Countdown for Cindy, Eloise Engle

1964CountdownForCindy1Countdown for Cindy, Eloise Engle (1962)
Review by Ian Sales

Although not published as science fiction – a “condensation” was first published in the magazine, American Girl – Eloise Engle’s Countdown for Cindy certainly qualifies. And not just because it predicts a near-future (as of 1962) in which the USA has a moonbase. Cindy McGee is a nurse in the Aerospace Force. When three scientists on the Moon are injured after a fall from a cliff, the US quickly puts together a “mercy mission” to send medical assistance and then return the casualties to Earth. Aerospace medicine specialist Dr Peter Lufkin is selected for the mission, and he picks as his assistant… shock! horror! a woman!

“This is incredible, but true,” the announcer cried out excitedly. “Dr Lufkin is taking his assistant, Lieutenant Cindy McGee. And, ladies and gentlemen, Lieutenant McGee happens to be a ninety-five pound female Aerospace Force Nurse.” … “I have it on good authority that the world’s first moon nurse is a faithful user of Perma-Perf, our sponsor’s own all-purpose galactic scent, that out-of-this-world perfume…” (p 5)

The first third of the novel describes the run-up to the launch, focusing mostly on Cindy’s rivalry with glamorous jet pilot and aerospace nurse, Rosalind Winters. It’s actually not much of a rivalry from Cindy’s perspective, as she can’t quite understand why she was picked and not Rosalind. But Rosalind gets to act the queen bitch as she plays backup to Cindy. Engle gets many of the details here absolutely spot-on. Her husband was a serving USAF officer, and her descriptions of the preparation for, and flight in, Rosalind’s supersonic jet are delivered with authority. Later, when Cindy is fitted for her spacesuit, Engle once again gets the details right – no doubt a result of her interview with Lieutenant Dee O’Hara, the Mercury 7 astronauts’ chief nurse, as mentioned in the novel’s introduction. In other areas, however, Engle manages to get it quite wrong:

In the old days, space capsules had to go 25,000 miles an hour to escape earth’s gravity. Now with improved cabin pressurization – that was not exactly it because they could not make use of the outside atmosphere – and improved fuel systems they could hit orbit at a slower pace. (p 39)

Well, no. Earth’s escape velocity is 25,000 miles per hour (11.4 km/s). Travelling “at a slower pace” would mean the spacecraft won’t achieve orbit, never mind making it as far as the Moon. That’s not how it works.

The trip to the Moon bears little or no resemblance to that experienced by the Apollo astronauts. For one thing, the spacecraft’s internal atmosphere is an oxygen-helium mixture. This is typically only used for pressures greater than one atmosphere, such as when saturation diving. The Mercury and Gemini spacecraft used pure oxygen atmospheres at 5 pounds per square inch (normal atmospheric pressure is 14.7 psi). The pure oxygen atmosphere later resulted in the Apollo 1 fire, and the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White. A lower cabin pressure meant the spacecraft’s construction could be made less strong and so lighter – an important consideration when using chemical rockets to throw spacecraft into orbit.

Once on the Moon, Cindy’s first thoughts are to the men living in the moonbase. She feels sorry that they’ve been away from their families, away from women, for so long. Nonetheless, when she dresses for duty, she dresses for them and not in what might be most appropriate:

Then she opened her bag and took out fresh disposable undies and a pair of clean slacks. She thought a moment. What a horrid mistake that would be. She folded the slacks, put them away, and took out her crisp white nurse’s uniform and the perky cap. Yes, that was more like it. White hose and white shoes… she looked into the mirror and applied fresh lipstick on her lips. Ready? Not quite. A bit of perfume and a final smoothing of her fluffy hair. Okay, Cindy, off we go. (p 62/63)

Although the original plan had been to have the injured scientists home for Christmas that proves untenable. So they celebrate Christmas at Moon Station, and throw a surprise party for Cindy. But morale is low – because the base commander is close to a nervous breakdown and has been refusing the men access to the radio to speak to their families back on Earth. After talking to Cindy, the CO sees the error of his ways and re-opens access to the radio for the men. Unfortunately, the celebration is brought to an abrupt close because the drinking water has been contaminated with soapy water. And since Cindy’s cabin is the only one at Moon Station with its own washbasin… Cindy breaks into tears, assuming she had done something wrong – but on learning she is a victim of sabotage, she is mystified why anyone would want to hurt her. It must be because she is so much more effective at domestic chores than any of the men…

Countdown for Cindy then takes a bizarre turn. A UFO lands at the moonbase and a pair of aliens resembling a small boy and girl enter the base. They’re on a field trip from their home world, collecting specimens, and they decided to see if the Earthmen at Moon Station had anything suitable. But soon after their arrival they pass out from lack of food. Fortunately, one of the scientists deduces that they must subsist on electricity. So they give the two kids a few hundred volts each and it does the trick. The aliens then depart, in the process wiping everyone’s mind of the close encounter.

Cindy then returns home with Dr Lufkin and her patients, belatedly realising en route that the “Right Stuff” astronaut she’s spent much of the book arguing with is her One True Love.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Countdown for Cindy is that Engle took the trouble to interview a number of people while researching the book – not just O’Hara, but also Mercury 13 spokeswoman Jerrie Cobb and pioneering aviatrix Jackie Cochran. By late 1962, the date of publication of Countdown for Cindy, NASA had already put four Mercury 7 astronauts into space, and the Soviets had launched four Vostok missions. While there were rumours the USSR was planning to launch a female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova’s flight on Vostok 6 did not take place until June 1963. It would be another twenty years before the first female US astronaut went into space – Sally Ride aboard STS-7 in June 1978. (However, the second female cosmonaut, Svetlana Savitskaya, did not fly until August 1982, aboard Soyuz T-7; she also became the first woman to perform a space walk.) Given the attitudes of the time toward the idea of women in space – NASA were adamant they did not want female astronauts; and though Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart took the matter all the way to a Congressional subcommittee, they could not get NASA to change its mind – it comes as no real surprise that Countdown for Cindy makes such a big deal of Cindy McGee and her selection for the mercy mission. While the novel is presented more as space fiction, with its stress on the research done by Engle, I suspect that its original publication venue, American Girl, the US Girl Scouts’ magazine, dictated its presentation of Cindy and the story’s gender roles. Because if Engle had really spoken to Jerrie Cobb, she’d be well aware there were plenty of women in 1950s USA who mourned the demise of Rosie the Riveter and society’s insistence they chain themselves once again to the kitchen sink. Even for 1962, Lieutenant Cindy McGee, Aerospace Force nurse, is not a role model for those who refused to accept a woman’s place.