Voyage: A Novel of What Might have Been
© 1996 Stephen Baxter
On November 22nd, 1963, John F. Kennedy narrowly escaped assassination while touring Dallas, Texas. A gunman’s assault left his wife Jacqueline dead and the president hospitalized, but he lived to see the fulfillment of the mission he set before the American nation in early 1961: land a man on the moon and return him safely home before decade’s end. During the famed ‘phone call to the moon’, JFK issued another challenge: Mars. Voyageis an alternate history of the American space program in novel form, the story of man’s successful journey to Mars. Voyage impresses, not only with its technical detail, but that combined with its even-handed reflection on what a Mars program might have meant in the 1980s.
Baxter writes Voyage in two paths that rendezvous in the 1980s: after opening with the Mars-bound flight’s liftoff and following its initial burns and maneuvers to go for Mars orbit, he switches to 1969, to the beginning of another more arduous journey, when America steeled itself for a greater challenge and tried to find a way to make it happen. Going to Mars isn’t easier than the moon shot, and even the momentum gained by triumph at the Sea of Tranquility evaporates away as the program is stymied by physical requirements. The crew that goes to Mars will need to be self-supporting for over a year, not just a week; and though they will be far from rescue they can’t afford to take on too many supplies or incorporate too many backup systems. When escaping Earth’s gravity well, every gram counts. Politics and economics complicate matters further; as the Vietnam War escalates and recession worsens, the government is anxious to cut costs. The war and other government programs might cost far more, but NASA’s expenses are as obvious as their rockets climbing into the sky. The program carries on through sheer grit, urged on lightly by the aging JFK and pushed by the aerospace industry, wholly dependent on the manned program.
And therein lies the rub, for though Baxter makes clear in his afterword that he regrets the lack of an historic push for Mars, the timeline of Voyage doesn’t shy away from the fact that such an effort would have been a mixed bag. The will required to make Mars saps energy for everything else; not only are many of the later Apollo landings scrapped, but the exploration of the solar system by probe is missed altogether, and the Space Shuttle is shelved. The aerospace industry, rather than diversifying to meet the different challenges needed for advanced probes, the shuttles, and the like, is fixated on one line of technology. It’s not a recipe for a healthy industry, either in business terms or for personnel: at least one character is hospitalized as a result of the stress. The turmoil caused by the constant overwork, in addition to all of the challenges of the seventies, makes the weary United States in Voyagea tired, ailed nation indeed; will those footsteps on Mars be worth it?
In addition to the story of the United States as a nation, meeting this challenge and coping with the consequences good and bad, Voyage is a personal encounter, one driven by the ambitions and stubbornness of the astronauts who will make the journey. While some characters are historical (Chuck Jones, who here stays in NASA instead of joining Sealab), most are invented, including Joe Muldoon, who relegates poor Buzz Aldrin to nonexistence. The crew that lands is entirely fictional, including the book’s chief viewpoint character Natalie York, who is NASA’s first science-astronaut who sees space, since Harrison Schmitt never flew. Natalie is also the first female, and she’s somewhat sensitive about the fact that she’s breaking into a career dominated by fighter jocks. Part of her own voyage is learning to deal with NASA on its own terms: the space program isn’t going to stick an unspaced rookie onto the Mars team without her finding a way to be indispensable.
Space junkies will be most pleased with Voyage; I’ve read at least a half-dozen astronaut memoirs, and the technical detail incorporated into the storyline is on part with the astronauts’ actual accounts. This is definitely on the ‘hard’ side of science fiction, based on real science, including the NERVA rocket. There are many references to the history-that-might-have-been, from the head of the Mars program quoting Deke Slayton (“The first men to step on Mars are sitting in this room”) to another hanging a lemon in the window of the Mars lander to indicate that he isn’t pleased, echoing Gus Grissom and Apollo. The modules produced for the Mars programs take familiar names, names like Endeavor and Discovery — names that the Shuttle fleet used. Like the Apollo program, there are tragedies, some grievous; but while the Challenger of our timeline proved a source of sorrow, Baxter’s Challenger marks humanity’s greatest accomplishment. It — the ship and the book — are a fitting salute to the men and women of the space program, and a solid read.
The Martian, Andy Weir. Voyage wouldn’t have caught my eye were it not for reading this a week or so ago, the story of a man stranded on Mars in the near future.
Contact, Carl Sagan. Natalie York may have been a redhead, but I imagined and heard her as Ellie Arroway.
Mission to Mars, Buzz Aldrin.