Novel Concepts: #1 – Alternate History of NASA 1969-2001

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The last exploration of the moon took place in December 1972.  Apollo 17 lifted off from the valley of Taurus-Littrow with the vague hope that human spaceflight beyond Earth’s orbit would continue before the end of the 20th century.  Sadly, this was not to be.

Originally there were to be three more flights, Apollos 18, 19 and 20.  Beyond that, NASA had plans to continue using Apollo hardware through the 1970’s in an effort to build a fledgling lunar base.  There were several factors that prevented this from coming about.  This concept which I am currently developing is a novel that would explore what would happen if we’d continued on as NASA intended.

Stephen Baxter, in 1997, wrote Voyage in which he had John F. Kennedy survive his assassination attempt and use political pressure to have Richard Nixon back a Mars mission in the 1980’s, instead of the Space Shuttle.  He uses the framework of this story to retell the true story of the Apollo Program in the 1960’s, substituting various characters and missions in order to move the story into new areas.  As an aerospace engineer and a historian, the book was everything I could want; but Baxter’s position on NASA has always been negative and I couldn’t square his vision with the optimism that a story like that should possess.  

The inspiration for my new take came from a series of articles about the roads not taken by NASA and various other space programs.  False Steps and Beyond Apollo have been wonderful sources of information on the plans NASA had for continuing the Apollo Program into the 1980’s.  My plan with the novel is to explore an alternate timeline where NASA forgoes the Space Shuttle and, with considerable political support from a major player, continues lunar exploration as a stepping stone to the manned space program I’ve always wanted to see.

The first hurdle with any alternate history story is what’s known as the Point of Departure (POD).  This is the event (or events) which an author changes to redirect the flow of history in the way that is desired.  Often these changes are small and the ripples which lead from them are large.  (e.g. In How Few Remain a single copy of one of Robert E. Lee’s orders, lost in our timeline, is recovered in the alternate history and the ramifications of that single, small event, lead to a Confederate victory and shocking changes to the timeline.)  The point of departure I had in mind is slightly larger, but it too has great ramifications for change.

In early 1964, after departing from NASA, John Glenn, America’s first man in orbit and an extremely popular public figure, decided to run for office in his home state of Ohio.  In reality, Glenn slipped getting out of a bathtub, bumped his head and as a result of his injuries, could not campaign.  I’m choosing to center my POD around this moment and have Glenn be successful in his campaign for the Senate in 1964.  From there two very important things happen.  

Firstly, Glenn writes a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, encouraging him to reinstate the X-20 program which McNamara had cancelled in December of 1963.  The X-20 was the Air Force’s attempt to make a reusable spaceplane for orbital flight, nearly 2 decades before the Space Shuttle’s first flight.  I believe that if the X-20 program had gone forward, several of the problems with the Space Shuttle could have been foreseen and as a result the shuttle program would have either been cancelled, or pushed back much farther until a better design could have emerged with the computer revolution of the 1980’s and 90’s.  The costs and technical challenges which the shuttle developed (and which eventually led to it’s cancellation) are thereby mitigated.  

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Secondly, choosing to use the popularity of a national hero to unite the turbulent America of 1968, Robert Kennedy, who survives his campaign in California, chooses Glenn as his running mate against Richard Nixon.  Repeating the extremely close race of 1960, Nixon loses to Kennedy by a few thousand votes and retires from public life.  The newly elected President Kennedy ends the war in Vietnam as he promised to do in his campaign.  Riding the wave of national pride after the Apollo 11 landing in 1969, Kennedy, encouraged by Vice President Glenn, authorizes NASA to continue the orders for Saturn V rockets and create a lunar base.  

The story I am developing is not entirely the rosy side of a glorified NASA.  I intend to show an imperfect program with setbacks and failures.  I am picturing a framework for the first act of the story which revolves around a stranded Apollo 28 mission which has to use the LESS to escape the moon after the ascent engine of their lunar module fails to fire.  Other problems will certainly develop but I intend to take a more optimistic view of both NASA and America in the last half of the 20th century.

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In the final act of the story, after seeing a moonbase that fulfills the promise of NASA to use discoveries from exploration to benefit both Americans and mankind as a whole, I’ve been thinking about closing with either a mission to Mars following a variation on Robert Zubrin’s plans.  Or perhaps going further with the story and seeing the launch of a voyage to Jupiter of a spacecraft similar to Clarke’s Discovery from 2001.  

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I may expand on this concept in future posts.  

All images used here are not mine and were found through various Google image searches.  If they are protested in anyway, I will remove them promptly.

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