by Allen M. Steele
Allen M. Steele has won multiple Hugo awards and has been nominated for the Nebula award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial award. He has published over fifty short stories, and more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Coyote series.
The space trains are gone now, of course. The wreck of the No. 4 did them in, way back in ‘39. Since then it’s been step-rockets and spaceplanes, which everyone agrees are safer and more reliable, although perhaps not as much fun. But whenever the guys who used to work the trains get together — not so often these days; there’s only a few of us left — we talk about the good old days when we’d fly these things to the Moon. And inevitably, we tell the story of Locomotive Joe and how he saved the lives of everyone aboard the Tycho Express.
I was a conductor aboard the No. 4, so I was there when it happened. That’s important, because the story has been embellished so many times over the years that the truth is now buried beneath the legend. And I knew Joe Welch, of course. His nickname didn’t come ‘till later, and that’s part of the legend, too. Everyone considers him to be a hero, and I suppose he was; who am I to argue? But I can tell you with absolute certainty that courage and bravery were only part of the story. There was something else, too.
Young people today don’t know much about the space trains. Those things belonged to their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ time, and so what little they’ve learned about them generally comes from old movies, and sometimes not a lot even then. So I’m going to have to assume that things have to be explained to you if you’re younger than… oh, say, 70… and ask that you be patient with an old codger like me.
(It’s called knowledge, kids, not infodumps. Explanations used to be respected. Then computers came along and reduced everyone’s attention span to that a puppy. Let’s see if you’re smarter than a eight-month-old terrier with a tennis ball. Sit down and shut up, and let an old man talk.)
Anyway… the space trains were the first passenger-carrying spacecraft, the ones built by the Goddard Rocket Company back in the 30’s. Almost as soon as Bob Goddard launched his first liquid-fuel contraption from his Aunt Effie’s farm in Massachusetts, people started clamoring for rocketships that would carry them into space. When the Worcester Telegram published a front page story saying that rockets would be carrying people to the Moon within ten years, Dr. Goddard suddenly began getting offers from investors who wanted to put money into this, and nevermind the fact that the Telegram story was total horse poop. But ol’ Doc knew a good buck when he saw it, so once he patented his work and raised investment capital from his pals Slim Lindbergh and Harry Guggenheim, he moved from Massachusetts to New Mexico and started the Goddard Rocket Company.
From the get-go, it was Dr. Goddard’s idea that a rocket’s engine should be placed forward, not aft, of the payload. Cars do it, planes do it; why not spaceships, too? Some people think he got the notion from the illustration that accompanied the Worcester newspaper story, which itself bore a certain similarity to a picture in the original French edition of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. But it doesn’t matter. Rocket up front, passenger compartment dragged behind it; that was the way the Lord and Robert Goddard intended.
Further study showed, though, that this design was inadequate for achieving escape velocity. So Doc had to… well, let’s say borrow… an idea from the Germans, who were also beginning to do the same sort of thing, and build a big booster rocket that would act as a first stage. The booster wouldn’t make the whole trip, of course. It would be ditched as soon as the ship penetrated the atmosphere. But it got the rest of the ship off the ground, and that’s what the Goddard Rocket Company ended up building.
No. 1, aka the Comet, was launched from Roswell in 1933. It wasn’t very large and carried only four people: Doctor G, his wife Esther, Harry Guggenheim, and their pilot, Charlie Lindbergh himself. But it made big screaming headlines after it circled the earth a couple of times and came back safe and sound, and that meant the money started pouring in from those still well-heeled enough after the stock market crash to afford a joy-ride into space. Once they had a few more million dollars to play with, the Goddard Rocket Company scaled-up the Comet design and proceeded to build its space trains.
The Tycho Express was the fourth one built, and it was a monster: 200-feet-tall on its launch stand, with a massive first-stage booster capable of sending the locomotive and its 22,000-pound Pullman car into orbit. Once the booster was dropped into the Gulf of Mexico, the passenger car would be extended back from the locomotive upon four 1,000-foot tow cables, then the big gasoline and liquid oxygen engine would fire and the whole thing would be on its way to the Moon. The engine would ignite again every now and then to correct its course, but most of the time the train would coast along on its own momentum, the crew and passengers enjoying zero-gravity weightlessness. About two and a half days later, it would swing around the Moon, letting everyone aboard get a good look at all the green cheese down there — just kidding; they never saw anything except rock and dust — then the locomotive would fire up again and the train would return home. Once it reached Earth, the car would be detached from the locomotive, fire retro-rockets, enter the atmosphere tail-first, open its parachutes and splash down just off the Atlantic coast, where a steamship would pick it up and carry the passengers to New York. The locomotive would break up when it made an uncontrolled re-entry and probably kill a whale or two when its remains crashed in the ocean, but that was okay; the rockets were cheap and the company could always make more.
The trains carried ten people: four crew members — a pilot, a copilot, an engineer, and a conductor — and six passengers. I was recruited by the company in `38. I was only twenty-one at the time, but my family had been working the rails for three generations, and I’d been a Pullman conductor since I was seventeen. The company needed experienced railroad men to take care of their customers and I wanted to go to the Moon, so we were a natural fit for each other. Six months training, including a couple of orbital flights on ol’ No. 1, and then they put me on No. 4, the Tycho Express.
The train had a good crew. Floyd Simmons was a great pilot and Rich Sneed a terrific second officer, but our engineer, Joe Welch, was the one who stood out. Joe knew the ship backward and forward; there wasn’t a rivet he was unfamiliar with, and I swear he could have taken the locomotive apart and put it back together without checking the blueprints. But that wasn’t all. Joe was frustrated that the space trains weren’t designed to actually land on the Moon. No one had done that yet, and it made him mad that the company had very little interest in doing so. So even though the Tycho Express would come within sixty miles of the lunar surface, all he could do was peer out the window and watch longingly as the mountains and craters swept by, so close and yet so far.
Me, I was too busy. Looking after six people — six very rich people at that — for five days was hard work. The easy part was getting them safely strapped into their couches just before take-off and cleaning up after them when they inevitably threw up after we reached orbit. Once the train was in zero gravity, you’d have to teach the simple things — how to get out of bed, use the toilet, get dressed, eat, so on and so forth — and assist them if they couldn’t or wouldn’t learn. There were three double-occupancy staterooms on the car’s lower deck, so I had to clean them every day, including changing the hammock liners, putting away personal belongings before they floated away, and scrubbing the commodes. And there were always hassles. Unruly children. Fussy parents. Unmarried men who wanted to induct single women into the so-called 240,000 Mile High Club (I didn’t mind, so long as they closed the door and didn’t make a lot of noise). The occasional idiot who wanted to smoke a pipe or fool around in the airlock. I have a theory about the rich: if you make more than a $1 million, the universe compensates by dropping your I.Q. fifty percent.
There was never a problem, though, that I couldn’t handle. Or at least not until April 9, 1939, the day the Goddard Rocket Company had its first — and last — major accident.
That morning, the Tycho Express took off from its launch depot. It was the train’s sixth trip to the Moon, my fourth as its conductor. The first part of the flight was business as usual. After it dropped the booster in the drink, the locomotive lowered the car, then fired the main engine; it shut down about 90 seconds later, once the train reached low orbit. A quick swing around the planet so that Floyd and Rich could make their final calculations and the passengers could get their first look at Earth from space (and finish losing their breakfast), then Floyd pointed the train toward the Moon and fired the main engine.
That was how things usually went.
What went wrong was that the engine didn’t shut down again.
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