
then the rocket lifted completely into the air.
The shuttle gantry beneath Rick's feet shook harder. He grabbed for support just
as the sound reached him: a thunderous, crackling assault that sent him
staggering back against the catwalk's inner railing, his hands over his ears.
The gantry shook like a skyscraper in an earthquake, knocking him to his knees
on the non-skid grating. He didn't try to rise again, just stared upward in awe
as the Saturn V dwindled rapidly now and the roar of its engines tapered off
The glare left afterimages when he blinked. He didn't care. He watched the
rocket arc over and begin its long downrange run, picking up orbital velocity
now that it had cleared the thickest part of the atmosphere. The door behind him burst open and a flood of white-jacketed technicians scrambled out. The first few stopped when they saw the enormous plume of exhaust
rising into the sky, and the ones behind them piled into their backs, forcing
them forward until everyone was packed near the railing. Molly, the payload
foreman, gave Rick a hand up, and bent close to his ear to shout over the roar
of the rocket and the babble of voices, "What the hell was that?" Rick shook his head. "Damned if I know."
"There wasn't supposed to be a launch today," she said. Rick looked up at the dwindling rocket, now just a bright spark aiming for the
sun, and said, "Something tells me Control was just as surprised as we were." He
pointed toward the base of the exhaust plume, where the cloud had spread out
enough to reveal the gantry again.
"What?" Molly asked, squinting to see through the billowing steam. Then she
realized what he was pointing at. "Isn't that pad thirty-four?" #
Molly and her payload crew reluctantly trooped back into the mating bay to see
if the shaking had damaged their satellite, but since Rick was on his own time
he rode the cage elevator down to the ground, climbed into his pickup, and
joined the line of cars streaming toward the launch site. The scrub oak and palmetto that lined the service road prevented anyone from
seeing the pad until they had nearly reached it. Rick thought he should have
been able to see the 400-foot gantry, at least, but when he arrived at the pad
he realized why he hadn't. It had vanished just as mysteriously as it had
arrived, leaving not a trace.
Rick drove across the vast concrete apron to the base of the old launch pedestal. It looked like an enormous concrete footstool: four squat legs holding
a ten-foot-thick platform forty feet in the air, with a thirty-foot-wide hole in
the platform for the rocket exhaust to pour through. Off to the side stood the
foundation and the thick blast protection wall of the building that had once
housed propellant pumps and service equipment. Now both structures looked old
and weathered. Rust streaks ran down their gray sides, and stenciled on the
pitted concrete, the paint itself fading now, were the words, "ABANDON IN
Weeds grew out of cracks in the apron, still green and vigorous even right up
next to the pedestal. Rick was beginning to doubt what he'd seen, because obviously nothing had launched from this pad for at least a decade. But the contrail still arched overhead, high-altitude winds snaking it left and
right, and when Rick opened the door and stepped out of his pickup he smelled
the unmistakable mixture of RP-1 smoke and steam and scorched cement that came
with a launch.
Doors slammed as more people got out of their cars. Dozens of them were there
already, and more arrived every minute, but what should have been an unruly mob
was strangely quiet. Nobody wanted to admit what they'd seen, especially in the
face of so much conflicting evidence.
Rick recognized Tessa McClain, an experienced astronaut whom he'd dated a few
times in the last couple of months, climbing out of the back of a white van
along with half a dozen other people from the vehicle assembly building.
she saw him she jogged across the concrete to his side and said, "Did you see
it?" Her face glowed with excitement.
"Yeah," Rick said. "I was up on the gantry at thirty-nine." She looked up at the contrail overhead, her straight blonde hair falling back
over her shoulders. "Wow. That must have been a hell of a sight. I felt it shake
the ground, but I didn't get outside until it was already quite a ways up." She
looked back down at him. "It was a Saturn Five, wasn't it?" "That's what it looked like," he admitted.
"God, this is incredible." She turned once around, taking in the entire launch
pad. "A moon rocket! I never expected to see anything like it ever again." "Me either," Rick said. He struggled to find the words to express what he was
thinking. "But how could we possibly have seen anything? There's no tower here,
no fuel tanks, nothing. And the launch pedestal is too small for a fully fueled
Saturn V. This complex was for the S-1B's."
She grinned like a child at Christmas. "I'm sure whoever --or whatever--staged
this little demonstration was able to make all the support hardware they needed.
And take it away again when they were done with it."
Rick shook his head. "But that's impossible."
Tessa laughed. "We all saw it." She pointed upward. "And the contrail's still
there." Suddenly her eyes grew even wider.
"What?" Rick asked.
She looked across the rolling hummocks of palmetto toward the fifty-story-high
vehicle assembly building--and the launch control center at its base. "I wonder
if it's sending back telemetry?"
It took a while to find out. Nobody remembered what frequencies the Apollo
spacecraft broadcast on or what protocols the data streams used, and the ground
controllers had to dig through archived manuals to find out. It took
time to set up the receivers to accept the signals, but when the technicians
eventually tuned into the right frequencies they found a steady information
flow. They couldn't decode most of it, since the software to do that had been
written for the old RCA computer system, but they did at least establish that
the rocket had not vanished along with its ground support structures. Rick and Tessa were in the launch control center now, watching the overhead
monitors while programmers in the central instrumentation building frantically
attempted to adapt the old programs to the new machines. What they saw was
mostly a lot of numbers, but every few minutes one of the programmers would
patch in another section of translated code and another display would wink into
place on the screen. They had already figured out cabin temperature and
pressure, fuel level in the upper stage tanks, and a few of the other simple
By this point in a normal flight the whole project would rightfully belong to
Mission Control in Houston, but there was nothing normal about this launch. When
the Houston flight director heard what the Kennedy team was doing, he wanted
nothing to do with it anyway. He intended to keep his own neck well out of the
way when heads started rolling after this crazy debacle was over. But the spacecraft stubbornly refused to disappear. Radar tracked it through one
complete orbit and part of another, when its altitude and velocity began to
rise. At the same time, the fuel levels in the third stage tanks began to drop.
That could mean only one thing: The booster was firing again. "Translunar injection," Tessa whispered. "They're going for the Moon." "Who's 'they'?" Rick asked. So far none of the telemetry indicated a live--or
even a ghostly--passenger in the command module.
"It's got to be Neil," Tessa said. "And who knows who else is going with him."
"Neil is in a box in Arlington cemetery," Rick said. "I saw them put him there."
"And you saw the launch this morning," Tessa reminded him. "Neil being on board
it is no more impossible than the rocket itself."
"Good point." Rick shrugged. Every dead astronaut from Gagarin on could be in
the mystery Apollo capsule for all he knew. This bizarre manifestation was
completely new territory; nobody knew the rules yet.
Enough people claimed to, of course. Psychics seemed to crawl out of the
woodwork over the next few days, each with their own interpretation of the
event. NASA had to close the gates and post guards around the perimeter of the
space center to keep it from being overrun by curious mystics, but that merely
fueled speculation that they were developing a new super-secret space vehicle at
the taxpayers' expense.
The administration tried the silent approach at first, but when that charge was
levelled they reluctantly admitted that for once the fruitcakes were closer to
the truth than the whistleblowers. In a carefully worded press release, NASA's
public relations spokesman said, "What appeared to be a Saturn Five moon rocket
seemed to launch from the deserted complex thirty-four. This alleged launch was
not authorized by NASA, nor was it part of any program of which NASA is aware. A
complete investigation of the incident is being made, and our findings will be
made public as soon as we learn what actually occurred." That was Bureauspeak for, "We don't have a clue either." Rick spent days with
the investigation team, going over his story again and again--careful
"appeared to" and "looked like" at all the appropriate spots--until he could
recite it in his sleep, but no one was the wiser afterward. They examined the
launch pad, which revealed no sign of a liftoff. All they could do was listen to
the telemetry coming from the spacecraft and speculate. Three days after its launch, the ghost Apollo entered lunar orbit. A few hours
after that, the lunar module separated from the command module and made a
powered descent toward the surface. It wasn't headed for the Sea of Tranquility.
It appeared to be landing at Copernicus, one of the sites proposed for further
Apollo missions before the last three had been cancelled. But when it reached
500 feet, the telemetry suddenly stopped.
"What the hell happened?" demanded Dale Jackson, the impromptu flight director
for the mission. He stood beside one of the consoles on the lowest of the
terraced rows, looking around at the dozens of technicians who were scrambling
to reacquire the signal.
Tessa and Rick were watching from farther up, sitting side by side at unused
consoles and holding hands like teenagers on a date at the best movie of all
time. When the telemetry stopped, Tessa flinched as if a monster had just jumped
out of a closet.
"What happened?" Rick asked. "Did it blow up?"
Tessa shook her head. "Everything stopped," she said. "The command module too,
and it was still in orbit."
"Five hundred feet," Rick said. Something about that figure nagged at him. What
happened at five hundred feet in a normal lunar descent? "Got it!" he said,
loudly enough that everyone in the room looked back up at the screens. When they
saw no data there, they turned to him.