Opinion

WHITTINGTON: What If The Soviets Won The Moon Race?

Mark Whittington Contributor

What would have happened if the Soviet Union made it to the moon before the United States? A new television series set to air on Apple TV  later this year, “For All Mankind,” seeks to answer that question.

Those of us who lived through the Apollo moon landings have been haunted by the question of why America never returned. How could we spend so much money and effort to learn the art and science of spaceflight, and to build up the necessary architecture, only to throw it all away?

Historians have argued that the public didn’t support going to the moon. NASA achieved President Kennedy’s vow to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth, but no political will existed to go farther. Plans for moon bases and trips to Mars remained stillborn.

The other question that arises is, could things have been different? Could political fortunes have shifted so that Apollo could have continued through the 70s, leading to lunar bases and all the rest? For All Mankind tries to answer that question.

Producer Ron Moore, whose previous work has included “Star Trek,” the “Battlestar Galactica” reboot and the time-travel romance “Outlander,” suggested that the Soviet space program took a hit when its chief designer, Sergei Korolev, died in 1965. The notion of Korolev’s survival formed the basis for the alternate reality presented in Moore’s latest work.

A trailer for the program depicts the soul-crushing shock Americans suffer by losing the race to the moon. Soviet Russia becomes a system to emulate rather than to abhor, and it’s a frightening prospect. The Soviets might just win the Cold War.

Americans, having been humbled in the lunar dust, pick themselves up and vow that the Soviets will not dominate space. Victory in the Cold War now demands that those plans for lunar bases and missions to Mars become reality. History takes a turn away from the sad death of the Apollo program. Events turn into something that seems quite exciting.

It appears that Moore has decided Americans do best at exploring space when an enemy country inflicts a defeat on them. Sputnik and Gagarin inspired the Apollo program. The Soviet moon landing has inspired a new, expanded American effort.

The series will be set against that alternate and expanded space program that we didn’t get to have in the 1970s. The trailer hints at the early recruitment of women and African American astronauts. Such recruitment would be a shrewd move that would buttress public support for the new program. One suspects that Gil Scott-Heron would not compose his protest song, “Whitey on the Moon,” in this alternate universe.

The expanded space program will present a different vision of the politics and the economy of the 20th century. Moore has hinted that technological progress will take place at a faster pace.

Ron Moore is a master of the television medium, and his newest work looks like it will be entertaining. The show should provoke thought about not only what might have been, but what still might be.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of “Children of Apollo,” “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” and “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.


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