Rocket Jockey

by Lester del Rey
Reviewed date: 2019 Jul 17
Rating: 2
166 pages
cover art

Armstrong Classic
The Armstrong Classic is a race around the solar system, held every ten years. The winner gets bragging rights, but more importantly, his planet is likely to dominate the shipping contracts for the coming decade.

Earth's Last Hope: a special fuel
Mars has won the race the last several times. Young Jerry Blaine, only 17 years old, joins his brother Dick and crewman Tod on the Last Hope. They're using a special fuel invented by their late father, and with it they hope to win the race for Earth, and prove the worth of the special fuel.

But Mars doesn't play fair.

Fuel spill
The qualifying leg is from Earth to the Moon. The crew of the Last Hope get into some trouble--some fuel spills into Dick's eyes, and Jerry has to take over navigating duties. But they arrive on the Moon ahead of all the other Earth ships, and earn their place in the race.

Jerry gets certified
Mars objects. Since Jerry piloted Last Hope on the qualifying leg, the rules state that he must be in command for the entire race--but he isn't certified to pilot a spaceship. The race Commission allows Jerry to take his certification tests immediately, but meanwhile, the other ships depart the Moon and head for Mars. Jerry gets his certification, but the testing takes 18 hours and puts them well behind the other ships.

Oops, I misplaced your fuel
On Mars, the shenanigans continue. The Mars spaceport crew has accidentally misplaced their drums of fuel. Without fuel, they can't continue to Jupiter. The local authorities do everything in their power to hamper and delay the search for the missing fuel, but eventually it's found and Last Hope is fueled and gets on its way.

Medical emergency
En route to Ganymede, though, Dick's eyes take a turn for the worse. After consultation with doctors on Mars, Jerry decides to return so Dick can receive medical treatment. The ship is refueled again, and this time Jerry and Tod take off alone to finish the race without Dick.

Contaminated Fuel
Mars strikes again. En route to Ganymede again, Jerry and Tod run into trouble. Contaminants in the fuel have clogged the drive system. They have to shut down the rockets, take a spacewalk to fix the problem, costing them valuable time.

"Dead Man's Orbit"
Worse, they are now off course and can no longer reach Ganymede. Instead, Jerry calculates a new and dangerous route: a tight swing around Jupiter, with a brief dive into the atmosphere as a braking maneuvor, then a landing on Io. It works. The man on Io are impressed at Jerry's skills.

Lawyer tricks
Last Hope then visits Europa, Callisto, and finally Ganymede, where they run into more Mars shenanigans. The Ganymede authorities--considered to be puppets of the Mars government--impound Last Hope because Jerry is underage and cannot legally fly the craft according to local law. Jerry outsmarts the Ganymede authorities, though. He knows they can't bring him to court under Ganymede law--because he's from Earth--and so he agrees to submit to court proceedings under Mars law. Once everyone has agreed to that, Jerry reminds everyone that the age of majority on Mars is 16, and therefore he's not underage. With some help from the race Commission, that's enough to force the Ganymede authorities to release Last Hope. The race is back on!

Fake distress call
Jerry sets a course for Venus. But before reaching the asteroid belt, they stumble upon the Mars racing ship. It's been disabled by a meteorite. Jerry and Tod stop and help, even though it will cost them valuable time. Once they are on their way again, they realize it was a trick: the disabled vessel wasn't in the race, it was waiting for them. While Jerry and Tod were rescuing the other ship, someone slipped aboard Last Hope and stole their asteroid belt charts. Now they have to navigate the belt without charts, relying on luck to avoid getting hit by an asteroid.

Asteroid strike!
Last Hope makes it through the asteroid belt with only one minor strike--but that strike has damaged a radiation shielding plate on their drive system. They'll need to get it fixed at their next stop. Fortunately, Venus has great facilities. Unfortunately, their time wasted on "rescuing" the Mars ship means they are off course and their best bet is Mercury, which has no ship repair facilities.

Friendly Mercury
The men on Mercury are friendly, and help them manufacture a replacement radiation shield plate. The rest of their repairs will have to wait until Venus. But the process costs more valuable time. Still, with their special fuel, they have a shot to win the race. All they have to do is stop by Venus and then head back home to Earth.

Tricky Martians
They limp into Venus and get to work repairing the ship. But bad news: Mars has filed an official complaint. The race rules require everyone who started the race to be aboard the ship at the end. Dick is still back on Mars! And there's no time to go back to Mars to get him. But there just might be enough time to meet him halfway: Jerry arranges for Dick to hitch a ride on a commercial ship, and they meet in space and do a mid-flight transfer. Now they just have to zip over to Earth and finish.

Fuel shortage
The abrupt departure from Venus meant the repairs and the refueling had to be cut short. Last Hope springs a fuel leak, and now they don't have enough fuel to get to Earth. Jerry figures that he can manage to touch down on the Moon--with its lower gravity the entry is easier--and refuel there, then hop down to Earth.

Jerry figures they've lost the race, a thought which is confirmed when he watches another spaceship land on Earth as Last Hope is refueling on the Moon. But no! Almost too late, he learns that that ship he saw had problems and had to withdraw from the race; they never made it to Venus or Mercury. And the Mars team is only hours away. Can Last Hope make the hop from the Moon to Earth before the Mars team wins the race? Of course they can!

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