By Francis Castanos
Let us start with this interesting link to the NASA 1959 long range plan. With perfect hindsight this basically reads as Mercury > Block I Apollo > Skylab > Block II Apollo > Apollo 8 Well... this is not exactly how it happened in our timeline, is it ? And where on Earth (or should I say, where on the Moon, lame pun fully intended) are Apollo 11 ? Or Gemini? … First let's take a look at the Saturn family of rockets. As shown at Astronautix.
Back then the Saturn I and Saturn IB family was known as C-1. From there a whole family of larger and larger boosters would be developed, as per below. -------------------------- Saturn C-1 Saturn C-2 -------------------------- Rocketdyne F-1 “glass ceiling”. Saturn C-3 (three F-1s) Saturn C-4 (four) Saturn C-5 (five) ...she's the one... Saturn C-8 (eight) ...and NOVA superboosters. -------------------------- What does the Rocketdyne F-1 “glass ceiling” mean?
Simple enough, development of a monster engine had been underway since 1958. Saturn C-1 had an Atlas / Thor / Titan I class kerolox engine, 100 tons of thrust. Then engines would grow bigger and bigger: E-1 first, with 200 tons of thrust, and then the familiar F-1, reaching the symbolic 1 million pound thrust level and beyond. It basically worked the following way. 8*H-1 = 4*E-1 = 1*F-1 = 1.3 million pounds of thrust. As simple as that. Then the E-1 was canned in 1959 and replaced by the Saturn cluster of 8*Jupiter latched together, called the S-IB. After some hesitations, a LH2 second stage with 6*RL-10s was chosen, the S-IV. Meanwhile the J-2 was underway, too. Unlike the J-2 however the F-1 development would be very expensive and difficult. Only JFK commitment to Apollo allowed F-1 to get funding and so, later, success. Combustion instabilities were a very serious issue that was only solved by detonating sticks of dynamite into the combustion chambers! And that's the crux of the matter. Back to the divide into the Saturn family. Saturn C-2 -------------------------- Rocketdyne F-1 “glass ceiling”. Saturn C-3 Saturn C-2 had no F-1, it just stretched Saturn IB to the limits of the standard stage 1 and could orbit 24 mt.
And with Apollo a much lighter ship – merely 10 mt - that was enough to achieve most of OTL Apollo up to Apollo 8... but definitively not Apollo 11, by a very wide margin. That's the continental divide there...
Before 1962 and John Houbolt's (very difficult) triumph, Direct Ascent and Nova were the prefered options for the landing. That was, of course, before JFK, when there was no “before this decade is out” deadline!
Hence plenty of time to master Nova and Direct Ascent. Even if, with perfect hindsight, they look completely insane.
EOR - Earth orbit Rendezvous - might have been preferred in the end and without the deadline, it might have been mastered by NASA. By 1962 Von Braun touted an assembly mode vs a tanking mode, the former being easier but the later being much more efficient. But even von Braun had to bow to Houbolt, and EOR was kicked out. So the pre-JFK, 1959-1961 of Mercury > Block I Apollo > Skylab > Block II Apollo > Apollo 8 could have been achieved by Saturn C-1 / Saturn I / Saturn IB and Saturn C-2. No need for anything bigger, hence no need for the F-1. F-1 would be for Nova / Direct Ascent / landing only.
Then, enter JFK, and the entire sequence of Mercury > Block I Apollo > Skylab > Block II Apollo > Apollo 8 supported by Saturn C-2 is thrown by the window. And the sequence becomes... Mercury > Gemini in place of Block I Apollo, canned > Block II Apollo, Apollo 8 & Apollo 11 > Skylab. Meanwhile Saturn breaks the “F-1 glass ceiling”. And poof, payload instantly leaps from 24 mt (C-2) to 60 mt (C-3), then 100 mt (C-4), 120 mt (C-5), and even a whopping 180 mt for Saturn C-8. Which was essentially a Nova, except that one would have had the mammoth Aerojet M-1, a F-1 look alike except running on liquid hydrogen! The ultimate rocket engine, immensely powerful AND high energy at the same time. And finally comes John Houbolt and LOR. While Direct Ascent was quickly considered a “bridge too far”, Earth Orbit Rendezvous had serious chances, and NASA hoped to develop a space station out of it. LOR, however, kicked that away. By 1963, Apollo had taken its definite shape: a crash program using LOR. The final nail in the post-Apollo program coffin was NASA Administrator James E. Webb absolute determination accomplishing JFK deadline... at the expense of any distraction. As such, between 1964 and 1969 AAP floundered on unrealistic grounds and was quickly zeroed by Congress, leaving only Skylab. Which was only a makeshift, short-life station, not the one NASA really wanted. Fast forward to 1969. With Armstrong and Aldrin safely returned from the Moon, time for some serious post-Apollo planning. All hail the Space Task Group Integrated Program Plan – IPP. To get an idea how insanely ambitious this one was, please read this masterpiece by David Portree. The plan was for Space Shuttles and Saturn V to haul large space stations and nuclear space tugs to low Earth orbit. Then a propellant depot would be created near the space station, filled with the same launchers. Nuclear shuttles then sip liquid hydrogen (no need for liquid oxygen with nuclear power, just heat the hydrogen) before heading to the Moon, single piece, to drop an evolved lander there, after which they return to the space station depot for hydrogen refueling. Rince, repeat.
Later on a humonguous Mars ship such as Boeing IMIS could be assembled and launched. Men could land on Mars, either on the August 15, 1982 (according to the von Braun plans) or on April 3, 1986 (according to Alternate History writer Stephen Baxter). The plan consisted of six major pieces of hardware / missions. These included:
Trip to Mars through NERVA nuclear rocket. Died by January 1970 in OTL. A large space station and Apollo, both via Saturn V. Buried by January 1971. Crucially, on July 29, 1970, any plans for a large space station (33 ft or 20 ft) died with the Saturn V. As it must now be modular and launched by the Shuttle... and postponed to the 80's. Because NASA budget has been cut to the bones, hitting rock bottom in FY74.
Shuttle-first policy is now carved in stone. By February 1971 the only part of IPP left is the Shuttle: fully reusable booster the size of a 747, with a 707-size orbiter on top, with internal tankage. They are the last, two major elements in the IPP, the last survivors. And then as the year 1971 progresses, the Shuttle booster is canned, and then the orbiter shrinks with external tankage. In the end, of the 1969 IPP only the Shuttle orbiter is left. On January 5, 1972, a ½ “Shuttle to nowhere” is approved by President Nixon. It flies in 1981. On January 25, 1984, what will become the ISS is approved by President Reagan. On July 21, 1989 President Bush wants Moon and Mars again. Alas, neither the Space Shuttle nor Space Station Freedom are compatible with the new Space Exploration Initiative, and it flounders in Congress. The Shuttle had already revealed its many flaws with the Challenger disaster, but it cost so much to build, it couldn't be retired; and what's worse, since 1970, every single station design had been tied with the Shuttle itself, Freedom included. Plus Freedom was, like the Shuttle, an overambitious design. Unlike the Shuttle however, after a close brush with death on June 23, 1993 – passing a vote in the Senate by 217-216! - the station would gradually improve along the years. It would ultimately outlive the Shuttle, become free from it, and kickstart SpaceX via the COTS commercial cargo program. Which replaced the MPLM modules stuck in the Shuttle payload bay... after the Columbia tragedy. And that's were we stand today. Still paying for JFK and Nixon space policies. After 1989 NASA tried a return to the Moon, twice – 2004 and 2017 – with mixed results. The present Artemis program stands little long-term chances. ... In the end a case can be made that the JFK decision of 1961 turned the logical progression of spaceflight upside down... and we are still trying to repair the sequence. Crucially, Apollo proved completely unaffordable and was canned, forcing a rather inglorious “retreat to Earth orbit “. That retreat was then executed in the worse possible way, with a flawed Shuttle and a doomed station that, in total, stretched from 1968 to 2028 – 60 years ! - and left 14 astronauts dead, an appalling toll. It could have been different, but how? Let's explore, if only briefly, two possible scenarios. Scenario 1 In a saner timeline, we might not have walked on the Moon by 1969, maybe not at all, stopping at Apollo 8. To Mercury would have succeeded Block I Apollo on Saturn I, then Block II Apollo on Saturn IB to Skylab(s). Then maybe a Block III Apollo on Saturn C-2 to achieve an Apollo 8 -like mission by the early 70's. And that's it. With the “F-1 glass ceiling” strongly in place, no superboosters could reasonably be built. Which of course would prevent Apollo 11 from ever happening. There is a positive aspect, however: unlike Saturn C-5, the far smaller C-2 would be commercially and even military viable. At 24 mt in Earth orbit it matches a Proton, an Ariane 5 or an Delta IV Heavy, all of them with long and stellar careers. Any payload heavier than 30 mt to LEO has no commercial nor military use, and since the end of Saturn V, no NASA budget to support it. And finally, for Earth orbit missions at least, the Saturn & Apollo would have been replaced by some kind of RLV, perhaps developed out of their DynaSoar experience. Incidentally, without Gemini to kick it by the wayside in 1963, DynaSoar might have even survived McNamara's cuts. This could lead to the workers gradually building experience with the military, not NASA, paying the bills – except perhaps as a joint partner of the X-20 program, as per the X-15 before it. Scenario 2 After Apollo and then the Apollo cancellation, a “retreat to Earth orbit” is already inglorious. What if instead more ambitious plans were attempted? At least it would be nice not dooming those plans with a flawed Shuttle dooming a related space station. And maybe we can compress the plans so that it ends (rather than starting!) in 1998...
That's a story I've been trying to write for 12 years and hope to eventually see published.