Mars by ’85? NASA’s alternative history


1976:NASA’s Space Shuttle climbs to orbit

In the early 1960s, the sky had no limits for NASA . Planners for the agency foresaw an ever-expanding future of exploration through the Solar System. Some amazing missions were planned. Alas in August 1967, the US Congress refused to support NASA’s plans for the 1970s. Ever since then NASA’s budget for space exploration has been shrinking. Today in 2010 even a return to the Moon is decades away.

Just imagine what might have been achieved in the past decades if harsh fiscal reality had never intruded.All these projects of the 70s and 80s were genuinely proposed, the 1990s ones are my rather tongue in cheek inventions but I’m sure it is pretty obvious where I’m going with them.

July 1969:Apollo 11 and its crew land on the Moon. Following this triumph, Apollo lunar missions continue throughout the 1970s.

1970:Based on existing research, development begins of the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application (NERVA), a reusable nuclear thermal rocket booster for use in space (launched from Earth by a Saturn V).

1972:The first American space station, Skylab 1, is placed into orbit and inhabited by a series of three man crews. More Skylabs follow throughout the decade.

1973:NASA sends the first two probes in the Voyager program to Mars, more follow every other year throughout the 1970’s preparing the way for the manned Mars missions to follow.

1975 The first humans venture into interplanetary space, as three astronauts fly past Venus and Mars in a craft derived from Skylab hardware. The crew photograph the planets and release probes as they fly by our neighbouring worlds. A similar mission takes place in 1977.

1976 First flight of the Space Shuttle, a winged spacecraft launched from the back of a large winged booster vehicle (illustrated above). Completely reusable, the Shuttle is responsible for a dramatic decrease in the cost of sending people and cargo into space.

Also this year, the Apollo 20 mission is the first to have its crew stay on the Moon for up to eight weeks.The lunar surface crew stay in an unmanned shelter and cargo lander launched by an earlier Saturn V. The astronauts also have a long-traverse rover and rocket-powered flyers at their disposal.

1977 Building upon the Skylab experiences, the 12-man Space Station is launched into orbit by a Saturn V rocket. The nuclear-powered outpost rotates end over end to provide artificial gravity and is constantly expanded and upgraded over the next decade.

1979 The ‘classic’ series of Apollo lunar missions end with Apollo 22.Within a few years, NERVA-powered Nuclear Shuttles are carrying Space Tugs, multipurpose modular manned spacecraft, to and from lunar orbit. A Lunar Surface Base is established to further studies of Earth’s satellite.


By the mid-1980 hundreds of people work in Spacebase (Image Credit:NASA)


1980 Work commences on Space Base, a giant space station to accommodate a crew of 100.

12 November 1981 NASA’s first manned Mars mission departs Earth orbit.The mission employs two identical 270 ft long spacecraft boosted by three Nuclear Shuttles. All the components were launched by Saturn Vs and assembled in orbit. Each ship has a crew of six.

9 August 1982 The Mars mission goes into orbit around the Red Planet. The first humans to walk on another planet descend in their Mars Excursion Module (illustrated below) to spend 30 to 60 days exploring.Their objectives include studying Martian geology, searching for life, and prospecting for resources for future Mars expeditions.


1982:the Martian explorers set off for home (Image credit:NASA)


28 February 1983 The returning Mars expedition flies past Venus. Meanwhile the second Mars mission is preparing to leave Earth (it returns in 1985).

14 August 1983 The first Mars mission arrives back in orbit around Earth. Fearing contamination by Martian organisms, the crews are quarantined in a space station until it is ruled safe for them to return home.

1986-7 Third Mars mission takes place.

1988-1989 NASA’s fourth Mars mission establishes a 50-person Mars Base.Humanity is now an interplanetary species.

1994 US begins construction of Clavius Base, a giant permanent colony under the lunar surface.By the end of the decade it houses 1700 people in comfort.

By 1999 Assembly by the US and USSR of Space Station 5 (also known as the International Space Station), a 560 m wide wheel-shaped complex. Apart from the scientific facilities, by the turn of the century it boasts a restaurant, post office, cinema and souvenir shop.

Airlines run scheduled flights to orbit using a fleet of advanced Orion III shuttles.

The first children to live off planet have been born at Clavius Base.

Utilising the latest advances in nuclear propulsion, artificially induced human hibernation and artificial intelligence, the USA plans the Discovery project to send manned missions to Jupiter (and possibly Saturn too).

2001 ?

So what do you think? Could history have unfolded like this? Would it have been a good thing if it had? How would the rest of the world reacted? What would our lives have been like if things had turned out this way?