The novel “High Vacuum” by Charles Eric Maine was published for the first time in 1956.
The Alpha rocket has reached the Moon with the first astronauts but something goes wrong with the engine burn that is supposed to start the braking, and the landing is too violent. Of the four astronauts on board, one dies and another is seriously injured.
Surviving until help arrives is the only priority but the situation is at the limit of the impossible. Repairing the radio will allow the survivors to ask for help but, even in the best-case scenario, it will take who knows how long for a rescue expedition to reach the Moon. The main problem is the available oxygen, and the situation turns out to be even worse than expected when the astronauts discover the presence on board of a stowaway, a woman.
Charles Eric Maine published “High Vacuum” well before the first real Moon landing, even before the first manned space flight. This means that the knowledge of a possible journey to the Moon was still theoretical. Actually, the impression is that the author doesn’t even pay attention to the technical-scientific rigor but, as is typical of his works, he focuses on the human side, in this case telling about the reactions of the survivors of a shipwreck on the Moon.
“High Vacuum” isn’t a story of heroism in which the astronauts are described as supermen who can look death in the face without even blinking and pull themselves out of any situation, no matter how desperate it seems. Charles Eric Maine was one of the British authors who tended to stay within a national tradition of catastrophes and humans with dark sides. In this case, this means that the survival story after a shipwreck on the Moon is based on the problem of the limits of oxygen supplies with a ruthless development.
The survivors know that there’s not enough oxygen for everyone until a rescue expedition can arrive, and that means they somehow have to decide who will live and who will be sacrificed. In essence, the astronauts’ solidarity and training collide with a harsh reality that stimulates their survival instinct. This is even more true for Janet, who arrived on the Moon as a stowaway and is determined to survive at any cost.
In the end, this novel is above all a battle for survival in which the dark sides of human beings prevail. “High Vacuum” is a very short novel by today’s standards, so there isn’t much room to develop the protagonists. There’s some characterization, focused above all on emotions, useful to understand their motivations, especially who are most ready to try to survive at all costs.
From the point of view of technical-scientific likelihood, “High Vacuum” aged badly but that already happened at the time of the real Moon missions. The positive elements remain, which are Charles Eric Maine’s best ones, as he was an author never trite in his stories’ development. If you’re looking for a story in which tension is very high until the end and you don’t mind the flaws, this novel is still worth reading.