Authors: Francis Bennett
For Dominic, Elizabeth, Stephen,
Clare and Alexander
Radin’s reaction was instinctive – he was too far away to see anything in detail – but he knew at once that something was wrong. He tried telling himself it was anxiety, an attack of nerves brought on by his condition, but something within him had sensed a fault and its message was unavoidable.
‘Stop the car.’
He wound down the window, the blast of heat momentarily sucking the air out of his lungs and leaving him breathless, and reached for the binoculars on the seat beside him. His damaged hands fumbled clumsily with the viewfinder while he adjusted the focus. He swept past empty expanses of steppe, hardened and dusty grey in the morning light, until he saw the bleached concrete of the vast hangar where they assembled the machines. There, to the left, dwarfing the buildings surrounding it, was the launch tower, the metal arms of its gantries supporting a huge steel column that glinted in the sunlight. Wisps of evaporation hovered around the chambers of the auxiliary engines clipped to the base. The biggest rocket ever built sat cold and immobile over the concrete fire trench, pointing towards the stars.
Two years before this vast machine had sprung into being as an idea in his head. With his team of experts he had worked with manic energy to create a rocket powerful enough to lift two, even four men into space on journeys to the moon and back, and then beyond, perhaps one day to the planets. He had not spared himself, nor those who worked with him, as if he knew that somewhere within his body the cancer was stirring,
and this project would be his last. Those first few lines on a piece of paper had been transformed into a craft of breathtaking power and beauty. Now it stood before him, in all its shining glory, ready for its first flight. In a few hours, thousands of gallons of nitric acid and hydrazine would be transformed by the five engines into a white heat powerful enough to lift his giant rocket clear of the earth’s gravitational pull. He would watch it soar into the mysterious blackness of the heavens, its trail of fire and smoke tapering away into nothingness, the only clues to its existence the radio signals charting its progress into the unknown.
A steel basilica,
He looked again, this time with a more rational eye, carefully travelling the distance from the nose cone to the engine nozzles. There at the base, he detected a minute wisp of condensation, the tell-tale sign of escaping nitric acid. A fuel leak: easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for, impossible to ignore once you’d spotted it. A real danger. His inner eye had been right after all.
‘Do you have a short-wave radio?’ he asked his driver.
‘Drive on as fast as you can.’
Nitric acid might be stable but it was corrosive. Keep it in the tanks for too long and you risked it eating its way through a valve or the lining of the fuel chamber. Start the firing procedure and a single spark could ignite a catastrophic conflagration. There was no question about what should be done. The launch must be stopped, the tanks drained, the process begun again.
The car raced down the rough concrete road that cut like an arrow through what remained of the scrubby grasslands. The poor suspension made his lower spine ache. Shifting his position gave him no release from the incessant burning that smouldered in his back. The two or three white pills he was prescribed each day granted him only temporary remission. Every morning he pleaded for the dose to be increased – ten,
twenty pills a day, what did it matter how many, so long as they brought relief? But his doctors, standing by his bedside, wrapped in the immunity of their white coats, shook their heads and denied him what he craved. They were worried about side effects, they said. His kidneys might give out.
So what if his kidneys were destroyed? He was never going to recover from his illness, they all knew that, but the truth failed to change their mind. Some bureaucrat in Moscow, who’d probably never suffered anything worse than toothache, had given instructions to keep him alive as long as they could, and his doctors feared the consequences of failing. Damn them! Would no one assume responsibility for his death? Was he not meant to die?
The car came to a halt outside the control centre, a concrete building poorly conceived and badly built. The driver got out, opened the boot of the car, assembled the wheelchair and helped Radin into it.
‘The control room.’
Still clasping his binoculars, he was pushed through the automatic doors, into the lift and up to the top floor. He saw before him rows of faces concentrated on terminals whose screens flickered with telemetry read-outs as the countdown progressed. The fans suspended from the ceiling made little impression on the heat that had built up in the badly ventilated room. He was aware of its intensity on the surface of his skin, but his bones remained beyond the reach of warmth.
‘Comrade Director.’ His former assistant, Voroshilov, was unable to conceal his surprise. ‘We were not expecting you. We were not told you were coming.’
What can they have said about his condition? He’d never missed a launch in the past. Why should he miss this one? He had been ill for a few weeks, and in that time they had forgotten who he was. How quickly absence robs you of your power.
‘I want General Ulansky. Where is he?’
What the hell was he doing outside? He should be here, in this room, now. This was where you controlled the launch process, not standing on the tarmac apron like a policeman directing traffic. The man must be out of his mind to be away from his post at a time like this.
‘Get me a radio telephone. I want to speak to him.’
Over the years he had watched Ulansky pilot his way up the military hierarchy, a politician more than a soldier, a man with few administrative abilities who had exploited every connection he had to gain control of this secret rocket establishment. The Cosmodrome at Baikonur was a temporary stepping-stone on his journey to the heights of power. How could Moscow support a man he wouldn’t trust to tie his shoelace? It was insanity to let him loose on a project of this complexity. Radin had protested at his appointment, citing Ulansky’s inexperience. Within days he’d received a reply from an official in some department in the Kremlin extolling the merits of General Ulansky, hero of the Soviet Union, a man of courage and vision, with a record of selfless service to the state. Radin had stopped reading at that point because he knew that the real message was that Ulansky had powerful support. No point in pursuing a battle you can’t win. He’d thrown the letter in the waste-paper basket.
‘Sergei?’ There was a crackled acknowledgement at the other end of the radio telephone. ‘This is Viktor. There’s a leak in fuel tank B. The launch must be stopped at once.’
The reply was incomprehensible, a continuous ribbon of indistinguishable sounds crackling in his ear.
‘I can’t hear what he’s saying,’ Radin said desperately. ‘Take me down to the launch pad.’
He was rushed into the lift once more, down to the ground floor and out into the raging heat. Ulansky was sitting in a folding chair, a director on a film set, the star of his drama the huge inanimate object on the launch pad. All he lacked was a megaphone and a camera.
‘Viktor?’ Ulansky sounded surprised. ‘I thought you were in hospital.’
‘Look over there.’ Radin pointed urgently to the base of the craft. ‘Tank B. Can you see the leak?’
Radin handed him the binoculars. ‘You’ve got to stop the launch.’
The launch termination procedure was documented, and Ulansky knew that. In the event of a leak, the countdown is halted, the fuel is drained, non-flammable oxygen is piped through the tanks to clear the vapours. Later, technicians in protective suits are sent in to make the spacecraft safe. Only then can the refuelling process begin.
‘Emptying the fuel tanks and refuelling will take at least forty-eight hours. I don’t have that time at my disposal.’
‘What difference does forty-eight hours make?’
‘My instructions do not allow me to delay the launch by more than twelve hours, Viktor.’
Radin knew what that phrase meant. Over the years he had done his best to stop scientific research being used for political spectacle but it was a campaign he’d never been able to win. He heard the pride in Ulansky’s voice and he despised him for it, just as he despised the source of the instruction, the belligerent, uneducated peasant who sooner or later would lead them into an unnecessary conflict with the West, the consequences of which would be disastrous, unthinkable. It was a good thing he wouldn’t be around to witness it.
‘I don’t give a damn about your instructions,’ Radin said angrily. ‘I demand that you delay the launch. There’s more at stake here than the reputation of a few politicians. If you don’t act now, there’s a huge risk of an explosion.’
Radin registered the concern on the faces of the officials who surrounded them, and sensed their relief at his presence. They had no doubts about the seriousness of the situation. ‘You can’t ignore the leak, Sergei. You must do as I say.’
‘I’ll halt the countdown for an hour while we investigate.’
‘It’s not enough time to complete the necessary test procedures.’
‘An hour’s all I’m giving you, Viktor.’
Reluctantly Radin let himself be wheeled back into the control room. His hope was that when the engineers saw how serious the leak was, they’d report to Ulansky that the craft wasn’t safe to fly. Then he’d have no choice but to cancel the launch. That was the only prudent course of action: stop now before something worse happened.
‘Would you like to sit here, sir?’ Voroshilov was offering him an armchair near the window.
‘I’ll stay where I am,’ Radin replied, tapping the arm of his wheelchair. He needed the protection of the sheepskin cover to prevent the sharp edges of his hip bones shearing their way through his thin buttocks.
‘Can we get you anything?’
He shook his head. He wanted to say a lorry load of painkillers but even the faithful Voroshilov might mistake his joke and report his request to his doctors, and then he’d be given a lecture about responsibility or some other nonsensical subject. Sometimes he thought dying was the best way to escape all that pious rubbish … if only he could die quickly.
He was left, safe behind the reinforced glass of the window through which he could watch the launch of his rocket. He marvelled once more at its grace and shape. His creature was as beautiful as any cathedral, its dark nose cone pointing towards the stars like a spire, the bodywork housing the engines a buttressed tower, the only difference being that the power of his creation was there to glorify man, not an unknown and unknowable deity.
The excitement he felt, a mixture of awe and fascination at the rocker’s scale and complexity, provided momentary compensation for the pain deep in his back that was now his permanent companion. He would not live to see the fulfilment of his dreams, the day when men would ride
routinely into the sky perched precariously on top of his fiery monster, but at least he had set them on their journey. That much was secure. Whatever they did with his memory when he was dead, whether they vilified or glorified him, he knew what he had achieved and that was all that mattered.
Fly, he whispered to himself.
He picked up his binoculars and once more looked closely at his craft. To his horror, he saw ground staff climbing all over the base of the rocket, ant-like figures armed with spanners looking for valves to tighten.
He’d assumed Ulansky would investigate the leak before trying to repair it. This was madness. Even the movements of the technicians betrayed their uncertainty with this appalling break in procedure. In the distance he saw a group of government officials, air-force officers and senior scientists, nearly a hundred of them, taking their seats in a specially constructed stand to watch the launch – more evidence of Ulanksy’s reluctance to accept any delay. The show must go on because the audience had arrived. The launch of his rocket had a significance beyond the scientific achievement of getting so many tons of metal into the air: it was a lead part in a political drama, a gesture on an international stage, directed by the Kremlin against its enemies in Washington.
‘Tell General Ulansky I want to see him now. At once.’
His words were lost in a sudden roar of sound. Through the metal and leather of his chair he felt a deep vibration as if a huge drill was working its way through solid rock directly beneath him. The world was shaking his chair, the floor on which it stood, the walls of the control centre. He heard a terrifying noise, a deep, thunderous roar. He saw a white flash and then sharp tongues of blue flame burst from the nozzles of the main engine. Somehow the lower stage of the rocket had ignited, rupturing the oxidiser tank. He saw the auxiliary rockets ignite, the giant pods straining at the clamps that held them to the body of the craft. Clouds of white smoke blasted into the fire trench, to be directed away from the launch pad
as his dream was swallowed up in its own fire. He saw terror and panic spread among the figures scattering around the base of the rocket as they tried to escape, only to disappear into the rapidly spreading inferno.
In seconds the great steel structure was straining and shuddering on its pad as the gantries, shaken loose by the contained thrust of the engines, toppled to the ground. He saw flames shoot up the outside of the lower fuel chambers; he saw the explosion at the base of the second stage shatter the steel cladding and the bolts and struts that locked the two halves of the rocket together. For a moment, the upper section shuddered and vibrated, then agonisingly slowly it fell sideways, crashing to the ground, its spilled fuel exploding into a raging torrent of fire.
It seemed to Radin as if he was watching the sun burst in front of him, explosion after explosion, each fire generating another in an endless chain of conflagration. The expanding fireball swept forward with a ferocious velocity, fed by thousands of gallons of rocket fuel, consuming everything in its path: steel, concrete, tarmac, human flesh. He heard the angry roar of a world exploding in a fury of destruction as the last of his dreams was swept away into clouds of billowing black smoke blown outwards with the force of each explosion, turning day into night.