The Great Space Might-Have-Beens

37 MinutesNASA’s cargo shuttle of the 1980s. The first manned flyby mission to Venus in 1967. A one-way mission to the Moon in 1962.

Using a Ranger spacecraft to survey the crash site of Apollo 11’s lunar lander. Rescuing astronauts stranded in lunar orbit. Nudging Skylab to safety using the Space Shuttle.

Plots for alternate history novels? Nope, even better. These are plans that were actually made — plans which might have been lost in dusty archives forever if it wasn’t for science writer David S.F. Portree and his Wired Science blog Beyond Apollo.

Portree, author of the definitive NASA history of Mars missions that were proposed but which never happened, Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning (NASA Monographs in Aerospace History #21, 2001) — and the technical advisor to the new Channel 37 serial Mission to Mars — launched Beyond Apollo this past March as the culmination of 16 years of dedicated research into the documented detours in America’s space program. In 1996, Portree launched a website called “Romance to Reality,” which led five years later to his NASA monograph. Eventually, the blog peregrinated over to Wired, where it became one of its select Science Blogs.

Portree describes the mission of Beyond Apollo thusly:

For every spacecraft that rises from its launch pad, there have been dozens that were conceived but not built. For every brave space mission flown, there have been dozens that flew only in the mission architect’s imagination. Most of these missions that never were only progressed as far as paper studies. In a few cases, however, flight-worthy space vehicles have become scrap or museum exhibits. In other cases, engineers developed alternate flight plans for missions that flew; for example, NASA planned (ironically, as it turned out) a lunar-orbit photography mission for Apollo 13 in the event that its Lunar Module failed and could not be used to land on the moon.

In this blog, I will describe many space missions and programs that never were. I’ll seek to place them in historical context, and to explore why they failed to make the difficult jump from plan to reality. Along the way, I’ll write about our evolving knowledge of the Solar System, NASA’s symbiotic relationship with the Soviet space program, and intricacies of the U. S. political process. My posts will tend to run long, and some might be serialized over several weeks. Above all, they’ll be a meaty treat for my fellow space fans and, I hope, a window into a new world for people who have seldom given spaceflight more than casual consideration

If you want to find out what space history might have looked like, if you want to see some really exciting spacecraft designs, if you want to be inspired by human ingenuity and imagination, — or if you want some inspiration for a hard-SF story or two — then subscribe to Beyond Apollo. Think of it as the side door to space.

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