Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what’s almost a blank page in my universe: what the first spaceflights, which in my alternate timeline take place in the 1940s, were like. The first moon landing takes place in 1949, but in the interests of high drama and the cool factor I’m combining this voyage with an accident a la Apollo 13, only unlike Apollo 13 the accident forcing the command and service module (CSM) to return to Earth takes place after the lunar excursion module (LEM) has already landed, leaving the men stranded on the Moon.
Lunar Mission Modes
Now that’s an interesting possibility, perhaps most prominently explored in the film and novel “Countdown” (1967), which features a lunar-surface rendezvous mission mode, where a man lands and has to make his way to supplies that were landed previously at the same site. If this sounds familiar, that’s because many Mars mission plans incorporate this mode. For the Moon this mode was studied in real life at least as early as 1962, but was scrapped in favor of lunar orbit rendezvous, which is what Apollo used.
Lunar orbit rendezvous is what the spacecraft will do in my timeline’s program, named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the Moon. NASA’s current lunar program is named Artemis and it’s honestly a bit weird that the original lunar program was named Apollo; the reason for that is it was originally developed as a multi-purpose large orbital capsule to succeed Project Mercury (the ambitions were vast for its uses, hence the naming after the Greek god Apollo), and only later was incorporated into the Moon program.
In this timeline’s Artemis program, lunar orbit rendezvous is the mission mode used for the first flight to the Moon, Artemis 1, but over the next few flights, at a tempo of one every two months or so, more and more supplies to establish a lunar campsite will be dispatched along with them in separate advance launches. In this universe the space program, in this case run by the German Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR) (German for “Society for Space Travel”, which was a real organization by the way) under a variety of civilian-government, military, and private patrons, wastes no time in establishing a longer-duration foothold on the Moon, rather than spending years just doing flags and footprints.
Civilians and Women on the first Moon Mission!
Instead of just military test pilots, Artemis 1 includes several civilian test pilots and several civilian scientists. The crew consists of nine men instead of the three men Apollo had, because the CSM and LEM are much larger. The launcher is substantially heavier than the Saturn V, being comparable in capability to the Comet Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle proposed by NASA in the First Lunar Outpost plan from the early 1990s, which was derived from Saturn hardware. As an aside, Comet is a much cooler name for a launcher than Saturn, and the Comet proposal isn’t particularly well-known, so I think the rocket family that takes men to the Moon in my timeline will be called Komet.
Several women will also be included in the crew, by the way; the Mercury 13 passed all their tests in the US in real life, the Soviets launched Valentina Tereshkova very successfully in 1963, and additionally aviatrices were well-known to be highly capable. There’s even a German film from 1929, “Frau im Mond” (Woman in the Moon), directed by Fritz Lang and written by Thea von Harbou (yes, the same duo who made “Metropolis”), which depicts, as the name suggests, a woman going to the Moon along with some men. As an aside, the film also is the first known depiction of a three-stage rocket launch, using methods very similar to the Saturn V, probably because the technical advisors to the film were basically the same group of people who later made the Saturn V!
In my view the idea of women going up along with the men in the first Moon landings isn’t nearly as unrealistic as most people would think, and it would make the program distinct from Apollo too, so I’m including that aspect. In particular, I’m thinking a man will be the first to step foot on the Moon, followed by a woman. Both of them probably civilians, so as to send a statement for peace and science.
Rule of Drama
As for high drama, I’m thinking the CSM will be named “The Flying Dutchman”, which makes the obvious choice for the LEM’s name “Senta”, the name of his lover in the Richard Wagner opera “The Flying Dutchman”. Hey, this is a German mission; why not flaunt some high culture? Scoping out mission control sites, Peenemünde will likely be the center of early German rocket research in this timeline too, and I imagine Mission Control will be based there, even as the launch site will shift to a spaceport built out near Tanga, in what’s then the German colony of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania). It’s very close to the equator, has a clear range over thousands of miles of the Indian Ocean, and thus is much better-suited for space launch than Peenemünde.
Apollo splashed down, but the Soviets already demonstrated the capacity to land on dry land, and Germany has a big desert devoid of much disruptive weather to land on: the Namibian Desert, in what was then known as the German colony of South-West Africa (by this point in my timeline renamed Namibia, but still German). This again differentiates it from Apollo. The space program having such a presence in Africa might seem kinda weird, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it for a bit.
In the Namibian Desert the standard procedure is for them to be picked up by zeppelins, rather than helicopters, which adds even more alternate-historical cool factor. Ironically, despite the usual clear weather, in Artemis 1’s case the landing site in Namibia will be menaced by a sandstorm when they get back. Again, Rule of Drama!
The actual launch of Artemis 1 will be on November 28, 1949, at night of course (drama!), with the landing site in the Oceanus Procellarum, the Sea of Storms. “Site 4” and “Site 5” scoped out for Apollo 11 in real life were in this area, and it’s a lot cooler than the Sea of Tranquility. As in Apollo 11 mission planning, they arrive just after dawn, which makes the landing date December 2, 1949.
Marooned on the Moon
The original plan is to stay there for a few days and then come back, but the CSM’s forced return to Earth without them changes their plans. The LEM has enough supplies on board to last a couple of weeks, but they weren’t planning to launch a mission for another couple months. Fortunately they already have supplies in stock they were planning to use for the campsite in a couple months, and they were planning to send up a lunar orbiter probe very soon, so they’re able to reassemble all the supplies in the casing that the probe was going to use, and put it on a trajectory toward the Senta.
All of this carries substantial uncertainty, and even with all those corners cut comes down to the wire, with them only being able to get one shot at resupply before their air runs out. The probe was designed to just orbit, not do a soft landing, so with the shortage of fuel they’re forced to do a crash-landing of the resupply module, and hope their ruggedization procedures work and doesn’t end up destroying all the supplies.
Turns out, they’re able to retrieve the supplies as expected. Just in case they’re only able to partially retrieve the supplies (e..g it’s damaged on impact) they send up subsequent shipments, all of which are successful, and bulk their stores enough for them to last for months on end. Marooned, they get cabin fever, and are miffed at being forced into what’s almost a Moon to Stay mission, not being able to come home by Christmas, but they’re able to explore a lot and do a lot of useful science.
Later on they even get a resupply module containing a rover that was almost ready and was going to be sent on a later Artemis mission, which they use to great effect.
A Happy Ending
Despite the challenges, the Flying Dutchman manages to get back home intact in 4 days without its heat shield or power systems (which have to be powered down so much even the radio is only on intermittently, leaving the cosmonauts to navigate using a sextant amid an ice-cold capsule) giving out on the cosmonauts (several of whom are severely injured or even die in the explosion, which makes it all the more urgent to get back to Earth), and the Senta holds out long enough for them to figure out a rescue plan.
In the end Artemis 2 is launched on schedule, a couple months after Artemis 1, but with the mission changed to be a rescue. Carrying just two men for the CSM and two men for the LEM, they take on the six men left behind on the lunar surface, making ten men total (only one over the normal specification), who then by February 1950 all come back to Earth as honored heroes.
Worldbuilding rolls on
Other tidbits I’ve worldbuilt for the story include a Wagnerian-opera naming convention, moving through male-female pairs of characters in his most famous works; Artemis 1 is named after “The Flying Dutchman”, so Artemis 2 is named after “Tristan and Isolde”, the CSM being the Tristan and the LEM being the Isolde. There’s also a convention of naming the CSM after male characters, the LEM after female characters, which is in keeping with the Moon’s feminine associations.
Another bit I’m thinking over right now is making the explosion and electrical failure also cause an electrical fire; not as bad as Apollo 1’s, but bad enough to kill one crewman and severely injure another, leaving the woman as the only person left who can get The Flying Dutchman home, having to navigate by sextant in that icebox all alone for three days.
She might be a rather formidable character, possessing extensive experience sailing alone and navigating only by the stars, having done it all the time as a teenager. Not a conventional aviatrix, she instead came from a skydiving background, like Valentina Tereshkova. For that matter this character could easily have been the first woman to go into space herself, with that prior space experience having been a factor in selecting her for the Moon mission. That’ll be really interesting.
I honestly think I’ve really got something here in terms of a story, and I think I’ll enjoy writing it very much when I’ve fleshed out all the details.