From the first steps to the leap forward, Mashable will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with a series that examines its significance — and why we haven’t been back.
On July 20, 2019, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, should we also commiserate over the event that ended the world’s most promising age of science and exploration?
NASA’s Apollo mission, brought to you by hidden figures as much as lunar-bound heroes, was the single greatest group achievement in the history of science. We are right to be sentimental on its 50th anniversary. But that doesn’t change the fact that five decades on, it looks increasingly like the wrong side won the race to the moon.
Why? Because the U.S. treated the space race as a literal sporting event, and NASA as a championship team that would only have to win one big game. It trained for years and spent billions of dollars to get the best science and engineering teams our taxes could buy.
But just 3 years after they nabbed what they thought of as the gold medal, the country’s leaders mothballed the Apollo project for good. Sure, it saved the U.S. some cash: Apollo cost the U.S. government a grand total of $25.4 billion, according to a 1974 NASA estimate, which was no small chunk of change back then. However, a 1971 study by the Midwest Research Institute found that space technology research had already added $52.5 billion to the U.S. economy. Throwing money at the moon was actually paying dividends.
And what else did we lose when we lost Apollo? You know the rest of our long national space story: five decades of orbital-only boondoggles. A Shuttle program that failed catastrophically, twice, before it was defunded. NASA hasn’t been able to send its own astronauts to the International Space Station since 2011, and it’s likely to keep relying on the Russians to transport them until at least 2020.
The Mars Race We Missed
Now, imagine a world where the Soviet Union won the race to the moon, as it had claimed nearly every space first up until that point (first satellite, first man, first woman, first animal, first Earth orbit, first lunar landing). Its first order of business: establishing a permanent crewed moon base called Zvezda.
But in that Red Moon scenario, America would likely also have permanent footholds in the solar system today — on Mars, and possibly beyond.
In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon had two big-ticket NASA proposals on his desk. The more expensive one was an Apollo-style mission sending humans to Mars. It wasn’t science fiction: the necessary nuclear rocket program, known as NERVA, had already been built and successfully demonstrated. NASA hoped to use it to send astronauts to Mars by 1979. Wernher Von Braun, pioneering engineer and hero to an American public who still didn’t know about his dubious past building Nazi rockets, was all in favor.
In our reality, the President chose the cheaper option: a “reusable” Space Shuttle. Von Braun duly resigned, and died in retirement shortly after. But if America had just been humiliated in its moon effort, it’s not hard to imagine Nixon, the old Cold Warrior, doubling down instead — using Von Braun’s smarts in a flag-waving plan to beat the Reds to the Red Planet.
And so would begin the next great space race. What second-order benefits society would have yielded as a result, we can only guess. Put it this way: traveling to space, gave us GPS maps, paper-thin solar panels, groundbreaking cancer treatments, cellphone cameras and, via the creation of DARPA, the internet itself.
What spin-off technologies would a 1970s Mars mission have yielded? All we can say for sure is that we’d be living in an even more high-tech world.
Red Moon Rising
You don’t have to imagine the implications of a Soviet moon landing for too much longer, because sometime this fall you’ll likely be watching this exact scenario play out in For All Mankind, the flagship show on Apple’s new TV+ streaming service.
Creator, producer, and geek legend Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander) is keeping the plot very close to his chest at the moment, but the trailer tells you all you need to know: For All Mankind is about American pride being wounded in the wake of a Soviet moon landing in 1969, and American pride immediately and massively overcompensating.
“There is water on the moon,” says one character. In our world, it took NASA until 2009 to confirm that fact. In fact, success in the space race may have delayed the discovery: moon rocks gathered on Apollo missions seemed so dry that a waterless moon became the prevailing scientific theory. (There was trace evidence of water in the rocks, but scientists assumed it was from earthbound contamination.)
Water on the moon changes the game, both in the trailer and in real life. It makes a moon base possible. It also turns the moon into a fueling station, since you can break water down into hydrogen and oxygen: all the fuel you need to send missions further into the cosmos. “We need to accelerate the base,” says another NASA voice, suggesting that this alternate America is determined to go back to the moon to stay.
In other words, the show may present a plausible vision of NASA doing what it will be hard-pressed to do by 2024, only it gets done before 1974. And it doesn’t stop there. “We’re going to Mars, Saturn, the stars, the galaxy,” insists another character.
And what was necessary for this bigger, bolder space future? The rocket fuel of resentment, and the pure anger juice of the perpetual silver medalist.
The Soviet Space Trainer
The Soviet Union’s space program, led by the brilliant engineer and gulag survivor Sergei Korolev, seemed to coast effortlessly from surprise triumph to surprise triumph. For the most part, the U.S. was left to choke dust in its wake. The Soviets had not only launched Sputnik, but also pioneering space dog Laika, before the Eisenhower administration got around to founding NASA.
Then, even before he crushed America in the races to put the first person into space and into orbit, Korolev won what was technically the first race to the moon. In 1959, the Soviet Luna 2 rocket became the first Earth object to reach our nearest celestial neighbor when it crash-landed, ironically near the Sea of Serenity.
Like the best kind of personal trainer, Korolev led by example, effectively encouraging the U.S. space program to grow up big and strong. NASA wasn’t even considering crash-landing on the moon until Luna 2; then along came the NASA Ranger program, where spacecraft outfitted with cameras were designed to, you guessed it, crash land on the moon.
This turned out to be a crucial step in figuring out how to achieve soft landings on the lunar surface later on. Which the Soviets also did first, thanks to the Luna 9 in 1966, also the first vessel to transmit pictures from the moon. That’s quite a flex.
Do you even lift, comrade?
The Soviet moon hits kept on coming. In 1968, a ship named Zond 5 transported the first Earth lifeforms (a couple of tortoises plus worms, flies, seeds, and bacteria) around the moon and back safely — a mission that not only beat NASA but also managed to sound freakier than any spaced-out David Bowie song.
Nor did the Apollo 11 landing 50 years ago this week slow the Soviets’ roll. In November 1970 the first robot space rover, the Lunokhod, touched down on the moon. Operators back in Russia drove it around via radio control, tearing up dust in the Mare Imbrium for 10 months and traveling a total of six miles. In 1973, long after the U.S. had packed up and left, the Lunokhod 2 broke its predecessor’s lunar landspeed record, going 24 miles in four months.
So what stopped the Soviets from actually landing cosmonauts and establishing a permanent base on the moon? Answer: the N1 moon rockets, two of which were tested in secret in early 1969 — and blew up seconds into their flights. The N1’s engines were smaller and more efficient than on NASA’s equivalent, the Saturn V. But they also required much more wiring and piping, which made them more prone to fail.
Then came the weirdest public flex of all — Luna 15, the first robot soil collector, launched in the same week as Apollo 11. The timing was no coincidence. “Luna 15’s goal was unquestionably to upstage the first human moon landing,” says veteran space journalist Leonard David in his new history Moon Rush.
But the ship lost radio contact and hit a mountain, and Soviet mission control was left with no balm for that silver medal feeling. Belatedly, the country tested two more N1 rockets in 1971 and 1972. Both blew up. Engineers later fixed the engine problem, but the Soviet economy just couldn’t afford any more N1s. Russian robots kept going to the moon until 1976, but it was a mere consolation prize.
In some alternate universe, then, Koralev changed his focus in the mid-1960s, developing and simplifying the N1 engines, and testing them earlier. His N1 successfully delivers a couple of cosmonauts to the lunar surface in Koralev’s Lunik lander, months before Neil and Buzz. With uncharacteristic glee, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev approves more Luniks, which begin to construct the Zvezda base.
America, still stewing over Vietnam, can hardly handle the blow. Nixon is forced to shoot back with a Mars plan, or a lunar base plan, or maybe even both.
Might those missions have fizzled out too? Perhaps. A moon colonization effort might have bankrupted the Soviet economy a decade or so earlier than in our world. No Soviets, no space race. Meanwhile, Congress may well have slow-walked any Nixon Mars mission. Even with full funding, a Mars mission would have taken the best part of two decades.
In Stephen Baxter’s hard sci-fi novel Voyage, set in a world where JFK survives his assassination and convinces Nixon to commit to the Red planet post-moon, NASA’s Ares mission finally touches down on Mars in 1986. If we assume like Baxter that the voyage would take that long, going to Mars wouldn’t just have been Nixon’s call; any of the presidents that followed him could have canceled the mission, as presidents tend to do with their predecessors’ space plans.
Still, just pause to imagine that: footprints on the red sands of Mars before the end of the 20th century, humanity likely a multi-planet species in the 21st. “Had Nixon chosen in the early ’70s to go to Mars instead of building the Space Shuttle, we would have a colony on Mars now, and there would probably be thousands of people there,” says Stephen Petranek, author of How We’ll Live on Mars, in this video.
Wouldn’t that be a better reward for space program nerds than Neil Armstrong’s dusty bootmarks on the monochrome moon?