Thursday, September 20, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke's "Maelstrom II": A totally crazy but effective rescue operation

Quote from Maelstrom II by Arthur ClarkeThis would easily class as among Clarke's best. An outstanding shipwreck & rescue story in space.

As far as I know, there is no other Clarke story called "Maelstrom" or "Maelstrom I". "II" comes from looking at the plot as a space age variant or sequel of a very similar survival story at the sea - Edger Allen Poe's "A Descent into the Maelstrom".

Story summary.
Cliff Leyland is an African farmer trying his luck in a lunar colony, & is now returning back to earth. He buys a return ticket on an unusual flyer to save some money - a freight capsule launched by an electric catapult; he is the sole passenger on board.

Only there is a launch fault because of a 1 second electric supply failure on launch rail. Result is - his capsule doesn't get moon escape velocity. It will go to a certain height; then moon's gravitation will pull it back, & there will be a mighty crash!

There are small steering jets on capsule, but they are also destroyed. I could not follow how the accident destroyed them.

Anyway, now he is awaiting certain death. A lot of space is devoted to his ruminations on this.

Part way through his elliptic crash orbit, he gets a call from Van Kessel, Chief of Maintenance, Space Vehicles Division. Ground staff have worked out a totally crazy & frightening way to save him.

While a ship will eventually pick him up, it cannot get to him in time before impending crash. He is advised to don the space suite, & at the moment Launch Control will advice, to manually jump off the ship into space with all the force he can muster! This advice will be given when his capsule is at its highest point in orbit, & airlock is facing away from moon; hopefully, this will put him in a non-crash orbit - & give rescue ship, Callisto, time to finally fetch him.

Of course, the story has a happy ending.

Fact sheet.
Maelstrom II, short story, review
First published: Playboy, April 1962
Rating: A

See also.

  1. A 3-minute movie showing the launch, its going wrong, & realization that things have gone wrong, but not the most interesting rescue routine. I saw this version; the version at YouTube appears identical but I haven't played it. Not very good quality, but not bad either. Makers of this movie also put together this slide show that explains the essentials of the story with pictures.
  2. Arthur Clarke's novel "A Fall of Moondust": Very good shipwreck & rescue story on moon. But set on (or rather, in) lunar surface rather than in space.
  3. Robert Heinlein's short story "Searchlight": Shipwreck at an isolated place on lunar surface, & an ingenious technique to locate the stranded during rescue.
  4. Robert Heinlein's short story "Ordeal in Space": In some ways, similar to this story. A spaceman falls off ship, ends up spending sometime away from anything, & becomes a psychological wreck. Story is of his eventual rehabilitation. This same story is also found as a small subplot in Arthur Clarke's novel, "The Deep Range".
  5. Arthur Clark's novel "2001 A Space Odyssey" has a space man ejected off a deep space ship because of sabotage. Another novel, "3001 The Final Odyssey" will have him recovered in a very improbable rescue operation 1000 years later! And with his sanity intact.
  6. Robert Heinlein's novel "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" features electromagnetic catapults for normal freight delivery from moon to earth. In one episode, it also transports 2 passengers. It is also eventually used as a weapon on a war against earth.
  7. Arthur Clarke's novel "Islands in the Sky" features a short subplot where an electric catapult based on rails is used for emergency launch - I think of people, don't recall well. The mechanism is very similar to that in current story.