Interview'There's a difference between remembering and honoring'

Space thriller launches in advance of 50th anniversary of first moon landing

Former organized crime prosecutor Tom Seigel’s debut novel ‘The Astronaut’s Son’ is a mystery with a moral — about history and its ripple effect

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Mission Commander Neil Armstrong documented the lunar mission and snapped this image of Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base, July 20, 1969. (NASA)
Mission Commander Neil Armstrong documented the lunar mission and snapped this image of Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base, July 20, 1969. (NASA)

On February 13, 2019, an Israeli-built unmanned spacecraft is expected to land on the moon. The planned landing by the spider-like craft engineered by the nonprofit organization SpaceIL would make Israel only the third country to achieve a controlled landing on the lunar surface.

However, as the craft will be unmanned, no Israeli citizen will join the ranks of the 12 American astronauts who set foot on the moon between 1969 and 1972. (NASA is reportedly testing a spacecraft called the Orion that would enable the agency to resume manned missions to the moon.)

A new novel rewrites space history. “The Astronaut’s Son,” a thriller by first-time author Tom Seigel, imagines an Israeli-American CEO of a private space exploration company having reached the moon in 2005.

No spoiler alert necessary. The fact that protagonist Jonathan Stein (imagine a fictional Jewish version of SpaceX‘s Elon Musk) eventually achieves his lifelong aspiration is not the least bit surprising. Rather, the tension in “The Astronaut’s Son” derives from the twists and turns arising from Jonathan’s compulsion to investigate conspiracy theories about the murder of his father, an Israeli astronaut at NASA in the early 1970s.

‘The Astronaut’s Son’ by Tom Seigel (Courtesy of Woodhall Press)

Days before the Apollo 18 launch — in reality, Apollo 17 was the last completed manned lunar mission — the apparently strong and healthy Avi Stein, suffered a fatal heart attack. Now as an adult, Jonathan wonders: Was it an unfortunately timed natural death or a premeditated killing? (Here we do avoid spoilers.)

As Jonathan looks to the future and the birth of his first child and his planned lunar mission, he digs deep into the secrets of the past. He suspects his father’s best friend Dale Lunden, the last man on the moon, of hiding information. He tries to ferret out the elusive hero Neil Armstrong, and uncovers disturbing revelations about Nazi scientists who were recruited by the US to work for NASA after World War II.

These various aspects of “The Astonaut’s Son” do not come as news to anyone familiar with the basics of space exploration history. The late Armstrong’s refusal to make public appearances and his perceived reclusiveness have been long noted. (Armstrong even threatened to sue a barber who sold his hair to a collector.) Conspiracy theories that the moon landing was faked have abounded for years. Operation Paperclip, the US government’s secret program whereby it recruited 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians (many of them Nazi Party members and leaders) to work on the US space program and other programs designed to give the US a Cold War advantage against the Soviets, was actually far from secret to many.

Tom Seigel (Courtesy)

However, Seigel succeeds in weaving all these strands together in a fast-paced, yet thoughtful thriller that raises questions more serious than who-done-it.

Seigel, 49, has personal experience with investigating cold case murders such as the one in his novel. He served as both deputy chief and chief of the Justice Department’s Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force before devoting himself to fiction writing.

“I prosecuted members and associates of the Lucchese, Colombo and Bonanno families,” said Seigel, referring to New York’s La Cosa Nostra.

“I did a lot of researching documents and interviewing people, just like Jonathan does in the novel,” he said.

Seigel started writing an earlier version of “The Astronaut’s Son” while still working as a prosecutor. He eventually finished it while pursuing an MFA degree between 2013 and 2015.

Seigel, who lives in Connecticut with his wife (also an attorney) and two teenage daughters, never launched rockets in the backyard as a kid. Yet, he would look up at the moon, fascinated that men had walked on its surface. He regretted being too young (just a few months old in July 1969) to have any personal recollection of Neil Armstrong’s declaring over a scratchy transmission, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

“Forty years had passed since then, and we hadn’t returned,” Seigel said about the initial impetus for the novel. “When I started writing, it was the early 2000s and there was already talk of commercial space exploration by guys like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.”

The author was inspired to feature an American-Israeli Jewish family  in “The Astronaut’s Son” as a means of remembering and honoring Jewish American astronaut Judith Resnik and Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, both of whom were killed in Space Shuttle disasters.

Neil Armstrong — or rather his elusiveness — figures prominently in the novel. Jonathan tries every means possible to locate him, believing he could hold key information on the true fate of his father.

“I just found it fascinating that one of the most famous people in the world retreats from it,” Seigel said.

The weightiest part of the novel deals with Jonathan’s suspicion that one or some of the Nazi scientists working at NASA could have murdered his father. Ripped from the headlines, this echoes recent exposés about whether such scientists deserve the honors that were bestowed upon them by NASA and other bodies in past decades — and whether they should be stripped of those honors today.

A Nazi scientist in the book is clearly modeled on Hubertus Strughold, considered “the father of space medicine” for his major role in developing space life support systems, including the space suit worn by the Apollo crew members.

Operation Paperclip German rocket scientists at Fort Bliss in 1946. (NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

A Wall Street Journal article published in 2012 revealed that Strughold had based his research for these systems on tortuous experiments he had performed on inmates at the Dachau concentration camp. As a result, the Strughold Award, the most prestigious award from the Space Medicine Association, was discontinued in 2013.

“It’s important to have discussions on these topics, and deal with their complexity — be it about Nazi scientists or Confederate soldier statues,” Seigel said.

According to the author, forgetting history is not an option.

“There’s a difference between remembering and honoring; between a museum and a hall of fame,” he said.

Jonathan’s journey is difficult, and not only because of the complicated sleuthing involved. His narrative arc is fundamentally an emotional one that eventually lands him on the moon, as well as in a place at which he comes to terms with what happened to his father.

“It’s important to know as much history as we can, but not to let it paralyze us,” Seigel said, careful not to give away the ending to the mystery.

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