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The Launch Box: PoDs of the Space Age - PoD 1: The first satellite is American

By Andy Cooke

This series will look at potential Points of Divergence (PoDs) of the Space Age. From the first launches to the present day, there are so many things that only went the way they did by the finest of margins and that could have resulted in a very different world - at least in the space arena, and often with more widespread implications.

Today, we will go to the start.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth"

President John F Kennedy

This wasn't the start. These were the words that resulted in The Space Race, Apollo 11, and Neil Armstrong on the Moon. The words that still affect space travel today, as the shape of manned exploration of space was governed by them - a desperate lunge for the Moon, subsiding into minimal support when the patriotic goal was achieved.

This undertaking wasn't at the start of the Space Age. No, this undertaking came about because of how it all started. But what if things had been different?

Those words were borne of desperation. The USA - the entire Free World - was behind the remorseless success of the Communist USSR in space. The first satellite. The first animal in space. The first human in space. The first unmanned lunar space probe.

Wherever you turned, America was playing catch-up, following in the footsteps blazed by the Russians. Not only was this badly affecting the psyche of the Americans, it was a real threat - dominance in space meant dominance of the High Ground, which was important long before Anakin Skywalker faced off against Obi-Wan Kenobi.

But it didn't have to be this way. In almost all of those "firsts", it could have gone another way.

The first satellite

Replica of Sputnik 1

This is how it did go down...

Operation Paperclip

As Nazi Germany collapsed, the engineers and technology behind the frightening V2 rocket were a target for both sides. The US got there first, spiriting away Wehrner von Braun and many of his key lieutenants, together with the Peenemunde archive and hundreds of missile parts and even entire V2s (despite this being in the Soviet zone).

The initiative was originally called "Operation Overcast", and would have involved simply interrogating (or "interviewing") captured rocket scientists, but the early information gained galvanized the Americans into changing the terms of the Operation. They now wanted everything, and the operation became called "Paperclip." Over eighteen hundred technicians and scientists, plus their families, ended up in the West - not all from the rocket programmes. Within a few years, von Braun, together with over a hundred key German expatriates, was set up at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

A group of 104 German rocket scientists in the US in 1946, including Wernher von Braun.

Meanwhile, Segei Korolev - recently released from detention by Stalin and now commissioned as a Colonel - went to Peenemunde after it was captured by the Soviets. Now assigned to the Soviet occupation zone, the Russians could poke around to their hearts content - except that they were diverted for a couple of months at the very start while the archive and many rocket parts were illegally evacuated westwards as part of Operation Paperclip, above. Yet enough remained to astonish Korolev and provide very useful information to accelerate his own programme. The Russians were intent on using the information and (few) captured Germans to incubate and accelerate their own work.

Over in the USA, captured V2s started to be launched from White Sands, New Mexico. In time, von Braun would develop the design further, into the Redstone rocket. Yet not all American rockets were German-derived; the Glenn L Martin Company winning a contract to design and provide fourteen very successful high-altitude rockets, christened "Viking."

In the USSR, competition between German and indigenous designs went apace. Korolev briefed Stalin directly on rocketry and its potential and its limitations in 1946, reflecting afterwards that the dictator showed a keen interest and asked very intelligent questions. It appeared that Stalin saw the rocket arena as a route to leapfrog the American air dominance, and a domain in which he could not afford to be far behind the West. After setting up a production line to directly copy the V2 and derive successors, the Russians gave Korolev his head to try to surpass the Germans. And he did.

NSC 5520 and the International Geophysical Year

The Vanguard launcher, wit the satellite Vanguard 1, on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral

It was not just in rapidly and unstoppably delivering warheads to anywhere on the planet that space could provide capability. In fact, if the missiles were flying, then defence would have failed. No, the American military had a better idea: space-mounted intelligence assets. Orbiting satellites, above and beyond interception, photographing and listening in on anything, anywhere. There was, however, one disadvantage: the other side wouldn't like this.

In 1955, the White House National Security Council wrote "NSC 5520: US Scientific Satellite Program", in which they urged the President to commit to launching a small scientific satellite. While this would be useful in proving launch technology and stepping towards larger intelligence satellites, the key principle they wanted to see proven was that of the "Freedom of Space" - analogous with the freedom of the open seas. The upcoming International Geophysical Year (July 1957 to December 1958) would make an excellent excuse to carry this out.

Eisenhower then pledged that the US would launch a peaceful scientific satellite in the IGY. So far, so good.

The Launcher Battle

The Army, who had control over von Braun and his team, immediately proposed a rocket derived from the Redstone, with a cluster of Loki solid rockets as a second stage and a single Loki solid rocket as the third stage, which would be called "Project Orbiter". To no-one's surprise, the US military started to argue within itself, with the Naval Research Laboratory insisting on a Viking-derived rocket: "Vanguard". The US Air Force made noises to get involved, at which point the Office of the Secretary of Defence started pulling their hair out and pointing out that there were barely enough funds for one satellite, let alone three.

A fraught and argumentative competition ensured, and Vanguard won - ostensibly on technical grounds (it turned out later that hostility to the ex-Nazis was (understandably) really behind it).

Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain

Meanwhile, the Russians pressed on. Stalin had died, and his successor, Kruschev, had yet to give explicit approval to the programme. But, as 1956 opened, the Russian Academy of Sciences pledged that they would also launch a satellite in the IGY.

Korolev had won his competition with the German-derived rockets, his own R-7 rocket (aka "Semyorka" - Russian for "the Seven") flying successfully by 1955. The design was so well-made that it would keep flying (through evolution and incremental improvement) into the 21st century; today's Soyuz rockets being the most recent members of the R-7 class.

They had (or at least, would have, in time for the launch) the rocket, so they started to design the satellite. Three were in production: the first one would be a behemoth - a 1.5 tonne scientific masterpiece, loaded with instruments. This would show the West how mature was the Soviet launcher technology and emphasise the scientific and peaceful nature of their programme. A second one would carry a dog - the first living creature in orbit. There was also a third one being made as a sort of backup - small 184-pound ball with batteries, antennas, and a radio transmitter, but that one surely wouldn't amount to anything.

September 20th 1956: Not the first satellite

Jupiter C rocket on the launch pad

Still annoyed at being passed over, von Braun's team worked on their design, turning what would have been Project Orbiter into the Jupiter-C: a launch vehicle made from an elongated Redstone first stage with a cluster of solid-rocket "Sergeant" rockets as the second stage and a trio of Sergeants as the third stage.

It was intended to test re-entry nosecones (needed for ballistic missiles) from near-orbital velocities and first launched in September 1956. The launch team were watched very carefully to confirm that the trajectory of the third stage was followed as planned - to aim downwards into the atmosphere, rather than (for example) to continue horizontally and slightly upwards. The attention was given because calculations had shown that if they had "accidentally" gone forwards rather than downwards, the final stage would end up in orbit, stealing the thunder of the official programme.

The rocketeers rebelliouslly loaded a dummy "satellite" into the nose cone... but begrudgingly obeyed their instructions on the trajectory. Each stage fired as planned, the payload rising over 1000 km and out of the atmosphere, accelerating to over 25,000 km/h ( a hair under orbital velocity) and then downwards, back into the atmosphere. It impacted over 5,000 km downrange from Cape Canaveral, in a complete success. Further launches were carried out on 15 May 1957 and 8th August 1957 - the latter barely eight weeks prior to the Russian launch of Sputnik 1.

The Dawn of the Space Age

Korolev wasn't having everything go his own way. While the launcher itself was on schedule, Sputnik 1 simply wasn't working. Too complicated, too many systems, not talking to each other, let alone to the ground, and he was getting more and more worried about the Americans getting there first. He wanted to launch as soon as the rocket was available, so they reluctantly pulled Sputnik 1 out of the nosecone and substituted the almost-unwanted simple third satellite. Later, they would claim that this was always intended to be the real Sputnik 1.

They launched on October the 4th, and the world was changed. When Sputnik 2, carrying Laika and weighing over a thousand pounds, went up a month later, the incipient panic in the US widened and deepened: the Russians were obviously well ahead in rocketry and could lob warheads anywhere on Earth with impunity.


Explosion of the Vanguard 1 launcher on 6 December 1957

Eisenhower tried to calm the fears, saying that in December, the US would launch their own IGY satellite and everyone could see that all were on the same footing.

Cape Canaveral was packed with reporters and cameramen on December 6th. Staring at the new rocket on the pad as the countdown hit zero, the engines fired, and Vanguard climbed to its peak altitude... of four feet. Before falling back and exploding in a ball of flame and smoke in front of the eyes of the world. The tiny three-and-a-quarter pound satellite rolled away, still beeping incessantly. New York Journal America columnist Dorothy Kilgallen at last asked bitterly, "Why doesn't somebody go out there and kill it?"

Eisenhower had, however, given the go ahead to von Braun and his team shortly after Sputnik had launched, as a back-up to Vanguard. Accordingly, they successfully launched Explorer 1 on a modified Jupiter-C (the modified rocket christened "Juno") on the 31st of January, 1958 and America was (belatedly) in the Space Race themselves.

What If...

That's what did happen in OTL. As we know, the Freedom of Space was indeed adopted, with the Soviets unable to argue against it, given that their own Sputnik would have violated it. The Americans received the first of their emotional body-blows (and the second, with Laika and Sputnik 2). Maybe if they had ended up with the first manned launch into space it would have been different (see a future article), but as it was, they started the Space Race on the back foot.

What would have happened if von Braun had been given his head and allowed to send the final stage of the Jupiter-C launch in 1956 into orbit?

Well, firstly, the emotional gut-punch that Americans received from Sputnik 1 would never have happened. This could have had major ramifications for the rest of the Space Race - while they may still have been the first to launch a man into space, a few years later, that would probably have been seen as an equalizer ("We're now 1-1") rather than yet another (and larger) kick in the teeth for the West.

Would Kennedy have felt obliged to respond as strongly as he did in OTL? While the manned space programme would very probably still have gone ahead, it would likely have been far slower and with far less funding. The Soviets were then responding to the American response (the Voskhod programme itself being a bolted-on kludged-together addition to their own programme). In such a PoD, the writer can consider themselves freed of virtually all of the existing events and assume that the first multi-person spacecraft, the first spacewalk, the first real rendezvous and docking, and so forth, would have been significantly later.

A lunar landing mission might not occur (if at all) until the late Seventies or the Eighties. The possibility of entering the 21st century with no-one yet having walked on the Moon is not implausible.

Beyond this, what if the Soviets - knowing themselves to be a year behind or more - rejected the "Freedom of Space" principle? The launch of any satellite would be a subject of international treaty. Satellite communications, satellite TV, satellite imagery, even weather forecasting - could it have been far more rudimentary and expensive?

The fabled "spin-offs" from the Space Programme were real, although many minor ones are far overhyped. The most important and influential one, however, was in developing and miniaturising computers: the funding poured into doing so due to the need to carry on-board computers in tiny capsules made them far more affordable and usable in a multitude of other roles. Kickstarting a revolution that has utterly changed the face of the world - a connected world, with what would be regarded then as supercomputers routinely in the pockets of children today. Giving capabilities that were not even dreamed of in the past.

Of course, computer development could still have happened - but you have to answer the questions "How?" and "Why?" The space programme, as it happened in OTL, provided the answers for us - if your ATL has computing even close to our own, you have to explain how else they would have got here.

So - a push for an All-American ostensibly peaceful first satellite in the USA (and one that failed) allowed the Soviet Union to achieve the first big "First" in space, and led us down one very specific direction of timelines. One in which a Space Race led to humans on the Moon in the Sixties, one in which the freedom of space was established from the start, and one that led inexorably to the Internet-and-computer-connected world of today. It didn't have to turn out this way. With a little change, in your ATL, it would not.

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Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP