Shooting for the Moon
By J.H. Bográn
NASA’s last trip to the moon—Apollo 17—launched in 1972. Many people believe we should return, and Alan Jacobson explores that scenario in THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, the fourth entry in his OPSIG Team Black series. This time, however, the trip is far from benign, as it quickly escalates into an armed race with three nations’ mission to acquire a material that could help create a powerful weapon of mass destruction. Hector DeSantos and Aaron Uziel find themselves strapped into an Orion spacecraft going where few men had gone before.
OPSIG stands for Operations Support Intelligence Group and it’s a black ops unit that is part of the Department of Defense and headquartered in the basement of the Pentagon. In short, black ops are those high stakes, high risk missions performed by the military without any connection to the United States, designed to protect the interests of America and its citizens. Almost always, they involve sensitive subjects and high value targets, including hostage rescue in a hostile country, assassination attempts on rogue dictators, and anything that cannot be attributed to, or traced back to, the US.
“As an author, this provides me tremendous latitude relative to storytelling. Unlike my FBI profiler Karen Vail series, wherein there’s a bulky procedural manual she’s compelled to follow, my OPSIG operators have no rules. Once they leave on their mission, they are essentially not accountable to anyone. Of course, the flip side is that if they get captured or discovered, the United States will not back them up, and will not even acknowledge the mission or any connection to the operators.”
As often happens, thriller authors draw inspiration from current news and the combination of a “what if” question to drive creativity. Jacobson became fascinated with some never-seen-before photos of the Apollo missions released by NASA. “As I clicked through the picture gallery, an idea came to me. What if something was found on the Moon that was never publicly disclosed? And what if that something has dire ramifications for present day geopolitics? I then drew up the broad strokes of the plot,” Mr. Jacobson says.
The project was unlike anything Jacobson had done previously. For his prior books he’s consulted with the FBI, its behavioral analysis unit, the ATF, the US marshals service, DEA, Scotland Yard, NYPD, SWAT, the US military, and individuals in a variety of fields—chemists, armorers, criminals, correctional officers, CEOs, sommeliers, and many others. None of those cut it for DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, so he had to find completely new sources.
“I also—erroneously—figured that since I’d be dealing with another terrestrial body in the Moon, I didn’t need to be precise relative to locations, scenery, and landmarks. That was a complete miscalculation, an utter brain fart, to be crassly frank. I discovered that the Moon has been precisely mapped to the point where anyone who knows about it would know that I was playing fast and loose with the facts if I didn’t accurately portray the geography where my characters were located. And that meant working with lunar geologists and studying the Apollo photos and lunar topographic maps.” Since the story involves what happened on Apollo 17, Jacobson poured over their missions, reading voice transcripts and learning the layout of their landing site and everywhere else they went.
In such a complicated plot, it’s easy to get lost along the way. To counter that, Jacobson always prepares an outline, but not a chapter outline. He writes a narrative description of the events in the story from start to finish. “That allows me the flexibility to create on the fly, deviate from my outline if I discover new and exciting information while I’m writing, or if my character says something that pulls me off in an intriguing direction,” he adds. Knowing how the story ends from the start means he can build towards that and it won’t change unless he discovers something that completely blows him away.
When asked if there was any connection with the Pink Floyd album Dark Side of the Moon, the author responds with: “Absolutely, unequivocally nothing. The title has intrinsic meaning to the plot as well as to the Moon itself.”
Just as astronauts must prepare for space travel with endless tests and simulations, Jacobson had to find the right set of mind and knowledge to write the corresponding scenes in the story. Moonwalk posed a peculiar challenge. Thankfully, the author had previous experience dealing with difficult scenes.
“When I wrote The Lost Codex, I set an entire section of the book in Paris. After writing all those chapters, I remarked to my wife that I felt like I had just spent three weeks back in Paris. In addition to visiting the locations that I write about, I try to immerse myself in the location and culture. I shoot thousands of photos and videos during my trips so that I can relive the sights, sounds, vocal intonations, etc. when I’m writing. I used this concept for the Moon. By immersing myself in the sights, sounds, and related trappings (like a space suit), and using hours of video, thousands of photos—and technology, a VR headset—I was able to experience the Moon in more new and unusual ways than I ever imagined. Judging by the feedback from the experts who helped my research, I nailed it.”
Yet another challenge surfaced when Jacobson began to plot out the scenes on the Moon. He realized it required a completely different dynamic. The lack of oxygen means astronauts must wear pressure suits all the time and communicate with colleagues through radio. It’s hard to relate the conflict when one can’t see the other’s face. “It required me to reconsider some of the basic tenets of conflict. In the end, it was merely another challenge to overcome in dealing with a novel that does not occur within the comparatively friendly confines of Earth.”
The recent Mars discovery of the building blocks of life is fascinating to the author. How it relates to the Moon is an interesting question that the US administration has debated for over a dozen years. President Obama shut down NASA’s project for returning to the Moon to focus on Mars. Since then, China in particular has ramped up its space exploration platform and sent robotic landers to the Moon.
The EU and Russia likewise plan to return to the Moon with manned missions. The reasons vary from mineral and raw material excavation to serving as a launch pad for Mars colonization.
“Another reason for returning to the Moon has military implications. Maintaining US superiority in space is vital to our land-based military—if nothing else because of our satellite operations, which direct everything we do in protecting America and American interests abroad. The Chinese and Russians have been working on ways to take out our military and communications satellites from space. We need to maintain a robust space program to keep pace with the world. Not surprisingly, all of this plays a role in DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.”
Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of a dozen thrillers, including the FBI profiler Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black novels. His books have been translated internationally and several have been optioned by Hollywood.
For video interviews and a free personal safety eBook co-authored by Alan Jacobson and FBI Profiler Mark Safarik, please visit his website.
Connect with Jacobson on Twitter (@JacobsonAlan), Facebook, Instagram (alan.jacobson), and Goodreads (alan-jacobson).