7 Times Science Fiction Reimagined the Space Race

Apple launched Apple TV + this month, its version of a streaming video platform, and with it comes with a handful of original TV shows, including a new science fiction show from Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ron Moore, For All Mankind. The series is an alternate history that pivots on the idea that the Soviet Union reached the Moon before the United States. As a result, the space race takes a different tack, and grows more heated.

Alternate histories are a staple of science fiction literature, and Moore’s show isn’t the first to imagine what would have happened had the US didn’t reach the Moon first. If you’ve been listening to Lillian Cunningham’s non-fiction podcast Moonrise (if you haven’t, you should—it’s excellent!), one major takeaway is that the way that the space race played out is far more tenuous than history might suggest. The collective narrative of Sputnik‘s launch and the subsequent U.S. moonshot was a complicated affair, with plenty of small decisions ultimately leading the the major success of Apollo 11 in 1969.

It’s the sort of setup that’s ripe for tinkering by alternate historians: change one small decision, and you might get an entirely new outcome. Interestingly, while alternate history has offered up plenty of differing takes on the outcome of World War II or the colonization of America, stories that imagine different outcomes for the space race are rarer.

One notable recent example is Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series, including The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky (as well as assorted short stories), the former of which earned the Nebula and Hugo Awards for Best Novel last year. Kowal makes a big change in her alternate timeline: in 1952, a meteorite touches down in the Atlantic Ocean and sets off a climate disaster that could render Earth uninhabitable for humanity in the coming decades. To ensure the survival of the human race, the United States and other nations put together a major space program, one designed not to get just to the Moon, but to Mars and beyond.

Kowal uses her story to work through some of the familiar beats of the progression of Apollo: the space program first has to successfully launch into orbit, figure out all the steps for a lunar landing, and then get people to the Moon. But she also address some of NASA’s systemic problems of the 1960s and 1970s: its refusal to allow women to take part.

Another alternate take on the space race is Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet: Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and All That Outer Space Allows. Each of these four books imagines slightly different outcomes of the space race. In the first, a team of astronauts are marooned on the Moon’s surface after a nuclear war breaks out on Earth, and manage to travel to an alternate Earth where such a conflict didn’t occur. In the second, a scientific station on an exoplanet called Gliese 876 mysteriously goes missing. The third entry imagines a Korean War that continues long into the 1960s—and because many of the qualified men are fighting, NASA allows a group of women, the Mercury 13 candidates, to join the program and travel into space. The fourth and final installment follows a science fiction writer named Ginny Eckhardt whose husband is selected for the Apollo 15 mission. Sales’ books are intriguing stuff, examining a multitude of different possibilities for how history might have turned out had one or two things been changed along the way.

In 2007, Jed Mercurio published his novel Ascent, which looks at the Soviet Union’s efforts to reach the moon, and a Cosmonaut named Yevgeni Yeremin, who volunteers for his nation’s space program after the Korean War. When the USSR undertakes a secret crewed mission to land on the surface of the moon, Yeremin is selected, and touches down on the far side. Unfortunately for him, he ends up getting stranded, and is left to die, unacknowledged by the country that sent him there.

Stephen Baxter published his NASA trilogy between 1996 and 1998, starting with Voyage, and continuing with Titan and Moonseed. In his alternate world, US President John F. Kennedy isn’t killed in an assassination attempt, and as a result, the space race takes a bit of a different turn. Voyage moves between a pair of storylines: one following the progression of the space race, and the other a mission to Mars that arose following its success. In Titan, Baxter follows a US that’s crippled with anti-intellectualism as NASA launches an ambitious mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, and in Moonseed, Earth contends with a mysterious substance brought back by the Apollo 18 mission that causes drastic changes on Earth.

Baxter’s take on the space race reflects a vision that many imagined would be the natural progression of the space race, and is often lamented by science communicators today: Apollo could and should have been followed up with more ambitious programs to continue the exploration of the Moon and push out further into the solar system, and Titan explores some of the same impulses: the difficulty in sustaining such a program, especially when it clashes against cultural movements.

Warfare consumes much of alternate history, and it’s easy to see why: major operations often hinge on individual decisions. World War II is a common stomping ground for authors, and Allen M. Steele’s novel V-S Day questions what might have happened had the space race started earlier, during the Second World War. This isn’t quite as ridiculous a notion as it might seem: German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was an instrumental part of the U.S. space race, and Steele imagines what might have happened had Hitler turned his attention to the stars in 1941, rather than simply greenlighting the V-2 rocket. In the novel, von Braun is tasked with creating a spacecraft that could be used to attack the U.S. When the U.S. discovers these plans, President Franklin Roosevelt stands up his own space program to counter it, bringing in rocket pioneer Robert Goddard to lead the project.

Steele’s story pulls in real-world figures who were interested in rocketry at the start—von Braun and Goddard—and casts his earlier space race against the motivations that fueled the real-world one: war.

Finally, in Warren Ellis and Chris Weston’s graphic novel Ministry of Space, the pair create an alternate history in which the United Kingdom capture key German rocket scientists at the end of WWII, and create the ministry of space, instead of the United States. Ellis takes his fictional Britain through the various steps of the development of spaceflight, from breaking the sound barrier in 1946 to launching their own space station in the 1950s, to landing on the Moon in 1957.

In all of these instances, the various authors who have imagined their different space races have done what good alternate history does: change one or two things, and extrapolate outward. In many cases, however, these stories do more than just imagine the changes radiating out from a single change: they use their fictional timelines to imagine how to correct some of the very real problems that our real-world space programs came with: they excluded women and people of color, or ended far too early to have the impact that science fiction fans dreamed of. Now, it look as as through Apple and Ron Moore will be adding to that tradition with For All Mankind.

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