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What might have been…?


Confession time – I’m a real sucker for “What if..?” books and articles. You know, the whole alternative history thing: what would have happened, how would the world we know be different, if this hadn’t happened or that person hadn’t died, etc, etc. I lapped up Harry Turtledove’s “Worlds War” science fiction series, describing an alternative WW2 which was interrupted by an invasion of reptilian aliens. In that series the world eventually came together to fight and defeat the aliens, mastering interstellar travel in the process. It’s a rollicking rollercoaster of a ride, and I heartily recommend it to all of you.

Away from science fiction, books like this feed my fascination…


This book – which I’ve wanted to buy for a while, and finally found in a charity shop today, yaay! 🙂 – features a whole bunch of thought-provoking “alternative history” scenarios. What would have happened if, say, Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t been assassinated? How would history have changed if Britian had won the American War of Independance? What would have been the consequences if Guy Fawkes had succeeded in blowing up the Houses of Parliament (ooh, now there’s an image… thousands of MPs’ charred expenses claims forms falling from the London sky like confetti… I like that 🙂 )? Things like that.

… and it set me thinking – not for the first time – about how things might have turned out differently if, at key points in the exploration of space, this had happened instead of that.

There are some really obvious “What if..?” scenarios, of course. What if Apollo 11 had failed in some way? Would NASA have recovered, or would it have crippled the Apollo program? What would have happened if Nixon hadn’t crucified NASA and forced the cancellation of the last planned Apollo missions? Would there be a manned outpost on the Moon right now, instead of one being planned for 20whenever? What would have happened if Russia’s giant Moon rocket hadn’t blown up on the pad, and Russia had beaten the US to the Moon, winning the Space Race? What would have happened if we had kept going after the Moon, reaching out for Mars, the moons of Jupiter and beyond..?

But there are some less obvious and, in my mind, rather more thought-provoking scenarios, too. For example, what if Apollo 13’s Service Module hadn’t blown up en-route to the Moon? What discoveries might Jim Lovell and his crew made on the Moon, what beautiful images would  they have returned, how many fascinating, important and unique rock samples might they  have discovered there? We’ll never know…

Away from Apollo, what if Challenger hadn’t blown up, apart from the obvious consequences for launching spaceprobes and the ISS project?


If Christa McAuliffe had made it into orbit, how many tens of thousands – maybe even tens of millions – of children would her lessons broadcast from space have inspired? How many more more astronomers, physicists and astronauts might there have been now if kids had been able to see Christa floating around inside Challenger’s mid-deck, describing, in everyday language, not the cold, effecient, tech-speak of many (not all) astronauts, what it was really like to be in space? Upon her return, how many more people – not just children – would her Outreach work have inspired..? Thinking about that lost opportunity for inspiring a whole generation genuinely saddens me…

Away from Earth, what would have happened if Carl Sagan’s dream had come true and Viking 1 or 2 had actually found definitive proof of life on Mars?


Would there then have been a mad scramble to send more sophisticated probes to Mars, or would the discovery have kick-started a program to send a manned expedition to the Red Planet? Would we have seen astronauts bounding and bouncing across the martian surface two decades ago? Would we be sitting at our computers now, enjoying a live video feed from a martian base, watching astronauts holding up samples of martian life nourished and grown in their own lab..? Just imagine that…

One question that has nagged at me many times over the years concerns what many people think is one of the most significant events to ever occur in the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) project: what would have happened if the famous “Wow!” signal of August 15th 1977 had been detected again?


What would have happened if it was proved that the brief signal (from the direction of Sagittarius) actually was a communication from an extraterrestrial civilisation far away in space? Would there have been a global scientific effort to decode and make sense of the signal? Would the detection of an alien intelligence Out There have affected our day to day lives? Would religions have been challenged? Would a reply have been sent? Would that reply have been drafted carefully and slowly by world leaders, scientists and thinkers, or would it have been fired off rapidly and impulsively by amateur radio operators who took it upon themselves to send a greeting for all mankind? Now that makes you think, doesn’t it..?

Coming back home again, what would have happened if a comet – sayKohoutek, or maybe the famous “string of pearls” comet, Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 – had been found to be heading for Earth?


Would that sphincter-tightening discovery have prompted an “Armageddon”-like international emergency space effort to go out and deflect or destroy it? Would it have led to us becoming, through necessity, a true spacefaring species, with a “lifeboat” or “Ark” base on the Moon, or Mars, to ensure some of humanity – or at least some of its art, culture and history – survived an unavoidable planet-killing impact?

But to be honest, a rather simpler and more personal “What if..?” has been on my mind for a while now. Going back to Apollo, what if Buzz Aldrin had been the first man on the Moon instead of Neil Armstrong?


Now, your first – reasonable – reaction to that question might be “What difference would it have made?” but just take a moment to think about it. Compare the two mens’ characters. As has been well-documented, after returning from the Moon Neil Armstrong basically withdrew from public life and from the world of space exploration, preferring a life out of the spotlight. In contrast, Buzz Aldrin embraced the fame and public acclaim and attention that followed Apollo 11 and enjoyed talking about his Apollo experiences around the globe. Since then he has become a very high profile advocate for space exploration, through many books, interviews and projects, and is so passionate about Apollo and its legacy – and the needs for space to be explored in the future – that he even went so far once as to punch one of the people who insist, to this day, that NASA faked the Moon landings.

This particular “what if..?” question popped back into my mind – and inspired this post, actually – when I was bought recently a copy of a children’s book written by Buzz Aldrin…


It’s a great read, a very personal account of how Aldrin was inspired by flight and exploration during his childhood. And reading it set me wondering how differently things might have turned out if Aldrin and not Armstrong had been the first down Eagle’s ladder and onto the Moon. Upon the crew’s return to Earth, as Aldrin rejoiced in the mission’s achievements, sharing his experiences with pride and joy, would the world have been more captivated by the Apollo program than they were? Would NASA have had a better champion and ambassador in Aldrin than they did in Armstrong?

I mean absolutely no offense to Armstrong when I say this, but I’ve always thought, in the back of my mind, that Armstrong rather let NASA down by retreating from them and from the space program in the way he did. The world was desperate to hear from the First Man on The Moon, everyone wanted to hear, from him, what the Moon adventure was like, why it was important, why it mattered to them; NASA were in need of a champion too, someone to climb up on a wall and shout on their behalf. Of course, Armstrong had every right to shun the spotlight as he did, NASA and the world beyond didn’t own him.

But I have always wondered… maybe even, if I’m honest, perhaps sometimes wished… that the more joyous, more open, more excited Aldrin had taken that One Small Step. If he had, I think things might have been different.

But that’s the keyword, isn’t it? Might. We’ve no way of knowing.

But it’s fun to imagine “what if…?” 🙂