Kolyma's Shadow: An Alternate Space Race

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: After 1900' started by nixonshead, May 11, 2014.

  1. Threadmarks: Part I Post #1: Teaser

    nixonshead Well-Known Member

    Apr 1, 2013

    Part I Post #1: Teaser

    Wernher von Braun was not a happy man. Entering his Cocoa Beach hotel room, he slammed the door behind him and headed straight for the minibar. Grabbing a bottle of Bourbon, he poured himself a large glass and gulped down a mouthful.

    He’d just left a celebration party. His celebration party.

    The launch had gone perfectly, of course, just as he knew it would. Just as he’d been telling everyone it would since Project Orbiter began. A slight modification to the Redstone missile, add a cluster of solid rockets to the top and Bingo! A simple, effective space launcher, ready to go at minimal cost. And it had worked. This afternoon the Juno rocket – his rocket – had placed a satellite into Earth orbit.

    That rocket was the culmination of a dream for von Braun. He had dedicated his life to rocketry and the goal of exploring outer space. The pursuit of that dream by any means had led him from the suburbs of Berlin to the Baltic coast, and finally all the way to the United States. And now here it was! The dream fulfilled – a rocket into space!

    Von Braun gulped down the rest of the Bourbon and poured another, eyes turned downwards. Yes, a great triumph, for him personally and for the United States – but to be second! For a man as driven as he, it was almost too much to bear.

    If only they’d listened! He had been ready to make an orbital launch almost two years ago, but he’d been forced to hold back, even to add ballast to the rocket to make sure it didn’t enter orbit by mistake! And before that, the years wasted at Fort Bliss, he and his team of German rocket experts left kicking their heels whilst the Americans debated what to do with them. Given the support he’d asked for, the United States could have entered the Space Age in 1953 instead of 1958!

    Even given all that, von Braun might have been able to take some small comfort from this belated success. But after all his hard work, to have been beaten into space! Beaten... by the Navy!

    Three Months Earlier…

    Vasily Mishin was not a happy man. He should have been. He had been dreaming of space since the 1930s. Inspired by the works of Tsiolkovsky, he’d joined that happy group of rocketeers at GIRD, then stayed with them as they had been re-formed into the Reaction-Engine Scientific Research Institute. Happy days, before the purges, with Tsander, Glushko, Tikhonravov and the others, working on the cutting edge of science and technology. And here he was, a quarter of a century later, watching his country’s first space rocket as it prepared to launch the satellite he and his bureau had worked so hard on stand ready on the pad under the bright Kazakh sun.

    The rocket should have been inspiring. Mishin found it sinister.

    “Blow my brains out! If it isn’t my old comrade Vasily Pavlovich! When did you escape exile in Miass?”

    Mishin turned to see Aleksei Isaev emerge from the bunker, cigarette in hand. “Hello, Aleksei,” Mishin replied. “I came with Mikhail Kladiyevich to see off his satellite. Assuming that poisoned firecracker can make it off the pad.”

    “Come now Vasily,” Isaev admonished him. “It’s not like it was before you left. Vladimir Nikolaevich has solved the teething problems now. They’ve made it two successful launches out of two since his team went through the project. Ol’ Number Six will deliver your package, don’t worry.”

    “I hope so,” replied Mishin. “If that thing explodes on the launch pad, how do you suppose they'll clean up such a toxic mess? Assuming of course we survived that long.”

    “Vasily, Vasily, still with this argument?” Isaev blew smoke and shook his head. “I know it’s a risk. I was here at Tyuratam during the accident, remember? I saw what can happen. But procedures have been tightened since then. Everyone takes much more care. It won’t happen again.”

    Mishin’s eyes flashed anger. “But it’s not necessary, Aleksei! If they’d just listened to me, we could have an effective, safe rocket with which to journey into space!”

    Isaev was about the answer, but just then a siren sounded and an announcement came over the tannoy:

    “Attention! Your attention please! Launch in ten minutes! Ten minutes to launch!”

    Isaev turned to his old comrade, placing a friendly hand on his arm. “Come on,” he said. “There’s no point re-fighting lost battles. Let us go together to the launch control room and see if our Comrade Chief Designer Chelomei can make it three out of three.”

    Nineteen Years Earlier…

    Cold. Hunger. They were his world.

    When he’d first received word of his transfer from Kolyma, his fellow prisoners had found as many spare clothes as they could and given them to him, to keep him warm on the journey.
    Forced to make his own way, one of the sweaters they’d donated had to be handed over as the price of hitching the 150 kilometres to Magadan on a passing truck. But even had he kept the sweater, the Siberian winter would still have found him.

    Cold. Minus forty degrees centigrade. The snow thick upon the ground. A few extra shirts were no defence.

    Perhaps if he’d left one day earlier, he’d have made it in time to catch the ship. But that ship, the last of the season, was already far out in the Okhotsk Sea by the time he reached the town.
    Instead he was forced to stay in Magadan. He’d sought shelter in a local Army barracks, but had been discovered. The soldiers kicked him out of their warm wooden shelters, back out into the snow.

    Hunger. Two days now since his last meal. At Kolyma he’d learned to be grateful if that day’s soup ration was just slightly thicker than the day before. Two days ago had been a thin day.

    Here there was no soup. Even a crust of bread might have been enough. But there was nothing.

    If he were less hungry, less cold, his last thoughts might have dwelled on his former life. Moscow in the summer. His RNII comrades and their rockets. Xenia. As it was, when the time came all he could feel was a numb weariness.

    Alone and forgotten on a freezing Siberian night, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev closed his eyes for the last time.
  2. nixonshead Well-Known Member

    Apr 1, 2013
    A few notes.

    Welcome to my first AH Timeline! I intend to write in a series of Parts, with 10 Posts per Part. This lets me put together a coherent narrative across a reasonable period of time, and also lets me build up a buffer of posts to hopefully minimise gaps between Parts. When writing the Posts I generally target them at around 2000 words, though this may vary considerably (see obviously the Teaser above). I plan to add Posts once per week, usually on Sunday evenings.

    Part 1 is now fully drafted, so you are guaranteed at least another 9 posts in this TL ;) Part II is currently at the conceptual stage. Whilst I do have some ideas for things I’d like to see happen, my general approach is to let the story take me where it will and to try to avoid setting out what I want to happen then working out how to change events to get there - so in NASA-speak it’s more “Flexible Path” than “Destination Driven”. I’m just as interested as I hope you all are to see where this will end! That said, as time goes by I’d be happy to consider any ideas or suggestions for things that might follow on from Part I to go into Part II.

    I’ve been enormously inspired by some excellent space-related timelines on this site, including of course e of p and Workable Goblin’s epic Eyes Turned Skywards, to which I am lucky enough to have been able to contribute over the last year. I would particularly like to thank e of pi and Brainbin for their fantastic support in reviewing my first drafts and providing excellent specialist advice in their own areas of undoubted expertise during the writing of Part I. Any errors or unfeasible twisting of probabilities remain, of course, down to me.

    I hope you enjoy the timeline!
  3. Brainbin Kingpin of the Cultural Cartel

    Jul 26, 2009
    The British Empire
    Time to subscribe! :D
  4. Michel Van Well-Known Member

    Jul 11, 2007
    Liege Belgium Europe
    oh this gonna be very interresting Space TL :cool:
  5. miner249er Well-Known Member

    Oct 9, 2011
    what is the POD?
  6. e of pi Layers on Top of Layers

    Nov 27, 2008
    Halfway to Anywhere
    I'd just like to say how pleased I am to be able to share the enjoyment I've had reading this so far with the rest of the space fans here on the board--Nixonshead has a lot of fun in store in this, and I'm really proud to have played a part in bringing this to fruition.

    Also: "Beaten....by the Navy!" I love this teaser more every time I read it, and I'm on...number six or seven now? :D

    Sergei Korolev was the Chief Designer on almost every major early Soviet rocket. His R-7 family has launched every Soviet and Russian cosmonaut since Yuri Gagarin. However, he spent the period from 1938 to 1944 imprisoned in gulags on charges of misappropriation of funds. That's him in the second part of the teaser, freezing to death instead of going on to shape the future of the Soviet space program.
  7. Shadow Knight Grand Master of the BAM Order

    Aug 2, 2005
    On a BAM called Earth
    Hmm...interesting. So I take it some Soviet rocket genius died in Siberia in this timeline which has put them far behind in rocketry. Leading to the US being slower to utilize von Braun and his German experts since the rush isn't there to compete with a Soviet program far ahead of the US one?

    And I agree with e of pi "Beaten....by the Navy!" is a awesome line. :D
  8. Archibald space jockey ! Banned

    Jan 22, 2008
    So goodbye Korolev hmmm. And a different space race. Great !
  9. jlckansas Well-Known Member

    Mar 31, 2010
    One thing that I would appreciate is a link to any fuels or oxidizer used that are not the normal ones. An example is Difuoride Dioxide, aka FOOF, I am familiar with, others not so much.

    THank you.

    PS Subscribed.
    Last edited: May 11, 2014
  10. nixonshead Well-Known Member

    Apr 1, 2013
    Thanks for the recommendation! I have of course also been inspired by your own That Wacky Redhead, not least in your style of responding to comments. :D

    Thanks MichelVan, I certainly hope so! I’ve been very much enjoying the Red Star and 2001: A Space-Time Odyssey timelines you’ve been doing with SpaceGeek, so I hope I can return the favour. Also, knowing rocket experts such as yourself are reading helps keep me on my toes when writing the technical stuff ;)

    As e of pi says, the general POD is the death of Korolev in the gulag. When researching a specific incident to act as the POD I was not short of options. The one I finally settled on is summarised in this line:
    According to a story Korolev told colleagues years later, IOTL after being thrown out of the barracks he found a loaf of still-warm bread. After eating the bread he managed to sneak back in to the barracks and survived the night. However, it’s not at all clear that the bread even existed, or if he hallucinated the whole thing. ITTL either the bread is not provided or Korolev’s hallucination doesn’t manifest to give him the strength to carry on.
    Other potential PODs I considered just from the journey back to Moscow (never mind the time in the camp itself!) include the fact that the boat he missed sank with all hands the next day (IOTL and ITTL), and IOTL Korolev nearly died of scurvy during the train trip from Magadan to Moscow, but was saved by another possible hallucination, an old man who fed him some soup. Basically, Korolev was very, very lucky to make it out alive IOTL.

    As I’ve said to others, what goes around comes around! I’ve enjoyed your work, time to give something back.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! I know they say in writing you should “Kill your darlings”, but I’m glad I let that one live ;)
    As for the impact of Korolev’s death on Soviet and American rocket developments... well, we’ll just have to wait and see ;)

    I’ll try not to disappoint!

    Thanks for the subscription jlckansas! The early space race did involve a fair bit of experimentation with propellant mixtures, so I’ll keep in mind to point out any weirder ones that might crop up.
  11. Webster The Red Tarheel

    May 11, 2013
    Western N.C.
    *reads thread* Interesting TL...subscribed! :cool:
  12. Bahamut-255 Space Lover

    Jul 28, 2010
    *Reads the teaser and subsequent posts*

    Korolev froze in Siberia? That is definitely going to have massive implications in years down the line, if Chief Designer Chelomei is anything to go by. From what I can pick up in the teaser, their ICBM is using storable (or at least toxic) propellants right from the get-go which means the risks associated appear to have become clear much sooner. This makes me wonder how they approach them with regards to safety. I shudder at the thought of Pentaborane entering the equation.

    And I agree with E of Pi. "Beaten... by the Navy!" That is something I've been re-reading a lot! :D

    Subscribing now.
  13. fasquardon Cosmonaut

    Sep 24, 2012
    Look forward to seeing where this goes next. Hopefully the Navy will get their just desserts!

  14. Athelstane Anglo-Saxon Troublemaker

    Jun 8, 2011
  15. Puget Sound Stop DOOMING its utterly wrong counterproductive

    Sep 4, 2007
    Cascadia, USA
    Subscribed. :D :p ;)
  16. SpaceGeek Well-Known Member

    Dec 14, 2013
    The Free Martian Republic
    Looks interesting. Subscribed!
  17. jlckansas Well-Known Member

    Mar 31, 2010

    Hmmmm, Pentaborane and FOOF in a Soviet rocket. To paraphrase Star Wars, "That's no Nuclear Explosion, thats just an ICBM blowing up".

  18. nixonshead Well-Known Member

    Apr 1, 2013
    Welcome aboard!

    Well spotted Bahamut-225, there is indeed something nasty in those propellant tanks, as we'll find out in the next post ;)

    Well, as you can tell, they’ve certainly kicked up a strong response in some quarters! Inter-service rivalry was alive and well in OTL 1950s rocket programmes, and you can be sure they’ll be just as strong ITTL.

    Thank-you all!

    Ouch! I guess with Great Isp comes Great Responsibility… Of course, even relatively stable combinations can be pretty destructive.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s subscribing (or just reading!). Next Sunday’s post will focus on the development of Soviet rocketry after the War, so stay tuned :)
  19. Patupi Paranoid Android Technician

    Mar 2, 2014
    This certainly looks a very interesting departure. I'll be definitely be following this.

    Oooh, that's a nasty one! *groans*. Keep it up like that and you could make your entire audience wince themselves to death :D
  20. Dathi THorfinnsson Daði Þorfinnsson

    Apr 13, 2007
    Syracuse, Haudenosaunee, Vinland
    Is this a pun? A joke? Isp<=>power, which is all that comes to my mind, isnt nasty, imo. Certainly not to the level of fuming nitric acid, let alone FOOF.