Martin Caidin (first) wrote Marooned in 1964. The novel concerned the fate of an astronaut trapped in orbit by the failure of the retro-pack on his Mercury spacecraft. I encountered it in the E.P. Dutton first-edition hardback a few years later, as a space-obsessed eleven-year-old prowling the shelves of my local lending library. Everything about it entranced me—the gorgeous cover art, the realism of the technology depicted, the insight into the astronaut training programme, and the fact that there were ten pages of appendices detailing the orbital calculations that had been carried out, by actual spaceflight engineers, to ensure the accuracy of the fictional depiction.
The movie rights were picked up by Columbia Pictures, who produced a film, also entitled Marooned, in 1969. Caidin acted as a technical adviser. The space programme was moving so fast then, at the height of the Space Race, that the novel needed to be completely updated. For the film, the solitary astronaut in his Mercury capsule was replaced by a trio of Apollo astronauts, flying an Apollo Applications mission in earth orbit. The fictional mission drew on much of the planned detail of what would later become the Skylab missions of 1973-74. Caidin made a cameo appearance in the role of a TV reporter.
The film received twin accolades: the 1969 Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and the October 1970 Mad magazine movie spoof.
Caidin rewrote his novel to reflect the film plot. This revised edition appeared alongside the film release in 1969, so both the revised novel and the film eerily prefigured the real Apollo 13 crisis of 1970.
The novels necessarily differ in the hardware deployed. The 1964 Marooned features rescue missions by the two-seater Gemini spacecraft (which had yet to fly a manned mission at the time of writing), and the Soviet two/three seater Voskhod. The 1969 novel uses a fictional vehicle called the X-RV, which seems to be a hybrid of the lifting bodies then under test, and the cancelled Dyna-Soar design, intended for launch using a Titan IIIC launch vehicle. The Soviet rescue mission is a Soyuz, the Russian workhorse that has been in continuous manned operation since 1967.
The 1964 novel is to some extent a history of the early Space Race, with an almost mission-by-mission account of real-world Mercury and Vostok launches. The 1969 novel, set in the (then) future and written when the Apollo moon landings had only just begun, is necessarily a more speculative affair.
Both books are an extended love letter to the manned space mission. The “Go!” responsory in Mission Control, as the Flight Director polls the Flight Controllers for their go/no go decisions, has always seemed like some sort of quasi-religious ritual, and Caidin is clearly moved by it:
One by one, beautifully, the men at the consoles responded with that exultant, brief cry: “GO.”
Neither book is for the technologically faint-hearted, though. If you can’t stand the occasional paragraph like this, then perhaps you need to seek entertainment elsewhere:
“We’re programming—in the event of trouble in azimuth—launch-vehicle guidance in yaw. This is for the upper stage of the core vehicle only, of course. We do this by varying the launch azimuth of the spacecraft so that the azimuth becomes an optimum angle directed towards the target’s plane. In this way we hope to reduce the out-of-plane distance prior to initiating booster yaw guidance. This cuts down the workload of the booster in correcting yaw discrepancies, and gives us the best chance to slide down into the same plane—or close enough to get that fast rendezvous.”
(I’m glad we’ve got that clarified …)
The film is an obvious precursor to both Alfonso Cuarón‘s 2013 Gravity (peril in low earth orbit), and Ridley Scott’s 2015 The Martian (NASA tries to bring its stranded boy home, with a little help from a foreign space programme). But to a large extent it’s the antithesis of Cuarón‘s undoubtedly spectacular but otherwise deeply idiotic effort. Marooned offers believable characters with believable emotional responses, a plausible problem with plausible solutions, half-decent dialogue and acting, and genuine ramping tension. And it doesn’t need a blaring overwrought score to let you know when you should be worried—in fact it dispenses with music altogether, contenting itself with a little ambient electronic noodling here and there.
I was reminded of how different Marooned and Gravity are when rereading Caidin’s 1969 novel. In the story, the pilot of the rescue mission makes a joke of the fact that he has never flown the rescue vehicle before:
“Nothing to it. I got me a handy-dandy do-it-yourself erector set instruction book. It’s got big pictures …”
It’s as if Caidin were speaking to Cuarón across four decades, but Cuarón wasn’t listening. So poor Sandra Bullock found herself flying a Soyuz capsule using nothing but the sort of instruction manual Caidin had mocked.