Review: “Perigee” by Patrick Chiles

After procrastinating for ages, I’m finally starting a series of  book reviews. I’ll start with Perigee by Patrick Chiles.

I’m sure that many space enthusiasts hope that the success of Gravity will convince  the general public  that near term, realistic space science fiction can be just as exciting and engaging as stories of intragalactic wars and faster-than-light aliens. This convincing will be boosted as well if NewSpace companies begin to fulfill their promises. We may soon see, for example, a SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage fly back to the pad at the Cape after separating from its upper stage and then be re-flown again in another launch. We could see Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR’s Lynx making routine suborbital trips to space and back in the coming year.

Such “futuristic” activities should encourage greater interest in books like  Perigee by Patrick Chiles, whose scenario may lie in a not so distant future. The company Polaris Aerospace Lines provides a  transport service flying  passengers on  the rocket powered Global Clipper ships that travel very quickly between cities across the globe. The story is played out by pilots, flight attendants, managers, technicians and the owner of Polaris.

Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Galactic, often talks about someday flying passengers across the world with rocket powered descendants of SpaceShipTwo. Though it is quite a feat to send a SS2 vertically past the 100 kilometer line to space and back down safely, it can be surprising to many people to learn that the SS2 could only fly a short distance horizontally. The rocket motor propels the SS2 up to around Mach 3 in 60 seconds and then runs out of fuel. So a horizontal flight would only go as far as it could “coast” on a ballistic trajectory (along with some gliding) after the motor shuts off.

The physics of the rocket equation, chemical propulsion, the lower edge of the first Van Allen Belt, and orbital mechanics mean that a rocket flight from New York to Tokyo will require performance only slightly short of going into orbit. So long distance rocket transportation between points on earth will most likely be derived from an orbital transportation system, not a suborbital space tourism vehicle.

This fact leads to the central crisis in Perigee when a spaceliner gets stuck in orbit. The mystery of how that occurs and what happens to the Clipper, the crew and the passengers is a story well told. The characters are not deeply drawn but are sketched well enough to care about what happens to them.

Perigee is a fun read about a 21st Century the way it should be and might soon be.  A fine first novel by Chiles.

(Check out also Patrick’s blog The Chiles Files | It’s not rocket science.)