The story begins in autumn 1969. Cambridge physiologist Frank Lewis is asked by an old friend of his to accept an opportunity to work for NASA to investigate the decline in the performance of astronauts caused by fatigue, and possibly also to become an astronaut himself. He agrees to do so, and therefore leaves behind both the beautiful surroundings of his Cambridge college and the rather more tangible attractions of his girlfriend (“Dr. Julian Parker, that up-and-coming crystallographer”).
The situation envisaged by Balchin when Lewis signs up with NASA is that the Russians took an early lead in the space race by becoming the first nation to put a man on the moon but suffered a fatality in the process. The Americans ran them a close second and having put a man on the moon themselves are now pressing ahead with ambitious plans to return there and also to explore deep space.
Lewis flies to Houston. He is assigned to an international team of prospective space pilots and scientific observers and following a round of interviews, medicals and psychiatric tests is accepted for the programme. As his training schedule proceeds, Lewis watches a rocket launch and is permitted to sit in at the flight surgeon’s console during a lunar landing in order to monitor the astronauts’ fatigue levels. This mission ends in tragedy when one of the crew dies after suffering a stroke. In parallel with his training, Lewis begins to design and construct a ‘fatigue accumulation detector’.
Alliances form between the aspiring spacemen and Lewis becomes firm friends with a gregarious, skirt-chasing Italian geologist called Zenno Fillipini and his bewitching wife Isabella. One of Lewis’s less agreeable colleagues is Villiers, an American with adolescent attitudes towards both alcohol and women, and Lewis has to stand bail for him when he is stopped by traffic police having indulged in two of his favourite vices at the same time, namely driving drunk whilst fondling the wife of a fellow astronaut in training.
Fillipini is assigned as a crew member on a follow-up mission to the ill-fated moonshot and Lewis has to nurse Isabella through it, as she is convinced that her husband will not come back (“Zenno will be killed. And then I think I shall kill myself too.”). But the mission passes off without a hitch and afterwards Fillipini is feted as a hero.
After a great deal of soul-searching, Lewis decides that he would like to go into space. He is therefore earmarked to be a scientific observer on a deep space mission so that he can test the performance of his fatigue machine. The aim of Project Ulysses is to fly two and a half million miles in the general direction of Mars (further than man has ever gone before), turn around and return to Earth. The command pilot dubs it “the going-nowhere-in-particular job”.
Terrified by the prospect of his mission, Lewis endures several sleepless nights before NASA arrange to have Dr. Parker flown out to Houston to comfort him. Thus reassured, he settles down to his final flight preparations. Shortly before he is due to blast off he is involved in a car crash and hospitalized for an array of serious injuries, as later itemized by Julian: “You got your skull cracked, your left arm broken, your jaw dislocated and one of your kneecaps damaged”. The crystallographer maintains a bedside vigil and tape-records some of the philosophical musings about space travel that her partner utters whilst comatose. The book ends with one of these recordings, in which Lewis contends that space travel can only be fully appreciated by artists, not scientists:
“The problems of space, if there are any, are spiritual problems, and the only person who can begin to comprehend them, let alone make any contribution to them, is the artist. You can’t ‘think’ about space, but by God you can feel it, and write a poem about it, or symphony, or paint it.”