Foreword Reviews 2018 INDIE Award Winner! On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing comes a novel in which a Jewish astronaut must reassess his moral compass when forced to confront NASA’s early collaboration with Nazis and the role it may have played in his father’s death.
Jonathan Stein thinks only a bad heart can stop him from reaching the moon. But when he discovers his father may have been murdered to protect an appalling NASA secret, he must decide whether his moral compass still points towards the stars. Days before the Apollo 18 launch in 1974, Jonathan’s father, an Israeli astronaut at NASA, died of an apparent heart attack. A year before his own launch, in 2005, Jonathan,
a typically devout skeptic, becomes captivated by the tale of a mysterious online conspiracy theorist who claims that his father had been killed. Unable to keep long-buried suspicions from resurfacing, he reopens the case,
digging into a past that becomes stranger and more compelling the deeper he goes.
To get to the truth he must confront Dale Lunden, his father’s best friend and the last man on the moon, and his
elusive childhood hero Neil Armstrong. When his relentless pursuit of the truth leads to disturbing revelations
about the Nazis who worked for NASA, the hardest questions to answer are the ones he must ask
The Astronaut’s Son was inspired by the true story of Nazi scientists and engineers at NASA.
|Publisher:||Woodhall Press LLP|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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November 19, 2004
Jonathan Stein reread the angry letter he'd written to Neil Armstrong at 3 a.m. and put it, signed and sealed, into the inside pocket of his suit coat. He promised himself it would be the last one. He pulled out his mobile phone and listened to the voicemail again.
"Jon, it's Dr. Charnas. It's not a serious condition. Your primary was absolutely right. I'm not surprised the prolapse didn't show up on earlier EKGs. Sure, it might, might be inherited ... but it might not. And it almost never produces that kind of event. We'll just keep an eye on it. Deke Slayton's problem was an arrhythmia, more severe, and he made it to outer space. So don't worry. Good luck with the big announcement."
Each replay — five in the last two days — only diluted the message.
He stood near a vintage lunar globe next to a wall of windows overlooking Biscayne Bay. The midmorning sun flooded his top-floor office.
With eyes closed tight, he spun the moon that had once belonged to his father, playing a secret game he'd invented as a boy, a peculiar form of astrology. He counted — One ... Two ... Three ... Four — and, like always, placed his index finger on the sphere's polished wooden surface to stop its rotation. Would it be the Sea of Tranquility or the Sea of Crises? The Bay of Rainbows or the Bay of Roughness? He found himself in the southern Sea of Clouds. He drew a long, deliberate breath and checked his watch. Time to go.
He hit redial on his desk phone.
"No, sir. My guys haven't seen him. You want me to check again?"
"I'll be down in five."
As he walked to the elevator, he made sure to touch each of the pictures lining the corridor — a sepia-toned photograph of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, a black-and-white of Lindbergh at Le Bourget, a lithograph of Miro's Dog Barking at the Moon, an original poster from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a glossy color print of the Apollo 11 crew dressed in space suits, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins grinning in front of an image of a full moon in the background, its top half arcing over their heads like a halo. The photograph had been signed by Collins and Aldrin. Jonathan streaked a pair of fingerprints across the glass cover.
He tried to check his appearance in the bronze-plated elevator doors, but their brushed finish blurred his reflection. Before entering the company auditorium, he tossed the envelope into a lobby mail drop and made a quick detour to the first-floor men's room, patting his cowlick, checking for unplucked gray hairs, listening to the voicemail once more.
The public relations director delivered the introduction Jonathan had scripted. Hundreds of his employees and members of the local and national media welcomed him with crackling applause and a volley of camera flashes. He approached the podium, lowered the microphone, and waited for the noise to subside.
"Thank you all for coming today." His voice quivered. He cleared his throat and continued. "Our Moon is unique in the nighttime sky. We gaze at the pale, quiet lunar surface in the late hours of the evening and go to sleep peacefully, assured by its reflective glow that the Sun has not abandoned us. Though the stars may be legion and luminous, they are simply too distant to soothe. The Moon encircles us and makes us feel safe. As God is said to have created the first woman from Adam's rib, a rogue planet, Theia, long ago struck the newly formed Earth, breaking off a chunk of rock that would later become the reliable companion who would never turn her back on us, or let us see her dark side. More than mere pacifier, the Moon attracts us. She has been patiently and persistently pulling at us, tempting us to climb up and touch her shining face."
Jonathan's senior management, seated in the first few rows, wore bright but bewildered smiles. He shot a perplexed look at his wife, Susana, seated right behind them and next to his mother, Eva. Susana's wide eyes and encouraging nod told him everything was fine, that he should keep going. He resumed, hoping the glance at her for reassurance had appeared as nothing more than a pause for dramatic effect.
"Ladies and gentlemen, today I am proud to announce, as chairman and CEO of Apollo Aeronautics, that after years of planning and preparation, we are ready to embark upon a great journey — the first manned mission to the Moon in over three decades."
The cameras flashed like strobe lights. The reporters perched on the edge of their seats. The cheering partisan crowd must have read Jonathan's predawn e-mail about showing team spirit.
"We have been away far too many years. The scouts came home long ago. The age of the pioneers is now." More applause. "The Moon was once just a destination, but now it will be a stepping stone to a larger existence. From the surface of the Moon, we will take a giant leap forward into outer space for the benefit of ourselves and our posterity.
"I'm honored that our private venture to return to the Moon and establish a permanent presence has the support of my good friend, the President of the United States. I am equally pleased that a man who has been a part of my family since I was a boy, Dale Lunden, the last man to walk on the Moon, has returned to Florida to take charge of mission operations."
Jonathan gestured to the front row. Lunden turned to face the crowd, waving both hands above his head, the Medal of Freedom pinned to his lapel glittering at the end of a shiny blue ribbon.
"This expedition will lead to both unprecedented scientific discovery and unlimited commercial opportunity." Jonathan paused and looked at his mother. "And finally, on a personal note, I'm making good on a promise I made to my father on a rainy afternoon thirty years ago." He clicked a remote and looked over his shoulder. A wall of projection screens formed a virtual mosaic, displaying side-by-side pictures of his father, Avi Stein — an official portrait in dress uniform, ramrod straight next to an Israeli flag, and a candid Kodachrome in a sky-blue jumpsuit at the Kennedy Space Center, the Apollo 18 rocket poised in the background.
"My father may have died of a heart attack before launch, but his dream of going to the Moon lives on in all of us." He put his hand over his heart. "Thank you all for coming, and in twelve months, we'll see you on the Moon."
A second click fired a whirling collage of iconic photographs from the greatest achievements in space exploration. The stirring, muscular theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture blared from ceiling speakers. The whoops and whistles of junior employees accentuated a persistent ovation. Jonathan stepped away from the podium toward the very front of the stage, smiling, clapping, acknowledging his senior staff with open palms like a Broadway performer thanking musicians in the pit.
He enjoyed the warm glow of the stage lights, waving to enthusiastic spectators, posing for photographers. He even pointed to a stranger like the man was his long-lost best friend. He'd seen veteran politicians execute that exaggerated pandering gesture at the end of campaign rallies and had always wanted to try it. With a pressed-lip grin, he glanced at Susana, who flashed a discreet thumbs-up, and Eva, who blew a kiss — their eyes twinkling with pride, both unaware a valve in his heart had sprung a leak. He gave the crowd a final wave, crisp and military, as if he were about to board a Marine helicopter on the White House lawn. He left the stage, the phone pressed against his ribcage, and vowed to keep its message secret.CHAPTER 2
November 19, 2004
The gala at the Four Seasons following announcement of the lunar mission had been a great success. After a three-course meal and a "Godspeed" toast from John Glenn, via satellite, the ballroom roared at a blooper reel of Jonathan's early training exercises — the conquering hero banging his head against the fuselage of a NASA jet diving to simulate weightlessness, spraying a sneeze against his visor while being fitted for a space suit, and slipping off the pool deck at the underwater simulation facility in Houston. At the end of the night, each guest went home with a gift bag stuffed with Tang packets and three flavors of freeze-dried ice cream. Jonathan and Susana lingered in the lobby, shaking hands and posing for photographs until the last well-wisher had left. Near the parking garage elevators, Susana glanced over her shoulder and whispered, "How many TV interviews did Dale give? Like twenty? I don't think I saw him without a microphone in his face."
Jonathan waited for the elevator doors to shut. "All that camera time only bumps up the rates he can charge for those commercials he does. Give him a break. It had to be rough."
"Because after thirty years he's about to become the penultimate man on the Moon. Everybody knows Ted Williams was the last man to bat .400, but nobody knows who was second to last."
The elevator doors opened. "Didn't Williams have his head frozen?" she asked.
"Exactly my point. And nobody knows the second most famous person to get his head frozen, either. Fame's a hard drug to give up. Dale loves it. Today had to be bittersweet." Dale Lunden never turned down the chance to be in a parade. He had the keys to so many different cities that Jonathan had nicknamed him "America's locksmith."
Susana's clicking heels, like a ping-pong ball in a championship match, echoed through the empty garage. "So which one cost me more?" Jonathan said. "That outfit or the new car?"
"If you have to ask, mi amor."
Susana Azevedo, the chair of planetary sciences at the University of Miami, played against type at social events. Making the most of a dancer's physique, she shopped at the chic boutiques of South Beach and spent a small fortune on hair, makeup, and jewelry. On rare occasions, like this one, she wore a choker with flawless oval emeralds set in platinum, a gift from their tenth anniversary. He had said the stones matched her eyes.
Jonathan, tipsy from too many toasts to the success of his mission, recoiled at the thought of the sobriety lecture Susana would deliver if he asked her to drive — and she didn't even know the new reason for him to cut down on his drinking. Deke Slayton had quit cold turkey after NASA grounded him. Jonathan loosened his tie and started the engine.
"I don't feel so well," she said. She rubbed her face with both hands.
"What is it?"
"New car smell."
"You always liked that."
"Smells are different now. Packed away all my Chanel last week."
Susana was seventeen weeks pregnant, a planned conception delayed for years by their professional ambitions.
"This audio interface makes absolutely no sense." Jonathan stabbed at the dashboard of a black SUV fresh off the boat from Bremerhaven. "It's categorically unintuitive. I told you we should've bought the Volvo."
"Watch out, Jon."
He drove over the edge of a concrete median as they left the garage. "It's this stupid stereo system."
"Did you just slur? How much did you drink?"
"No. Nothing. Like two glasses, stopped an hour before we left."
"Put on your wipers. It's starting to rain again."
"So, what did you think about the speech, really?
"I already told you it was good."
"But why did the guys have those goofy smiles and frozen deer eyes?" He activated the left blinker instead. "Damn it. Did they say anything?" He worried his employees might have realized he'd lifted some of his better lines from old speeches given by NASA officials. Had there been something on his face? In his hair? He discreetly checked his zipper.
"I need some fresh air," Susana said. Jonathan offered to crack the back windows. When each window went up and down at least twice, she reached for the glove compartment. "Want me to get the manual, Mr. Goodwrench?" He ignored her good-natured dig, determined to master the controls. When he finally had the wipers going, the back windows cracked, and a news station tuned in, a traffic and weather update had begun. A multicar accident blocked Bayshore Drive, the quickest route home to Coral Gables. After the report, Susana changed the radio station to 95.7, El Zol, salsa and merengue. Jonathan tapped a random sequence of buttons to silence Celia Cruz, tripping past an evangelical preacher predicting the end of days on the AM band before shutting off the radio.
"Put it back on."
"You haven't answered me yet. Accounting looked like a bunch of parents smiling at a hokey grade school play."
"They were caught off guard, Jon. They don't know you like I do."
"I've worked with some of those people for years."
"But they don't know you. They only know the Bill Gates of aerospace — brilliant, driven, uncompromising, the consummate MIT geek.
Today you showed them a glimpse of your heart." She reset the radio to another salsa station. "Don't touch it. Ruben Blades, one of my favorites." She sang along with the infectious refrain. "'La vida te da sorpresas, sorpresas te da la vida, ay Díos ...'"
He felt doubly relieved — no wardrobe malfunction and even his wife was unaware of his petty plagiarism. "If you thought my speech was so moving, did I have any luck persuading you?"
"No, por favor, I still think it's a bad idea ... at least the scientist in me does. Too much to do before retracing old steps."
"Like Europa," he said.
"Exactly." Susana led a NASA team that had sent an unmanned probe to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, to look for life in the ocean beneath its frozen surface. The first data was expected by mid-December. "You know I would never say that in public," she said. "I've always understood. When you were on stage, your mom squeezed my arm so tight my fingers went numb. I'm sure your dad would have been so proud." She shed her stilettos and begin to rub a foot.
"Didn't I warn you about those heels?"
"The baby's only the size of a nectarine, please. I'm not giving them up yet." The sound of an approaching siren interrupted their conversation. Jonathan checked the speedometer to make sure he wasn't the cause. A state patrol sedan raced past. Susana stashed a pair of two-carat earrings in her clutch purse.
Fifteen minutes from home and just off the highway, they heard a hissing sound coming from the engine. Twin columns of steam, wispy and white like spider's silk, shot up from the narrow strip of space between the front of the hood and the frame.
"You broke something over that curb."
"No, I didn't. Engine must be overheating. It wasn't me." He parked on the side of an unfamiliar road. The raindrops had shrunk to a fine mist. Dim street lamps, spaced far apart, provided sketchy light. On the near side, a chain-link fence ran the length of the block, enclosing a grassy yard.
"We should try to keep driving," she said.
"No need to risk it. It's not North Miami." After he called the auto club for a tow truck, he got out, leaving the door open, and paced alongside the SUV. Two cars raced by without slowing down. "No one stops anymore. They just assume you'll make a call." He pressed his hand against his jacket to feel the contours of his phone.
"Jon, I have to pee."
He peered over the honeycombed fence. Three low shadows darted back and forth at the far end of the yard. He leaned farther over the top and jumped back as a trio of enormous Dobermans barreled toward him. His slick Gucci soles proved a bad match for the slippery grass. He hovered in the air for an instant and crashed down on his ass. The dogs lunged at him, barking ferociously. The alpha reared up and stuck its snarling snout over the fence. Globs of slobber flew from both sides of its mouth.
"You OK?" Susana yelled.
"I'm fine." He stumbled back to his seat. "Just caught off guard.
Stupid fucking animals." She handed him a wad of tissues. He patted the bottom of his wet wool pants. "Nothing out there unless you want to knock on doors."
Susana brought her legs onto the seat and folded them under her body. "I can hold it." She blew hot breath onto the cold passenger window and in the short-lived fog wrote "DS = 0," an equation representing the gloomy second law of thermodynamics.
"What do you expect?" she said. "It's starting to rain harder, and I'm freezing." She rubbed the moisture from her fingertips. "Remember when the first woman went into orbit?"
"Of course. Valentina Tereshkova, 1963. Three-day solo flight."
"No, no, not the Russian. The first American on the shuttle. The first time men and a woman had room to move around. Maybe they took Sally for a 'ride,' so to speak? For science, of course."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Astronaut's Son"
Copyright © 2018 Tom Seigel.
Excerpted by permission of Woodhall Press.
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