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The Incurable Irony of The Man Who Rode The Rocket Sled by Ian Sales

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The Gee Whiz runs on rails but it is not a train. It doesn’t go anywhere: it just goes from standing still to around 200 miles per hour, and then stops. Very quickly. That’s all it does, on a track two thousand feet long. It’s a standard gauge railroad track, set in concrete, which runs through the desert just north of Muroc Air Force Base. The track was built in 1944 to test launch German V-1 rockets, but it’s not used for that now. Now, it sends men on short journeys at high speed.

Some journeys cover more than just distance and carry more than simply passengers. Though they are undertaken by people, they are journeys of change and, with each foot they travel from their origin, the world becomes a place new and strange and different. Not all such journeys are in the interest of peace or society, not every vehicle was built for science or commerce. These 2,000-foot-long journeys for Project MX981 are military; it is a military project. With a military objective.

The sergeant stands beside the Gee Whiz, an open framework fifteen feet long and six and a half feet wide. Behind a wooden windshield is fitted a sturdy seat. At the rear of the Gee Whiz, a rack holds up to four Aerojet rocket bottles, each one capable of generating 5,000 pounds of thrust. It is another hot day, the sun beating down on the railroad tracks and their concrete bed. The sergeant takes his cigarette from his mouth, drops it and grinds it into the sand with the tip of one boot. He knows Major John P. Stapp has already completed two dozen runs on this thing, and the way the major jokes about it no harm was plainly done. But this sled is going to blast the sergeant to 200 mph and then brake to a halt in under a second.

He’s starting to wonder why he volunteered for this project.

It’s not like he’s a stranger to risk. Six years ago, he was in Europe, flying over Germany as the tail-gunner in a B-17. He completed his twenty-five missions, came back home to his wife, and now the war’s been over for four years and he’s an air force technician at Muroc AFB. All the same, he’s thinking this thing is insane and he doesn’t care what the major says…

Except it’s hard not to admire the “Careful Daredevil”.

Stapp, with his jokes and his “rules”, a strange man but well-liked—and not just because he provides free medical care to those on the base who can’t afford it. He would never allow anyone to ride this rocket sled if he had not ridden it himself. And here he is now, striding toward the track, big smile on his face, sunlight turning the lenses of his spectacles into rounded squares of brightness. He swings out an arm in an expansive gesture, as if the hot shimmering desert surrounding them were some paradisiacal land and everyone present blessed to be here, and quotes his “Sunshine Law”.

The major’s cheer is infectious, but as soon as the sergeant steps up onto the sled his wariness returns. He settles in the aluminium seat. It is warm from the sun. Technicians strap him in securely, and help him fit his leather crash helmet. They connect up strain gauges across his chest. With a last thumbs up, the technicians retreat. The sergeant watches them go, smiles weakly in response as Stapp gives him a cheery salute, and then looks forward. There’s nothing to see, just the inch-thick wooden windshield.

He hears the rocket bottles light behind him, a roar like nothing he’s heard before. It doesn’t even sound like it’s man-made. As the Gee Whiz hurtles forward, he’s pressed back into his seat and the strain forces a grunt from him. To either side, the landscape rushes past, the scrub a green blur, the desert smeared into a single strip of tan. He feels real fear, and he knows the worst is yet to come—

Here it is. The brakes engage. He’s thrown forward against his straps. Red churns across the desert, a tsunami of blood. His vision closes in and…

That evening, he drives to Lancaster, fingers tapping on the steering wheel of his Mercury Eight, as the sun paints lavender and rose across the silent desert, and he’s alone on the blacktop but he feels secure. The throb of the flathead V8 and the sigh of the wind sing of the world as-is and the world to-be. He barrels down Sierra Highway, through the centre of Lancaster, turns off toward his subdivision, and minutes later pulls into the driveway of his home. He sits there a moment, engine ticking as it cools, and he stares hard without seeing. Moments later, he jumps out of the car, runs lightly to the open front door, and enters the house. Donna is in the kitchen, bent over before the oven as she lifts out a baking tray. A pair of lidded saucepans sit on unlit burners. He can smell meatloaf, the air is thick with the odour of it.

And music: Peggy Lee is singing on the radio, something about mañana, mañana, mañana is soon enough for me.

He strides forward, puts his hands to his wife’s hips, leans forward and kisses her on the crown of her blond head. She tuts affectionately as she slides the tray onto the counter. Stepping back, he pulls his cap from his head, then retreats to the hall to remove his jacket. He transfers his smokes from his jacket to a pants pocket, and hums along to Peggy Lee.

Donna has moved the meatloaf into the dining-room. It sits in the middle of the table on a serving platter. As he takes his place at the table, she exits the kitchen with a bowl of vegetables in each hand. She puts them down, puts her hands in her underarms to pull off the oven mitts, then places them, and the apron she deftly removes, on the credenza behind her.

You should see what they’re doing at the base, he tells Donna as he cuts the meatloaf and transfers slices to his plate. It’s amazing, he says, We got this sled powered by rockets. I volunteered for the project and today I got to ride the sled. Two hundred miles per hour!

He spoons mash and peas onto his plate, and then drowns everything in gravy.

Two hundred miles per hour! he repeats; And then bang! A dead-stop in five feet. They said afterwards I hit about 18 G.

Is that dangerous? asks Donna.

He ignores her worried look, just as he did when he went off to Europe to fight the Nazis. It’s important stuff, he tells her; we’re making it safe for pilots to eject from jet fighters.

He stabs the air before him with his knife, and continues: it’s all about going higher and faster, that’s the kind of thing they’re doing at the base. Pretty soon, they’ll be going so high they’ll be in outer space. We’ll put a man up there in a few years, you bet. The Soviets will beat us to it, but that don’t matter[1].

Yes, dear, says Donna.

###

The Aerojet bottles light and the sled rolls forward, faster and faster and faster. The sergeant braces himself as acceleration presses him back into his seat. He stares ahead at the windshield, ignoring the landscape rushing past to either side. He’s going faster than 200 miles an hour now. He cannot move a muscle.

Then the brakes engage.

He goes from 220 miles per hour to a stop in less than thirty feet. He can feel his eyeballs pull forward, his face strain to rip free of his skull. He suffers a red out. Later, they tell him he hit 20 G while braking. The harness holds—unlike on one of the dummy runs, when the harness snapped and sent Oscar Eightball 700 feet across the desert. Stapp has survived higher G, of course. For all the man’s jokes and aphorisms, he won’t allow anyone to try something he’s not done himself. The sergeant admires the major: he’s tireless, indefatigable, boundlessly optimistic, and generous with his time, wisdom and medical skills. He’s also a hard taskmaster.

The sun is shining, says Major Stapp, that means there’s work to be done.

And so the sergeant was strapped onto the Gee Whiz, the rocket bottles lit, and he hurtled down the track at 220 mph. And came to a dead stop in fractions of a second.

He’s woozy when they help him down from the rocket sled. His vision is still a little blurry, and he feels a headache building. He follows the others back to the control bunker, and stands and watches as the team pass around graphs from the plotter, and he knows those few seconds of speed, those tenths of a second of deceleration, they’re drawn there on the paper and they make sense to the guys. He feels like a guinea pig, he is a guinea pig; he can’t contribute knowledgeably to this conversation. But he knows there is a purpose to all this, a good purpose, one that will make things better for the pilots in their jet fighters.

At the end of the day, he drives his Mercury Eight through the whispering desert, following the shimmering blacktop from the air field to Lancaster through a world pregnant with possibility. He pulls up on his driveway, jumps out of the car and bounds through the front door into the house. Vaughn Monroe is singing about ghost riders in the sky on the radio.

Donna is in the kitchen. She has a pot roast on the counter. She turns as he enters. He crosses to her and she proffers a cheek to be kissed.

Smells great, he says, after giving her a peck.

It should do, she replies; it’s been in the oven most of the afternoon.

Pretty soon, in about twenty years, he says, every kitchen will have a little oven on the counter that cooks food in a couple of minutes[2]. He snaps his fingers in illustration.

Don’t be silly, she tells him, and turns back to her pot roast.

It’s not silly, he insists; it’ll cook the food right through in seconds. Then you’ll have more time to do other things.

He heads into the dining-room and he thinks: progress is just so damn neat.

###

This is the sergeant’s third run on the Gee Whiz. He can’t say he’s getting used to it, but it no longers frightens him so much. The fierce deceleration will be painful, but it will not cause any lasting harm. It will, however, save lives. He likes that his contribution to progress is so direct. He is risking his life—or, at least, risking injury—in order to safeguard others’ lives. It makes him feel like a pioneer, like Wiley Post or Captain Yeager. He never made the cut for pilot, so this work he is doing now will not benefit him personally. Sometimes he dreams about flying one of the new jet fighters, like the F2H Banshee or the F-86 Sabre, and then he thinks about it flaming out and having to eject at 40,000 feet—and that must be a lot like these deceleration tests.

After the run, his ribs pain him and he thinks they might be cracked, so Major Stapp gives him a quick medical check-up and pronounces him fit. He aches all over, and there are lines of bruises across his torso, but everything is in working order. Sometimes, he feels a little dizzy for a second or two, but he only has to hold still a moment and it goes away. He is good at staying still. He fought for his country, kneeling for hours over twin Browning M2 .50 machine-guns at the end of a B-17 fuselage, cold, aching, legs cramping, eyes tearing up from staring at limitless sky, knowing all the while  he must be vigilant to spot enemy fighters approaching from the rear. The Brits called him a “Tail End Charlie”, but his commander knew he was the most important man on the ship.

Now he’s the only man on this sled.

His speed renders the world unparseable, no meaning to be found in the rush of landscape and scrub and sand; even the distant mountains, dancing in the haze, fade in and out like glimpses of another reality. The concrete in which the rails sit shimmers in the heat like a river of blurred grey water. He cannot see ahead because of the windshield, but he pictures the rails arrowing to a point, unchanging despite the fact he is travelling at more than 200 miles per hour.

The clamps bite into the teeth as the sled hits the forty-five-foot braking section. The vehicle slams to a halt. He feels a slice of pain across his chest from the harness, his head jerks forward, his vision fills with scarlet. And that transcendental lightness as the G-forces lift, it feels like an out-of-body experience, as though he were drifting up to heaven on wings of sacrifice. But then the real world rudely inserts itself, pain anchoring him within his body, the bruises, the aches and twinges, and he waits patiently for the technicians to arrive to unbuckle him and pluck the wires from their recording instruments.

He follows them back to the control bunker, shrugging off any discomfort, assuring everyone he’s fine and untroubled. The major is fiercely honest about the effects of high Gs—it’s why he insists on running new test profiles himself before any volunteer gets a go—but to the sergeant… To have fought in Europe, and come home unscathed… It seems unpatriotic to complain about a few aches and pains and the odd bit of blurriness in his vision. This is, after all, the future they’re building here. It’s the lives of future jet fighter pilots they’ll be saving. There’s good in this. So he puts a brave smile on his face and emulates Major Stapp.

At the end of the day, he says goodbye to the guys, clambers into his Mercury Eight and roars out of the parking lot. Sailing through the desert, powered by a flathead V8, elbow out the window polished by the hot wind, he follows the blacktop through desolation to an oasis of progress—its grid of streets, its subdivisions of low-slung bungalows, its creature comforts in the midst of this harsh landscape. They have tamed the desert and they are taming the future. The sergeant is a part of it. He safeguarded the present for twenty-five missions with his twin Browning M2s; now he’s part of the team corralling the world to come and the potential dangers within it.

He arrives home, turns off the engine, jumps from the car and strides into the house.

Donna is in the kitchen, holding a frying pan in which sizzles a large slab of steak. Frankie Laine is singing about the end of the road on the radio.

The sergeant kisses his wife, and ducks away laughing as she brandishes her carving fork at him.

I hit 22 G today, he tells her; I reckon I’m going to need all that steak.

She tuts, and prods the meat with her fork.

In fact, he adds, I reckon I could eat a whole horse today. I went so fast I built up a real appetite.

How much longer are you going to be on this project? she asks. She’s not looking at him, but he hears the concern in her voice and, for one brief moment, he considers sharing everything with her… And then he looks her up and down, from her high-heeled pumps and stockinged calves to her blond Joan Crawford hairstyle, and he remembers he’s there to protect her and keep her safe—from Nazis, from Reds, from whatever the world to come may throw at the two of them.

He shrugs and says, Does it matter? It’s not dangerous.

Donna turns and jabs the carving fork in his direction. Not dangerous? she says. And I suppose the moon is made of green cheese too!

But she’s smiling.

Of course, the Moon isn’t made of green cheese, he tells her. When we put a man on the Moon[3]—more than one, in fact—he’ll bring some moon rocks back and they’ll be able to prove it.

Donna laughs. Don’t be silly, she says. Put a man on the Moon? Wherever do you get these ideas from?

###

It is the sergeant’s last day on Project MX981. With the increasing number of new jet aircraft being brought over to Muroc from Wright-Patterson AFB for test flying, he is needed back in the hangars. No more trips out here to the desert north of the base. No more riding the Gee Whiz and then feeling his entire body squeezed and crushed as the rocket sled slams to an abrupt halt.

He finds Major Stapp beside the track, overseeing technicians as they fit four Aerojet bottles to the rack at the rear of the sled. The sergeant does not disturb the man, but stands back and watches. He looks up the track, the two standard gauge rails narrowing to a point in the distance. And he remembers the journeys he has taken along that track, zooming toward where the rails appear to meet, knowing he will be brought to a sudden and violent stop before he can reach it. He imagines a world where those two rails do indeed join, where it is not just an optical illusion, a mirage. And he thinks about what that might do to the rocket sled and the person riding it.

It occurs to him time too is a track, and the future that illusionary point where the rails meet. Always visible, always ahead; never to be reached. The Gee Whiz fooled him into thinking he would get there… only to stop him dead just before he made it.

The rocket bottles have been fitted, and so the sergeant approaches Major Stapp and thanks him for allowing him to contribute. They shake hands, and Stapp makes a quip that prompts a smile. The sergeant steps back and throws a respectful salute. Stapp tells him if he ever needs help to drop by his office—there’s no telling the long-term effects of all those Gs.

The sergeant nods and says, I’ll do that, sir.

He turns about and walks back to his car. Behind him, he hears Stapp discussing the upcoming rocket sled run. They’ve come up with a new profile, so of course the major will insist on being the first to test it. The bravest man I ever met, the sergeant heard one pilot say of Stapp; and he feels the same way too. A dedicated man: a doctor, a scientist. It has been a pleasure, an education, working under him.

The sergeant reaches his car and turns back to look at the rocket sled on its track. Beyond it, the high desert stretches to the distant Sierra Nevadas, a flat tan landscape peppered with green scrub and hazed by the heat of the summer sun. He pulls down the bill of his cap, then taps out a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket and pushes it between his lips. This desert is an unexpected place to build the future, but it’s here they broke the Sound Barrier only eighteen months ago. And they’ll do more. The sergeant feels certain of the good the rest of the century will bring. He holds that certainty close, it gives shape to his life—just as the Gee Whiz gave direction to it over three short rocket-powered journeys.

The Gee Whiz will continue its tests, carrying Major Stapp and other volunteers at high speed… and then bringing them to abrupt halts.

The sergeant wonders how those journeys will change the world[4].

[1] The first man in space was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome on 12 April 1961. Gagarin was a jet fighter pilot in the Soviet air force, as indeed were all the cosmonauts originally selected for the USSR’s space programme. Though the Space Race was presented as non-military both by the USA and the USSR, the astronauts and cosmonauts were all military officers and the launch vehicles had been developed from ballistic missiles, rockets created for the sole purpose of destroying a distant enemy. Gagarin died in a MiG-15 crash in 1968, while training for his second flight in space. The cause of the crash remains a mystery, though the most likely reason appears to have been a close approach at supersonic speed by a fighter from a nearby air base. The Soviet air force has repeatedly denied this, perhaps too embarrassed to admit to causing the death of a beloved Hero of the Soviet Union. The first American in space was Alan B Shepard, a US Navy aviator, who flew a fifteen-minute sub-orbital hop on 5 May 1961.

[2] The use of microwave radiation to heat food was accidentally discovered in 1945, when Percy Spencer, an engineer working on a military microwave radar transmitter, noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Radar had been developed prior to World War II in secret research programmes in the USA, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, France, the Netherlands, Germany and the Soviet Union, purely for its military application. The first microwave ovens were made commercially available in 1947, but they were nearly six feet tall, weighed 750 lb and cost the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money. The first home microwave oven did not appear until 1955 but it did not sell well, and it was not until 1967 that the first popular home model appeared. It cost $3,450 in today’s dollars. In 1971, only 1% of homes possessed a microwave. By 1986, this figure was up to 25%. It is estimated that over 90% of homes now own one.

[3] On 20 July 1969, two American astronauts landed on the Moon, the first human beings to ever do so. Although the first man to set foot on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong, was a civilian, he had flown for the US Navy during the Korean War, flying 78 missions. In 1955, he became a test pilot for NACA at Edwards Air Force Base, flying research aircraft such as the X-1B and X-15, programmes funded in part by the US military with the intent of military applications. In 1958, Armstrong was selected for the US Air Force’s Man In Space Soonest programme, and in 1962 was picked as a pilot for the Air Force’s X-20 programme, although the craft was never built. Later that year, he was invited to join NASA’s Astronaut Corps, and became the first civilian to do so. Armstrong’s Lunar Module Pilot was Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, a colonel in the US Air Force. The third member of the crew, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Collins, USAF, remained in the command module in orbit about the Moon.

[4] John Paul Stapp was dubbed “the fastest man on earth” when he reached a speed of 632 mph on the rocket sled at Holloman Air Force Base in 1954. He experienced 46.2 G when the sled braked. Both records stand to this day. Stapp proved that pilots could withstand up to 45 G of deceleration, and all cockpits, ejection seats and harnesses were subsequently redesigned to those higher tolerances. Stapp was also a principal advocate of safety belts in cars, and over the years gave 225 speeches on their benefits around the US. When mandatory seat-belts were signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon B Johnson, Stapp was present at the signing. As indication, in 1940 there were twenty-five million licensed drivers in the US and 40,000 traffic deaths; by 2000 there were seventy-two million drivers and 42,000 deaths. When asked why he had ridden the rocket sled, Stapp said, “I have the missionary spirit. When asked to do something, I do it. I took my risks for information that will always be of benefit. Risks like that are worthwhile.” He will also be remembered for coining Murphy’s Law: “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” He died peacefully at the age of 89 in 1999.

 

Ian Sales has had short stories and poetry published in PostscriptsJupiterAlt Hist, and the original anthologies Catastrophia, Vivisepulture, The Monster Book for Girls, Where Are We Going?, and The Maginot Line. In 2012, he edited the original anthology Rocket Science for Mutation Books. He founded Whippleshield Books, through which he has published his Apollo Quartet. The first book of the quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, was published in April 2012 and won the BSFA Award in the short fiction category for that year. The second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, was published in January 2013.