What if Russia Had Won the Space Race?

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October 30, 2020 Topic: Culture Region: World Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Alternate HistorySpace RaceSoviet UnionNASAScience Fiction

What if Russia Had Won the Space Race?

"Instead of us getting to the moon and saying, 'Yay, us, USA, USA, we did it! Okay, now let’s just pack our bags and go home' — if we’d been beaten at the last minute by our arch-rival, it would’ve spurred us and ... made us redouble our efforts."

This is the space program we did not get. For another research project I’m doing, I stumbled across what The New York Times said in 1971 after Nixon slashed NASA’s budget for space operations. This was from a New York Times editorial:

“The budgetary myopia which forced this penny wise, pound foolish decision can only vindicate the critics who have insisted that Apollo is motivated by purely prestige considerations, not scientific goals. It is being abandoned now that the easily bored world audience has begun to yawn. All this represents an inglorious letdown for an effort whose brilliant outcome was and is one of the proudest fruits of human ingenuity and courage.”

So they had always been skeptical, and now they felt that “Aha, what we’ve thought all along.”

Is it possible to have something like the space program — where it’s not going to be obvious to people why this really matters for their everyday lives — without some sort of external force driving it? In the case of Apollo, there was the race between the US and the USSR, democracy versus communism. Without that kind of conflict, can we have a space program that spends a lot of money and does things that seem like they’re, at best, a kind of basic, theoretical science that is not helping create jobs here on Earth?

Moore: I think it’s certainly harder now than it would’ve been if we had kept going then. And this is the premise of the show: If the national effort had continued in the moment and had kept going, it could’ve been a “lost leader,” in a sense. The benefits may not have been immediately apparent. But if we had just kept going long enough, we would have gotten to where we are now, where you see business and commercial interests coming in, you start to see public/private partnerships, and you start seeing the diversification of what it means to go into space. Once you start getting into space tourism and you start getting into places where there’s money to be made in manufacturing or mining of the moon, asteroids, or other planets, you start seeing other benefits on Earth and you start to see technological change coming about on Earth because of the space program. It’ll start to build upon itself.

If that had happened, like it did in the show, I think it could’ve all played because the national effort would lead everything, then private industry gets in, and then we’re in an active, ongoing space program. Then it’s not so much about “How much money is Congress spending every year?” It doesn’t get bogged down in whose district is supporting what aspect of the space program and everybody arguing, “Why are we spending money on space when we have people who need the money here on Earth?” — which is where we are.

If you could’ve avoided that and gotten to the place where the national effort pulled along the private enterprise into space, then the national effort can recede and can become more about pure science and about true exploration. Then things like moon colonies, space stations, and literal space tourism — just getting people to see the benefits of space and the spin-off technologies —it all just becomes part of life. It’s not coming from the space program, per se. There’s access to space, there are things that are happening in space, people aspire to work in space or possibly live in space. And they know when something’s gotten from space.

It’s like, we could get to that future, but the path that we took was just so complicated because we did step back at the moment of victory, and it’s made it much harder to now rekindle that interest. Because how can you top Neil Armstrong? The moment of Apollo getting to the moon was such an amazing accomplishment. It was the peak. Then, what, the Space Shuttle is supposed to top that? The International Space Station is supposed to top that? They can’t, whereas if we had kept a presence on the moon, if we had continued going in the ’70s…

And I know there are a lot of political reasons why we couldn’t. But just to posit it: If we had, then eventually now you’re blazing a trail for private interests to get more involved because there’s an ongoing space program. It’s not just these one-off things that are so expensive and so difficult and have so much riding on each and every launch.

I think we can get to that place. It’s just we’ve made it harder for ourselves, and now we’re getting to the place where we’re just trying to get back to the moon. It’s so ironic, you know?

Right. In the show, one of the lead characters, astronaut Ed Baldwin, portrayed by Joel Kinnaman, criticizes NASA for being too risk-averse. Is that just a purely in-show criticism? Or is that a real-world criticism when we think about the things that have either gone wrong or not really been as spectacular as maybe many of us had hoped decades ago?

I think it’s a little bit of both. In the show’s context, I felt like that’s where the characters would go. They would be looking for reasons why they got beat, and it was like, “Well, this is why we got beat: We got too risk-averse after the Apollo 1 fire. It made us too cautious, and we lost that spirit. That’s the reason.”

In real-world terms, I think there is some validity to that. I think that the Apollo 1 fire, the Challenger accident, and the Columbia accident were magnified to the point in the public imagination that then everything at NASA became about safety. I’m not saying that we should risk astronaut lives willy-nilly. That’s not the point at all. But these are inherently dangerous things that we’re attempting. We’ve gotten to the point with space travel where we’re so concerned about that aspect that it feels like they’re really unwilling to take much risk at all.

And it’s an inherently dangerous undertaking. So then you’re sort of saying, “Well, we’re going to do very, very little of it because we have to be so, so, safe in every single possible way because we’re so deathly afraid of losing somebody.” The truth is it was predicted that we were going to lose more than one orbiter when the Space Shuttle program was first posited. So it wasn’t a shock on a certain level that it happened. It’s an inherently dangerous business. But, as a result of what happened, the way it was portrayed, and the way we dealt with it, the American public just became like, “God, we just cannot risk their lives anymore.” That works against the idea of, “You have to boldly go. You got to be bold. You got to take the risk.”

Do you personally care about a space program that isn’t just factories in space but also one that really pursues manned exploration beyond the moon, beyond Mars — that someday there’ll be a Discovery 1, like in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” headed toward Jupiter and there’ll be humans aboard that? Is that something you care about, or something you think we should do?

I do care about that. I subscribe to that aspect of space travel. You can say that’s because I grew up with science fiction and the early Apollo and all that, and that’s all absolutely true. I have that gene that hears that call that wants to fly, that wants to look up at the night sky and say, “I wonder what that glowing point of light is. I want to go see what’s there.” There is a pull that speaks to me very deeply about wanting to go out there, explore, and go find those things. I feel like that taps into a basic human thing that’s always been with us. Why do we go across the ocean? Why do we climb the mountain? All these things are clichés that we talk about when we compare it to space travel, but they’re clichés for a reason because it does speak to that same basic human impulse.

There’s a reason why in “2001,” the movie, when the ape-man throws the bone up in the air, it becomes a spaceship: Because it is a tool to an idea, and once you invented tools, you want to go somewhere. The tools should take you to something. You start to reach out and explore. So, for me, manned space flight is a very important thing. I really get excited about the idea of people going to Mars, going to Saturn, going out somehow beyond the solar system, going into deep space. It’s like there’s a huge universe out there, and we’re just sitting here tooling around the same big ball of mud for millennia.

When do you think we’re going to see season two?

Moore: It should be sometime after the new year. Apple hasn’t given us an air date yet, but it’ll probably be sometime after the new year. I know that just because I know how long post-production’s going to take, and we just came back and picked up the last two episodes of season two literally a couple of weeks ago. We came back in under the quarantine protocols, shot the last two episodes, and now we’re in post-production on them. That’s going to take weeks — a couple of months — just to get the episodes ready, so they can’t be on the air before the new year.