Wernher von Braun, Novelist
Half a century ago, the rocket scientist tried his hand at fiction.
- By airspacemag.com
- Air & Space magazine, January 2007
(Page 3 of 6)
When all three caterpillars had been lowered and given a short test run to insure that their power plants were working properly, Holt deployed them around the helpless landing boat in the untoward event that the hitherto invisible Martians might undertake some hostile action. But nothing happened.
After the removal of the three huge caterpillars, unloading began in earnest. Three folding trailers were dropped through the hatch and assembled on the snow beneath the belly of the boat. The first one completed, standing upon its wide wheels, was placed beneath the hatch while busy hands under the expert direction of Clark Winslow piled it with a vast assortment of cases and equipment. As each was hauled away with its load, the reserve fuel tanks to supplement the tankage of the caterpillars were filled by gravity hoses from wing tanks of the landing boat. The long voyage ahead precluded the tractor-caterpillars from carrying adequate fuel supplies in their own tanks.
For twelve hours the landing party bent its united energies to the accomplishment of the seemingly endless task, but when the work was done, no restful night came to induce sleep in their wearied limbs. It was Summer at the Martian south pole and the midnight Sun remained visible in undiminished splendor. It made but a sweep at the horizon, returning in a great circle in the sky to a point due south.
All hands were much relieved when Holt ordered the hatch closed on their boat and the air valves opened to bring up the pressure. Wearily they had trooped through the door and divested themselves of their space suits to seat themselves around a table hastily constructed from various bits and pieces of the stowage gear. One of the soldiers proved himself to be no mean cook, and it was a novel experience for them all to eat and drink in the old familiar fashion from open plates and glasses. That night, when the shades were drawn over the landing boat’s ports to keep out the brilliant glare reflected from the snow, the men retired to their acceleration couches, somehow grateful not to be floating in space, despite the sometimes painful pressure which even the light Martian gravity inflicted upon them.
They arose next day to find the Sun shining as brightly as before. Donning their space suits and releasing the pressure in their abandoned landing boat, Billingsley, Gudunek and Woolf stamped their way through the powdery snow to the Panther, Holt’s caterpillar, which was to head the column moving northwards. The driver was Sergeant Regand, a tough farmer from North Dakota, Brooks, Oberth’s radio man, would attend to communications. Holt himself would man the forward gun if things got tough, while Brooks would take the after one.
The Jaguar, under Glen Hubbard, was manned by Clark Winslow and four soldiers, while Leopard was to bring up the rear under Lieutenant Hampstead and the remaining five men of his guard.
After each caterpillar had picked up its trailer, Holt sent Winslow back to assure himself that the abandoned landing boat was as well moored as circumstances permitted, lest she capsize in some storm or blow away across the limitless wilderness of snow. The thought of burning the boat as Cortez had done with his ships ran through Holt’s head. Both the lack of propellants in her tanks and her station near the pole effectively prohibited any return to the orbit where their friends still circled Mars. But finally Holt’s natural conservatism prevailed upon him to preserve what few material possessions he had brought to this distant goal.
As the caterpillars rattled and snorted northward with their trailers, Holt stood in the gun turret of the Panther and surveyed the vast snow field ahead. In the pressurized interior, he had removed his helmet and laid it upon the breech of the gun. Like the others, he still wore his pressure suit. As the mileages were called up to him from below, he entered each odometer reading on the chart where he kept track of their progress along the 190th meridian to which the gyrocompass held their course. If he had estimated correctly, some 25 miles should bring them to the mysterious, concrete Quonset hut which had so attracted his attention during the landing approach.