Stephen Baxter’s “Voyage”: Thoughts on the aftermath

Discussion in 'Alternate History Books and Media' started by Polish Eagle, May 21, 2019.

  1. Polish Eagle AntiFa Supersoldier

    Apr 11, 2009
    Where the skies are so blue
    "Voyage," by Stephen Baxter, is about a NASA mission to Mars in the 1980s in a world where JFK survives his assassination. The book ends on a high-ish note with NASA astronaut Natalie York walking on Mars at Mangala Valles, but Baxter being Baxter, most of the text focuses on the negatives--a NASA that is overly focused on short-term missions and which allows other projects to fade into the background. In particular, Baxter has budget cuts constrain the Mars program to just the one flight. This leaves the question of what NASA does after 1986 up in the air. I'd like to offer some thoughts on that.

    Baxter mentions an Earth-landing test flight for the Mars Excursion Module, a 10-meter-diameter Apollo CM-shaped vehicle. This actually suggests that NASA's Apollo-successor already exists--it's just up to NASA and its contractors to put the pieces together. It's already rated for Earth atmosphere reentry and landing, and eliminates the recovery fleet costs and saltwater corrosion issues of the Apollo CM. A vehicle using the MEM mold line can, by my count, accomodate either 55 tonnes of LH2/LOX propellant or 160 tonnes of methane-oxygen. If the thing weighs 30 tonnes dry (handwaving), that's a delta-v of between 4 and 6 km/s--enough that it could do much of its own flight to orbit, if boosted by a Saturn first stage.

    Which brings us to the Saturn VB. In the books, it's described as a Saturn V with 4 Thiokol SRMs (presumably the same as the Shuttle ones from OTL), with a "doubled" payload. That's about equal to the Saturn V-25(S)B on the Encyclopedia Astronautica, which identifies it as one with a stretched first stage but a same-size second stage relative to the OTL Saturn V. It's brutally overpowered for any regime of Earth orbit flight--but if you've got a reusable MEM-derived capsule that does half its own lifting to orbit, you can fly it as a two-stage, MS-IC + MEM combo, giving you the same crew-to-orbit capacity as Apollo, but with a lot less throw-away.

    The US also has two space stations--Skylab and Moonlab--as of 1986, both S-IVB-based wetlabs. These will be reaching the end of their useful lives (Moonlab, as of 1980, was already decrepit in the book)--the time will have come for a replacement. Maybe a great big drylab can go up on a single Saturn VB flight--something optimized for microgravity science, as opposed to supporting the Ares program.

    And we have the other big plot point of the book--NERVA, which had two flights, a successful unmanned flight and a failed manned flight that killed the crew of Apollo-N. The US backs away from NTR technology for the 1986 Mars mission, but the expertise is still there, and if the USAF and SDIO are still looking at NTR for something like Timberwind, interest will be ongoing.

    So, on a hardware/intellectual capital level, things aren't nearly as bad as Baxter might imply. But what can motivate Reagan, in his last two years in office, and Bush after him, to follow up Ares with any significant funding? The Peace Dividend will be weighing on Bush, incentivizing him to throw the aerospace industry some kind of bone. Reagan still wants SDI, which will lead to interest in reusability and atomic power as IOTL.

    Then there's the Soviets. IOTL, they dumped their NTR research because the US did. ITTL, the US didn't, so presumably such engines as the RD-0410 and RD-0411 are further along. The Soviets in the book finished N-1 and used it for lunar-orbital Soyuz missions. We don't hear much about them after 1980. But with the US backing away from atomic technology, would it not make sense for them to finish theirs, and do it right? Maybe N-1 gets an atomic upper stage in 1987 to 1989, for a single experimental, unmanned flight to Low Lunar Orbit--a full-sized Soyuz and a modernized, expanded LK, analogous to the OTL Buran one-off. The sheer size of the American space effort ITTL will prevent anything like OTL fears about Soviet advances in space technology, so even that might not give NASA another Sputnik Moment. The disintegration of the Eastern Bloc will also undermine any effort to leverage a late-1980s Soviet space success into a NASA program.

    On the unmanned side, the US did not launch Voyager, or the Mariner Mercury probe. There is no TTL Galileo or Ulysses. There is a reference to the outer planets remaining fuzzy points of light, but since Pioneers 10 and 11 were approved in 1969 and launched IOTL in 1973, I'm inclined to think that those did make it off the pad and to their destinations (since TRW got the contract IOTL before Apollo 13). The impressive human and intellectual capital the US built up for its unmanned program will be much weaker ITTL--so future unmanned flights might actually have a higher-than-OTL failure rate. OTOH, with Saturn VB and potentially nuclear upper stages, the upper limit on probe mass is so far beyond OTL that redundancy might be easy to build in. Imagine directly-injected Galileo- and Cassini-type probes by 2000.

    I'm thinking the most plausible course of events is that Apollo is finally put on the road to retirement after the Ares mission, with a reusable MEM-derived spacecraft taking its place. It might have integral propulsion or it might not--instead being launched as the payload by a Saturn variant. The big conical structure might become something like a payload bay, or a very large habitable volume, or a reusable Service Module with enough propulsion to fly home from Low Lunar Orbit. President Bush authorizes this and a Saturn V S-II derived space station for the 1990s, optimized for microgravity research. A huge Hubble variant (taking advantage of that big honking fairing diameter) might see first light in the early 2000s.

    And then what? Any chance of someone picking up the (glowing white-hot) torch of nuclear thermal rocketry? What does spaceflight in the 2000s look like?
  2. mspence Well-Known Member

    Jul 1, 2018
    Probably not as much investment in private space flight-no Jeff Bezos rockets. Although I wonder why there might not be more unmanned missions, since they'd be cheaper and safer. Nuclear probably doesn't happen, maybe a bigger focus on ion drives, solar sails and such?
    xsampa likes this.
  3. Michael B Doomfarer

    Dec 21, 2005
    Cair Paravel on the shores of the Shining Sea
    Ages since I read the novel so I am short on the details. However, does SpaceX not depend on the commercial market? If it is costly to put communication satellites into orbit then either people are going to stop doing so or someone is going to try and do it cheaper and skim off the difference.
    xsampa likes this.
  4. BillKerman123 Well-Known Member

    Dec 28, 2018
    If there is no cheap satellite launch market in the west, then that's even more reason for SpaceX to pop up, to fill that gap. And having Elon Musk grow up hearing about the Mars landings and how they canceled the program might actually make him want to get humans back to Mars even more. Overall I definitely think the second time humans land on Mars it will be in a SpaceX rocket, although whether or not it resembles OTL Starship/Superheavy is difficult to tell.
    Puget Sound and Michael B like this.
  5. e of pi Layers on Top of Layers

    Nov 27, 2008
    Halfway to Anywhere
    Converting the MEM mold line and heat shield into a reusable capsule is sort of an interesting idea--like a Chrysler SERV as an upper stage. If the MEM hardware can easily accept prop tanks in place of the surface lab and part of the ascent stage, it'd be a remarkably capable vehicle with the remaining volume of the MEM ascent stage and crew cabin for...well, cargo or crew cabin. Refueling in LEO and any one other point, picking from among options like highly elliptical Earth orbit shy of TLI to Lagrange points to LLO, would then enable it to go to the moon reusably. An S-II fitted with sea level engines looks capable of lifting this SERV-alike MEM to a point where it can reach orbit, and that or something along those lines but fitted for reuse might be the best option to evaluate. It's a novel way of looking at the post-Voyage program. The question, I think, is just going to be as you say if the American people and Congress will pay for developing it...
    Polish Eagle and Puget Sound like this.