Chapter 4: Reach for the Stars
The date, November 1, 1974. The location, Baikonur Cosmodrome’s Heavy Launch Pad Delta. The star of the show that day, the Soviet Union’s fifth N-1 rocket standing proudly on the pad. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and Chief Designer Sergei Korolev were in attendance, watching the N-1 from five kilometers away in a fortified concrete bunker, through television screens.
“This better work, Chief Designer” said Premier Kosygin, his mind drifting towards the amount of money the Soviets had spent on the space program. In the end, he thought, it was all worth it. The supremacy of the motherland over her capitalist enemies in the West was the most important thing in the Soviet’s space agenda. The recent Soyuz-19 flight that flew Aleksei Leonov and Valery Kubasov into Low Earth Orbit to test the Soviets’ Soyuz 7K-L1 long-range capsule had no major effect Western publicity due to its regularity.
“Of course, Comrade. We have no 100% guarantee though.” responded the Chief Designer, whose identity had been concealed, his name never credited. He had pioneered Soviet Russia’s novel achievements in space, designing the R-7 Semyorka, the Sputnik satellite, and the Vostok capsule that carried Gagarin into orbit. Because of his momentous achievements for the Soviet Union and humanity as a whole, his identity was kept secret for fear of American attempts to assassinate him to one-up the Russians. Now, he stood in the concrete control bunker, the officers inside sworn to secrecy to keep his identity hushed up. He now watched the screens as the N-1 neared its launch.
“Comrade Chief Designer, the launch vehicle is ready for liftoff” said one of the officers facing the controller, announcing that the N-1 was ready for launch. Korolev looked around, nodding at the Soviet Premier, before pulling a silver key out of his pocket and inserting it into the key module.
“Go for flight” said Korolev, before letting go of the key, and moving backwards, as if afraid of the control module in front of him. His heartbeat began pumping faster as the tension in the room grew steadily. A bead of sweat fell down Korolev’s cheek as he gave the green light to launch.
“Go launch. Cleared. Engine ignition....” said the chief flight engineer, his thought trailing as he awaited confirmation of engine ignition from his console. “...ignition confirmed, velocity rising.” the engineer finished. However, some observers in a different control room could see something was off.....
The rocket began to climb upwards at a dismally slow speed, its 30-ish engines burning their hardest to push the behemoth of a rocket into the air. Premier Kosygin smiled as the rocket pushed upwards, albeit very slowly, its launch escape tower leading the way. Smiles and cheers erupted in the concrete bunker that served as Mission Control, and Korolev relaxed himself. He turned to Premier Kosygin, who congratulated him for the success.
Not all was great, however, as the rocket began experiencing issues that would most probably change Korolev’s future forever. As the rocket cruised past the 50-meter mark, 5 NK-15V main engines on the first stage, out of the 30-ish total, reported thrust deficiencies that caused the rocket to slowly start coming down.
Red alarms blared in Mission Control, as the Premier’s smile faded and his arms crossed his chest, obviously showing his annoyance. Korolev scrambled to the console to find the cause of the issue. The N-1 continued to fall downwards, the nose now tipping towards the side.
The Chief Designer ran to the announcement speakers which ran to speakers all over the Cosmodrome, and shouted, ‘Evacuate Heavy Launch Pad Delta, large Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly imminent. Repeat, EVACUATE, EVACUATE’ before he moved towards the back of the room, where he whispered to his deputy, Vasily Mishin, to leave and get to the N-1 assembly plant as fast as possible.
“Go, and fix this problem before the Premier scolds us” said Korolev, before turning to a nearby engineer and requesting for a status report.
Before Mishin could leave the bunker, however, massive rumbles erupted throughout Baikonur, causing powerful shaking equal to that of an earthquake. The N-1 had failed again, and as the Premier turned around to face Korolev, it was clear that no more failures could be accepted.
On November 2, 1974, President Gerald R. Ford of the United States of America was notified of the N-1 failure, as was Project Astra Administrator Arthur Tombaugh and NASA Administrator James Fletcher. The President called for an emergency meeting of top NASA and budget allocation committee officials to discuss the renewed hope for Americans that the US might once more beat the Soviets in space.
The aftermath of the N-1 crash resulted in budget cuts for the N-1 program and Korolev’s plans for a Lunar base by 1990, with Premier Kosygin pushing for civilian flights on the Soyuz, as well as large orbital space stations. Soviet Russia’s Salyut 1 space station was nearing completion, while designs on a larger, modular space station called Mir was in the works.
By November 5, all plans for a Soviet moon landing took a backseat as the Premier, and other top Politburo members, toured the Salyut 1 plant to publicly show their support for the Salyut program. Aleksei Leonov, Valery Kubasov, and Yuri Gagarin would be the crew of Soyuz 20, the first Salyut crewed launch to take place in June 1975.
On the 7th of November, President Ford announced NASA’s new vision and focus for the next ten years, or as many speculated, for the remainder of Ford’s term. News correspondents and NASA astronauts gathered at the Capitol building to hear President Ford’s ‘America’s Future in Space’ plan that would encompass 1975-1985.
“Following the tragic and devastating Soviet N-1 rocket accident at their Baikonur Cosmodrome, the United States has decided to modify and expand NASA’s goals and aspirations for an American future in space. While the Soviet Union lacks behind in technology and success, the United States will push onward for the benefit of all humanity.”
“I have directed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) administrator James Fletcher and Project Astra Administrator Arthur Tombaugh, supplemented by a board of certified scientists and aeronautics engineers, to design and implement NASA’s ‘For All Humankind’ space initiative.”
“In order to make way for these new programs under For All Humankind, or FAH, the United States Congress has decided to honorably terminate Project Apollo to allocate more funding towards future-minded and sustainable programs such as our Space Transportation System. Apollo 18-21 will be cancelled indefinitely in accordance with this new decision. The Neptune family of launch vehicles will also be cancelled indefinitely, for the same reason.”
“Project Astra will serve as NASA’s main goal, with the Skylab and STS programs residing and continuing nominally underneath it. Astra’s main goal will be to develop a sustainable future for humans on the Moon, as well as to launch a Mars flyby mission by 1990. I assure the American public that the US government here on Capitol Hill will dedicate all resources possible to enable these dreams to come true, for all Humankind.”
“Project Astra will attempt to: One, land men – and women – on the Lunar surface once more by 1975, in a sustainable and achievable manner that does not compromise the safety or scientific harvests of such a mission. Two, launch the Skylab orbital laboratory aboard a Saturn V launch vehicle into Low Earth Orbit by 1975. Three, launch the first Space Transportation System (STS) shuttle, named Columbia, into low earth orbit by 1975. The Space Shuttles will have the capability to launch every two weeks, to Skylab and back, enabling the United States a continuous and permanent human presence in space for the first time in history.”
“The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will also open up Project Prospera, a currently top-secret joint space venture between NASA, the US Air Force, and the newly founded US Space Force. I assure you all, Project Prospera will bear great fruit for the United States and humanity as a whole in the near future. Its goal is set for an estimated achievement date sometime in the 1980s.”
“Finally, we are sad to disclose that all previously announced planetary exploration missions, and any NASA-organized or NASA-included space missions have been cancelled per order of the Congress of the United States. The only missions Cape Canaveral shall be conducting will be those I have listed today. Thank you and God bless America!”
The President’s speech came as a surprise to many, but most scientists and those actually involved with NASA, JPL, or the US government were actually pleased by the result. NASA’s budget had been overflowing by almost $20 billion dollars in the months prior, causing the United States to begin to enact policies to force economic growth in the country, to the expense of foreign nations.
NASA Administrator Fletcher announced the completion of the Skylab orbital laboratory at the Stennis Space Center, with the Saturn V set to launch it being assembled at the historic Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Skylab is set for a launch in April 1975, with a crewed Astra launch aboard a Saturn IB also in April.
The Space Transportation System (STS), more commonly known as the Space Shuttle program, is also approaching completion with one Approach and Landing test being conducted by the Columbia and Discovery space shuttles every two weeks. The four-segment reusable SRBs to be used by the Space Shuttle, being developed by Martin Marietta, was already undergoing static fire testing at their Utah test site. The big external tank, to be painted white, was also approaching completion at Lockheed Martin’s assembly facilities.
The Space Shuttle would serve as ‘America’s Ride to Space’ for the coming decades, promising to be a cheap and reliable orbital launch system. While some doubted the rhetoric used by NASA and the US Congress to support the STS program, President Ford and major proponents for the Shuttle program continued to voice their support for the project, as it supported hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country.
The month of January for the United States, and NASA in particular, had been weirdly interesting. One of NASA’s Mariner probes, Mariner 11, was reportedly found at a US military installation, supposed to be launched to Jupiter but was cast aside and hidden away at a military storage outpost in favor of more modern equipment. NASA decided to, with the White House’s nudging, use the Mariner spacecraft and prepare it for a Lunar orbital mission to scan for smooth areas capable of holding “large manmade Lunar surface bases”, such as the Sea of Tranquility.
Mariner 11 was re-designated Astra-1, and would be Project Astra’s first actual space mission since its inception. The mission’s official goal was to launch a Mariner-style spacecraft into Lunar orbit, where it will then survey the Lunar surface for suitable landing sites for future Astra lunar surface missions. The Mariner 11 spacecraft was stripped of unnecessary components such as excess solar panels, and was fitted with the highest definition, highest resolution cameras of the time capable of flying aboard the mission.
The Astra-1 mission was rushed into integration and testing, and now it stood atop a Titan IIIE launch vehicle at Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, in mid-April 1975. NASA prepared to once more launch the newest iteration of their planetary – in this case lunar – exploration missions to the Earth’s neighbor.
“Ignition sequence start” reported the Flight Dynamics Officer, as Mission Control watched the Titan rocket cruise through the sky and into the cloud layer. The eyes of the controllers turned downwards to their screens as the Titan IIIE disappeared through the clouds, and into the stars.
After almost fifteen minutes under the pressure of the burning engines below, the Titan IIIE achieved low earth orbit, and prepared for a trans-lunar injection.
The systems of Astra-1 were checked, double checked, and triple checked, and the Titan’s transfer stage was prepared for its final burn.
At 7:37PM Florida time, the evening after the launch, the engine of the transfer stage relit and the probe made its way to the Moon, just as previous Ranger missions had done.
“Administrator Fletcher!” said Project Astra Administrator Arthur Tombaugh, sitting in his NASA office in Houston. NASA Administrator James Fletcher entered the room and took a seat extremely rapidly, before placing a brown envelope on Tombaugh’s desk, labelled ‘CLASSIFIED: BOEING ACCORD’.
Tombaugh smiled as he opened the envelope and skimmed it, before asking Fletcher, ‘Its confirmed then? President Ford approved it?’. Fletcher only nodded as he pulled out a voice recorder and left it on Tombaugh’s desk. The Project Administrator looked at it, apparently pleasantly confused, as Fletcher left the office.
Arthur moved his seat forward, and reached for the voice recorder. He placed down the other paper, sourced from the brown envelope, and pressed the red play button.
“Sirs Fletcher, James, and Tombaugh, Arthur. High-ranking officials for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This recording and all its contents are to remain classified and secured within the minds of those addressed in this message.”
“I, President Gerald Rudolph Ford, of the United States of America, hereby permits the execution of all Project Prospera initiatives. You are go to develop Mars 1979. It is of utmost importance to the United States and the Western World that the United States reach Martian orbit by 1985, with crewed spacecrafts.”
“We are under the belief that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are developing their own crewed Mars capabilities, as they have successfully launched their Salyut 1, a long-term crewed space station that could serve as a precursor to Soviet Mars plans.”
“We will not be outpaced this time, make sure of it. Terminating message, here.”
Tombaugh placed the voice recorder on his desk gently, and glanced around the room, which stood eerily quiet, as if the furniture were listening in to the recording of President Ford’s voice. He sighed before placing the envelope on his desk. Tombaugh proceeded to grab and put on his jacket as he left his office, locked the door, and turned off the light.
The title of the prologue document in the envelope stayed in his mind for the remainder of the evening, even as he ate dinner with his wife and went to sleep.
“Project Prospera, Sub-Program Alpha: Mars 1979. Crewed Martian flyby to be executed by December 1979 AT THE LATEST”
Could it be done, or would the Soviets beat them to it? Tombaugh shook of his thoughts the next morning as he arrived at a suburban house in Houston, belonging to the world’s most famous rocket scientist. A German who had moved to the States, who had pioneered the Saturn family of rockets. Von Braun sat in his porch, awaiting his visitor.
On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Sergei Korolev had been summoned to the office of the Premier of the Soviet Union and the Chairman of the Communist Party, Alexei Kosygin. The briefing was as short as it was vital to the survival of the Soviet Union.
“Comrade Chief Designer, this will be short. You have received funding for your N-1 and N-2 programs, as well as for your Project Apec. Your order, should you choose to accept it, is to beat the Americans to Mars. We have reports of their Mars 1979 program, indicating they plan a crewed Mars flyby by at the latest December 1979.”
“Beat them to it, Comrade, and make the Union proud.”
Korolev only nodded.
As he left, he wondered, could it be done, or would the Americans beat them to it? Korolev resolved to seek assistance from Soviet Russia’s most experienced rocket engine designer, Valentin Glushko.
Chapter 5 scheduled for release on Sunday, May 16, 2021!