I’ve been giving some thought as to my alternate history space opera science fiction universe, and I have some ideas that might spice up and flesh out the mid 20th century in my timeline, even more so than the premise of the first moon landing, the dawn of the nuclear age, the first supersonic jetliners, the dawn of the computer age, a spiritualist radical-liberal cultural revolution, the proliferation of “kudzu houses”, and the discovery of the first planets beyond Neptune aside from Pluto all happening at the same time suggests.
I’ll focus on the last one in this post; I’ve fleshed out a bit the idea I first evinced in “Worldbuilding the Definition of a Planet”, that space-based observatories, first lofted in the 1940s but really proliferating in the 1950s, will discover the Kuiper Belt, 50 years ahead of real life. The fact computer technology is a full half century ahead helps considerably as well; it makes tracking the movement of stars on all those photographs much easier than when Clyde Tombaugh had to stare at plates to find Pluto (in this universe Percival Lowell himself manages it much earlier, in 1916).
The Stars align for an awesome Timeline?
I find it very interesting that the 1950s is right after when “Wings of Fire”, depicting this timeline’s first moon landing, takes place. As I detailed in my post “After Wings of Fire”, I’ve got plans for Vera Petrenka and Inigo Sturm, two of the Artemis 1 cosmonauts, after they return to Earth early in 1950. They’re going to fall in love with each other and become husband and wife, and the parents of a very big (and hopefully very happy!) family. I had him spend a few years in central Europe as a full professor of biocosmonautics before branching out and founding Sturmschule (a college-level STEM-focused counterpart to Khan Academy) and founding, as part of a consortium of patrons, scientists, and lecturers, a new university and research center in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, comprehensive but particularly dedicated to the arts and sciences of spaceflight.
Where it gets interesting is that Argentina amasses an early lead in the field of space telescopes in this universe, so I’ve been thinking more recently: why not make Inigo Sturm the discoverer of these new worlds beyond Neptune, this universe’s equivalent of Mike Brown, only based in Argentina instead of California? Sure, Inigo is a biocosmonautician, not an astronomer, but who’s to say he couldn’t pivot to the field, especially considering he was already quite a polymath to begin with?
As someone who’s very opinionated on everything and not shy about sharing his own perspective (in large measure due to his big ego, which fortunately he can back up with actual accomplishments, one trait he shares with his wife Vera), he’d make an interesting counterpoint to our timeline’s Mike Brown if he takes the view that his new planetary-mass discoveries are indeed true planets and not just some category of comet or some such because they just happen to share the same orbit. Perhaps he becomes this timeline’s equivalent to Alan Stern (even the names are pretty similar: Stern, Sturm; hmm…).
I really like the idea of Sturm, or perhaps Petrenka (she seems more the type interested in naming things after mythology; her favored book to read on Artemis 1 was “The Odyssey”), taking the leading role in naming the new worlds. Pluto is already named the same as it is in real life, as the Roman ruler of the underworld is the obvious name for a planet in this coldest darkest part of the solar system, but I expect nomenclature to rapidly diverge from real life in the 1950s crop of planets. Nevertheless, I could easily see Charon, Nyx, Styx, Cerberus, Hydra, Eris, and Orcus all make appearances as planetary names in the trans-Neptunian realm. Pluto’s double-planet nature may well be discovered very early by space telescopes in the 1940s (Hubble could easily resolve Charon, and it’s not even particularly big as far as telescopes go), even before Pluto’s brethren are noticed.
Space Baby Names for Inigo and Vera’s Children?
Anyway, since Vera has a new baby about every year after they’re married, I think it would be super cool if they name their children after the planets their father discovers. For instance, if Inigo discovers a planet one year, names it Orcus, and then Vera has a boy the boy would be named Orcus Sturm. The two of them eventually have an incredible 25 children or so together, so that’s a lot of babies to name, but it is just possible that most of them would be named after trans-Neptunian planetoids.
Imagine “Let me introduce my father Inigo, my mother Vera, my brothers Pluto and Orcus, and my sisters Eris and Hydra.” The names of my characters get more and more exotic; already we have substantial divergence from real life, and we haven’t even left the 1950s yet! These names I’m dreaming up are “Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century” tier, where it’s perfectly normal (at least on the space station) for girls to have names like Zenon and Nebula.
As an aside, I always loved the Zenon movies when I was a kid. Must have really made an impression, because the girlies in space utopia motif dominates my stories even now (said girlies often have exotic names…). I even incorporate xenon, as in the chemical element xenon, in my latest (yet-to-be-released) novel “Heart of Proxima”. Hmph. And get this: the actress who played Zenon is named Kirsten Storms. Storms…Sturm. Hmm…
The Sturm Family: into the 21st Century
Anyway, another possibility down the road is for Sturm to lead the space probe efforts to explore these new worlds, much like Alan Stern did with New Horizons which flew by Pluto, though that would probably not be for a while yet after the 1950s discoveries; nuclear technology, as in at least the ability to make radioisotope thermoelectric generators (like New Horizons used), will be required to reach Pluto, and that’s rather experimental in this timeline in the 1950s, although by the 1960s it should be viable enough. Interestingly, Inigo Sturm and Vera Petrenka could easily live long enough to see the first people visit the planets beyond Neptune; that happens before the 20th century is even over. For all we know maybe they join the intrepid cosmonauts of the outer solar system on their quest of exploration.
A rosy Timeline?
Sure is a rosy timeline for Inigo, where not only does he become one of the first men to walk on the Moon, the founder of modern Bariloche, a wealthy online celebrity influencer, the husband in a passionate marriage with dozens of children he adores, and one of the more notable polymaths of the 20th century; no, he also gets to discover the trans-Neptunian planets and be the first person ever in history to discover a planet and then go visit it in person! Well, even in our timeline there’s no shortage of people who live a charmed life. Why should mine be any different?
Hehe. I like the idea, so I think I’ll go with it. The worldbuilding rolls on…
Featured image for this post is NASA imagery of Enceladus by Cassini, processed by Kevin M. Gill (CC-BY-2.0).