Chapter 1 - Seeking Remote Globes

Chapter 1 - Seeking Remote Globes​

“It is a plain road from the Earth to the stars, though mortal feet cannot tread it.”

September 6, 1958 - South Atlantic Ocean
The USS Norton Sound, having left the Californian port of Hueneme last month, now remains stationary amidst the frigid waves, accompanied by 4 other ships. In the past week, two nuclear warheads were fired over 150 km into the sky as a part of Operation Argus. Each detonation was a brilliant spectacle of colours flowing across the sky,
sparking brief auroras as they poured into the Van Allen belts, discovered under a year ago. Just moments from now, the final W-25 nuclear warhead will launch from the modified seaplane tender, while multiple small satellites orbit overhead, hoping to observe it and send back the data. Explorer 4, and Pilot-9. More were planned, but Explorer 5 exploded during launch, and Pilots 4 through 8 all failed at some point, either through ignition or structural failures. Despite sub-par performance on the part of the launch vehicle, the sheer fact that NOTSNIC made it to orbit would have resounding consequences for the future of space.

September 1945
World War II had come to an end, as Japan signs the final peace treaty. Two months earlier, the United States had detonated the first ever nuclear bomb. Three weeks later, two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 130,000 in total. With the end of the war, the remaining allied powers undertook secret programs to capture German rocket scientists who had worked on the V-2, and take them for their own rocket programs.

The United Kingdom planned Operation Backfire, reconstructing and launching three V-2 rockets, producing blueprints for the rocket, and planning further rocketry endeavours. On December 23, 1946, the British Interplanetary Society would suggest a larger rocket being built, derived from the V-2, that would carry a man on a suborbital trajectory. This rocket was called Megaroc, and it would ultimately go no further than a conceptual design. Britain kept its blueprints, and should the time ever come, they could produce their own long range missiles.

The Soviet Union had Operation Osoaviakhim, secretly removing over 2,500 scientists, and another 4000 family members, and taking them to the USSR. 3 years later in October 1948, a fully soviet replica of the V-2 was constructed, the R-1. As the years passed, larger and larger missiles were designed. In 1952, the R-2 came online, possessing a range of 575 km. 4 years later, the R-5 rocket emerged, able to fly over twice as far, and potentially carry warheads up to 1Mt, over 60 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The soviet rockets would continue to progress, culminating in the R-7 Semyorka, the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM.

The United States had Operation Paperclip, capturing not just engineers, but rocket parts as well. Taken to various sites in New Mexico, the engineers were forced to work on designing and constructing new rockets. Launching numerous rockets from White Sands, these frequently broke the yet-to-be-defined Karman Line, sending experiments and taking measurements to further the rocket program. On October 24, 1946, one such flight took the first photo of Earth from space. February 1947, the first animals entered space, fruit flies. Then in November, the first Aerobee rocket launched, followed the next year by the RTB-G-4 Bumper, the American rocket program seemed to be travelling at light speed. Much later in 1955, under president Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Hagerty, his press secretary, announced that the United States planned to launch small orbiting satellites, this would be Project Vanguard. This was followed just 4 days later with the Soviet Union announcing their own intentions, the very first embers of the space race, in an ocean of gasoline.

December 8, 1956
The US was testing its Vanguard rocket, now almost fully completed, from the recently upgraded Cape Canaveral launch site. Its first stage lit up with a thunderous roar that would soon be no more uncommon than the sunrise. Just a mere test of the rocketry system needed for next year’s orbital launch, it worked better than anyone could have hoped, reaching a height of 203 km before falling back down, breaking up over the Atlantic. This was followed 5 months later with Vanguard TV-1, another perfect suborbital test run.

March 15, 1957
Across the world in the Kazakh SSR, an R-7 Semyorka ICBM, the first of its kind, stood tall at the Scientific Test Range Number 5[1]. In parallel with the USA’s testing campaign, this first flight would intentionally fall short of orbit, carrying only a dummy warhead, transmitting the flight data back to control. Its core stage and boosters ignited, shaking violently. It continued upwards, powering through the pogo oscillations, until just under 100 seconds after launch, a fire broke out in one of the boosters. This fire quickly expanded to shut down the engines, breaking the booster away and causing the entire craft to tumble with asymmetric thrust. Quickly, it was broken apart by aerodynamic forces, crashing 400 km away. This would not deter the program, but it would delay the first orbital satellite attempt. This attempt would be announced on July 9, with the USSR publicly announcing the preparation of a satellite, and the radio frequencies to be used. A month later on August 5, an American U-2 spy plane conducted another overflight of the USSR, but this time, over the Scientific Test Range. The US was finally able to gauge their progress, and it wasn’t looking good. 16 days later, another test launch of the R-7, Korolev was finally proving that this rocket could work, as it successfully launched another dummy warhead to the Kamchatka Peninsula, completing its mission. With this, the orbital launch was officially ready to go, Nikita Khrushchev officially approving a launch for as soon as possible.

October 4, 1957
Several tries were made to launch, but issues kept coming up, small electric glitches or fuelling issues, the daylight faded, giving way to the speckled night sky. The vast steppe is illuminated by diffuse floodlights and the reflected light of the moon. Determined to push forward, Korolev tried one final launch attempt. Trumpets sounded from in front of the pad, a musician playing the bugle to display the significance. The engines ignite, rapidly lifting the vehicle into the sky, it turned just as it was meant to, and the boosters fell away in what would later be called the Korolev Cross. The rocket disappeared over the horizon, and the long wait began to see if it made it to orbit. No tracking stations were set up around the planet, needing to wait for a full orbit to see if it had made it. And sure enough, 90 minutes later, that steady beeping was heard. Korolev stood up, walked to the front of the room and began to speak.

“The conquering of space has begun. Today we have witnessed the realisation of a dream nurtured by some of the finest minds who ever lived. Our outstanding scientist Tsiolkovsky brilliantly foretold that mankind would not forever remain on the Earth. Sputnik is the first confirmation of his prophecy. We can be proud that this was begun by our country.”

October 5, 1957 - Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake
It was late in the night, the sun had set many hours ago and the only light that remained was the soft glow of distant buildings. The moon hung silently amidst the stars of Aquarius, Saturn and Venus not far away. Leo Jagiello, an aerodynamicist for NOTS, stared off into the desert sky, his eyes fixed on a small dot. Sputnik was floating overhead, singing her constant beeps in all directions for everyone to hear. Lee walked back to the station and found the deputy technical director, Hack Wilson.

“Hey Hack, I just saw Sputnik, you know what we ought to do? We ought to go shoot the damned thing down.

The idea was sparked. On October 14, a meeting was held where the prospect of air-launching a rocket was considered. Technical Director Bill McLean and Hack Wilson wound up going to Washington, briefing the idea of a NOTS satellite to President Eisenhower. The proposal was met well, and $200,000 was provided to demonstrate the plausibility of an air-launch quickly expanding to $860,000 for a ground launched satellite. The ground launch funding would, next year, be diverted to the air-launch proposal, to avoid the embarrassment of another potential failure like the Vanguard rocket.

November 3, 1957
Sputnik 1 was followed just a month later with Sputnik 2, carrying the first lifeform into orbit, a street dog named Laika. The rocket took off without a hitch, placing her firmly in orbit, but not all was well. The thermal regulation system wasn’t working properly, causing the capsule to quickly overheat to unbearable levels in a matter of hours, causing a premature end to the mission. Laika was never intended to return to Earth, as the capsule had no heat shield. Her mission was merely to stay in space, a first ambassador of humanity to the stars, or a sacrifice to prove the safety of those who will surely follow her.

December 6, 1957
America was now in a rush to get a satellite in orbit as fast as possible, preparing the first Vanguard satellite for launch. Multiple attempts were made, eventually delaying the launch due to a frozen valve, high winds and the preparation crew being generally tired. Two days passed and the next attempt was made, the first stage ignited with another magnificent roar, and for all of two seconds, the rocket began to rise. Then the engine lost its pressure, slowly falling back onto the launch pad, falling over, and exploding. The satellite was miraculously ok, having fallen out of the fairing and rolled off the pad to safety. Following this disastrous launch, work on a different satellite began, with the work of Wernher von Braun planning to launch a smaller satellite named Explorer 1 on a Jupiter C missile. Originally planned to launch in May of next year, early preparation had pulled the launch date to as early as January, and changed the launch vehicle to Juno I.


January 31, 1958
Numerous reporters from around the country sat just over two kilometres from the rocket, towering on the launch pad. The Juno I’s sole Rocketdyne A-7 ignites, quickly using up its fuel of hydyne and liquid oxygen, painting an elegant stroke of light across the sky. The reporters stared in amazement as the once gigantic rocket disappeared into nothing more than a speck of light in the sky. The first stage breaks away as its fuel runs out, and the second stage cluster of 11 solid rockets quickly burns through its 6 seconds of fuel, followed by a cluster of 3, and a final, lone solid rocket. The satellite breaks away, unfurling its antennae and begins to record its scientific data. Twirling around the planet 12 times a day, its geiger-muller tube recorded the prevalence of cosmic rays at different altitudes, and found a strange anomaly - for most of its orbit, the instrument was saturated, meaning the radiation in a specific zone around earth was much higher than first thought. Though mostly harmless for the spacecraft, it could be a risk to human spaceflight.

February 5, 1958
Following this launch just a week later, Vanguard 1 finally took to the stars, shooting upwards and, before anyone could parse what just happened, it disappeared over the horizon and began to hum its exoatmospheric telemetry to all Minitrack receivers who listened. Already breaking new ground for space exploration, Vanguard 1 is the first spacecraft powered by solar cells. Charging its batteries from the light of the sun, and using its perfectly symmetric shape to study the effects of the thin atmosphere on its orbit.

March 3, 1958
For the past 6 months, NOTS had been scrambling to get further funding for their Pilot vehicle, enough so that they had been changing the name of the program to lead to confusion and more funding allocated to what seemed like a new project. The main name was NOTSNIK/NOTSNIC, a combination of the acronym for NOTS and both Sputnik and the last name of the program’s director, Dr. John Nicolaides[2]. Luckily, there was a program that NOTSNIC could help with, Operation Argus. A secret Navy-led plan to detonate nuclear warheads in space above the South Atlantic Ocean. Reaching successively greater heights, Three W-25 warheads would be launched into space, then detonated to test if such an explosion could form a disk of particles that could destroy the electronics of incoming soviet missiles.

The existence of a swarm of satellites, such as what could be accomplished with NOTSNIC, would help to observe the detonations, and study the effects it causes. Thanks to this, the program would receive extra funding. Just under $1,000,000 was given, but with an incredibly close deadline. The Argus detonations began in late August, just under 6 months away. The NOTSNIC team was forced to work 15 hours a day, 6 days a week, to meet the deadline. This couldn’t be delayed at all, as the US had agreed to a voluntary ceasing of nuclear tests in October.

The vehicle created by NOTS was an incredibly simple one, yet also incredibly complex. Launched from the underbelly of a F4D-1 Skyray at 35,000 feet and Mach 0.8. Originally, studies suggested it would be worth designing the vehicle to utilise ramjets, but this was out of budget. Instead, it would ignite its first 2 HOTROC solid motors, the second 2 igniting shortly after flameout, then the ABL X241 motor almost two minutes later. The large fins were ever so slightly tilted, imparting a small spin on the vehicle building up to 5RPM. This spin causes it to constantly scan the sky, and once it detects the horizon with an infrared camera, it ignites stage 4, followed by stage 5. A small timer is set at launch, exactly 200 seconds after launch, stage 4 drops away, and 3,000 later, on the other side of the planet, it ignites the tiny stage 6 motor. This motor burns for a single second, providing a “Kick in the apogee” to place the craft in a stable orbit. With only 6 months to ready the vehicle, the perfect mix of speed and caution must be exercised to complete it in time.

May 15, 1958
The Soviet Union yet again launches a satellite, this one, originally meant to be the first satellite, was not ready in time for launch, getting delayed to the third launch. It carries a multitude of scientific instruments which, had it been the first, would’ve discovered the Van Allen belts. Weighing 1,300 kilograms, it is the heaviest satellite yet to be launched, and by a wide margin, over twice as heavy as Sputnik 2. A previous attempt to launch Sputnik 3 ended in failure when the rocket broke apart 97 seconds into flight. Strangely enough, the satellite has mostly survived impact with the ground, being taken back to Baikonur to be repaired. A small fire broke out inside the electronics, but was quickly extinguished, any damaged electronics replaced with those from the backup craft. The person-sized satellite continued to transmit its findings back to the ground until it finally ran out of power, around June 27th, when it would silently circle the earth until the atmosphere drags it back down.

July 25, 1958
Months of frantic development and component testing had come to an end, with the inaugural launch of the first NOTSNIC craft. The F4D-1 Skyray took off into the sky from China Lake, and began to rise to 35,000 feet. It hit the altitude, and the Pilot is told to enter the bomb toss, pitching up to 57 degrees and mach 0.9 as the payload automatically drops at 40,000ft. Quickly banking right so as to not be hit with supersonic solid motor exhaust, 3 seconds later, the first two HOTROCs ignite with a power never before felt by a soon-to-be orbital spacecraft. They burn through their 135 kg of solid fuel in just 5 seconds, the next 2 HOTROCs activating 12 seconds after they burn out. The rocket coasts for another two minutes before the ABL X241 begins burning as well, burning for a comparative eternal 36 seconds, before it too runs out, breaking away not long after. The unnamed NOTS 8 ignites next, burning for just 6 seconds before shutting down and falling away. All of this occurred without the knowledge of the pilot, or NOTS itself. View of the rocket was temporarily lost when the bomb toss was performed, but thankfully was regained moments later, showing it well on its way to orbit. Half an hour later, Christchurch tracking station heard NOTSNIC’s signal singing back to Earth. The rocket had worked, and if they could launch an anti-satellite weapon, so could the Soviets.

[1] This would later be renamed Baikonur Cosmodrome

[2] There is scarce information on NOTSNIK available, with only a brief mention of the name NOTSNIC in The Station Comes of Age by Cliff Lawson. For this timeline, it will be referred to exclusively as NOTSNIC
Since I'm beginning this timeline from scratch (I never got around to reading the original version but had it bookmarked) I wanted to ask a few questions.

1. What is the "official" POD?
2. What's the basic idea behind this timeline? - like an elevator pitch of how it's different from OTL.
3. Will you be distinguishing between Navy vs Airforce Launches?

Very compelling stuff + like the graphics. Please update soon!
Since I'm beginning this timeline from scratch (I never got around to reading the original version but had it bookmarked) I wanted to ask a few questions.
glad you're reading the reboot :D and of course! questions are welcomed ^.^
1. What is the "official" POD?
The last part in this chapter, the first successful orbiting of NOTSNIC IOTL was dubiously confirmed as the pilot lost sight during the bomb toss. ITTL the pilot regains visual contact, allowing for a more conclusive confirmation, and causing that thought of "If we can launch an ASAT, the soviets can too." that sparks further investigation.
2. What's the basic idea behind this timeline? - like an elevator pitch of how it's different from OTL.
Basically, the aforementioned POD leads to a further investment into the military potential of space (hence, the two paths of spaceflight, civilian and military), this spirals into a radically different space age and, counterintuitively, more space exploration than otherwise.
3. Will you be distinguishing between Navy vs Airforce Launches?
I will for the next chapter, things get a bit more confusing in chapter 3, but you'll see what happens there when it comes out in just under 2 weeks :D
Very compelling stuff + like the graphics. Please update soon!
thank you! the last image is actually a real image of the first air-launched NOTSNIC attempt, I forgot to label it as such - the rest of the images are drawn by me though! and for once ive got my things together, updates will be coming weekly on fridays! next one in just a few days, i think 3? i'm very excited to get through these first few chapters to get to the real interesting stuff, I hope y'all will be looking forward to some really cool planetary missions ; )
Chapter 2 - The Way-Out Man

Chapter 2- The Way-Out Man​

“Space is a sea without end which washes on strange and exotic shores; where the conceivable forms of the living and dead are greatly outnumbered by the inconceivable; where the known is lost in the unknown; where new dangers hide in undiscovered shadows in unimagined forms; where new goals can challenge and new beauty and wonder can inspire the spirits of all people — for all time.”
-Dandridge M. Cole

August 17, 1958
In an attempt to beat the Soviet Union’s upcoming lunar flights, the Air force was called upon to design a spacecraft to hastily enter lunar orbit. This uniquely shaped spacecraft carried a spin-stabilised camera on board, tracing its heritage to the NOTSNIC satellites. Launching in the morning, the Thor-Able it sits upon miraculously makes it to space. Mission control sitting in disbelief, the TLI burn is commanded, and the spacecraft does not explode! The room erupts into celebration exactly the way they hoped Pioneer 1 would not, watching as their shot at the moon drifts peacefully towards that silver globe.

August 19, 1958
Without warning, extra telemetry was received, and Pioneer’s signal was fading in and out. For whatever reason, it had entered a spin, the Earth entering the camera’s line of sight, causing it to start imaging. By itself, not a horrible failure, it would no longer be able to image the moon, but it was still alive. For a few more minutes, as the signal with Pioneer dropped into nothingness. Thought to be caused by temperature regulation issues, the craft was never heard from again. When asked about the failure, the general consensus among USAF officials was that “The fact it made it this far was incredible. It would have been more shocking if it succeeded.” This sentiment would be questioned as a strange lack of faith in the space program, but would clearly be warranted. Who gets a spacecraft right the first try?

December 4, 1958

The USSR does, apparently. Launching a small metal sphere, not unlike sputnik, towards the moon. Launching in the dead of night towards the moon, the Dream takes flight, Mechta-1 soaring on her albatross wings. Losing a few feathers on the way up, all seems well until the trajectory is calculated. The engines burned for slightly too long. Mechta would miss the moon, and by 5,400 km. Though the hope for an impactor would have to wait, important science could still be done, studying the solar wind and searching for a magnetic field around the Moon, to no result. The small craft quickly flew past the moon, continuing on to interplanetary space, the human race’s first artificial world.

January 2, 1959
The partially-successful Mechta-1 was followed up by Mechta-2, an identical probe, on an identical rocket. This time, launching just before noon, the rocket performed a perfect trans-lunar injection. Following the previous launch, the USSR was accused of faking the mission, and this was dealt with in a way that didn’t require polonium in tea just yet. Bernard Lovell, an english astronomer at the Jodrell Bank Observatory was contacted via teletype from the Mechta team, providing information on where and when to look in the sky to hear the probe’s signals. While in mid-transit, Mechta-2 released a cloud of sodium to aid with tracking, and produce an artificial comet to study the movement of gases in space. Before too long, Mechta-2 began to fall down towards the moon. Two small titanium pennants were separated, small explosive charges in their centres detonating, scattering over 120 small shields to strike across the surface of the moon. Titanium was no sporadic choice, it was hoped these miniscule trinkets would survive the impact No cameras were onboard, but her view would have been beautiful, falling towards Sinus Iridum at 3 km/s, the view of the surface quickly engulfing the small probe, impacting the surface in a magnificent splash of regolith and rock. Bernard Lovell received the final signals at Jodrell Bank observatory while also phoning them to American media, confirming the mission’s validity. The USSR had taken home another win, while the US was still struggling to get their probes on the right course.

January 15, 1959 - Naval Ordnance Test Station
Project Argus had concluded 6 months earlier, leaving little for NOTSNIC to do besides testing components. The team waited cautiously for news about the fate of the program, and it would not disappoint. Not only would NOTSNIC continue, it would gain new capabilities as a true ASAT, and soon be placed on a new plane. The upcoming spaceplane, the X-15. And not only this, NOTS would help with the design and construction of several instruments for future space missions. Nicolaides had his eyes set on a goal, and that goal lay among the planets.

March 3, 1959
The still fresh-out-the-oven NASA continues to dredge along its yet unsuccessful Pioneer program, preparing to launch its fourth, technically fifth instalment. Though unsuccessful is being a bit harsh, its main goal had not yet been achieved, but it still conducted plenty of useful science. Pioneer 3 for example launched just four months ago, its injection failed to reach the moon, instead resulting in a mortifying “suborbital” flight with an apogee of 100,000 kilometres. On its way up and down, it had found that the increase in radiation previously seen on Sputnik 3 was, in fact, an entirely distinct second Van Allen belt. The spacecraft had little time to celebrate its discovery, promptly disintegrating in atmospheric plasma over Africa. Only slightly deterred, NASA would launch their fifth attempt on the Juno II rocket, climbing into the sky, leaving behind a glorious trail of fire and smoke. The various stages broke away as they drained, pushing the fragile conical craft faster and faster towards the moon. Finally, after a few nail-biting minutes, she was on her way to the moon. But how close? Mission control calculated the path as fast as they reasonably could, and found that it would pass just 3,300 km above the lunar surface. About as perfect a trajectory as they could wish for.

Just 41 hours after launch, Pioneer began to scan its camera across the face of the moon, revealing this world in more detail than ever before. Craters smaller and smaller, covering the surface. Blankets of ejecta and small rifts in the surface, mountains and maria, an entire world unto itself. The probe would not spend long here, shooting past at 2.5km/s. Floating off into the vast expanse of heliocentric space, losing contact just a few days later. All in all, an incredibly successful mission, firmly placing America back in the competition.

March 21, 1959 - Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake
It was time for the end of NOTSNIC 1, the Skyray taking flight carrying its special payload one final time. Chosen to fly this flight was commander William W West, who conducted the first flight of the program. Climbing up to the required altitude, he initiated the bomb-toss and quickly turned the plane away. Solid motor after solid motor ignited, a shooting star across the sky, disappearing over the horizon. This time as nobody saw it explode, everyone listened keenly for the signal to appear, and as with the first one, the Christchurch tracking station would hear that faint signal. And to top off the mission, one of the NOTS-designed lunar scanners was aboard[1], and a low quality image of the surrounding area was returned. A fantastic end to a marginally successful program.

June 17, 1959 - Edwards AFB
The space age had begun almost two years ago, and still no person had been to space. This would not be changing just yet, but it was close. The X-15 spaceplane was almost ready for operation. Being developed for the past 5 years, going through multiple design revisions and thorough testing, this state-of-the-art vehicle could send people closer to space than anything before. Its skin was a metallic nickel-alloy named Inconel X, and its interior was titanium. This Inconel X material was necessary to withstand the incredible temperatures of hypersonic flight and reentry, upwards of 600°C, while the interior remained close to room temperature. The pilot was to wear a suit, the internal atmosphere of the vehicle being pure nitrogen, to prevent fires, and to protect them in case of an abort. This vehicle is littered with incredible ingenuity, one example being the abort system, and ejection seat capable of aborts at Mach 4 (1.3km/s) and at altitudes of 40km.

The first true test flight was about to take place, the B-52 Stratofortress carrying the X-15 under its body, 35,000 feet above the ground. Checking the systems, everything appears to be ready for free-flight, and so the X-15 pilot, Scott Crossfield, separated. The 2 XLR11 engines onboard activated, spewing out their mix of ethanol and liquid oxygen, propelling the vehicle past the speed of sound and high above the ground below. The craft approaches mach 2.2 before the engines burn out, depleted of fuel. At 18 kilometres, Crossfield begins the descent. Separating the tailfin he cautiously keeps the plane stable, fighting strange oscillations in pitch, he approaches the runway. The back wheels make contact, then the front, and the X-15 slowly begins to brake. The mission comes to an end, under half an hour of flight, the X-15 appears to be worthy of higher and faster flights, and these would come very soon, along with a new program; The extended NOTSNIC program, should it continue to perform with the same success as it displayed today.

June 18, 1959
Back at Baikonur, a new spacecraft was being prepared. The probe of Mechta-3 was an entirely new design, featuring solar panels blanketing the exterior, large antennae, experiments to measure the density of micrometeoroids, cosmic rays, and a camera imaging system. This mission would yet again break new ground, or rather, image it. Aiming to fly past the far side of the moon, yet unknown to humanity. Launching in the afternoon, it quickly began making its way towards the moon, being tracked yet again by both Jodrell Bank, and various tracking stations across the Soviet Union. Launching from a strange angle, it approached the moon coming from beneath. At 65,000km from the moon, Mechta was commanded to enter the proper orientation for imaging, from here on out it would only be a few hours until closest approach, calculated to be around 5,200km; only 3 lunar radii away. Images and data began to flow in, showing a slight uptick in micrometeoroids, though very minimal.

The first image of the moon was received, showing a view almost directly under the lunar south pole, revealing a heavily cratered landscape dotted with shadows, though the quality of the image showed it to be more of a blur. The next image, far behind the moon, showed terrain incredibly different from the near side, almost no maria, just craters with a few miniscule splotches of sea. 20 more photos were taken, showing more of the far side and the lunar north pole. Once this flyby was finished, the lunar gravity had bent the trajectory around, bringing it back to earth. This was good, allowing for better data transmission, but the path was to bring it closer than the planner, Mstislav Keldysh, had originally hoped. Data was streamed back as fast as it could, battery being much less of a concern now that Mechta-3 was on a path to reenter the atmosphere somewhere over Central Siberia.

August 20, 1959 - Glenn L. Martin Titan Test Facilities, Denver
It was a hot, humid day in Denver, helped in no part by the constant heat of machinery that filled the test facility. Work had been taking place over the past few weeks to design a new launch vehicle, Arcturus. Its designer, Dandridge Macfarlan Cole, was an incredible mind. Having fought in WWII just 15 years ago, and with a lifelong passion for rocketry and futurism, it’s no surprise that he would design, and help build rockets. His design for Arcturus was pitched as a replacement for the upcoming lunar program, claiming it could conduct a moon landing by 1966. a cluster of 7 Titan tanks together, powered by two gargantuan F-1 engines, guzzling a combined 5 metric tons of liquid oxygen and kerosene per second. Stage two was to be 3 tanks together, powered by a single F-1. The third and final stage would be a lone Titan tank, filled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for a J-2 engine. Cole also suggested attaching a JATO system to the rocket, able to lift it up to mach 3.5 using 12 Pratt & Whitney J58 engines[2]. Two other rockets were also provided, speculative future rockets involving a sled-launched nuclear spaceplane named Antares and a sea-launched CONEX spaceplane named Aldebaran. These were out of consideration, due to the technology being nowhere near ready yet, but Arcturus was wholly feasible, all the components already existed.

In a bold move, Martin would invest money into further studies, finding that this rocket could in fact perform as expected, even better if SRBs were added. Shockingly, it seemed a better choice than the under-development Saturn, able to lift almost twice as much with the same gross mass, though the Nova still prevailed in terms of total payload. Further studies were also to be conducted on Antares, potentially Aldebaran should the nuclear pulse concept be feasible, but likely not before the 1980 timeframe suggested by Cole.

October 4, 1959
The success of Mechta-3 demanded that further probes be sent to the moon, resulting in a new spacecraft design yet again, the E-3. Carrying higher resolution cameras than the previous design used on Mechta-3, as well as small gas jets to perform midcourse manoeuvres, hopefully avoiding another probe entering the atmosphere unexpectedly. The first of these probes, of which only two were made, is Mechta-4. Taking flight in the early afternoon, the side boosters quickly drain their fuel, breaking away as the core stage burns for a short while longer. Half an hour after launch, Mechta-4 was already on her way to the moon, and the scramble to plan the flyby began. The E-3 was planned to fly closer to the moon, in this case, just 1,900 kilometres above the lunar surface - and it would take advantage of this to take much better images of the far side, specifically Tsiolkovsky and Mare Moscoviense.

October 5, 1959
Following this launch just a day later, another Mechta probe would attempt a lunar flyby. Launching in the beautiful dim orange glow of a fading sunset, the Luna 8K72 rocket climbs into the sky, leaving one side booster tumbling to the ground as it fails to achieve full thrust. The engine thrust is now unbalanced, causing the entire 35 metre tall vehicle to begin pitching over. Subject to aerodynamic forces, the remaining 3 boosters are broken off, two of them falling to the ground in a massive explosion, the third one shooting off over a crowd of, now mortified spectators, then crashing into the ground just a short distance away from the vehicle assembly building. The core stage continues to fire its engines, now tumbling over and over, until it gets torn apart by the forces, careening to the ground a few kilometres from the launch site.

Soviet TV had frequent broadcasts cutting into the progress of Mechta-4, never mentioning the launch failure of what would have been Mechta-5. These updates showed all systems performing nominally. These broadcasts weren’t entirely truthful however, one of the solar panels was failing to produce power, but this would not endanger the mission just yet, it would at least survive a trip around the moon. Arriving on the 6th of October, Mechta cast her robotic eyes upon the far side of the moon again. The image quality wasn’t much better, but the closer approach distance did show new details of the surface, showing that Tsiolkovsky was merely a small patch inside a crater. Th
e Sea of Dreams was nothing at all, just a photographic error on the horizon, but Mare Moscoviense was in fact real, one of very few maria on the lunar far side. Mechta began to slowly twist around the moon, dipping behind its horizon and regaining communications with earth, but not before an erroneous picture command was sent. Not the worst thing in the world, and what was shown in the image was beautiful. The disk of the Earth, swirling with clouds, barely floating above the limb of the moon. The moon was not just a satellite of Earth, but a true other world in every sense of the world. With the smashing victory of Mechta-4, the rest of the Mechta lunar program could finally move ahead, now aiming to send more advanced probes around the moon. Hard landers, soft landers, orbiters, and eventually rovers and sample returns. This would all, hopefully, culminate in a series of crewed lunar missions, though this would not be for several years at a minimum.

[1] Some of the early lunar probes did in-fact contain the same imaging systems as was planned for NOTSNIC, though the probes carrying them all failed before the imaging system could work.
[2] There is exceedingly little information on Dandridge Cole's rocket concepts, this is pieced together from multiple sources - the books Beyond Tomorrow and Exploring the Secrets of Space, as well as a segment in the newspaper Space World November 1960. The JATO had no engine specified, so I chose a jet engine that existed at the time, capable of reaching the specified velocity (1220m/s) and finding the right amount to have a positive T/W ratio.

feedback would be greatly appreciated if possible ^.^
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Good so far, I'll point out there's a nice line drawing of Arcturus on the nasaspaceflightDOTcom forums under "Never Flown Titan Variants" I'll try and cross post it.
I've got my doubts the Air Force would manage to carry off such a vehicle by 1966 but we'll see :) Getting them to fully fund the J-2 might be an issue, since they were hedging their bet somewhat by having the LR-87 tested with LH2/LOX but that does not happen till about mid-1960.

The air-breathing concept is a version of the "Aerospaceplane" concept I think? Or is it a first stage of a launcher? There were different version all around :)

The J58 is a good choice for a jet engine given a modified "Turbo-Ramjet" version was being built for the A-12/SR-71, some bonus points if someone actually listens to the "air-liquification" sub-contractor and realizes they can avoid full air-liquefication in favor of early deep cooling of the intake. (Even better if they keep doing the intake water injection experiments which were showing promise and we now know can almost double your engine compressor face Mach number and give you over double the thrust without an AB. Aka a nominally Mach 2 engine can run at Mach 4 with the same performance)

Of course the main question is can your airframe handle it :)

The air-breathing concept is a version of the "Aerospaceplane" concept I think? Or is it a first stage of a launcher? There were different version all around :)
I think it is part of the first stage, or more of a stage 0 i suppose. Another of Dandridge Cole's designs, Antares, also featured an air-breathing take-off system (although using ramjets instead)
The J58 is a good choice for a jet engine given a modified "Turbo-Ramjet" version was being built for the A-12/SR-71, some bonus points if someone actually listens to the "air-liquification" sub-contractor and realizes they can avoid full air-liquefication in favor of early deep cooling of the intake. (Even better if they keep doing the intake water injection experiments which were showing promise and we now know can almost double your engine compressor face Mach number and give you over double the thrust without an AB. Aka a nominally Mach 2 engine can run at Mach 4 with the same performance)
oh? I'm not very experienced with the aero part of aerospace, whats this about air liquefaction and deep cooling?
I can't really speak to the accuracy or feasibility of early spaceflight as it's a bit outside my knowledge and ability to fact check, so I'll just comment that this was very engaging to read as a complete layman and that I'm excited to see more.
oh? I'm not very experienced with the aero part of aerospace, whats this about air liquefaction and deep cooling?

Long story not so short :)

Aerospaceplane was a 1950s concept worked on by almost every aircraft manufacturer at the time using multiple engines (kind of before the concept of combined-cycle was really well known) where they would start out with turbojets, switch to ramjets and then finally to rockets. Needing the theoretical performance (Aerospaceplane was supposed to be an SSTO) they baselined hydrogen for fuel and since it was going to be in the atmosphere for a bit, (0 to arounch Mach 7 or 8) they came up with the idea of generating the LOX for the rockets while in flight to save takeoff weight. Part of the liquid hydrogen fuel would be used to liquify the oxygen out of the air to fill the LOX tanks.
(As you can imagine this would become harder the faster they went with one idea needing to refill the LH2 tanks before the design could make orbit so they proposed air-to-air refueling... At Mach 6!)

So far, so good but a lot of this was based on using the LH2 to liquify the air and then dumping it overboard because as far as the aero-engineers knew (LH2 engines being mostly theoretical or very new technology) you needed liquid LH2 (and LOX) to run a rocket engine and due to heating up making the oxygen liquid (especially at speeds above Mach 2 where in many cases it was also used to cool the airframe) the "liquid" hydrogen was now gaseous hydrogen. (Some ideas would later feed this to the turbojet and ramjet engines in a bid to waste less fuel)

Now during testing of the air liquification process one subcontractor actually asked the rocket engine folks how a "liquid" rocket engine worked and they found out that you could in fact inject gaseous hydrogen into a rocket engine because in the design that's actually what happens. (The confusion was due to the assumed need to have "liquid" for the turbopumps to feed on and this turned out to be less 'true' than assumed) Their findings were ignored as the goal of the project was right there in the name of the engine, "liquid"...

On another side of aviation engineering, (known and reported and initially being worked on for very high-performance military aircraft but something a "rocket" engineer would tend to overlook and keep in mind most of the "Aerospaceplane" work was done by airframe engineers with a little input from propulsion engineers :) ) there was work being done on "injection" into a turbojet engine to increase performance. By injecting water (and you'd be surprised at how little it took) into either the afterburner or intake you could boost thrust by increasing the mass flow through the engine*. A side-effect of injecting it into the air intake was an increased Mach speed limit (the limit where the temperature of the compressor face and turbine begin to exceed the material limits of the engine) as you kept the intake assembly and compressor face of the turbojet 'cooler' thereby 'tricking' it into thinking that it was going slower than it actually was. (In other words Mach 4 intake air would "only" feel like Mach 2 air) And the 'deeper' you cooled the more dense the intake air became and therefore the higher your mass flow and thrust.

Problem is water is temperature limited to about Mach 4-ish but since you were planning on using the liquid hydrogen to keep your structure from melting, (including the intakes and exhausts) why not look at cooling the incoming air and then injecting the now gaseous hydrogen into an afterburner for even more performance? Well at the time nobody really put all this together. They had to keep increasing the size of the fuel tankage (or looking at hypersonic air-to-air refueling :) ) to the point where the Aerospaceplane design was becoming huge for the amount of payload it carried and meanwhile rockets were becoming bigger and more capable so Aerospaceplane got set aside.

Some butterflies of various contractors listening to their own subcontractors (and heck even asking actual propulsion engineers some pointed questions would help) would go a long way towards building a better base both for hypersonic aircraft flight and space flight. (IMHO of course :) )

*= From personal experience the F-105 "Thunderchief" (nicknamed the "Thud" but we'll get to that part :) ) was a Mach 2 "interceptor" originally but was fitted with a water injection system to give it a higher thrust for 'dash' and intercept purposes. This was retained when the aircraft was reassigned in the bomber and "Wild Weasel" roles. They were loud when just using 'regular' engine power, that doubled when they cut in the after burner, and there was a huge "thud" when they cut in the water injection which more than doubled the output thrust :)
I've got my doubts the Air Force would manage to carry off such a vehicle by 1966 but we'll see :)
In terms of planning time, a 1966 launch date isn't unreasonable, as it's certainly less ambitious than Project Horizon and is in line with OTL comparables. It took the Saturn I -- which is cut from the same conceptual cloth as Arcturus -- four years to go from cutting metal to the launchpad, while Apollo took roughly three years from first flight of the CSM on AS-201 to Apollo 11, of which a solid year of actual flight time was lost to the aftermath of Apollo 1. So if everything goes according to how the planners intend and you give the USAF the same piles of money NASA was given for Apollo, it's totally doable. Then again, this is the USAF, so you need to assume at least two years will be lost to arguments over where to put the bomb-bay on the Moonship and all of the other things the USAF will try to spend Peak Apollo money on if it somehow got its hands on it. With another twelve months of delay from interservice fighting from the Army and Navy each wanting their own cut of that Peak Apollo money too. (On the plus side, MER III might get built, which would be cool even if it turned out to be a technical dead-end.)

As for Arcturus itself, I think Arcturus's development ends up being paced by the J-2, and you probably end up with some interesting alternative third-stage ideas. I'd expect Convair to try to get in on the fun, given someone would note that as Atlas and Titan share the same diameter, you could cluster three Centaurs together and be fairly confident it could be made to fit onto Arcturus's second stage. And six RL10s would give you thrust comparable thrust and better specific impulse to the design specs of the J-2, with an engine which was already in existence. (And which would would go from 425s to 444s of Isp by the time of hoped-for Moon launch wit the RL10-A-3.) And then you get a wonderful scrum, as at least some parts of the the USAF won't like that idea, because the J-2 is the USAF's engine and professional pride is a stubborn thing indeed to get by.
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Actually Saturn 1 took only about three years from starting to 'scrounge' parts to the first flight :)
(Operational use would have to wait till the Block II in 1964 but the 'initial' Saturn 1's were essentially built with 'spare and surplus parts' that they scrounged up and existing tooling and construction sets. The Air Force does not have that background even though they are supposedly proposing to use "Titan" missiles as a base :) )

I question the Air Force doing similarly because of the way the Air Force worked compared to the Army and specifically (in this case) von Braun and company. The Air Force will put a contract out to Martin for development and IF (big if) they don't continually change requirements and specifications you're looking at a year or two just for the design work. (And that's assuming Martin actually thinks that clustering Titan stages would work, OTL they were very less sure of that actually working) Then there's F-1 and J-2 development which I agree would be 'a' pacing item the actual design being probably a bigger one initially though.

I'm going to guess that initially there won't be as much 'mode' discussion as there was OTL since the Air Force will likely initially go for direct landing and them maybe fall back to orbital assembly as Arcturus starts to grow. (And yes I very much assume that one of the "justifications" for the Arcturus will be as a "super-duper-ICBM" somewhere along the line :) )

Kind of wonder what the 'payload' will be as IIRC the artwork showed some winged body, and the AF LUNEX plans called for a large lifting body I don't think a capsule will be the initial idea for the Air Force.

Eager to see where this goes, also found that Arcturus image @RanulfC mentioned earlier.

That's the "artwork" pic I was thinking of, (note the wings on the "payload" :) ) but the other one had some more details to it.

I'm going to have to wait till I get home because I can't access nasaspaceflightDOTcom atm but there's actually a line drawing and baseball card of it there done by one of the forum members.


That's the "artwork" pic I was thinking of, (note the wings on the "payload" :) ) but the other one had some more details to it.

I'm going to have to wait till I get home because I can't access nasaspaceflightDOTcom atm but there's actually a line drawing and baseball card of it there done by one of the forum members.
I think originally there was a bit of talk of launching Dyna-Soar on it, but it doesn't have the same winglets so I have no clue
I think originally there was a bit of talk of launching Dyna-Soar on it, but it doesn't have the same winglets so I have no clue

Kind of meant to note it had wings in general :)
(And the Air Force was showing the Dynasoar everywhere it could at the time but that's likely bigger than that :) )

(Oh and we've not even gotten into the really FUN "aero" space stuff. Ask me about ERJ and SERJ at some point :) )