Commentary by Joseph T Major on Robert A. Heinlein's ROCKET SHIP GALILEO

Opus #42; written February-March 1946; 62,000 words


After his Ortygian days at the Philadelphia Naval Air Experimental Station, Robert Heinlein decided that new ways of life and new fields of endeavor were in order. He got divorced (from Leslyn) and remarried (to Virginia), moved to California, found an agent (Lurton Blassingame), and began writing for markets above and beyond Astounding Science Fiction.

In particular, he decided to influence the youth market, hoping to impress the tabula rasa of youthful minds with a stamp of technology and adventure. Working in this particular field required writing at novel length. And six months after he began trying to sell his manuscript though the first publisher he submited it to didn't think the idea was plausible it sold:

Young Atomic Engineers I am delighted to hear that Alice Dalgleish likes this ms. In my letter of 16 March 46 you will find a list of titles for a proposed series of sequels and considerable disussion of what I would like to do in re juveniles, as well as what I think might be done further to exploit this story. I expect to be guided by you in all those matters my opinions are not final. I certainly would be willing to rewrite to editorial order and to plan stories to fit editorial desires in order to have my book brought out by so distinguished a house as Scribner's.

Grumbles from the Grave, letter of September 27, 1946, p. 44

Two and a half years down the road, the problems of sex and violence, or nudity and guns anyhow, in Red Planet (1949, 1990) would make Heinlein probably wish he had never written that last sentence; certainly his opinions and actions concerning "rewriting to editorial order" and "plan[ning] stories to fit editorial desires" in the case of that book are not to be associated with the term "willing".

Somewhat earlier along the line, too, Heinlein seems to have discarded the idea of writing a series about the Young Atomic Engineers exploring the solar system. The last page of this book does not have a reference to "the exciting adventures that would be the destiny of The Young Atomic Engineers on Mars". With the discarding of this idea, the book became focused on itself, and the title was changed from a series title to that of a standalone novel.


Ross Jenkins, Art Mueller, and Morrie Abrams might be excused for thinking themselves in the distinguished company of Lee Correy and Robert Willey as they prepare to test their latest model rocket, the Starstruck V. Yet as they prepare the dynamometer for its thrust measurements, events are developing which will propel them into the neighborhood of the Verein fur Raumschiffart, in more ways than one.

Anthony Boucher's Rocket to the Morgue (1942), with its portrait of a very familiar figure passing under the calque designation of "Austin Carter", features a similar rocket experiment. This challenging test has a familiar ending, too. The rocket is go for throttle up at T plus seventeen seconds and thrust increasing to 105% of nominal when it explodes. And you wonder why Robert H. Goddard was unpopular with his neighbors in Massachusetts.

The trio fall into a brown, and a von Braun, study analyzing the ruins of their test model. But it's too late in the day to get the vital information so they decide to give things a better look in the morning. To their further dismay, there is something in the way when they get to the gate. Or rather someone, a very unconscious someone.

The litigation culture is not entirely new and legal elements will crop up later in this story, as they do throughout Heinlein's work. (Just in the juveniles we have such legal contests as the animal control hearing in The Star Beast (1954) and the various inheritance hearings in Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).) Serious fears crop up right away and are only slightly abated when the target turns out to be someone Art knows: "He's my uncle. . . You know the one I've told you about. He's my Uncle Don. Doctor Donald Cargraves, my 'Atomic Bomb' uncle." [p. 13] Nevertheless, Dr. Cargraves is not seriously hurt, for all the blood around (scalp wounds are usually bloody) and he had had a reason for loitering in the vicinity of that test.

The trio are representatives of a type now sadly vanishing from society; the mechanically minded tinkerers. Dr. Cargraves notes that his inadvertent assailants are scientifically minded, keeping extensive notes of their experiments and being organized their simple basement lab is cleaner than most basements. His injury is minor, fortunately. (Morrie's father had said: "So what? [sic. for "Nu?"] So we have lawyers in the family for such things." [p. 17]) The wounded hero is up to fraternizing with family and friends afterwards.

After cautiously observing the skills and resourcefulness of his targets, and plumbing the depths of their anomie, Dr. Cargraves comes to a conclusion and reveals his real motivation: "Why don't you go to the moon with me?" [p. 26]

From various internal clues we can assume that this story is set in the late fifties. Art was "just a kid" the last time he saw his uncle, "just after the war" [p. 14]. Since he has just graduated from high school [p. 25], he is seventeen or eighteen which puts this visit between ten and fifteen years in the past.

The world they live in is a peaceful one. Nuclear weapons are under the control of the UN, the Baruch Commission proposal. (Whether they are controlled by "a deliberately expatriated band of Janizaries" as in "Solution Unsatisfactory" (1941) is not specified.) Commerce is spreading in unprecedented ways. Low-orbit rockets carry cargo across the oceans and passengers around the world. (Presumably, that world peace authority ensures that none of those rockets are going on one-way trips with nuclear weapons as cargo.)

This peace seems to have had other consequences. Later on there is a reference to "reborn Berlin" [p. 112] which presumably has neither been blockaded nor divided. Foreign affairs don't reach our boys now.

Nowadays, that is. Art's father had had some bad experiences with "Aryan science" at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, which resulted in his becoming a guest of another kind of facility of the Reich's. Only being married to an American woman helped get him out of the concentration camp. (Curiously, Morrie's folks seem not to be mentioning that several million of their relatives hadn't had such mazel.)

Offered adventure, excitement, achievement, and self-fulfillment, the boys take it up without a second thought. Those are in the minds of their parents, and Dr. Cargraves has to do some persuading.

Art's mother takes a little not much persuading from her brother, and Morrie's father acknowledges that five years since bar mitzvah means something. Ross's father, however, is a little more skeptical, citing the immense costs, the substantial technical skills required, and the probability that the government would do it, or if not them, corporate enterprise. Here, Mr. Jenkins is serving as a spokesman for the author, who had said:

Young Atomic Engineers contains two conventional deviations from what I believe to be reasonably possible; I have condensed the preparation time for the trip and I have assumed that four people can do work which should require more nearly forty.

Grumbles from the Grave, letter of March 16, 1946, p. 43

Dr. Cargraves has a response that resounds more strangely now than it did at the time: "The great majority of the scientists in the Manhattan Project were very young men." [p. 37] Indeed, one of them was only eighteen when he started work: Theodore Alvin Hall, much later to become known for rather unscientific reasons (see Bombshell by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel (1997) for that story). As does his cited competition: "It wouldn't surprise me to hear some morning that the Russians had done it." [p. 38]

Now it's Cargraves speaking for the author:

However, we may wake up some morning and find that the Russians have quietly beaten us to it, and that the Lunar S.S.R. eight scientists and technicians, six men, two women has petitioned the Kremlin for admission of the Moon to the USSR. That's another unknown variable.

Grumbles from the Grave, letter of March 13, 1947, p. 148

While it was indeed true that as Cargraves says of the Soviets "They've got the technical ability and they seem to be willing to spend money on science," [p. 38] there were other considerations. The Soviet space program was a technical spin off of their intercontinental ballistic missile program indeed, the principal Russian man-rated lift vehicle is still an only slightly updated version of Sergei P. Korolev's Semyorka ballistic missile. The Soviet manned space program was substantially influenced by prestige considerations.

Mr. Jenkins in the end is influenced by prestige considerations himself. After proposing to hire skilled technicians to do the work of forty, and running into Cargraves's paired contentions in response that the boys had the necessary skills already, and the combination of his pledge and their enthusiasm had made an unbreachable bond, the impasse is broken by a reminder from Mrs. Jenkins. She points out that they themselves descended from young pioneers, who had gone against the will of their parents.

Mr. Jenkins offers in his defense that he hasn't been a confining father; like Roger Stone and Clifford C. Russell, Sr. will do, he has allowed his offspring to play around with explosives. Presumably outside the city limits and not in a frame building.

But for the kinds of explosives Dr. Cargraves has in mind they have to go outside the city limits, all the way to New Mexico in fact. On an abandoned U.S. munitions testing site off of Route 66, now a UN testing site (devoid of pads for black helicopters) where in 1951 (the first definite date, p. 46) the UN tested its Doomsday Bomb. Now Teller was proposing a fusion weapon even then, but Heinlein may not have been meaning this in particular. (If the bomb was detonated "five miles up" [p. 47] but left a crater that stretched "for miles towards the horizon" [p. 46] it must have been an odd one indeed.)

Preparing that work of forty requires a worksite, also tools. Had Heinlein written this later, after the housebuilding reflected in The Door Into Summer (1957) he might not have been so sanguine about the fact that Art and Ross pour the foundation for the machine shop building in one day and have the building up soon thereafter.

And why are they alone doing it, anyhow? Cargraves has a aircraft pilot's license; so does Morrie. Licensed aircraft pilots can get a rocket pilot's license with a short training session, so that is what they are doing. All things considered, therefore, it really shouldn't be so surprising that the new rocket pilots decided to save further money by flying their rocket out themselves. (At the time of writing, and given the circumstances the time of the book's action, the telegram notifying the advance echelon of the success of the main unit was the customary means of so doing.)

Now with their means, it is time to organize their ways. Unlike the contentious and anarchical foursome of The Number of the Beast (1980), the young atomic engineers are willing to accept dictation. These are, all the same, aspects of a common attitude towards authority. Throughout Heinlein's works, he depicts a basic principle of authority and leadership; followers may not be constrained to follow or restrained from departing the association but having consented to follow, they must follow straightforwardly and obey diligently. This attitude is the basis of such attitudes as Baslim's in Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), where he would never confine anyone, but demands that Thorby do as told without explanation, all the way to the society of Starship Troopers (1959). As Cargraves puts it, "There comes a time when loose and easy isn't enough, when you have to be willing to obey, and do it wholeheartedly and without argument." [p. 53]

Art, Morrie, and Ross are older than Thorby was when he was bought and more focused than Juan Rico was when he enlisted, not to mention more sensible than Zeb, Jake, Deety, and Hilda. Therefore they accept Cargraves's assignments, suited to their knowledge and skills: Morrie, being the other trained pilot, will be second in command, while Art, the tinkerer, is medical officer. (Poor Ross.)

But the ship alone is not by any long shot the entirety of their required equipment. They also need space suits in which to take one small step for a man, and said units arrive soon. In some ways the description of the suits will seem familiar to the contemporary reader, across the gulf of fifty years, but in others the technique seems positively eccentric. For example, while the considerations of the need to protect against heat loss by conduction are in order, the concerns about insulation of the suit in general have proven unfounded. The proper astronaut's problem has been keeping cool, not warm. The informed modern-day reader will assume that the de-Camp joints that ensure mobility under pressure [p. 55] had been invented by an engineer at the Naval Aviation Experimental Station in Philadelphia (see Time and Chance [p. 193] by L. Sprague de Camp (1996) for the story of the actual invention as told by the inventor, a colleague of the author) though the contemporary reader might not have been so fortunate. While Kip Russell might find some of the features inadquate for them to Have Space Suit Will Travel (1958) on the whole the presentation shows the plausibility and extrapolation required to satisfy the reader.

Somewhat more hazardous to one's health is the item to be delivered, the thorium for the power plant. Before it can be handed over, the crew has to prepare to store it, and prepare the ship to use it. While some of the specifics of his shielding are overdesigned alpha and beta particles do not require any elaborate shielding to be warded the composite design for the radiation shield is, as far as it is elaborated, in keeping with the level of knowledge at the time within standards. Thorium is element 90. Its most common isotope disintegrates to become radon, which is hardly a concern in space but on the ground is an additional problem of storage. (And one unmentioned by Heinlein.) By way of contrast, thorium is ductile, lacking those multiple crystalline phases of plutonium that make such an effective barrier to nuclear terrorism; thus making the task of fabricating fuel elements easier, possible by four doing the work of forty.

Accordingly, Cargraves institutes stringent radiological safety measures, requiring exposure films (such as would inform (or perhaps even be informing, in their future) Patrol Lieutenant John Ezra Dahlquist that his shift on "The Long Watch" (American Legion Magazine, December 1949) was sort of permanently up) and blood tests. The man who died testing critical mass at Los Alamos was an extreme example of why such safety measures are desirable.

A further consideration, the high cost, is not so much addressed as finessed. Cargraves proudly says:

". . . Under the UN trusteeship for atomics, a senior member of the Global Association of Atomic Scientists that's me!" he stuck in, grinning, "can get fissionable material for experimental purposes, if the directors of the Association approve. I can swing that. . ."

Rocket Ship Galileo, p. 32

Notice again the internationalization and the lack of concern about misuse. There seems to be no fear of a senior member of the GAAS deciding that Dr. Fu Manchu was a pretty good post-faculty advisor after all, say. Not to mention any orders from higher up.

Conducting long-range planning, the young atomic engineers' shopping includes buying plants for oxygen conversion. This was the standard thesis of SF extrapolation but it seems to be too bulky for the oxygenization return. Whether it would have worked on the doomed Biosphere Two, which had hoped to set up such a system, cannot be told. The managers of that experiment had to pipe in substantial additional quantities of oxygen when the levels dropped to the lower limits of breathability, but they theorized that the concrete of the structure may have absorbed much of it.

Back at camp, a CAB inspector has come and gone, and it turns out that Cargraves has a lot more to be worried about than D. D. Harriman in "Requiem" (Astounding, January 1940) did about inspectors. Next morning, as they begin the final preparations:

Cargraves looked up just in time to see a bright, bright flash, then to be hit in the face by a thunderous pressure which threw him back against the side of the ship.

Rocket Ship Galileo, p. 65


Back at the beginning there had been hints that not all was well with the program. In their postmortem on the Starstruck V the boys, helped by their victim, had gathered up all the parts. However, not only couldn't they find the part that had knocked out Cargraves, they couldn't find any evidence that there had been such a part [pp. 20-1].

Then, when Ross and Art arrive to set up the buildings, they find that their key to the lock on the gate to the reservation doesn't work. Someone had broken in, and the rangers had had to install a new lock. Since the intruder had stepped on a mine, he was unavailable to answer any questions, and their gear seemed all right [pp. 44-5].

Now it appears that that CAB "inspector" was enforcing an injunction against flying to the moon by more than just legal means.

Cargraves quit North American Atomics, his former employers, because they were not interested in using his proposed power source for space flight. Recalling the legal constraints that Douglas and Martin had had to consider in "Let There Be Light" (by "Lyle Monroe", Super Science Stories, May 1940; revised for publication in The Man Who Sold the Moon, 1950) one might wonder if the company thinks that it still owns the rights, Cargraves's statement to the contrary [p. 31] notwithstanding, and wants to undertake covert enforcement thereof. One of the few worthwhile parts of H. Bruce Franklin's Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction is its discussion of Heinlein's early years, including an emotionally scarring encounter with corporate power and incompetence. Is North American Atomics as self-preserving as the insurance industry in "Life-Line" (Astounding, August 1939) is?

The immediate concern is with their health. Ross had been so unfortunate as to be looking at the explosion; he has been blinded, temporarily they hope. In a despairing rerun Cargraves has been knocked unconscious.

The shippers would pick this time to deliver the thorium. In a spark of realization Cargraves orders them to send it back; Mr. Jenkins was right and he was in over his head. Then he collapses.

When he recovers, he finds that his orders have been obeyed. Not the ones he just gave, but the earlier ones when he made Morrie his number two and gave Art the power to put someone on the sick list. This added up to his order to return the thorium being ruled out of order; after his collapse Art had put him on the sick list, in which state of course he couldn't validly give an order. Cargraves plumbs the depths of despair that night.

In the morning, morning-afters create a more positive mental status. The display of dedication by the boys has restored Cargraves's optimism, and he decides that they should go on. These heightened feelings aren't blunted even by his discovery of plastic explosive charges on the ship's radiation shielding.

In this more advanced spirit the work continues, as Ross's vision gradually returns. Cargraves's rocket motor uses nothing so mundane as hydrogen as its propellant thrust component; taking advantage of the increased specific impulse to be derived from flinging more massive atoms out of the exhaust, his motor uses zinc. (Delivery problems in the pre-thrust might make this propellant the fuel is the thorium more difficult to use than it is presented as being.)

Now that they are down to final testing, a crucial item needs to be considered; what to call the ship? After considering several proposed names, and with less contentiousness than the Stone Family of The Rolling Stones (1952), they decide on a name reflecting their organization and related to their destination: Galileo.

Whereupon the last of the building crises eventuates. Test equipment of the required scale isn't readily available. Coming down to the wire, Cargraves decides on what other-world rocket scientists at Huntsville would call an "all-up" test, where he would simply fly the rocket, testing the motor and the other systems all at once. The boys try to dissuade him from doing this himself, he being less replaceable than they are, but he perseveres and his testing is successful. If it hadn't been, there wouldn't have been a flight in the first place.

And so, riding forward into the unknown, ímás alla!, the valiant crew of the Galileo decides that the sooner the better to break the surly bonds of Earth and take one small step for a man.

There isn't time to sign a contract with Life magazine but the press can be notified. The takeoff will be televised, which is less surprising than it would have been then. With no time to waste, the young atomic engineers spend all night making final preparations. What we now call the media begins arriving at T-2 hours and as usual every reporter thinks he is the one exception to the restrictions on coverage.

They must be hyper from the thought of actually going, as they keep on going, getting into the ship. Then there is an unusual sort of hold at T-10 minutes: Cargraves gets served with a court order, forbidding him from lifting off. Something about endangering the lives of minors (recall that 21, not 18, was the transition point in those days). This seems rather suspicious given the circumstances and Cargraves has to have federal sovereignty trample states' rights (the order is from a state court) to ensure his liftoff. Fortunately the federal authorities are cooperative and the state suthorities consenting. Something is up, though. [Polar expeditions in the "heroic age" sometimes had to set off quickly to escape process servers, a state of affairs reflected in James Blish's Frozen Year (1957).]

With this last-minute obstacle out of the way, with an efficiency that D. D. Harriman (cf. "Requiem") or Dr. Corley of "Destination Moon" (Short Stories Magazine, September, 1950) might have envied, having faced similar problems themselves (real-world courts have proven less amenable to such antics, as shown by the failure of the attempt to halt the Cassini probe launch) the Rocket Ship Galileo lifts off.


The next few minutes depict the equivalence of gravitational mass and inertial mass, as the young atomic engineers are under the equivalent of various gravitations due to the shifting thrust of their rocket jet in its acceleration to escape velocity. This is a direct ascent mission mode, very direct, as they don't even go into orbit. "Waiting twelve hours to save a difference of 1600 miles per hour was more than his nerves could stand," [p. 85] reasons the frazzled Cargraves, and given the legal antics perhaps not unjustified.

The scientific facts hold true but the technological ones were even then, while as the man said, perhaps not what might have been done. Once the initial acceleration to escape velocity is over, the pilots hand over to the automatic control system an electromechanical guidance system working off a cam. All right, it can be called an "analog guidance data kernel" but it's still a lump of machined metal.

Once the initial thrust phase is over the young atomic engineers start (without credit) discussing some concepts from The Exploration of Space by some Treasury clerk over in Britain named Clarke, about different frames of reference, the dynamics of acceleration, and so on. Not to mention, in effect, the infamous editorial from the New York Times which showed how they lacked the knowledge handed out in high schools about Newton's Laws.

For a change the mission proceeds smoothly, with no exploding oxygen tanks, lightning strikes, or whatever. Indeed, Cargraves tells Art, "Then you can get some really unique pics the earth from space." [p. 101] Presumably they will not also read from Genesis.

This speculation is followed by a typical Heinleinian digression of and on radical empiricism. Art provokes this philosophical digression by expressing his hopes to get pictures of the far side of the moon. To which Cargraves says "How do you know there is any back side to the moon? You've never seen it." [p. 102] He proceeds to go on in that vein, justifying his qualifications to be a Fair Witness from Stranger In a Strange Land (1961, 1990), if not a co-worker of the world-building stage crew in "They" (Unknown, April 1941). The capper is with one of the first of Heinlein's criticisms of "logic", a theme that would crop up from time to time all the way to at least Glory Road (1964). It ends with Cargraves summing up empirically: "Proof comes from experiment, or to put it another way from experience, and from nothing else." [p. 105]

This epistemological interlude is followed by a short lecture on experimentation in nuclear physics, and then by a practicum in inner-ear medicine. The second thrust phase is about over, and the Galileo is about to go into free fall. Heinlein's predictions of the details of the next step beyond airsickness haven't yet been given their just due. Doubtless the boys wished they could get dropsickness shots the way that Bill Lermer did in Farmer In the Sky (1950).

Other matters that have been empirically verified since then, demonstrated in the next few pages include the problem of solar heating and the view of the Earth from space. However, the radios here don't quite seem up to the task. As Space Cadet (1948) Matt Dodson lacked a Deep Space Network to keep in touch with Des Moines, so do the young atomic engineers remain out of contact with home.

The mission continues nominally and they achieve Lunar orbit. In contradiction to Cargraves's derogation of analytic methodology, there is an Other Side to the moon. And in an echo of "Blowups Happen" (Astounding, September 1940), Morrie, observing the cratering, wonders if the Selenites blew up their planet with nuclear weapons. This is a topic that has been concerning Cargraves himself for the past few years (not, it is to be hoped, enough for him to be having long talks about sharing technology with Dr. Fuchs from England, that kid Hall, and Greenglass the tech).

The landing contains one incredible coincidence; their original chosen landing site turns out to be too rough, and only a last-minute intervention by human pilotage places the Galileo at Procellarum Base well, Heinlein wasn't that much of a prophet. Like the explorers in "Destination Moon" they have landed just beyond line-of-sight of Earth. With communications that chancy, evidently the possibility of seeing something new overrode any perceived need for communication. By way of contrast, in James A. Michener's Space (1982), his fictional Apollo 18 mission to the far side deployed communication satellites so Mission Control and the TV audience could hear the two lunar landing astronauts, LM pilot Paul Linley and mission commander and SF reader (maybe even Rocket Ship Galileo) Randy Claggett, dying of their massive radiation overdose from the solar flare (an event not in the mission plan).

And having arrived, they can't wait to get out. Going on with coincidences, Heinlein uses the interesting turn of phrase "blistering desert desolation" [p. 127] to describe the lunar surface. Coincidentally, the man who would later describe the lunar surface as a "Magificent desolation," and still later write, or co-write anyhow, Encounter with Tiber (1996), was just eighteen when the book came out, annoyed because he had had to stay at West Point over Christmas (Return to Earth, Buzz Aldrin with Wayne Warga, 1973, p. 110).

The second person on the moon, Art, says "Swell!" as his first words on the surface [p. 129]. Well, Cargraves's "Okay, kid," [loc. cit.] is no great statement for history. And in fact in the excitement Art forgot his camera. Neither are they taking samples in case of an early departure.

Morrie and Ross are all too eager to join their fellow explorers, and after a few more minutes Cargraves grants permission. Morrie again opines that this magnificent desolation is intentional, not natural, and in their exploration of the area thinks he has found a proof.

At least he thinks he has thought so. While the explorers trek towards Earthlight (no lunar rovers or even equipment carriers, much less golf clubs, for the young atomic engineers) Morrie becomes briefly separated from the others. Only to reappear talking maniacally. This situation necessitates an abort, and with great concern for brain damage they rush him back to the ship for resuscitation.

Maybe he had been. He seems normal after recovery, but his tale of his descent into anoxia begins with the finding of a piece of machined metal. Proof of his theory of an inhabited moon? Unfortunately, he lost it, and a search of the area fails to turn up anything. This turns out to be an ambiguous hint, though not a misleading one.

The low gravity turns out to have certain advantages for walking nevertheless. As Kip Russell would note in Have Space Suit Will Travel, where fast travel became necessary.


The response to Morrie's brush with brain damage is a harbinger of the elaborate monitoring circuts that would on other Moons indicate that Peewee Reisfeld was getting dangerously close to the edge (Have Space Suit Will Travel). The elaborate discussion there of the relevant technology was foreshadowed, though Oscar the suit might be feeling superior.

They seem better off for consumables, being able to plan and work for a long-term stay. Indeed, seleneology seems only an incidental consideration; the boys would have been far more likely to see how far they could throw Jim Irwin's Genesis Rock in the lower gravity that to take it home for analysis.

As for lunar conditions itself the book has turned out to be considerably close to what was actually to be encountered. The lunar surface seems to be more like that which would be observed later, with lunar dust and rocks, not like the dried-out cracked lakebed of "Destination Moon". The volcanic versus meteroric theories of the origin of craters were still a matter of contention. Even more exotic theories had flourished in the absence of data, with concerns about lunar dust thick enough to engulf a lander. These were not dispelled until the Surveyor lunar probe landing missions of 1966-7. The rough terrain described was not encountered but then the Apollo missions were planned with consideration to landing in flatter terrain; abort concerns and limited fuel were substantial considerations.

But then this is an expedition that has come to if not stay, at least set up the conditions for staying. Building the shelter is the first stage, Cargraves thinks, in building Luna City, which he imagines will be very soon, maybe even next year. They had planned for this, bringing a prefabricated shelter, which they set up, cover, and seal.

Finally, they raise the flags of the United Nations and the United States, a conjunction which would not seem to satisfy anyone. This claim (in the name of the UN, a prelude to Clarke's declaration in Prelude to Space (1951) that "Interplanetary" a very transparent disguise for the British Interplanetary Society would take no frontiers into space) stirs Cargraves's emotions:

He found that tears were trickling down his cheeks; he tried futilely to wipe them away through his helmet. He caught Ross's eye and was embarassed. "Well, sports," he said with forced heartiness, "let's get to work. Funny," he added, looking at Ross, "what effect a few little symbols can have on a man."

Ross looked from Cargraves to the bits of gay bunting. "I don't know," he said slowly. "A man isn't a collection of chemical reactions; he is a collection of ideas."

Cargraves stared. His "boys" were growing up!

Rocket Ship Galileo, p. 138

A further excursion into the domain of philosophical commentary than for most novels allegedly for adults, let alone for children. Here again we have an example of the dichotomy between Heinlein's stated beliefs and his practices. The same Heinlein who wondered about metaphysics and epistomology is the one who in Expanded Universe declared philosophy to be of no more than entertainment value [op. cit., p. 531]. This attitude is in parallel with his psychological insights, the ones that led James Blish to declare Heinlein a Freudian, the theoretician that Heinlein was to confidently assert would soon be declared obsolete [op. cit. pp. 331-2].

As for the UN flag remember that this is the victorious alliance that put paid to the dreams of Nazi world domination, not the sinister conspirators plotting to send Chinese troops in black helicopters to seize Mr. Howell's farm in order to further the evil New World Order's schemes to establish the One World Socialist State. Things looked different then.

Now that they have a base they can start exploring on foot, not point-to-point. Repeated takeoffs and landings increase the possibility of a crash. The site of their semi-permanent habitation has also been selected with consideration for communications; there is a location nearby with line-of-sight to Earth, and Art proceeds to start setting up his radio equipment so they can at least pick up signals from home. (With the giant vacuum tubes made possible by the local environment the reliability problems of such tubes don't seem to have been a consideration.)

Setting up the radio, however, leads to a discovery of its own: someone else is on the metaphorical air nearby. Could it be aliens? The broadcast removes that concern but brings in another: "'This is Lunar Expedition Number One,' the voice said. 'Will you be pleased to wait one minute while I summon our leader?'" [p. 142] The shock of having been beaten possibly rather confuses and demoralizes them, and the curtness and uncommunicativeness of the leader of "Lunar Expedition Number One" when finally summoned is no help.

The leader, Captain James Brown, speaks with an Oxonian accent, which hints at validating the author's warning "Keep your eyes on the British the British Interplanetary Society is determined to get there first." [Grumbles from the Grave, letter of March 13, 1947, p. 148] The coincidence of two expeditions landing in the same vicinity, setting out entirely unknown to each other, sounds more like a pulp trick than a serious attempt at extrapolation. Not that such hasn't been a mainstay of fiction up to Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996).

The downheartened young atomic engineers go out to be good sports and congratulate their outdoers, who are themselves coming by rocket, as they soon see. However, the greeting that they get is not exactly a hospitable one:

But the rocket did not come in for a landing. It nosed down, forward jets driving hard against the fall, directly toward the Galileo. At an altitude of not more than five hundred feet the pilot kicked her around, belly first, and drove away on his tail jet.

Where the Galileo lay, there was a flash, an utterly silent explosion, and a cloud of dust which cleared rapidly away in the vacuum. The sound reached them through their feet, after a long time it seemed to them.

The Galileo lay on her side, a great gaping hole in her plates. The wound stretched from shattered view port to midships.

Cargraves stood perfectly still, staring at the unbelievable. Ross found his voice first. "They gave us no chance," he said, shaking his fists at the sky. "No chance at all!"

Rocket Ship Galileo, p. 143


Lunar conflict has sometimes been farcial, as with the Soviet and American race that ended up with both of them bartering for visas to enter the Duchy of Grand Fenwick's newly-annexed territory in Leonard Wibberley's The Mouse on the Moon (1962) and sometimes it has been bloody, as in the complex structure of conflict in Martin Caidin's No Man's World (1967). Those were not as surprising, though, as this has been.

After all the sabotage going on during the construction phase, Cargraves had undertaken some minor security precautions of his own, buying two M-1 Garand semiautomatic rifles. What seemed less comprehensible at the time was actually taking them on the expedition. (The concern for loading reflected in Cargraves's noting that "they had ripped the bindings from their few books to save space and weight" [p. 84] seems perhaps a trifle inconsistent with the substantial excess margin of thrust he had just reported.)

They face a brief and unpleasant life before their oxygen runs out unless their foes turn out to be helpful. Well, they will be, if not intentionally. Cargraves is of the opinion that the bombers will return to the scene of the strike for on-site target assessment, and he turns out to be right.

The other ship lands and disembarks a reconnaissance party, which begins its post-strike damage assessment. They move "using a long, loping gallop that the Galileo's crew had learned was the proper way to walk on the moon." [p. 147] Another prediction fulfilled.

While the hostile damage assessment team is making its survey, Cargraves moves. The pilot of the other ship evidently hadn't been checking his associates, or he would have seen the man running for his ship, or heard the lock operating. Surprise turns out to be as potent a weapon for the young atomic engineers as against them, as Cargraves overcomes the pilot without much difficulty.

Meanwhile, Morrie and Art have laid a counter-ambush of their own, with fatal results for the three men of the damage assessment team. At least one of them shot back, though why he started sniping at the ship instead of trying to get back in it is a mystery.

So now they have a replacement ship. Or do they?

"This is no space ship," Art said bitterly. "This thing is a jeep. Look at that." He indicated two gauges. One was marked SAUERSTOFF, the other ALKOHOL. "Oxygen and alcohol. This thing is just a kiddy wagon."

Rocket Ship Galileo, pp. 150-1

And not surprisingly the pilot is also a German: "Friedrich Lenz, sergeant technician of the first class" [p, 151], he says. Feldwebel-feuerwerker Erste Klasse in other words. Feldwebel Lenz is quite willing to explain that the bombing of the Galileo was an act of war, since "there will always be war until the National Socialist Reich is victorious." [p. 152] Only now, as the youngest likely original Nazi has passed the Bismarck-established retirement age of 65, is this now commonplace plot element of thrillers falling out of favor. (To be replaced by secret Communists.)

We must remember that at that time there was a broad and deeply-based concern about remnant Nazis Eisenhower's armies in Europe had made a strategic diversion into Austria and Southern Bavaria because of a propaganda ploy by the German Propagandaministerium describing the "Alpenfestung", where the National Socialist elite would hide in sanctuary, waiting for their moment to return, as if sun-crossed Friedrich Barbarossas. Somehow, given the methodology of the legend, the Moon seems to be the perfect place for the Werewolf [the Nazi guerilla movement that was almost entirely rhetoric]. (The greatest effort put forth by the secret Nazis was staying alive and hidden; the petty life of Adolf Eichmann alias Ricardo Klement in Argentina and the pillar-to-post existence of Herr Dr. Dr. Josef Mengele, (ex-)M.D., (ex-)Ph.D., remittance man, are indications that the thriller fantasies of powerful covert Nazi strongmen were just that, fantasies.)

Since we are talking about the late fifties this is a real threat, and small wonder that, perhaps with memories of a numbered landsman or more at Temple, "Morrie used some words that Cargraves had never heard him use before." [p. 152] ("Leck mir in tochus!" ["Kiss my ass!"], "Gay in drerd!" ["Go to Hell!" (literally, "Go in earth!")], "Chazzer!" ["Swine!"], "Schmuck!" ["Prick!"], for example?)

This underground network has more ambitious plans, too. Instead of holing up in the Alps waiting for new employment, "some of the top military, scientific, and technical brains from Hitler's crumbled empire" [p. 153] had fled to other mountains and built their own rocket ship, followed by establishing a lunar base from which to use the Hochgrund to reverse the outcome of the war with Kernwaffen. (Evidently the thought of merely launching rocks and letting gravity do the rest, à la The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1965, 1966) never quite occured to them.)

The fact that they have nuclear weapons would tend to imply that there was a covert agent in the Global Association of Atomic Scientists, or more likely a corruptible member, willing to front for an A-bomb plant and a Moon ship. Though Heinlein almost certainly didn't have the man in mind, there was a high-ranking officer who had attempted to take control of the Peenemünde project named Hans Kammler, who had disappeared in May 1945. In fact, Kammler's organization has all the trappings of such a secret outfit . . .

One good turn deserves another and Morrie gets the honor of piloting the rocket for a reprisal bombing mission. It was a strange coincidence that the Galileo had landed a mere twenty-one kilometers (translated into "thirteen miles" [p. 152] for the reading audience) from the Lunar Reich, but it makes the plot work faster. The bombing goes off without a hitch.

Cargraves and Ross investigate the target. Their spaceship is undamaged, and since they will be needing some transport home a good thing. Not surprisingly, the ship turns out to be a conversion job; apparently the Nazis have some mercantile connections (cf. the grotesque chain of circumstances that had a Sargonese slaver transporting the small boy who had become heir to the corporation owning the ship in Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)). They set a half-hour deadline for investigating the base, as there may have been a watch in suits ready to strike back or, more plausibly, in case of a meteor strike (as the crew of the ship Pathfinder in Space Cadet (1948) had been so careless as to forget).

Morrie had had good mazel indeed, as it was local night at the base and all the crew had died in their beds. The tunnels of the base were built of masonry, made airtight with a sealant. This seems a trifle much but the reason turns out to be more exotic. One of the walls is a metal panel, which has buckled under the pressure drop, revealing a further tunnel that was unsealed. More effort? No, says Cargraves after study. "Ross, you haven't discovered a Nazi storehouse. You have discovered the homes of the people of the moon." [p. 161]

This is "the small seasoning of mysticism" noted by Alexei Panshin [Heinlein In Dimension, p. 52] and Damon Knight [In Search of Wonder, p. 33]. Panshin and Knight tie this feature to Heinlein's mystic self, the part of him that produced the speculation that his hard-boiled engineer self made so soundly based. They both add that this is a small part of the plot. One could wish for more on this part. Perhaps The Young Atomic Engineers on Mars, or: The Secret of the Moon Corridors, the first planned sequel, would have done so.

Tearing themselves away from the secret of the Moon corridors, Ross and Cargraves continue their search. There was one man who had been suiting up when the bomb went off. He may be of some use, and so Cargraves takes him to the Nazis' ship while Ross goes back to tell the others.

Their new prisoner turns out to be somewhat higher up in the ranks: "I am Helmut von Hartwick, Lieutenant Colonel, Elite Guard," [p. 164] he identifies himself. Sic.! The "Elite Guard" is better known by its real name, and Hartwick should be saying, "I am Helmut von Hartwick, SS-Obersturmbannführer and Lieutenant-Colonel of the Waffen-SS." (Which makes Lenz "SS-Scharführer und Feldwebel der Waffen-SS".) Small wonder Morrie was so upset.

It is unlikely that Heinlein knew about SS-Brigadeführer Hans Kammler, Himmler's front man for the SS takeover of the rocket project. (For example, Himmler had given Wernher von Braun the rank of SS-Sturmbannführer (="Major"). Incidentally, Braun was descended from James I King of Scots; "James Brown" indeed!) In many ways, the SS is the perfect model for Heinlein's secret organization of "top military, scientific, and technical brains from Hitler's crumbled empire"; thrillers and popular papers thrilled to the schemes of ODESSA, the secret SS conspiracy. In reality, the military types were in prison, the scientific ones in the U.S., and the technical ones if anywhere in particular in the U.S.S.R.

And Hartwick acts like one whose honor is loyalty, killing the pilot lest he talk, straight out of the SS field court martial squads which hung or shot hundreds of German soldiers in the last days of the war. Which he considers to still be going on, so any defense measure is appropriate. Indeed, the conspiracy was behind the attacks, legal and physical, on Cargraves and the young atomic engineers. (They were following him from the day he quit North American Atomics? That implies a depth and breadth of infiltration quite inconsistent with, for example, the buffoonish record of the SD in espionage.)

This still doesn't get them a working ship. They search the base, finding some interesting facts. The moon corridors of the Selenite city contain vast if ineffable wonders, enthused over if not described in detail by their explorers Art and Morrie. (This may have been so scanted in the expectation of describing details in The Young Atomic Engineers on Mars, or: Secret of the Moon Corridors the intended sequel.) Searching in the base itself reveals not only that Hartwick is second in command (and likely a pilot, his denials to the contrary) but hints as to why he is so unconcerned. There is less than a week's worth of supplies and their other spaceship is coming within a week. (No reserves; bad planning, that.)

This entails some quick and effective action. Since Hartwick insists that the war still isn't over, Cargraves decides to give him some of his own medicine, namely field tribunal death sentences. In that inimitable spatial fashion of throwing him out of the airlock. After a long spiel about legal standards, and for a change a borrowing of a cliché usually the property of villains, namely explaining his plans (to blow up both ships and wait things out), he orders Ross to throw him out the airlock. (Morrie and Art might enjoy it too much.) Then he changes his mind and does itself, in true Heinleinian leadership style, to find that Hartwick is not as enamored of the cold equations as he might be when he's the victim.

The ship has a secret control interlock. This indicates a certain suspicion about operation that seems at odds with the idea of the organization. Did they think that there was going to be a mutiny? They surely couldn't have been planning for a capture.

The renamed City of Detroit renamed after where it was built; like Cargraves the Nazis had merely adapted an existing design takes off with its explorers and prisoner for a quick return to Earth. (Their design seems even more efficient than his; Cargraves may be embarassed.) In a flurry of off-scene efficiency the Nazi secret base is captured within hours (somebody is dreaming about a rapid-reaction force here) and the City of Detroit, apparently fuel-short, takes four orbits to decelerate to Earth-landing velocity. In a final prediction of media mania: "On the next lap two chains bed competitively for an exclusive broadcast from space. On the third there was dickering for television rights at the field." [p. 186]

And in a climatic finale the heroic young atomic engineers land near Washington. Cargraves gets up to open the lock:

As he swung it open, a solid wall of sound beat him in the face, an endless mass of eager eyes looked up at him. Flash guns flickered like heat lightning. He turned back to Ross. "Oh, my gosh!" he said. "This is awful! Say don't you guys want to take the bows?"

Rocket Ship Galileo, p. 187


This is not one of the more highly regarded of Heinlein's books. Knight considers it "a sort of trial run" [In Search of Wonder, p. 82]. Panshin opines that "Either Heinlein underestimated his audience or was misled by someone who thought he knew what juvenile books should be like." [Heinlein In Dimension, p. 46] Given the record of submissions indicated in Grumbles from the Grave [letter of March 16, 1946, pp. 41-3] the latter seems highly improbable.

And indeed, it is hard to think highly of a book where a scientist and three boys build a spaceship and go to the Moon to fight Nazis (as my long-time friend Grant McCormick puts it). The Nazis admittedly provided some conflict and plot motivation. And this "trial run" has some other parts that are quite above that.