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Alternate Space. For All Mankind.

By Andy Cooke


For All Mankind, from Apple TV.

Picture courtesy Apple.



Introduction

We are living in a Golden Age for alternate history in the media. Not just in print, with the likes of Sealion Press, but on television as well. In recent years, we’ve had Amazon Prime’s Man in the High Castle, Netflix’s 1983, Hulu’s 11.22.63, the BBC’s Golden Compass, and many more – but one that’s achieved arguably the best cut through is Apple’s For All Mankind.

 

The story of an alternate Space Race (one of the three or four most frequent tropes for alternate history), and created by Ronald D Moore (who has bottled the lightning before with the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and Outlander), it starts in 1969 with the first landing on the Moon. By Alexei Leonov, cosmonaut of the USSR. Following which, things end up very different indeed.

 

This series of articles is not going to be a review of the series or even of individual episodes. It’s going to be a discussion, with a deep dive into the various alternatives that have unfolded and their plausibility or otherwise, of options that could have been taken but were not, of events and elements that illuminate what happened in OTL, of things that get sparked off by those changes, and essentially anything else that comes to mind when discussing the show.

 

I must warn you – by the fundamental premise of these articles, I will not (arguably cannot) avoid spoilers. Watch the show first, if you can. It’s worth it.

 

Soviet Lunar Landing

The first kicker comes minutes into the first episode, and it’s the big turning point that ends up with the different (and bigger) Space Race, as the US lost the race to the Moon. Even after setting the “finish line” to be far enough out that they had what they believed (rightly, in OTL) an overwhelming chance of winning.

 

This wasn’t, though, the actual POD in Alternate History terms. That was explained almost off-camera by Moore (and correctly, in my opinion). It was, though, the point at which everything changed, so it was absolutely the right spot to begin the show.

 

But was it plausible?

 

Given the POD (Korolev survived his operation three years earlier – something I’ll address in a future article. Probably), it’s just about plausible. The USSR had a plan, and the outcome shown follows that plan – if more or less everything had broken just right for the Soviets. An outcome that moves from outright implausible without Korolev to marginally plausible with him still around.

 

It would, though, have been almost insanely risky, because (reading between the lines), the Soviets ended up pushing all the chips in and rolling the dice.

 

A Risky Jump

The US built their way carefully, step by step, proving rendezvous and docking in orbit with Gemini, proving the Command Module capsule on Apollo 7, the Saturn V rocket with humans on board and a circumlunar flight on Apollo 8 (seen as extremely chancy when it happened, but done to beat the Soviets around the Moon), proving the Lunar Module on Apollo 9, proving they could use the Lunar Module and dock again around the Moon on Apollo 10, before the landing mission on Apollo 11.

 

In the show, in order to maintain the surprise (otherwise the US might have brought forwards the landing attempt to Apollo 10), the Soviets had to prove almost all of that in a single mission.

 

Doable, but incredibly risky.

 

In OTL, the Soviets had a plan for a circumlunar mission earlier in December 1968; it was a key reason for NASA sidestepping their careful ladder of missions and sending Apollo 8 to fly around the Moon far earlier than anticipated (it was feared that the Soviets could do this first and declare victory without a landing – an easier task than the landing itself). Something similar has to have happened in the show’s timeline. Only the landing would now do to declare victory.

 

The N1 super-rocket

The USSR had their own moon-rocket: the N1. [8] The only problem was that it kept blowing up on launch – in OTL, anyway. Korolev was dead, and his successors couldn’t iron out the faults.


The N1 on the launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in late 1967.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


In the show’s timeline, Korolev, who had survived, obviously managed to do so. The Soviets apparently launched an unmanned N1 successfully in January 1969 – which could well have been once intended for a circumlunar mission, but it must have slipped for one reason or another. Having lost the race to lunar orbit, the Soviets then decided not to risk men on the mission and used it instead for system testing.


In OTL, the first attempted N1 launch occurred a month later than in the show, in February 1969. That one was a spectacular failure; electrical interference in the wiring of the KORD computer caused it to overreact and start setting down two of thirty engines whilst high frequency vibrations tore a couple of pressure-measuring pipes in the engine loose – triggering a fire. This fire destroyed insulation on power-supply cables, causing KORD to shut down the other 28 engines, turning the huge rocket into an unpowered projectile 68 seconds into the flight.

 

In the show’s timeline, this obviously did not occur the same way. We can assume that either the high frequency vibrations did not occur (slightly different design or quality control), so even if KORD had still shut off two of the thirty engines as it did in OTL, the massive rocket would have lumbered into orbit.

 

The Soviet Lunar Lander, the LK had to have been tested, unmanned, on this and/or on smaller rocket launches, missed by the West’s Intelligence services (which is possible, especially at this time). The Soyuz-derived LOK spacecraft (“Lunniy Orbitalny Korabl” Lunar orbital craft) [11] would have been successfully tested on smaller launches, also accelerated by Korolev’s well-documented inspiration of the team.


LK compared to Apollo Lunar Lander, by Eberhard Marx.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 licence.


Red Moon

Desperate to win the Space Race – the Soviets went all in and launched the L3-1 mission in June 1969, on the second N1 launch. A month before Apollo 11 could launch.

 

In OTL, the second attempted N1 launch was in July 1969 – and a second colossal failure – with an explosion ten seconds into launch and devastation caused to the launch pad, trapping officials in the launch control bunker for half an hour. The failure was traced to an exploding turbopump in one of the engines, following which the much-stressed KORD ended up shutting off almost all engines in a reaction to this.

 

In the show’s TL, either the turbopump did not explode (better quality control?) or KORD worked better and allowed the first stage to keep firing until staging.

 

The L3-1 was an actual planned mission in OTL – abandoned after the repeated failures of the N1, but ITTL, it was retained. Which means we can say who was on it and describe the mission profile ITTL – partly from what has been said by the writers, but mainly from the known plans.

 

On 20th June 1969, then, in the show’s timeline, the N1 rocket launched the Soyuz LOK spacecraft and LK-1. On board were Alexei Leonov (Commander, and, in his earlier mission during the Voskhod programme, the first human to walk in space) and Oleg Makarov (Flight Engineer, on his first spaceflight). (See footnote). For 24 hours, they tested the systems in Earth Orbit before igniting the Block G engine of the N1 for 8 minutes to hurl the LOK/LK-1 “assembly” into translunar injection, on a free return trajectory.


N-1/L3 lunar mission profile.

Public domain.


A little over four days later, passing behind the Moon, the N1’s Block D engine (the Block-D being the final upper stage of the N1; all the rest having been jettisoned by now) braked them into lunar orbit. On a later orbit, a further burn lowered the orbit to an elliptical 100 km x 20 km shape.

 

Then, on 26th June 1969, Leonov left the capsule to walk in space for his second time, transferring outside of the spacecraft to the LK-1 lander. The Soyuz LOK “command module” detached from the final stage of the N1 rocket, which was still attached to the LK-1 single-person lander (rudimentary, compared to the American Lunar Module, but just about capable of doing the job). Leonov burned the last of the N1 fuel to descend to the surface, the fuel spluttering out at an altitude of about 2000 metres above the lunar surface.

 

The LK-1 detached from the final stage (the Blok-D), which fell in a deliberate crash onto the Moon whilst the LK-1’s engine (the RK-858) lit. It had enough fuel to last for no more than two minutes, but Leonov successfully found a landing site and brought the LK-1 to rest on the Moon.

 

Stepping off of the one-person lander (the Soviet craft was far less capable than Apollo – but that no longer mattered), Leonov planted the Soviet flag on the Moon. And the course of history changed.


Credit Apple: For All Mankind.


Doable?

Everything had to go right. Moore’s decision to have the key change being Korolev’s survival is probably the best one. Even so, the odds were heavily stacked against the Soviets. He somehow ironed out the faults in the N1 rocket – which I can accept. And I would assume that the Soyuz 1 disaster, which killed Vladimir Komarov in OTL, may well not have happened, thanks to Korolev’s continued leadership – which then, we can assume, allows the Soyuz LOK to progress in time.

 

And they still had to gamble hugely – but it paid off.

 

I can accept it as plausible, even if it is on the borders of feasibility – thanks to the “Korolev survives” POD.

 

1966 – January – Korolev survives.

 

Later 1966 – the internal fighting in the Soviet space programme is won by Korolev and arguments over alternative engines and boosters are put aside.

 

1967 – Assembly of first N1 commences. Mock-up Soyuz LOK put into orbit. The overall manned Soyuz programme unfolds better than in OTL, thanks to no 4-month slip after Korolev’s death, Korolev’s own continued ability to motivate others, and corners not being cut as much in the rush to make up the slip. Komarov survives Soyuz 1, despite some problems, and the Soyuz programme is accelerated towards the Soyuz LOK. The Apollo 1 disaster occurs in the US as it did in OTL.

 

1968 – Hot firing tests of N1 rockets begins. Korolev pushes for quality assurance and investigates the KORD flight computer. N1 flight test slips to 1969. Speculative option of launching circumlunar flight on first N1 (relying on launch escape system if needed) as cancelled as race to lunar orbit is lost against Apollo 8 (which flies as in OTL).

 

1969 – First launch of N1 is successful in January. Some “pogo-ing” detected. The rocket makes it to orbit with an unmanned LOK/L1 Complex. (In the US, Apollo 9 flies for a manned test of the full Apollo system in Earth orbit in March. Apollo 10 flies for a full-up “dress rehearsal” in Lunar Orbit in May. Apollo 11 scheduled for July).

 

In June, the second ever N1 launch is made, with a full LOK/L1 stack on board. Successfully.

 

 

Footnote: The show specifies Leonov as the commander of the lunar mission. This is a sign of their research – Leonov was indeed the nominated commander for the mission being described.

 

 

 

 

Discuss this article Here.

 

Andy Cooke is a very prolific author. His books range from political punditry to ending the world. These include the series The End and Afterwards and The Fourth Lectern , which predicted the rise of UKIP on the British political scene. He has also written the portal fantasy series for young adults, The Shadowlands Chronicles , and Skyborn , a post-apocalypse story with airships.

 

 

 

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