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What if Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had returned to Virginia to describe the fabulous landscapes, exotic cultures, and abundant resources of the Louisiana Territory, only to have Congress cut off funding for future exploration west of the Mississippi, calling the enterprise a wasteful distraction?

The question is hypothetical, but Homer Hickam, Jr., feels that the U.S. government made that grave a mistake when it killed the Apollo program, confining all subsequent manned spaceflight to low-earth orbit. In his memoir Rocket Boys, Hickam recalled how his prize-winning high school rocketry project in 1957, the year of Sputnik, lifted him out of his native West Virginia coal-mining village into the ranks of NASA engineers. (The memoir was recently made into the successful film October Sky.) Considering how the space program transformed their lives, it’s not surprising that Hickam and others of his generation at NASA feel betrayed by Apollo’s cancellation.

To ease his frustration, Hickam has turned to fiction. Back to the Moon is a techno-thriller about Jack Medaris, a brilliant rocket scientist and obsessed widower who hijacks the space shuttle Columbia and flies it to the moon. Ostensibly he’s searching for helium-3, a rare form of the element that could make nuclear fusion practical. Privately, he hopes to reconnect with his dead wife-exactly how, I won’t give away. Hickam provides plenty of sex, violence, conspiracy and suspense to keep the story moving, but his real emphasis is on the technology.

He describes Medaris’ daring plan for taking Columbia to the Moon in loving detail. It involves hiding an advanced rocket engine in the base of the shuttle’s external tank, switching it on in orbit with the shuttle’s main engine, blasting to the Moon, and landing beachball-style (as the Pathfinder mission did on Mars in 1997). The novel amounts to a proposal for a low-cost way to return to the Moon, using technology already within our grasp.

In an author’s note, Hickam admits that he is mainly trying to show “what could be done with a little money and a lot of engineering guts.”He complains that he and his contemporaries at NASA signed on to explore the Moon and planets but that the post-Apollo agency seems content to “carve endless loops around the earth in the space shuttle.” Going back to the Moon today would be difficult, expensive and risky, Hickam admits, but he believes that the danger of not going-“a limited, painful future that won’t allow spaceflight at all”-is even greater.

Like all good science fiction, Back to the Moon illuminates a question in the present through the lens of an imaginary future. Hickam asks whether we are adventurous enough to return where we once went “in peace, for all mankind.” Meriwether Lewis would probably hope so.

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