Worldbuilding the First Manned Spaceflight

You know, I really like plotting out alternate histories of spaceflight (like I did last summer), and I’m having the pleasure again the turn of this new year 2023: for my next story (see my posts here, here, and here). Instead of a manned Moon landing, as depicted in “Wings of Fire”, I’m now worldbuilding the first manned spaceflight; think my alternate timeline’s equivalent of Yuri Gagarin, not Neil Armstrong.

As I’ve penciled in earlier, the first human spaceflight takes place in 1941 and is accomplished by the German Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR). The story requirements place it specifically on December 26, 1941. For drama, as well as to distinguish it from the launches in “Wings of Fire”, I’m going to have the rocket lift off in the time of morning nautical twilight. In Tanga (the launch site, located on the coast of Tanganyika) this time of year (January 1 is basically the same as December 26 in terms of sunrise/sunset) morning nautical twilight is 5:23-5:49 AM local time (UTC+3 hours).

Surprise: the Math Works!

I wanted it to be twilight in Tanga and true nighttime in Astoria, Oregon, where the characters will view the launch on television, and remarkably the math works out! Sunset in Astoria is 4:40 PM in Astoria, the end of evening nautical twilight (i.e. the time it gets fully dark) 5:51 PM. Astoria is on Pacific Time (UTC-8 hours), which is 11 hours behind Tanga, so morning nautical twilight in Tanga is 6:23-6:49 PM Pacific Time, two hours after sunset and one hour after it gets fully dark! This gives our characters ample time to get settled in in the evening as the historic Christmas snow rages outside Astoria.

The initiative is the Valkyrie program, the flight designated Valkyrie 1. The rocket system is called the Meteor, by analogy to the later and far heavier Komet rocket that launches the Artemis missions to the Moon. The vehicle taken up into space is a capsule sized to fit one man, like the early Mercury and Vostok craft were in real life. This much makes sense, because it’s relatively easier and cheaper to loft a small capsule, and the effects of spaceflight on a human are unknown at this point; keeping the man strapped into a seat makes sense.

Valkyrie 1’s Flight Profile

I’m going with a flight profile similar to Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok 1 mission. Tanga was specifically chosen to be the VfR’s primary cosmodrome (by this point having succeeded Peenemünde, the center of earlier efforts, though Mission Control is still based there) because it’s an equatorial launch site, giving a slight advantage in lofting payloads into low equatorial orbit, and it has a wide range of open ocean eastward of it.

Valkyrie 1’s orbit, however, will be more highly inclined: 45 degrees, to be precise. The spacecraft lifts off from Tanga, paralleling the Somali coast right after launch, then passing over the Arabian Sea to northern India, then Tibet, then inner Mongolia and Manchuria, where the ground track of the spacecraft achieves its highest northern latitude of 45 degrees. Then it flies over Hokkaido (northern Japan), and thence over the Pacific right over Hawaii. All these lands starting with India will be viewed by the cosmonaut lit by the daytime sunlight.

Valkyrie 1 then passes over central Chile and Patagonia, reaching its maximum southern latitude of 45 degrees, then curving northward along its track, straight toward the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, the prime recovery area. Firing his retrorockets, the cosmonaut will guide Valkyrie 1 to a landing in the Namib Desert, met by zeppelins, the same method used by the cosmonauts in “Wings of Fire”.

After completing one orbit Valkyrie 1 is about 20 degrees west of its original launch site, because of the eastward rotation of the Earth in the 90 minutes or so it’s been in orbit. Since the effects of spaceflight are an unknown, only one orbit is planned on this first flight, again just as in Yuri Gagarin’s case.

Gagarin’s orbit had a period of 89 minutes, his altitude ranging from a perigee of 181 kilometers to an apogee of 327 kilometers, with the total length of the flight being 108 minutes from launch to landing. Aside from being a low orbit that’s relatively easily achieved (and still often used today), the orbit was specifically calculated so Gagarin’s capsule would be brought down by orbital decay within 13 days (the duration of life support) even if his rockets failed to ignite for a re-entry burn; as it happened his orbit was a bit off and would not have decayed until 20 days had elapsed, but fortunately for him his rockets worked just fine.

Presumably Valkyrie 1 will post similar numbers. After 108 minutes it’s around 7 AM Tanga time. At the recovery site on the Skeleton Coast, sunrise is 6:31 AM local time this time of year. Local time there is 1 hour behind Tanga time, so Valkyrie 1 will land around 6 AM local time. This should be toward the end of nautical twilight, almost civil twilight, so it should be reasonably bright, but still pre-dawn, just like at the original launch site!

An unexpected Reinhardt Saga Tie-In

The cosmonaut himself I’ve decided will be Orion Morgenstern. “Morgenstern” means “morning star”, and many of the Morgensterns that later marry into the Reinhardt family have celestial names, so although I didn’t necessarily want to make Polaris Morgenstern a socially privileged and well-connected heiress of a famous legacy, it was just the best name I could think of that still sounded really German, and it would have been just too much of a contrived coincidence to have two unrelated instances of celestially-named Morgensterns. So I’ve added Orion Morgenstern to the family tree as the father of Polaris, who is his only child.

Polaris Morgenstern is supposed to have born in the 1960s, which is a long time after 1941. Presuming that Orion is around 30 when he’s sent up, that would put him in his fifties by the time he has Polaris. Easily explained by him continuing to have a career as a test-pilot cosmonaut type until then, and feeling that such a vocation and a family don’t mix, so he doesn’t settle down with a woman or have a child until he retires. This might even go a long way toward explaining why Polaris becomes a single mother by choice in her twenties; she’s not impressed by the example of older married parents, so she becomes a young unmarried single parent. Cosmonaut connections no doubt also help her in building an offbeat space tourism business later on.

On the flip side, Orion might be like Polaris in as much as he has a mystical or spiritual side. When it comes to slipping the surly bonds of earth and touching the face of god he might have some thoughts and meditations. He’ll also be much like Polaris in as much as he’s Jewish. I kinda like the idea of the first man and the first German in space also being Jewish, if for no other reason than offsetting the vaguely Nazi-victory-timeline vibes of the setting. Orion will have a full arsenal of Kabbalah amulets and charms on board, even letting one float in zero-g in the capsule right in front of him on live television.

Which will be broadcast by satellite! Although Valkyrie 1 is the first manned spaceflight, unmanned satellites have been lofted since 1937, paralleling the real-life four-year gap between Sputnik and Vostok. The reason, as in real life, is that time was needed to develop a man-rated capsule and to test it to make sure it actually worked; it took quite a few test flights in the Vostok program to make sure the capsule worked. Quite a few times the orbit was wrong or some critical system or another (like the maneuvering rockets) failed or some such.

Worldbuilding early Satellites

In the meantime, development of unmanned flights continues apace, and as in real life experiments and technical demonstrations are conducted as the technology advances. Computing technology is half a century ahead, which means electronics at the dawn of the space age are as miniaturized and powerful as they were in the 1980s in real life. This should speed up the development of satellite television broadcasting immensely; the electronics needed to economically fit the equipment inside a small satellite are already readily available.

I’m thinking of including an especially interesting twist: Oleg Losev, who in this timeline invents and brings to market both LEDs and fiber-optic cable, and in a liberal-democratic capitalist Russia practically single-handedly develops the country to first-world living standards, uses his vast fortune to be the patron of a Russian spaceflight program, managed by Sergei Korolev. Losev and Korolev are beaten by the Germans, led by von Braun, to the first satellite launch in 1937, but they spring a surprise of their own by adopting the then-radical idea of using satellites for communications.

By 1941 the Russians have lofted the world’s first satellite television broadcasting (television takes off quickly starting in the early 1930s in this timeline, as was nearly the case in real life, so it’s already a well-established technology) and communications constellation, which is used on an experimental basis by anyone who’s willing to invest in the big (and expensive!) dishes needed to receive the signals (they’re on the C-band, as in real-life early TV satellites).

Which Orbits for early satellite Television?

Famously, the use of satellites in geostationary orbits for communication was proposed in real life in the 1940s, and popularized by Arthur C. Clarke as early as then. Geostationary satellites have the unique virtue of remaining at a fixed point in the sky, but since their orbits are necessarily equatorial they’re only truly optimal for low latitudes. Even in the mid latitudes they appear fairly low in the sky, making reception difficult (more atmospheric attenuation, greater chances for obstructions, etc.); worse yet, above 81 degrees in latitude geostationary satellites can’t be seen at all!

A slicker approach, and one optimal for middle and high latitudes, i.e. places like Russia and the rest of northern Europe, is the Molniya orbit. It’s a highly elliptical and inclined orbit that makes a satellite appear high in the sky from the high latitudes of a specific hemisphere for most of its orbit. This is because of “apogee dwell”; satellites move slower at higher altitudes and faster at lower altitudes, hence this orbit’s naming after Молния, the Russian word for lightning, referring to their fast speed in the lower part of their orbits.

Because these satellites necessarily only spend part of their orbit over the hemisphere of interest, multiple satellites, at least three, are needed to service a given area continuously, instead of just one as in a geostationary orbit. The virtue of a Molniya orbit, though, is that the high-in-the-sky viewing angle makes for much higher performance. One disadvantage is that the receiver dishes need to move continuously to track the satellites as they move through the sky, as opposed to being permanently pointed at a specific spot, as can be the case with a receiver for a geostationary satellite.

Six satellites, three for each hemisphere, could provide truly global coverage, and this is accomplished by the Russians by 1941 in this timeline. Since the nomenclature is fairly obvious (lightning-fast perigees) and it’s still Russians launching them, Molniya could easily still be the name of such a constellation, as in real life. For Losev and Korolev this is a coup comparable to Telstar‘s launch in real life (Telstar was better-known in Britain in 1962 than Sputnik had been in 1957!), putting Russia on the map in the space race.


That’s about all for my new worldbuilding on the subject. With the characters’ names and everything’s designation and role with regard to the big spaceflight in place, I see no barrier to me starting writing this thing the first chance I feel like it! Yay me!

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