Alternate history novels commonly deal with big wars, global disasters and similar high-impact events. Stephen Baxter‘s Voyage from 1996 instead uses this literary tool to tell the story of an alternate space program.
The novel’s turning point: in 1963 John F Kennedy survives the Dallas fusillade with serious injuries whereas Jacqueline Kennedy succumbs to the assassin’s bullets. The president must retire for health reasons, but nevertheless continues for another decade or two to influence the US space program in a more ambitious direction. So when the US Congress ends the Apollo lunar project prematurely in the early 1970s, NASA’s next priority goal becomes a nuclear-powered manned mission to Mars.
Voyage follows this endeavor from inception in the 1960s to conclusion in the 1980s, and delivers a detailed study of alternate-history engineering with multiple protagonists as viewpoints. This is a piece of hard science fiction with ideas and gadgets based on what technology was available in those decades; not everything was constructed in our timeline, but everything could probably have been if the will and the money had been there. Real-world engineers and astronauts make cameo appearances, like Pete Conrad and Wernher von Braun, but all major protagonists are fictitious.
The story takes a close look at the human aspects of space exploration: the dirty disputes between proponents of different engineering solutions, the injuries and deaths caused by hardware malfunctions, the political game behind government financing, the competition between astronauts for the three seats on the Mars mission, the marriages broken by career demands, the overworked minds that crack, spectres from Germany’s dark past haunting NASA, and so on.
Baxter also creates a plausible scenario in which NASA’s Mars crew contains one woman and one African-American, and describes the particular challenges these two encounter. In order to succeed they have to outsmart a system that consistently favors white males. (A non-issue today, perhaps, but not so when Baxter wrote the story twenty years ago about events taking place yet another fifteen-twenty years earlier.)
NASA uses upgraded Apollo and Skylab equipment for its extremely costly one-shot mission to the Red Planet. Therefore the Space Shuttle and the many unmanned interplanetary probes never materialize because different funding priorities: no Vikings landing on Mars, no Pioneers and Voyagers investigating the gas giants, no Mariner 10 photographing Mercury, etc. Baxter lets the reader decide which strategy carries the better long-term benefits.*
Baxter also delivers a heart-rending equivalent to Challenger disaster: NASA’s quality assurance protocols are as flawed in this timeline as in ours. “No, we didn’t check that particular issue because it seemed unimportant.”
No, this is not a feel-good story, but rather a feel-true one. The author’s meticulous research is ever-present in this page-turner and I wish I could write like this. I give Voyage 5 red planets out of 5.
*Hindsight is of course always 20-20: I think that the unmanned strategy has paid off well. A one-shot Apollo-style mission to Mars would hardly have been as beneficial to our steadily increasing knowledge of the solar system as the dozens of much cheaper probes that have visited our planetary neighbors since the 1970s.