Takeoff by C. M. Kornbluth (1952)
The time is a few years in the future from 1952. After a period of peace, international tensions begin to rise. America's main rivals are now China and Argentina, although Communist Russia remains a concern. American bureaucracy has advanced to the point that the country is unable to do anything of significance. So it makes sense for a small group of amateur "crackpot" enthusiasts try to prod space exploration by making a moon rocket.
Michael Novak, a talented ceramics engineer, lands a job with the Atomic Energy Commission but, instead of working in his field, he is assigned as a liason with the Neutron Path Prediction Division -- something he knows nothing about and for which he is completely unqualified. Efforts to placed somewhere where he could actually do some good fail and his supervisors constantly belittle him as a slacker and whiner. When an open memo from his director is distributed throughout the department, specifically and falsely accusing him of laziness and of promoting office intrigue, Novak has had enough. He storms into the director's office and offers his resignation -- in the form of a fist to the jaw.
Now unemployed and blackballed, Novak becomes desperate. When an offer to fly him out to Los Angeles for a mysterious job interview comes he hesitatingly accepts. The offer is from the American Society for Space Flight, a small fringe group of space enthusiasts. ASFSF is attempting to build a full scale "model" rocket as a prototype for one that could travel to the moon. The society's hope is that if they can prove it can be done, the government will be forced to use their work and build an actual rocket. ASFSF has deep pockets -- an anonymous benefactor (or benefactors) has recently pledged to finance their efforts.
Given a virtually unlimited budget and and a laboratory designed to his specifications, Novak agrees to work for the society, which appears to be composed of a few retired engineers and part-time college students. The engineer in charge of the project is August Clifton, a testy genius who could not fit into the corporate mold. Clifton, like Novak, is a perfectionist and has earned the loyalty of the students working for him. Novak is tasked with designing fuel containment units and he soon realizes something stange: the design parameters he is given do not fit any known possible known fuel the rocket could use. The most likely explanation, he realizes, is that has developed a secret fuel that it plans to use for the rocket, which means that the rocket is not a model, but a working rocket. The fact that the society has an anonymous benefactor with unlimited fundshints strongly that the "benefactor" is a foreign power, most likely China or Argentina.
Novak brings his fears to Clifton and, after reviewing the parameters that Novak had been given, agrees. Not knowing who can be trusted in the ASFSF, the two take their fears to the head of security of the Los Angeles office of the A.E.C. and who agrees this could be a serious matter. That evening Novak and Clifton attend a membership meeting of the ASFSF. Clifton leaves to use the restroom where minutes later Novak discovers his body -- shot. The death is ruled a suicide but Novak is convinced it's murder.
Who killed Clifton, and why? Novak is afraid that he, too, might be targeted. Against this backdrop of intrigue, Novak must combat the mysterious forces behind the project while working to ensure the future of space exploration for the United States.
Takeoff is a murder mystery, a science fiction adventure, a scathing criticism of bureaucracy, a paean to human ingenuity, an insightful look into the personalities of the main characters, and an entertaining (although somewhat dated) read. Kornbluth is always worth your reading time.
C. M.Kornbluth (1923-1958), who graduated high school when he was 13 (!), was an influential member of the Futurians, a loose-knitted group of young science fictions -- many of whom went on to become major inflluences in the field. (The C. is for Cyril; the M. he adopted himself and probably was given in honor of his wife Mary -- he was not given a middle name at birth.) He began writing at fifteen and sold his first story shortly after. Following a stint in the army during World War IIhe worked for a news wire service until 1951, at which point he began writing fulltime. Takeoff was his first (of three) solo science fiction novel. He also wrote science fiction novels with Judith Merril and with Frederik Pohl; he also wrote eight mainsteam novels (many in collaboration with Pohl). Kornbluth published three science fiction collections during his lifetime, while another nine collections and retrospectives were published after his death. He died at age 34, after shoveling snow from his driveway, then rushing to catch a train to be interviewed for the editorial position at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
I often wonder what marvels he could have produced had he not died so young.