What If? Counterfactuals in Space History


Everyone loves playing “what if” games, as long as we all understand that they are games. Historians have a bit more sophisticated term, “counterfactual history,” which is the same type of “what if” approach to stories that we have all indulged ourselves in over the years but with more rigor. I recently read the book, What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited By Robert Crowley, and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1999. My review is here.

Always in counterfactual history, and this is the key issue, investigations must focus critical attention on a central question or event on which an individual and/or story might turn if one difference is introduced. How might that change shape the course of history, world or otherwise? We can never know for sure but the possibility of counterfactual history is that it raises important alternative situations and scenarios for consideration.

This prompted me to ask if there are good counterfactual investigations that might be undertaken in the context of the history of spaceflight. Let me offer three that I think are sgnificant, two of them are obvious but one might surprise you. But I’d like to hear what you think might make a good counterfactual investigation.

  1. What if the Americans had been the first to launch an orbital satellite in 1957 before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik?
  2. What if the Soviet Union had been the first to land humans on the Moon rather than the United States in 1969?
  3. What if Viking had found unequivocal evidence of life on Mars in 1976?

    A Soviet engineer and Sputnik 1.

In terms of the first first “what if” question, it seems that had there not been a “Sputnik crisis” during the winter of 1957-1958 with th Soviet launch of a satellite before the United States history would have turned in a different direction. What would have been different had there not been a Sputnik? The rocketry programs of the United States were well in hand in 1957 and there is every reason to believe they would have continued on as they did. The same is true of the satellite reconnaissance effort. Space science was being pursued expeditiously through a variety of avenues; even with efforts to send probes to the Moon, and except for an acceleration of effort probably would have been continued along pretty much the path that came with this “turning point.” Communications satellites were being pursued by AT&T and might have even achieved success earlier had there been less government involvement.

What would have beem different, it seems to me, is that the reorganization of space activities inside the U.S. government would not have taken place. There probably would not have been a National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, and perhaps no National Defense Education Act of 1958, and the establishment of the DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency and other internal changes might not have taken place. How would this have changed history?

Buzz Aldrin saluting the U.S. flag on the Moon during the July 20, 1969 EVA.

In the context of my second counterfactural; in the space race to the Moon what if the Soviets had landed cosmonauts first on the Moon. It seems likely that American funding for NASA’s Moon race would have been extended and expanded. It is also likely that both superpowers might have sought cooperative ventures in space sooner since they were both spending too much on spaceflight and would have been seeking a way out. It might have led to a far different future.

The Viking lander on Mars.

Finally, one of the first results from the Viking lander on Mars in 1976 was indication of biological material present on the Red Planet. This was later believed to be the result of a calibration issue that created a false positive reading. What if it had not been a false positive? Would irrefutable evidence of life on Mars have spurred greater exploration of the planet? I suspect that would have been the case and there would have been no twenty year interlude in Mars missions. We might well have pursued human missions to Mars to learn more. On the other hand, we might have decided to leave Mars alone altogether—something akin to the Star Trek “prime directive” violated on virtually every episode—for fear that we might introduce some unintended negative feature that would affect life on Mars.

These are entertaining and interesting possibilities for consideration. What do you think about them? I’d be interested in hearing over counterfactual scenarios in he history of spaceflight.

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3 Responses to What If? Counterfactuals in Space History

  1. Chuck Divine says:

    The counterfactual — perhaps more than one — that comes to mind is what would have happened if the Peenemunde team had not reached the United States for some reason, or, at least, had not been welcomed into American aerospace. This country was already doing some work involving rockets and space exploration. NACA was already doing various things that would have led to an American presence in space.

    The United States back then was considerably more open and democratic than either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Such societies tend to work better than the more authoritarian. Authoritarian societies can produce some quick successes, but tend to fall down the longer they last.

    Were the members of the Peenemunde team more authoritarian than their American counterparts? If so, that could explain their quick successes — and longer term lack of success.

    The race to the Moon might have been replaced with a a longer term space exploration effort that would have connected better with the American public than Apollo did.

    These are just some thoughts running through my head. Why, yes, I do have a more open and democratic personality than most people — even most Americans.

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  2. Whatif the space shuttle had been canned late 1971 ? it came damn, damn close a day of October… what future for the manned space program ? a capsule and a space station, Mir-style ?

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