This is the first of what would become a lengthy and celebrated series of science fiction novels for young readers nicknamed the “Heinlein Juveniles.” Heinlein had not yet settled into the style and subjects that made many of the others in the series memorable and excellent, and when I first read this in my twenties, I didn’t like it very much, and haven’t read it since. That made it almost a new book for me, and I enjoyed it more this time.
Ross Jenkins, Art Mueller, and Maurice Abrams are three high-school boys who are experimenting with small rockets as a hobby. Their knowledge and mechanical skills show they know what they’re doing, but that doesn’t prevent an accident when their test rocket explodes on the test pad. Worse yet, something from the explosion seems to have hit a man entering their test field, who turns out to be Art’s Uncle Donald Cargraves, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project developed atomic bombs for the U.S. government. When Cargraves recovers and examines their work, he’s impressed enough to make a startling proposal. Cargraves is planning a rocket test of his own in the desert of New Mexico. He has a plan to outfit a mail rocket with an atomic engine of his own invention and take it to the moon. He invites the three boys to become his assistants and crew, if their parents will let them. Eventually they do, and the crew begins work at the desert site, but before long find they are under surveillance and even attack by some unknown operatives. They push ahead with their plans and their ship, the Galileo, takes off for the moon before anything can stop them. Unfortunately, once they arrive, they find even more dangerous interference and trouble.
There are a lot of things that seem overly simplistic about this story today, including the idea that amateurs could build and fly a moon rocket on hardly any budget, but the story is still exciting and interesting. The enemy they find on the moon is a predictable one for the time it was written, just after World War Two: Nazis. Overlooking that aspect, the book is an exciting page-turner with interesting twists and turns and a satisfyingly heroic storyline. Heinlein’s series improved markedly after this, but it’s not a bad start, and I would have loved it if I’d read it first as a child. Recommended.