Oct 312013

By the early 1980’s, NASA has semi-permanent manned lunar bases and is sending men beyond.  Numerous space stations and manned platforms circle the Earth and the moon. Commercial platforms are popping up, with companies buying rides on the Space Shuttle and sometimes “renting” the entire vehicle. People are starting to seriously pursue space tourism as a paying business; the first such tourists buy seats on Shuttle flights that have been rented by commercial satellite launch firms. And now due to competition with the Soviet Union, the US is quickly getting into the business of militarizing space.

This is a major change to the way NASA has worked. NASA has been in the business of science and exploration; it is not well suited to commercial enterprise, military endeavors or construction projects. Future commercial and military plans are rapidly outpacing NASA plans and NASA capacity. While the NASA budget has settled out at about a constant 2.5% of the US Federal budget, the total number of trained astronauts is far too low even for planned commercial efforts in Earth orbit, never mind all the other programs. Additionally, NASA has focused on training “elite” astronauts, when what’s becoming needed is a construction corps of builders and get-it-done-types.

Further: NASA’s efforts and funding have gone preferentially towards the “S” in NASA (“Space”), while the first “A” (“Aeronautics”) has been virtually ignored. As a result, the American SST program, which resulted in the Boeing 2707 (first flight 1976) has stagnated with only twelve aircraft flying. The Boeing 737 and 747 remain, by the early 1980’s, the primary means of American air travel; even with the massive drop in oil prices following the collapse of OPEC, supersonic travel remains terribly expensive and beyond the financial reach of most travelers.

So, in 1982, after much wrangling, wailing and gnashing of teeth, NASA is broken up. The old National Advisory Council on Aeronautics, which formed the original backbone of NASA, is re-incorporated, focusing on aeronautical technology… aerodynamics, jet engines, materials technologies, etc. Facilities, staff and funding are now separate from the space-oriented organization that had been strangling them.

The space side of NASA is reorganized into the US Astronautics Agency. The USAA is aimed not only at continuing the “elite” efforts of NASA, the pushing-the-envelope projects, but also at the less glamorous efforts of space launch and construction.  The USAA is modeled somewhat on the Works Progress Administration for the Great Depression era, but instead of hiring millions of low-skilled workers in order to prop up a faltering economy, the USAA  hires and trains thousands of skilled workers to be space workers.

In order to provide direction to the USAA, the anemic National Aeronautics and Space Council (done away with by Nixon on 1973 IRL, but here it has hung on) is reformed into the more focused National Council on Astronautics. The NCA and the USAA are closely linked, in that the NCA is the political link between the USAA and the President and Congress; staffed by career bureaucrats, the NCA works to both direct political will, and to carry out political will.

The USAA is tasked with physically building the future. The former NASA research facilities, such as  Marshall, Langley, Ames and so on, continue to develop advanced technologies and missions. New facilities are set up around the nation to train the vast numbers of astronauts and technicians and engineers and others that the new programs will need, as well as take advanced new technologies and turn them into standard practices. Boise, Denver, Seattle and Albuquerque, for example, see massive new facilities. New launch facilities are built offshore from Kennedy Space Center, in the Gulf of Mexico a few miles from Galveston, and south-east of the Big Island of Hawaii. Belize lobbies hard for a launch facility.

Where NASA had tried to hold itself somewhat apart from the military and seemed at best lukewarm to commercial enterprise, the USAA is formed to work hand-in-hand with both the military and private enterprise. The USAA has unique launch and space construction abilities, and is available for rent. While some in government take issue with this, calling the USAA a “mercenary perversion of NASA’s mission,” the fact remains that the income the USAA derives from both American and foreign paying customers offsets a large fraction of the total USAA budget.

The USAA is born in controversy, with many angry at the loss of NASA; but within the decade the controversy has faded in the face of unquestioned success. While Space Station II was an acknowledged failure, Space Station I was a roaring success and a half dozen clones of it have been built and put into service. Space Station III is a new concept in space station construction; plans are in place for even bigger stations and even permanent “towns” on the moon.

Of course, there are also plans to fill the heavens with weapons. By the time Reagan leaves office in 1985, the USAA is busy launching nuclear weapons platforms and directed energy systems into orbit. These remain against international treaty… but by this point, nobody really cares much. The Soviets got there first… but the Americans got there bigger. The fact that the “mass simulator” launched by the first Neptune booster was in fact a harmless mockup remains a tightly guarded secret… by simply claiming that it is, in fact, simply a mass simulator. The Soviets assume that the claim is a lie, and so continue to believe that the platform is a weapon. Ironically, over the course of the 80’s, the platform is slowly converted into an actual platform; the mass of inert aluminum structural beams that make up its bulk are removed for use in other orbital construction projects, and are replace a bit at a time with actual power systems, sensors and weapons. By the end of the 80’s the “mass simulator” is a true battle station, but by this point it’s merely one of many.

1985 sees not only a new President – Vice President Bob Dole easily defeats Mondale – but also new design competitons. The Shuttle has been flying operationally for half a dozen years… successfully, but expensively. It will need replacing by the 1990’s for passenger launch. Also, the Neptune has replaced the Saturn V, but it, too, will need supplementing by the early 1990s. Something bigger is needed…

To be continued

 Posted by at 8:52 am
  • Paper Kosmonaut

    Republicans. Only republicans. It might give the story a bit more of a neutral standpoint with some democratic influences. However, I like the story and it overall does sound quite plausible. I am curious how you would imagine the Neptune launcher.

    • Anonymous

      > Republicans. Only republicans.

      So far, the only fundamental change in the Presidents has been the deletion of the Carter administration… which was a disaster. And what has happened to the House and Senate? I’ve no idea… I’m surely not going to work out thirty years of elections for 535 seats there. Bleah. The President is just one man, a man of limited *actual* power, but lots of “bully pulpit” power.

      And keep in mind that the Democrat influence on the space program was pretty much uniformly negative after JFK (and even he didn’t give a damn about it). LBJ killed off Saturn and Apollo, and his Great Society programs have led to NASA being a poorly-funded niche for forty years. Proxmire. Mondale. Teddy. Jackson-Lee.

      And what do we have from the Republicans? Nixon turned out to be sort of placeholder President here. Reagan was Reagan, except four years younger. In this timeline, his yapping about “Star Wars” (not sure if it would be called that in this timeline) has even *more* of an impact on the Soviets. Notice how the Soviet Union still exists in 2010? So, yeah, the space program ends up in a far better place… but the most evil ideology to gain prominence on Earth lasts at least an extra two decades.

      I’m kinda drawing a blank on Dems who could have been President who would have done great things for the space program. Few enough Republicans. But Reagan? He at least pushed SDI hard. And “2001” is a world where SDI, or something like it, was massively successful, filling the sky with weapons. So getting Reagan in the game early makes sense. And he was a serious contender in ’76, going up against Ford, who was an incumbent. In the alternate timeline, Ford *isn’t* the incumbent.

      • Paper Kosmonaut

        Thanks for your answer, Scott. I cannot do anything else but agree. But I only looked at it in a more or less statistical manner. It kind of would have been time now for a democrat. However, this does not make the timeline as it is now less plausibe, though and I’ll keep following it with interest.

        • Herp McDerp

          I was about to make the same comment — after five Republican terms in a row, there would be rumblings (especially in the media!) about the public thinking it was “time for a change.” But perhaps, with an aggressive and somewhat desperate Soviet Union working mischief in the world, the Democrats might take a position on international affairs that would backfire on them … What if the USSR invaded Afghanistan, or Kim Il-sung went psycho on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the glorious Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and invaded South Korea, or Southeast Asia (after the Communist victory in Viet Nam) faced more “insurgencies,” or Eastern Europeans began to agitate for freedom? Prominent Democrat politicians might come out on the losing side of any of these issues.

          I doubt that Mondale would have been the Democratic candidate in 1984. More likely someone young and fresh — Senator Gary Hart, maybe? Congressman Dick Gephart? Or perhaps Senator John V. Tunney didn’t lose to S.I. Hayakawa in 1976, and kept his seat? (Even without Ted Kennedy in the Senate, would Tunney still secretly approach the Soviets for assistance in defeating the Republicans? That would have been a nice scandal!) Or Mike Dukakis, beginning his third term as governor of Massachusetts — this isn’t our timeline! — who might have looked good until a murderer (not Willie Horton) whose sentence Dukakis had commuted went on a killing spree.

          • Herp McDerp

            (Whoops. Make that the 35th anniversary with Mr. Kim.)

            Hmm. Also: Did Nixon go to China? Is mainland China still hard-core Maoist? Has the U.S. given China diplomatic recognition by the 1980s? Perhaps various Democrats advocate getting friendlier with the People’s Republic, and then whoever is running the show in China decides to invade Taiwan …

          • Well, we see a bombsat with Chinese “8-1” (PLA) markings on it in the movie, so odds are that Red China exists in this TL.

            The German bombsat is the one that gets me. There is just no effing way the Soviets would have ever permitted the BRD to develop a nuclear weapon, much less an orbital bomber from which to launch it. (Imagine what we would have done if the Japanese had tried it. Same result.)

            There’s a French bombsat, too, but they had nukes IRL. The thing is, they also have/had a place from which to launch their bombsats — Guiana. The Germans had no such equatorial colonies with oceanic downrange. From where did the Krauts launch their bombsat — Peenemünde? Talk about high-inclination orbits!

          • B-Sabre

            Well, the Germans operated Pershing missiles with US-controlled warheads in NATO (possibly also Lance and free-fall bomb as well). So if we posit a harder-line Bonn government, maybe they got the US to loft one for them.

          • Anonymous

            If Scott is using the events of the 2010 book, the PRC still exists – and launches the Tsein on a high-speed flight to Europa *after* the Leonov is launched.
            We also know from the book (and I think the movie – I’ll be watching it this evening) that 2001-2009 had a single president followed by the election in 2008 of Mordecai (who looks like Clarke himself).

          • As a reader, I’d prefer that this TL omit any reference to events, characters etc, from 2010 (et sequelae), but that’s just my personal taste.

          • Anonymous

            Fortunately I only need to try to figure out things leading up to the state of things circa 1999. “2010” doesn’t really add a lot to that, and the further sequels only diverge even further (by each trying to update the timeline, rather than just sticking with the original).

        • Anonymous

          > It kind of would have been time now for a democrat.

          Look at it this way:at the end of Nixon’s term, the Dems are still held in low regard due to the several Kennedy scandals (remember, at least Teddy goes to jail this time, perhaps Bobs as well), so it does not seem unreasonable to me that Reagan gets in. He does his 8 years, and is just as popular, probably more so (being 4 years younger and more active), so his relatively uncharismatic Veep rides his coat-tails into the following election. But how well does “uncharismatic” serve a President? We’ve seen that before…

          In any event, if you haven’t liked my list’o Presidents so far, wait till the 90’s.

    • Anonymous

      > I am curious how you would imagine the Neptune launcher.

      From Part 4:

      ” in 1971, a design contest is held among major contractors and General
      Dynamics/Astronautics wins with an improved version of their earlier
      Nexus launch vehicle. A long development plan is put into place to
      develop this as the “Neptune” booster.”

  • publiusr

    I know you are not a big MSNBC fan, but you might want to watch this tonight:
    Now Richard Shelby used to be a Blue Dog democrat–and lots of them would doubtless support this scenario, as would Republicans Sam Brownback, Tom DeLay and other pro-space types that should play a role in this timeline…the only thing the Bushes did right was appoint Mike Griffin. I hope you include him as pushing for Neptune, fighting off internet trolls who want to kill it—if that sounds familiar…

    “Something bigger is needed…”

    Super-Nexus, I assume–

    From Below:
    “There is just no effing way the Soviets would have ever permitted the BRD to develop a nuclear weapon, much less an orbital bomber from which to launch it.”

    I’m thinking Super Nexus launched some of these different platforms from competition, and they were given to other nations. In the same way that SLS is sparking China and Russians into considering HLLVs now IRL, Super Nexus would have the same result in this timeline

    I assume there were no EELVs in this timeline