Dark Moon Rising: Archibald space TL

Archibald

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As said in the tin. I've worked on this huge thing since February 2008 when I joined, first, NASAspaceflight.com and AH.com.

Took me a decade and 2019 to get a stronger focus and backstory.

Now the POD is clearer.

In August 1967 at a crucial juncture in NASA history the last Lunar Orbiter (number 5) missed a stunning discoveryonly by a hairbreadth.

To make a long story short (or trying !) : in the Marius Hills there is a 200 feet wide hole in the roof of a lava tube. Data from Kaguya, LRO, and Chandrayaan-1 (2009) show it is an opening of a colossal lava tube 60 km long. A lunar cave of gigantic size, thanks to a gravity six times weaker on the Moon.

In our TL, Lunar Orbiter 5 on August 17, 1967 snapped a 2.5 m ground resolution picture of the Marius Hills and... missed the 60 m wide hole by merely 200 m (see the attached document).

It took until 2009 for Kaguya (quickly followed by LRO and Chandrayaan-1) to see it - 42 years too late for Apollo, unfortunately (although not too late for a renewed lunar exploration program, of course).

So the story main POD is that Lunar Orbiter is a little more lucky (or its Agena gets a hiccup during launch) and hit gold - it gets a picture good enough of the hole.

August 1967 being an interesting moment in NASA, Apollo and... Cold War, plenty of things happened after that discovery.
 

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Archibald

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The (controversial) main protagonist of the story is that little rocket stage that could.


In 1958 at the dawn of the space race one smartass (but rather unlucky) aerospace engineer get that idea of air-launching satellites from (among many aircraft) an Avro Arrow. At first he uses solid-fuel rockets but something better is needed.
Soon Lockheed gets wind of that and hire him. Circa 1960 he comes with the
idea of dropping an Agena from a B-58 belly pylon.

The result is a simple and flexible satellite launch system even if payload is limited. Something like B-58 + Minuteman booster + Agena = 1 ton into orbit (approximately). The Minuteman steel casing can eventually be recovered Shuttle style,and thus the system is partially reusable !

And from there, the poor guy is completely overwhelmed with developments of his idea. His original idea makes a big splash, for good and for worse (hint: Cold War Strangelovian madness).

Developments related to spy satellites; anti-ballistic missile systems; and the accelerating space race. Basically, Cold War and the space race going hot.

Note that the Lunar Orbiter 5 that ITTL discover that feature in the Marius Hills was send there by... an Agena.

Also: Project UPWARD > a (formerly Agena) spysat for NASA and for Apollo, to pinpoint landing sites at high resolution.


The story is a blend of techno thriller and sci-fi.
 

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Here is a little excerpt describing the story villain - General Harold Shoemaker.
(the name is a nod to Harald Schumacher, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toni_Schumacher ) - of Seville 1982 World Cup infamous fame...

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1964 – PREDATOR

By 1960, with the advent of ballistic missiles like Minuteman and Polaris, the Strategic Air Command large fleet of bombers was threatened. Obviously this drove Lemay and Powers furious, so McNamara got ride of them, sending both scary generals in retirement. The third one - Bernard Schriever - quickly followed the year after.

The one McNamara didn't saw coming was Harold Shoemaker.

General Shoemaker had a scary look just by looking at him. He had blue eyes full of energy and fierce temper; just by his stare, you'd better not picking a fight with him. He had some minor burns scars all over his face, barely visible. His right arm was perhaps the most damaged part of his body; it was only half functional, and the General had to learn writting with his left hand. How he ended in his present damaged state had been the stuff of legends, including by the man himself.

"The old man and the sea ? Moby dick ? Pussies. That's litterature. Fiction. I lived that kind of hell, I mean, for real. Since then, nothing can scare me. Not even a H-bomb detonation seen for the smallest safe distance."

The most realistic tale among dozens (if barely...), said Harold Shoemaker had been onboard one of Lemay B-29s raining incendiary death and havoc on Japan, someday in 1944. The bomber was crippled by a Japanese fighter (pretty rare and essentially bad luck, compared to what B-17 and B-24 crews endured over Europe).

When his pilot and gunner got shot and badly hurt, Shoemaker put the plane into autopilot, asked the barely conscious pilot to keep an eye on it, and ran toward the ravaged tail turret. Enraged by what he saw – the rear gunner had been shredded into a bloody pulp by a 20 mm bullet – with the help of surviving crew members he grabbed all the ammunition he could find across the aircraft and started furiously shooting at the goddam tenacious japanese. Who immediately got the message: no quarter. In the end Shoemaker prevailed and got some good shoots, crippling his adversary. The badly hurt japanese pilot however did not hesitated: he stared right in the eyes of the foolish american shooting at him like crazy opened his throttle full and rammed the bomber - to no avail. How Shoemaker avoided being crushed or cut in slices by the propeller, he still had no idea to this day; the only thing that mattered was the japanese foe was dead.

Now they had to return to faraway Guam island. On three engines, and with bullet holes all over the place. And two dead crews plus a crippled pilot. No problem for copilot Shoemaker, who took back the controls and started a harrowing return trip. After two hours of flight however, things went from bad to worse. The bomber lost another engine. Shoemaker and the valid crewmembers started throwing everything but the kitchen sink to make it lighter; alas the B-29 was doomed, and Shoemaker ordered them to bail out over a very empty, hostile ocean. He got the surviving crew all well prepared from a drop into the sea, including the inflatable life rafts, and then they exited the stricken aircraft one by one. Shoemaker was keeping the B-29 straight in order to help their chances of survival, and only with the last member gone did he took care of himself.

By this point the aircraft was slow-burning, and so was he, so he had little time for detail or reflexion if he wanted to save his soul. Hence he didn't noticed, when he strapped his chute harness that a delicate part of his male anatomy was ill-placed. Blissfully unaware of what awaited him, he jumped overboard looking for his crew and their rafts. Above his head and without a warning the bomber violently exploded; soon very large chunks of B-29 barely missed the hapless Shoemaker. And then, flaming kerosene started raining all around him, some drops burning him with sheer cruelty. Keeping his cool, he reasoned his best chance of survival was to get away as fast as possible. Instead of opening his chute and have it burned, he started a nearly suicidal dive toward the ocean, head-on. The desperate strategy worked and within seconds he had cleared his dying aircraft flamming wreck.

Now alarmingly close from the greyish surface he brutally pulled the chord and braced for the chock of a round canopy that had never, ever, been never build for skydiving... and then he shouted loud, broken in two by an horrible, excruciating pain. It was of such intensity, he lost consciousness only to regain it 1000 ft above the water. Luckily enough he fell close from one of the rafts and their battered inhabitants. Despite his crushed testicle inflating to the size of a baseball, he immediately took command. He arranged for the surviving crew in the two other rafts to join the frail ships together.

And then the horror started – or continued, or escalated maybe. Sharks. Lots of them. Perhaps the same that a year later fested on poor USS Indianapolis crew. They were too many on too small rafts with their limbs inevitably dragging in the water, even more when they slept. The sharks simply awaited the night and dragged the poor guys under the surface before eating them. An horrified Shoemaker saw his fellow crewmembers being attacked one by one and dying, until he remained alone. By this point his mental health had definitively taken a major hit he never fully recovered. In a state of shock, he hecome completely enraged and decided he would gave the carnivorous fishes a run for they money. He first hit them with a paddle, but it wasn't lethal enough. Luckily enough, he had a trio of sharp knives with large blades. He strapped one of the knives to the paddle and started hitting viciously any shark willing to pick a fight. That is, until a clever one first ripped the blade away, then the paddle itself. Undaunted, Shoemaker kept both remaining knives strapped to his forearms. Except he was completely exhausted and inevitably fell asleep. And of course the sharks tried to finish the job. Shoemaker left arm dangled dangerously closed from the edge of the raft... then a somewhat ill-advised, foolish shark took his chance on him. An enraged Shoemaker awoke in pain and saved his arm only by cutting the beast from inside. Basically he killed the shark by wracking its brain, planting one knife from inside and the other from outside. He then meticulously eviscerated the predator. He dragged it onboard and avenged his lost crew by eating it bit by bit.

Somewhat ironically the slained shark ensured his survival for days of time. He used bleeding slabs of it to attract more sharks he then killed by viciously stabbing them. After some fights he had become pretty gifted at fighting and killing his ennemies, and soon he had enough shark meat onboard to ensure he would never starve. He also made good use of dead shark teeths and jaws to make crude weapons he used, the irony, against their living and still aggressive siblings. Water, however, ran tight, and shark blood proved of little use. Shoemaker also ate algaes, and fishes he took using his finger toes as baits, losing one in the process and forcing a change of plans. After 13 days adrift, badly scorched by the sun, nearly dying of thirst and with his mental health rapidly breaking down he was finally rescued by sheer luck and by a destroyer.

Little did he knew his ordeal was merely over: that destroyer was part of Admiral Halsey TF38 soon to run into Typhoon Cobra. More chaos and mayhem followed for the unlucky aviator. He finally made it back to the West Coast were he was caretaken in an hospital. He did not returned fighting despite his will, as the atomic bombs ended the war the day he got out of the hospital. The horrific ordeal had left some lasting mental scars and also a deep hatred of the US Navy, even if he acknowledged they had saved him. What he saw during Typhoon Cobra however largely cancelled that gratitude. What kind of idiot would run a perfectly good Task Force right into the eye of a typhoon ? Yet Halsey had done it, and largely escaped blame. After the war Shoemaker become a protégé of Curtiss Lemay and Thomas Power, and these two did little to cool his overall bellicose attitude and utter scorn for the Navy. Although he was clever enough to see such attitudes might deserve him, and that another Scary Cold War General with a German Family Name – Bernard Schriever – might be a better model.

By 1958 Schriever had taken Shoemaker under his wing, and he got a job inside the General missile fiefdom. There, he learned about the Air Force long term plans to expand into space. And his mind was completely blown.

The Air Force first needed a manned spacecraft to learn spaceflight intricacies. Over the next five years they launched a disorganized, all-out assault in this direction: Man-in-space-soonest. DynaSoar. SAMOS. SAINT-II lifting bodies. Blue Gemini.


And it was only a beginning.


Next step would be MOL: what NASA called a space station and the military, a Spaceborne Command Post. The gist of the idea was to transfer command-and-control in space rather than underground – because, sooner rather than later, the goddam commies would have nukes powerful enough to blast even Cheyenne Mountain into oblivion.

Yet that initial capability completely paled compared to the next, huge step: LUNEX and Orion. The orbital command post would have to move to the Moon ! To an underground lunar base, no less. And that was merely the smallest third of an overambitious trio.

The Air Force would go to the Moon through monster spacecraft: the Orion spaceborne battleships. These vehicles would also replace the orbital command posts now too vulnerables on their fixed orbits. Thanks to its brute force but damn clever and efficient propulsion system, Orion could get anywhere, anytime inside Earth sphere of influence: the 1 million miles diameter invisible bubble inside the solar system where Earth gravity prevailed, encompassing the Moon. Not only Orion provided efficient space travel, it could also lift 5000 metric tons to orbit without breaking a sweat. And this was of paramount importance, because the spaceborne battleships would be tasked with many important missions. They would perform strategic reconnaissance (NRP) satellite inspection (SAINT) and destruction (ASAT). For good measure, they could also be loaded with nuclear warheads to be dropped on the Soviet Union; very much like that country later Fractional Orbital Bombing System - FOBS.

Yet their most outstanding mission was another one. Two decades later it would be derided as Star Wars, because of the lasers. The real name was Strategic Defense Initiative, and lasers soon proved unrealistic. In the 60's, they had merely been invented so they were even less able to do the job, obviously.
Instead, spaceborne interceptors – Smart Rocks or Brilliant Pebbles - would rush toward the missiles and collide with them: killing them with kinetic energy. And unlike lasers, such system was workable even by 1958 or 1963 standards. But it would take a whopping 100 000 of them, each weighing 300 pounds, to do the job. A daunting 15 000 tons to be lifted in Earth orbit, and then supported, maintained and replaced there. Well, only Orion could lift that without breaking the bank.

Once in orbit the 100 000 interceptors would be split between eighteen spaceborne battleships, themselves grouped into three fleets of six. Each spacecraft would carry nearly 5600 kinetic missile killers and thus a fleet would have a firepower of nearly 34 000 interceptors; plenty enough to blunt an incoming wave of Soviet ballistic missiles.

The first such fleet of six Orions would orbit Earth 1000 miles high. Another would protect the GEO satellite belt, 22 000 miles above the planet. And the last fleet would be hold in reserve... behind the Moon. And obviously it would be linked to the LUNEX underground command post.

It was a grandiose vision of the Air Force achieving absolute space dominance across Earth sphere of influence.

As a secondary mission, Orion propulsion system was so efficient that Mars was well within reach; the present design limit seemed to be Saturn. Yet Freeman Dyson had looked for nuclear pulse upper limits and found interstellar flight was possible.

That grand vision, however, also had obvious nightmarish aspects. Orion looked like the ultimate doomsday weapon and for that reason only, it would never, ever be allowed to happen. Shoemaker was pragmatic enough to accept that reality, except for one lost element in the plan: the anti-missile shield. On this one, he would not budge. Two decades later he would be proven right when, in 1986, Reagan mad scientists like Teller and Wood had to admit lasers were not feasible, and kinetic interceptors remained the only game in town. This resulted in Brilliant Pebbles and GPALS.​
 
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Archibald

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If I was to try and briefly summarize the huge and sprawling thing in a few sentences...

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It's a saga of spy and counter-spy... between two deeply paranoid guys
- the CIA James Jesus Angleton
- the KGB Yuri Andropov

Both clung to their job for 15 years and it did not really helped their respective mental healths...

The spy-game (and the story) starts in the 50's in Canada - related to the CF-105 Arrow and the host of advanced technologies related to that bird.

It then moves to the High Frontier after Sputnik, related to a rather basic concept: air-launching Agenas (including spysats) from aircraft.

Starts in 1962, by 1966 this result in uncontrolled Agena proliferation for a tons of civilian, military and private space missions - also foreign partners later.

The "great game" intensifies when the same Agena spysats are passed to NASA at the height of Apollo, with others advanced ensors. The reason being: something big has been found on the Moon and made it far more interesting
(good for Apollo future, and forces the Soviets to react accordingly).

Oceanus Procellarum / the ocean of storms has places like the Marius Hills, Aristarchus and Reiner Gamma which together packs more anomalies than 2001's Tycho crater. I mean, real anomalies - not fictional monoliths.

The spy game accelerates even further when the SSTO elusive holy grail is finally unlocked in the 70's.
- small scale (suborbital refueling)
- medium scale (TAN / tripropellant, on the Soviet side)
- grand scale (pulsed-NTR)
 

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Dark Moon rising

The story is based on four amusing (and puzzling) out-of-the-box solutions to (classic) aerospace issues
-early affordable access to space (in the 1960's)
-all-rocket SSTO propellant mass fraction, notably oxidizer
-beyond chemical rockets: a VIABLE interplanetary / interstellar drive

Nobody ever thought of reuniting the B-58 and the Agena after they separated in 1957; not even when the
B-58 was considered to air-launch spysats in 1962.

Nobody ever thought about suborbital refueling as a way of solving a SSTO "large oxidizer mass" issue.

Nobody before Mel Bulman "Thrust Augmented Nozzle" thought of adding a kerosene afterburner to a hydrolox rocket (tripropellant by Beichel, Salkeld and the Soviet RD-701 was on the right way but more complex)

Nobody before Fransisco J. Arias in 2016 thought of improving NERVA performance by transfering the reactor
heat to the hydrogen: not by fission fragments (constrained by thermodynamics), but through neutron kinetic energy.

Through some luck here and there, all four "out of the box" ideas will gradually transform spaceflight a little faster than OTL.
 

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A B-70-related excerpt.

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At the beginning few believed air-launching Agenas would led anywhere. One of the key reasons why it succeeded could only be revealed much later: it was related to NRO spysats, the Key Holes. To make a long story short, every single Key Hole from KH-1 to KH-8 used an Agena bus: CORONA, ARGON, LANYARD, GAMBIT.

Owen Gordon stroke of genius was not only to reunite the Agena and the B-58 Hustler (note: the Agena early engine called the Bell LR-81 had been specifically created to turn the B-58 classic fuel-bomb-pod into a rocket powered fuel-bomb-pod, but that canned early 1958 and theLR-81 went living its own life as the Agena engine. Early on Lockheed called their new rocket stage, the Hustler.)

So it made tons of sense to bring back together, the Hustler and the Agena: five years after their divorce, in 1962. But what made the idea a major success was to tie that to the NRO spysat business.

And from there, the system mushroomed out of control: first, to USAF and then to NASA, and nothing could stop it. In turn, thestraightforward combination of a large aircraft, a solid fuel booster and an Agena managed a remarquable feat: it opened the high frontier by dropping launch costs by a factor of ten compared to classic throwaway rockets standing on huge launch complexes.

While payload-limited it was plenty enough for most small and medium satellites of the 60's.

The Air Force - through General Harold Shoemaker - soon crafted another important role for the system. They used it to throw a wrench into McNamara much maligned long-term plans for the Strategic Air Command bomber fleet.

Their first major victory was pretty stunning: they argued that the FB-111A simply couldn't carry an air-launch spysat... when a B-58 thanks to its pod and tall undercarriage did the job perfectly.

A second unexpected victory was the funding of the third XB-70 circa 1963; although as a strict clone of the second one, and strictly as a space launch platform.

A third victory was that the ALBM - Air Launched Ballistic Missile - refused to die, notably when Skybolt cancellation drove the British crazy.

Once again, General Shoemaker was behind that victory. Not only did he rescued Skybolt, as an Agena booster and for the British; he also managed to hang a complete Minuteman, topped with an Agena, under the belly of XB-70 number 2 and number 3. Such a system could orbit up to 7000 pounds and this was no lost to the NRO and NASA, too.

These many victories had pretty unpredictible consequences a decade down the road: notably on AMSA.

Having its arm twisted over the third XB-70 and FB-111A greatly infuriated McNamara who avenged by meticulously sabotaging any long range bomber study, AMSA included. He disrupted, defunded, destroyed these plans to such a point that by 1968-69 when he went away and the Nixon administration took over, very few progress if none had been made.

And then the Nixon administration become embroiled into the twin quagmires of the SuperSonic Transport and Space Shuttle; months and years of furious debates ended with cancellations of both massive projects six months apart the same year: May 1971 and November 1971.
Nixon was completely aghast: the successive losses of AMSA, SST and Shuttle were crippling blows to America capability of building large and fast aerospace vehicles.

Amid such desolation the only ray of light was the existence of three XB-70. AV1 however was good for nothing: it had severe flaws to the point that after its first and pretty scary incursion near mach 3 it was decided it would never do it again; it was redlined to mach 2.5.

The arrival of the third Valkyrie coincided with the breakthrough of the Air Launch Agena (ALA) system; NASA on its quest to what become the Shuttle but with its funding sucked by Apollo was more than happy to invest in what become known as VALMA: VALkyrie Minuteman Agena !

The first XB-70 was so flawed it could not be used for VALMA nor even for SST research so it was being prepared for retirement and a museum, when mid-1966 the unthinkable happened. With the two other Valkyrie quite busy, the flawed first one had inherited such chores as publicity stunts, airshow events, public relationship extravaganzas... and that day shit hit the fan in a spectacular way when legendary Joe Walker collided with it and was nearly killed, the B-70 itself going down with the two man crew ejecting safely. Walker hit one of the Valkyrie tails from above, his F-104 was cut in half with the cockpit spinning away; he ejected and survived by some impossible miracle he couldn't explain.

This left the two best Valkyries flying a growing number of missions including launching a selected number of OSO, OGO, OAO NASA science satellites- with stellar success.

North American, now Rockwell, saw that both AMSA and SST programs were in deep trouble right from 1966. They looked for a revenge on Lockheed and Boeing who had beaten their own proposal for a SST... heavily inspired from the XB-70. They got a very bright idea: of replacing the XB-70s six J93 with 4 GE4s, two of them without afterburner.

Officially, the reason given was to flight test the SST engine at mach 2.7 for hours of time, something only the Valkyrie could do.
Beyond the SST however, Rockwell had an eye on AMSA - and also on the Space Shuttle.

They reasonned that the AGM-69 SRAM had changed the game: now was a small, cheap cruise missile, a whole new generation compared to the old and cumbersome Hound Dog. Even if extreme speed and height was out of fashion - and the Vakyrie clearly couldn't switch to low level like B-52s - it nonetheless could carry a very large number of SRAMs in a carefully redesigned weapon bay. A weapon bay that could be much enlarged if the two center J93s went away and also if the inner GE4s had no afterburner.

The removal of the two center engines could free a truly enormous space for a vast payload / weapon / bay: 15 feet wide and nearly 100 feet long !
It could also be made pretty deep if a large fairing was emplaced behind the nosewheel. This had been planned as early as 1961 to launch DynaSoar before that program cancellation.

When Shuttle and SST were canned Rockwell had an all-encompassing, revolutionary proposal.

A remarquably large internal area that could carry, altogether
-a Minuteman, Peacekeeper or even a Titan II booster stage: long and narrow rockets that easily fit inside the bay.
-a 15 foot wide two-stage rocket with RL-10 engines, build from Centaur and Titan tooling
- alternate fuels for the two inboard GE4s without the afterburner: either MIPCC propellants, or some hydrogen if such aibreathing propulsion was to be tested.

All the above made the reworked XB-70s pretty astounding high speed research and space launching platforms, and it also ensured a tentative revival of the Valkyrie as a strategic bomber if the opportunity ever presented.

Early 1972 North American Rockwell took its chance and made a proposal that, to their surprise, was approved.
The two existing XB-70s would be transformed with GE4s and the internal modifications.

When they re-entered service after a lengthy disassembly and thorough rebuild, they hold their promises and America found itself with a very unique high performance space launching system.

North American Rockwell carefully crafted proposal come with detailed payload to orbit calculations.
By cutting into the unneeded internal fuel, a booster weighing up to 200 000 pounds could be carried internally and safely released at mach 3 and 80 000 feet, dropping like a huge bomb from the bay.
Booster vehicles were a varied mix. First was the existing Minuteman-Agena combination. Then a larger solid-fuel launcher maxing out the aircraft payload; a Titan-derived booster burning storable propellants; and finally a high-energy two-stage rocket build from Titan and Centaur 15 feet tooling.
Their respective payloads when dropped from the modified Valkyrie are 6000, 11000, 15000 and 40 000 pounds to orbit ! The last number brought VALMA close from the defunct Shuttle, a truly remarquable performance for an air-launch system.
 
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I'm struggling not to burden the entire story with an "aviation wank" on top of a "space wank".
Could become a spinoff, however.
I have different butterflies ready to fly around 1970, a crucial year.

James Beggs (NASA administrator 1981-85 OTL... and ITTL, 1972-77 in place of a Fletcher ruined by the Space Shuttle death)
was John Volpe under-secretary of transportation and had to handle the SST fiasco around the cancellation, in 1971.
Beggs will become NASA administrator a decade ahead and on the heels of two fiascos: Shuttle and SST.

Robert Frosch (another NASA administrator OTL 1976-81, won't get the job ITTL, screw Carter) was - circa 1970 - very close from the NAVAIR decision center - which favoured the XFV-12 rather than the Convair 200; and the AV-16 harrier was also in the run up. The latter may impact Big Wing Harrier, SHAR and AV-8B fates down the road... also Hawker P.1216, Typhoon, F-35 further down...

Also, another funny one.

Remember Lockheed CL-1200 Lancer ?

OTL Lockheed shamelessly tried to use NASA "X-27" slot to get a prototype funded and in turn screw what become the YF-16 and YF-17.
The trick backfired miserably and the Lancer died at mockup stage.

ITTL... that plan will work. After the twin losses of the Shuttle and SST (and AMSA maybe !) an enraged Nixon will pump massive funding into aerospace research circa 1972. He needs California aerospace workers vote even against McGovern !

Among the many project funded will be a spinoff of the NF-104A "Aerospace trainer". The very rocket-Starfighter crashed by Yeager at the end of "The right stuff".
Starting from the italian F-104S, Lockheed will build a much improved bird called the XF-120.
Two-seat, MIPCC J79, much improved rocket: two crews to 200 000 feet or higher.

Unfortunately for LWF, that NASA "super NF-104A" is Lockheed ploy to get CL-1200 Lancer prototypes build for "free" and from there, subvert the Deal of the Century with Italy help.

Half of the F-104S production run (250 build from 1968 to 1979 OTL) will be changed for F-120s... and just like the F-104S, these birds have AIM-7 Sparrow when neither YF-16 nor YF-17 have.

Lockheed will play havoc with the Deal of the Century...
 

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What I want to achieve with this story is essential a bridge spanning, from the existing space program (POD in the Apollo days) toward something akin to Starfleet.

Basically: starting from our chemical-rocket space program and then, finding a workable "warp drive" advanced engine technology - except something that can reasonably build with present (1960-2020, say) state-of-the-art.

In our universe NASA and Star Trek only had "symbolical" connections, obviously because we don't know how to create warp drive and because we are stuck with chemical rockets.


Forget thermonuclear fusion, antimatter or even Gas Core Nuclear rocket / nuclear lightbulb: theory, yes, practicability: no.

Sooo... could some kind of Starfleet be created by plain old 60's state-of-the-art nuclear and space technology ?

A good start there.
https://www.thespacereview.com/article/2714/1

Orion is one of the few interplanetary / interstellar drives on hand in the present day. But it has too many political and social issues, obviously, so I went looking for something a bit less controversial.

The end result is the attached picture. It starts from good old NERVA NTR, and "reworks" it into, not a "warp drive" but a workable engine with very high performance. High enough to start serious exploration by the end of the story.
 

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The other challenge was to make "boring" Moon interesting without spoofing 2001 - so no monolith.

Reiner Gamma and its anomaly solved that issue in their own, unique way.

Reinergamma_LRO_1100x700-5bbf.jpeg


See the attached picture... no kidding: a carbon copy of Clarke description of that lunar magnetic anomaly, except for real. Unbelievable.

Plus it looks like "Iapetus eye" in the novel: a huge, white eye seemingly painted on a Moon. With an anomaly right in the middle !

Also this paper, another one "too good to be true".


And that one, same author - who also happened to have worked with Glushko on Soviet lunar bases back in the 70's !


Ain't that cool ? starts from Zond 6 in 1968 taking Reiner Gamma pictures; includes Soviet lunar bases; and final result - boom, comet and interstellar stuff.

I've found plenty of similar "gems" - very serious science papers which also makes perfect cannon fodder for a writer imagination. It is kind of tying up all of them together.
 

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One thing that really picked my curiosity with "For all mankind" is Moore wanting to (symbolically at least) linking it with his previous Battlestar Galactica universe.
He has made clear that he had up to season 7 in mind and that by this point, his alternate space program will have advanced (at least) to interplanetary flight and perhaps even interstellar.

Clue: the ending of season 3 (no spoil from me).

He also integrated references to Star Trek in the FAK story.

I want to do something broadly similar but with workable, present-day tech and a plausible TL.
 

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If you want to ground your alternate history space exploration narrative on a grand master plan that was based on real world system concepts, I always thought the Rockwell Integrated Space Plan, numerous versions and vintages of which can be found in the wild, for example at https://makezine.com/2013/07/06/the-rockwell-integrated-space-plan-vector-redux-version/ and https://integratedspaceanalytics.com/store, would be a fitting point of departure. I first came across it at its birthplace in the form of a four foot tall cardboard poster in the cubicle of a colleague when I started working at then Boeing North American in Downey, California in 1998.

Martin

 
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Archibald

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Wow. I knew of NASA / Paine 1969 own Integrated plan (IPP), but that one is... gargantuan, to say the least. Thank you !
 
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Archibald

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I e-mailed the author of the pulsed-NTR paper to check some details for the story. He proved to be a gentleman, and from there our e-mail exchanges have ricocheted to suborbital refueling (which is also essential to the story here). That story is really becoming an interesting personal ride and experience.
 

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And now, ladies and gentleman... here a little nugget I've just written.
It starts paying hommage to a novel I read twenty years ago - you may remind it: mankind finds a weird artefact on the Moon.
And then it diverges to my own take at a similar story. Note that the text interwines bits of the novel with very real-world science papers I picked from the web. Because at times, reality beats fiction into submission.

Enjoy !

-------------------

1972
Houston, Texas.

A photograph of the Moon flashed onto the screen. On the left side of the disk was a brilliant white crater ring, from which a striking pattern of rays fanned out. It looked exactly as if someone had hurled a bag of flour at the face of the Moon, and it had spattered out in all directions.

"This is Copernicus," said Gene Shoemaker, pointing to the central crater. "On this vertical photograph Copernicus is even more conspicuous than when seen from Earth; then it's rather near the edge of the Moon. But observed from this viewpoint - looking straight down from a thousand miles up - you'll see how it dominates an entire hemisphere. Now, look to the west: Oceanus Procellarum stretches there, with such recognizable features as Kepler, Marius and Reiner more or less lined up. On the north are the Marius Hills, Aristarchus, and Shroeter valley with the Cobra head. And near crater Reiner: the swirl."

The darkened assembly room became suddenly hushed and expectant as the picture on the screen changed. Though everyone had seen it many times, there was not a person who failed to crane forward as if hoping to find new details.

It was a brilliant white oval, about fifty miles long and twenty wide; a great ellipse just north of the Moon equator straddling Oceanus Procellarum; it was so sharp-edged that it almost looked as if someone had carefully painted a huge white oval on the face of the Moon.

"The Reiner Gamma swirl is quite unique on the near side - you know this already, of course, but like all the astronomers of the last three hundred years, you've probably given it little thought. Look at this brilliant, curiously symmetrical spot: I sometimes think that Reiner Gamma has been flashing at us like a cosmic heliograph for hundred of years, and we've been too stupid to understand its message."

Astronaut Dave Scott became aware of a disturbing obsession. He never mentioned it in his conversations - or, rather, his running commentaries - with Mission Control or his crew mates during Apollo 15, because it might have seemed that he was already suffering from delusions.
Perhaps, indeed, he was; for he had half convinced himself that the bright ellipse set against the dark background of the Moon was a huge, empty eye, staring at him as he approached. It reminded Scott, somewhat ominously, of an eye without a pupil, for nowhere could he see anything to mar its perfect blankness.

Gene Shoemaker let the small assembly absorb this unfamiliar view of the familiar Ocean of storms, then continued: "Even before the space age, and accelerating with the Apollo decision, the Moon has been under powerful magnifying lenses; many different surveys have been performed from the ground and more recently from space. We have checked Procellarum optically, in the infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths; we have examined the place radioactivity, gravity, magnetic field; and we have bombarded it with Ranger hard-landers and spent Apollo stages for seismic waves to look deep inside the crust.

"What is remarquable is that every single of these survey has revealed anomalies only loosely related to each other, and sometimes truly unexplainable. Aristarchus infrared spectrum has hot spots all over its ejectas. The gravity field is all wrong: seismic waves have revealed the existence of potentially immense underground caves far beyond that big opening found in the Marius Hills five years ago; the more we look into it the more it looks like swiss cheese.

"Procellarum also concentrates a zoo of startling visual sights. Copernicus and Aristarchus bright ejectas are well known, but there are also things like Irregular Mare Patches, Red Spots and Lunar Transient Phenomenons; at Vera crater, Hansteen Alpha and the Gruithuisen domes. Then how about radioactivity ? Look at this other map."

Another picture flashed on the screen. The Moon was mostly dark violet, except for Procellarum which shone yellow-white and stood like a sore thumb.

"This is an early survey for minerals. We looked for rare earths and platinum group metals, and to find them we looked for thorium, because these two are always close from each other, on Earth and elsewhere. Basically we looked at lunar radioactivity concentrations and we got a major shock: more than half of the radioactive elements of the entire Moon are concentrated there; with Aristarchus a white-hot spot – on top of its many infrared anomalies and transient phenomenons. Can you believe that ?"

"Then take Reiner Gamma. During the past year we have been conducting a magnetic survey of Oceanus Procellarum from low-level satellites released from Apollo scientific instrument module bay. It was completed only last month, and this is the result... the map that started all the trouble."

Another picture flashed on the screen; it looked like a contour map, though it showed magnetic intensity, not heights above sea level. For the most part, the lines were roughly parallel and spaced well apart; but in one corner of the map they became suddenly packed together, to form a series of concentric circles - like a drawing of a knothole in a piece of wood.

Even to an untrained eye, it was obvious that something peculiar had happened to the Moon's magnetic field in this region; and in large letters across the bottom of the map were the words: REINER MAGNETIC ANOMALY-ONE (RMA-1).
In smaller caracters was the following legend "Superposition of a contour map of the lunar crustal magnetic field as derived from Apollo 16 subsatellite magnetometer data onto a photograph of Reiner Gamma, an unusual curvilinear albedo marking on western Oceanus Procellarum. The albedo marking is approximately 60 km in length "

"There is certainly little agreement anywhere about the nature of the Reiner Gamma anomaly; half a dozen theories – comet impact, magnetized lava, ferromagnetic meteorit... these were perhaps the favorite suggestions, and some of the protagonists have grown very heated in their defense. A good many bets have already been placed, and a lot of money will change hands when the truth is finally known - if, indeed, it ever will. Let me sumarize our research so far.

"At first we thought it might be an outcrop of magnetic rock, but all the geological evidence was against it. In terms of magnetization intensity, impact ejecta deposits, especially if they are enriched in metals, may be good candidates for the sources underlying swirls, although it is not obvious how well they can account for swirl morphology. Dikes and lava tubes, on the other hand, readily account for the narrow and often sinuous morphology of lunar swirl complexes. But that hypothesis had to be rejected: the main challenge with the dike and lava tube hypotheses is that they require a process that could enhance the metal content to substantially beyond what is currently represented in the sample record.

Then some argued that magnetization of mare basalt flows, impact melt sheets, or rocks that experienced cometary collisions could have produce the narrow, elongate magnetic source bodies required to account for the near‐surface magnetic field structure that gives rise to swirls. But that hypothesis was rejected, too: not even a big nickel-iron meteorite could produce a field as intense as this."

Dave Scott didn't knew it, but he wasn't the only one puzzled by Reiner Gamma as seen from a vantage location in orbit. On the other side of the world the swirl had caught the atention of the Soviets, too. Late 1968 Zond 6 found itself in a very similar position to Dave Scott later - except unmanned. The only "eyes" onboard were powerful cameras borrowed from Zenit-2 - very ironically, Gagarin's Vostok turned spysat.

When the ship was recovered the pictures went to Stenberg astronomy insistute, Moscow; in the hands of a young astronomer with the name of Shevchenko. A man familiar with the late Korolev and Glushko. A man also familiar with Barmin... and tasked with picking the right place for that man lunar base.
Shevchenko had set his choice on Western Oceanus Procellarum, and quite inevitably - Reiner Gamma caught his eye. Nobody could satisfactorily explain the swirl there, nor the magnetic anomaly. The two most prominent theories were, either it was related to nearby craters; or it was the scar of a huge comet impact happened "recently" - at the scale of the Moon of course, which mean less than two hundred million years ago. A period of severe disturbances in the Oort cloud, the remote, frozen confines of the Solar System.

The young Shevchenko started writing a draft publication related to early results from the repurposed Zonds. The ships had once tried to beat Apollo NEAR the Moon, hopefully for the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution: early November 1967. With that objective missed and NASA stunning discovery in the Marius Hills, the remaining Zonds lost cosmonauts and gained a powerful spysat camera, plus a whole new mission: get high-res pictures of that very peculiar corner of the Moon called Oceanus Procellarum.

Imprints of cometary collisions observed on the moon and their age

Shevchenko, V. V.

Abstract


COMET IMPACTS ON THE MOON: Photometric analysis of the diffuse structure of Reiner-gamma on the lunar surface from images obtained with the Zond-6 space vehicle, as well as additional remote-sensing data have shown that the reflecting layer of this formation has anomalous features. It is argued that an extraordinary compaction of the dust component of the lunar soil occurred. The prevalence of immature soil in the upper layer is evidence of the young age of the anomaly. Known cases of the artificial compaction of the lunar soil are used to show that the Reiner-gamma albedo anomaly can be considered an imprint of a single cometary impact that occurred 40 x 10 million years ago. This epoch coincides with that of periodic global catastrophes possibly caused by the effect on the stability of Oort's cloud of external factors causing the massed cometary intrusion into the inner part of the solar system.

The nature of diffuse albedo anomalies on the lunar surface that look like “swirls is one of most interesting mystery in current lunar studies. There are two main classes of hypothesises of the swirl origin: formation of the swirls in the regions antipodal to large impact basins and formation of the swirls in result of cometary impacts.

...

The Reiner Gamma formation is most obvious example of a correlation that does not exclude the swirl origin associated with external reason, such as cometary impact. So, the most convincing model for the swirls origin seems to be lunar surface contact with the gas/dust coma of comets passing by or falling onto the Moon. It’s possible to show that the most probable scenario for origin of the water ice polar deposits is the falls of young comets onto the Moon during comet showers. Characterized by their low average density and large nuclei as well as in the considerable mass of the matter they brought even several falls of such young comets could provide for the revealed ice concentration on the lunar pole.

...the comet came into inner part of Solar System, from a position between Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. Oort Cloud comets are currently believed to have formed in the Sun's protoplanetary disk and to have been ejected to large heliocentric orbits by the giant planets. Detailed models of this process however fail to reproduce all of the available observational constraints. In particular, the Oort Cloud appears to be substantially more populous than the models predict; numerical simulations showed that the Sun captured comets from other stars while it was in its birth cluster. The results imply that a substantial fraction of the Oort Cloud comets, perhaps exceeding 90%, are from the protoplanetary disks of other stars! We know that other stars have circumstellar clouds of dust or icy bodies that may be analogous to the Kuiper Belt in the Solar System. So, we can propose that a particles of a dust may be brought on the Moon by giant comets from other star systems!


Publication: Astronomicheskij Zhurnal​
 

Archibald

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Another little "nugget".

1962

“Do you realize we have all the elements on hand to build a cut-down variant of Aerospaceplane ? It is very much a matter of bringing together the following elements: XB-70, Minuteman stage one, and a RL-10 stage hybrid of Centaur – too small – and Saturn S-IV: too large, that one wouldn't fit inside a Valkyrie. And DynaSoar, of course.

“Wait, you say it would be possible to create a workable orbital piloted system flying out of a runway...”

“Hell yes...! And a partially reusable one with that. XB-70 and Dynasoar of course are recoverable; but more subtly, so are Minuteman casings since they are dumb steel tubes. At the end of the day the one and only bit not recoverable is the RL-10 powered high-energy rocket.

“But could this be done payload-wise ? The Dynasoar glider is already 10 000 pounds but needs a Transtage for any space maneuver...”

“Yes, it could be done: that's one of the most exciting aspect of that idea. Our chance is that the B-70 is not only the fastest but also the heaviest bomber ever created: more than 500 000 pounds. Of which one-third is kerosene fuel... which is not needed when just dropping rockets. And thus it had been calculated that the B-70 standard bomb load of 30 tons could be tripled !

The end result being a 90 tons rocket, a very respectable weight to be dropped at mach 3; a speed that removes 2000 m/s on the hard road to space. The combination of all this results in pretty surprising payload thrown into orbit.

Inside the B-70 very large payload envelope it would be possible to either drop a single-stick fat Saturn S-IV / Centaur hybrid, the RL-10s adding their excellent performance to the lot. Now, icing on the cake, a solid-fuel booster and a staging event would actually optimize performance.

In the end it seems the optimal system would be a Valkyrie – Minuteman – “Fat Centaur” combination. And mind you, not only would the Dynasoar reach orbit, but a small maneuvering stage could be added to its rear bulkhead; very much a cut-down Transtage.

“So much ? What kind of payload to orbit then, for that launch system ?

20 000 pounds. Can you believe that ? Twice as needed by the basic DynaSoar glider; perfect for a decent orbital maneuvering stage attached to it, hey, how about screwing the Transtage and go Agena instead ?”

“That's very remarquable, even more when you think the system would be 75% reusable, missing only the Fat Centaur.”​
 

martinbayer

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I believe the aerodynamic drag of a B-70 configuration with a large external load including an added winged vehicle would have lowered the achievable staging Mach number significantly below Mach 3, not to speak of any potential stability and separation issues.
 

Archibald

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I drew from multiple studies done OTL; I think they planned to nest such rockets into a large fairing. I won't contest they were probably on the optimistic side...
What surprised me was the potential payload even with part of the fuel removed: 200 000 pounds.
 

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The fun when writting this story is, once I grasped the rocket equation I started playing with it - and uncovered some possibilities never thought or never build.

One other example

Takes Dynasoar on a Titan III.
- two solid fuel SRMs
- Titan stage 1 (2*LR-87s)
- Titan stage 2 (1*LR-91)
- Dynasoar on top

Now, blend Dynasoar with the LR-91 stage 2 to get a fat rocketplane.

Put that on top of one SRM. Scrap everything else.

The SRM provides 2 km/s, the rocketplane assumes the rest of the ascent, +7km/s to reach orbit with a small payload (2 mt in a good day).

Well, there is a simple, two-stage system: fully reusable if the SRM is recovered at sea, Shuttle style.

The rocketplane itself can even add a pair of J85s for landing flyaround and still it goes into orbit with a small payload. And it doesn't even burn deep cryogens: a very ordinary kerolox gas-generator (Titan I LR-91 for example) can do the job, perhaps with LOX replaced with N2O.
No drop tanks either.


9.81*270*ln((500+50+1)/(50+50+1))+9.81*316*ln((50+1)/(10+1))
= 9248 m/s ; with 1 mt of payload.​

Even with bad isp and bad propellant mass fractions (0.80) it goes into orbit.
 

Michel Van

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I dit some number crunching on that idea

UA1205 with Titan 2 second stage engulfed in Dyna Soar hull

I go for very Optimistic 6000kg empty weight for second stage. ( no jet engines pure glider)
the numbers:
UA1205 = 230760kg (standard, no recovery systems)
Interstage = 1083kg
Titan DS = 37325kg
Total = 269168kg

Stage one = 3285,69 m/s (ISP = 2608 m/s)
Stage two = 5717,68 m/s (ISP = 3128 m/s)
Total = 9003,68 m/s
losses = 1200 m/s That's gravity, aerodynamics on wings etc
Delta V = 7803 m/s

Now that very low orbit close to equator
The use of a UA1207 would give better performance and option reuse the SRB.
On reuse UA thought in 1971 that reuse of UA120x series would drop cost around 25%to 33% per launch
 
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Archibald

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I'm probably too optimistic with the solid... Note the Titan solid was not the best of the lot, mass-fraction and specific-impulse wise.

Asking in passing: is 270 seconds at sea level a realistic number for a SRB ? In vacuum 295 to 300 was achieved by Pegasus upper stages or IUS. Same for the mass fraction: I've see solid-fuel kicked stages with fractions as high as 0.95 (that's probably where the optimism come from LOL) The closest thing I can think off for a large solid is the Peacekeeper stage 1 / Castor 120...
 
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Some fun with alt pop culture ITTL

Space station Zvezda is a techno-thriller written by Harry G. Stine under the nom de plume Lee Correy and published in 1985. The title is a reference to both novel and movie Ice Station Zebra of the 60's.


---

Ilya Patchikov and Ivan Popov could have been the first Soviet citizens to the Moon in August 1974. They have trained very hard – for weeks they worked eighteen hours a day. But at the last moment and to their great dismay the Politburo decided the mission will be entirely automated; and by a fitting irony for the first time the Soviet Moon machines perfectly worked, including the very troublesome N-1 rocket. And then the Soviet lunar program is cancelled as too late and too backwards when compared to Apollo.

From 1973 onwards the two frustrated cosmonauts get involved with the Apollo – Soyuz test program, visiting the United States and befriending American astronauts Pruett and Johnson. They learn about the Apollo – Soyuz radio link; they visit mockups of the future American space station.

Within two years after the Apollo–Soyuz linking Popov and Patchikov hear of Sablin and Belenko mutiny and defection, both due to the Brezhnev era stagnation and corruption; and are troubled by it. Growing more and more disillusioned by the late Brezhnev era ramping corruption Popov and Patchikov patiently elaborate a plot. At some point in the early 80's they learn that Pruett and Johnson are to man Liberty, so they decide to go into action.

They are send to space station Zvezda, an advanced orbital facility with artificial gravity provided by spinning around Salyut-like modules. After some days they pretext a health emergency, and an hurried undocking; to be followed by a direct reentry. They then told ground controlled that the hurried undocking has consumed most of the Soyuz propellant, leaving them stranded in orbit. For a period they also shut contact with the ground. Meanwhile they use their Soyuz meagre propellant supply to get close from the American space station. But they can't dock – the rings are not compatible – so a sortie is needed. And of course the American crew may refuse to accept them onboard.

The Soviet crew then elaborates an outrageous scheme to twist arm of the American crew.

The Soyuz first gets as close as possible from the Liberty airlock. Then the crew don their space suits before opening the Soyuz docking ring, depressurizing their spaceship. Popov crawls through the docking tunnel into space, and extends his arms outside the Soyuz, with the aim of gripping the American space station external airlock hatch with his gloved hands. Patchikov has to carefully manoeuver the Soyuz in order not to crush his crewmate. The daring manoeuver ultimately succeeds. Standing halfway through the Soyuz docking ring Popov then secures his position with a rope, while Patchikov uses him like an human ladder until he grasp, too, the Liberty airlock external hatch. But the Soyuz is still very close from the two cosmonauts, and there is a real threat they might be crushed by a collision between their spaceship and Liberty. Popov and Patchikov then try a radical approach: they forcefully and repeatedly kick the Soyuz with their feet so that it moves away from them, an exhausting ordeal that ultimately works. The American crew watch the scene, startled, and report to the ground, expressedly asking to welcome the cosmonauts onboard.

With the Soviet suit providing only seven hours of life-support, the Americans have to take a difficult decision very fast. Under orders from the U.S government NASA order the Soviet cosmonauts to move back to their Soyuz and reenter Earth atmosphere. The space station crew will do his best to help the Soyuz desorbit, either with the robotic arm or using one of their Agena space tug.

But the Soviet crew refuse to comply. Ultimately Pruett and Johnson desobey orders and get the Soviets onboard, creating a dangerous situation. Once aboard space station Liberty Popov and Patchikov ask for political asylum in the United States.

The situation is made even more explosive considering the events happens late 1983, in an era of tension never seen since the Cuban crisis of 1962. Tension peaks as all of sudden Houston warns the Liberty crew that the Soviet have launched an I.S satellite killer near the American space station; they threaten to cripple the American space station. This prompt president Reagan to call Andropov on the red phone, with a heated exchange happening between the two men. Ultimately the Soviets desorbit the killer satellite as a gesture of goodwill.

Another threat is the abandonned Soyuz that dangerously drift near Liberty; the American crew decides to to use the robotic arm to pick up the Soviet spaceship and keep it at a safe distance from Liberty. A major issue is that the Soyuz lacks a grapple fixture compatible with the arm end. Instead the Liberty crew tries to clamp the arm end on a Soyuz antenna but the manoeuver goes awfully wrong. The antenna bends and breaks, sending the Soyuz tumbling into a wild spin, hitting and breaking the robotic arm. The Soyuz then strike Liberty, causing a small fire and damaging a solar array. Ultimately the Liberty crew decide to fire an Agena space tug to move the space station away from the battered Soyuz, and the manoeuver successfully clear the american space station from any danger.

Meanwhile Andropov is bargaining with Reagan. He will let the crew goes to the United States if Reagan roll back his Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan, striken by Soviet panick vis a vis the Able Archer excercice and “The day after” gloomy movie decides to make concessions, perhaps through a meeting with Andropov.

In the end Reagan asks Congress to enact a bill granting asylum to the Soviet crew. A trust fund will be set up for them, granting them a very comfortable living. The meeting between Reagan and a terminally ill Andropov never happens, but it paves the way to Gorbatchev perestroika and the end of Cold War – earlier than in our universe, in 1987.


---

According to Stine himself “Well, Valery Sabline mutiny aboard a Soviet frigate in 1975 inspired Tom Clancy to write Hunt for Red October a decade later. Meanwhile the year after, in 1976 Viktor Belenko flew his MiG-25 to Japan and this inspired another techno-thriller – Craig Thomas Firefox, published in 1982. I felt another novel could be written on a similar subject, except this time in space.

In 1980 John Barron wrote a book about the Belenko case. According to Belenko himself when asked how long did he planned his escape, and what did it involve ?

“In terms of the evolution of my thoughts and making the conclusion to escape I do not have a precise time. I did make that decision based on my dissatisfaction with that country. I tried to do my best. I was one of their best fighter pilots. When I was young I was possessed by socialist and communist ideas which are very appealing because they promise full employment, free education, free medical care, good retirement, free child care, and so on. But later I discovered that those ideas were serving only a very small number of Communist nomenclatura, and the rest of the people were basically slaves. I made my conclusion that I could not change that system. The system is so big that there's no way I could change it or exist inside of it as a normal human being. For me, it was the best thing to divorce myself from that system. I was a fighter pilot, but that had nothing to do with my decision to escape. If I had not been a fighter pilot, I would still have found way to escape from that concentration camp. Even today, with all the slogans and all the freedoms, that country is still a closed society.

It took me a while to build the critical mass in my mind to make that decision, but the final decision I made a month before my escape, and when I made that decision I felt so good about myself! I felt like I was walking on the top of clouds. I felt free. But for me to achieve my objective I must have good weather in Japan and 100% fuel, and it took one month to have those two components in place. During that month I performed my duties so well that my commanding officers were ready to promote me. But on September 6, 1976 all components were in place. By the way, I did not steal the airplane. I had clearances. I just changed my flight plans slightly in the air.” Belenko concluded.

Stine later said “Barron's book about Belenko was fascinating. Then it occurred to me that, since 1978 NASA Liberty faced the OPSEK-Mir Soviet space station. The two were in very similar orbits, 51.6 degree inclined over the equator and 200 miles high. People were saying the situation was very similar to Berlin (before the wall), but in space. This stroke me – could a Soviet cosmonaut pull a Sablin or a Belenko, that is, flying his Soyuz to the American space station and asking for political asylum ? It was an exciting pitch for a novel or a movie script, and I decided to dug the concept further. It reminded me, somewhat, of Martin Caidin Marooned. When I started writing the novel late 1983 I could hardly imagine that the legendary Clint Eastwood would adapt it into a movie at the turn of the century, in 1999.

After the end of Cold War we learned, startled, that Soyuz contingency landing zones included the American prairies. There were landing points in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Texas and, Oklahoma. The Texas (contingency !) landing point for Soyuz-33 at 33N, 97.6 W was actually quite close to Fort Worth.

Imagine the situation: at the height of Cold War, a Soyuz lands on goddam Texas, kingdom of anti-communism feelings in America. It would make for one hell of a culture clash !​
 
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Archibald

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Hollywood had this in 1966
but a Soyuz landing in Texas would be one better.
And where else in 1983 but the Ewing Ranch at Southfork. Cosmonauts joining Miss Ellie, JR and co for breakfast on that ever so windy patio..

Good ! and the timing (1966) is right next to my main POD.

Sue Ellen would certainly drunk herself to death with the Soviets, sharing too much vodka with them (a welcome change from Bourbon for her).

J.R, not sure - he may want to gun down those invading Soviets landing in his backyard...

"Who shot the Soyuz crew ?" instead of "who shot J.R ?" imagine the cliffangher... :D
 

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As said in the tin. I've worked on this huge thing since February 2008 when I joined, first, NASAspaceflight.com and AH.com.

Took me a decade and 2019 to get a stronger focus and backstory.

Now the POD is clearer.

In August 1967 at a crucial juncture in NASA history the last Lunar Orbiter (number 5) missed a stunning discoveryonly by a hairbreadth.

To make a long story short (or trying !) : in the Marius Hills there is a 200 feet wide hole in the roof of a lava tube. Data from Kaguya, LRO, and Chandrayaan-1 (2009) show it is an opening of a colossal lava tube 60 km long. A lunar cave of gigantic size, thanks to a gravity six times weaker on the Moon.

In our TL, Lunar Orbiter 5 on August 17, 1967 snapped a 2.5 m ground resolution picture of the Marius Hills and... missed the 60 m wide hole by merely 200 m (see the attached document).

It took until 2009 for Kaguya (quickly followed by LRO and Chandrayaan-1) to see it - 42 years too late for Apollo, unfortunately (although not too late for a renewed lunar exploration program, of course).

So the story main POD is that Lunar Orbiter is a little more lucky (or its Agena gets a hiccup during launch) and hit gold - it gets a picture good enough of the hole.

August 1967 being an interesting moment in NASA, Apollo and... Cold War, plenty of things happened after that discovery.
Looking good @Archibald.
 

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Nice to see you back, it has been weeks if not months !
 

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Lockheed Corporation
California
1962


In the year 1962 the Skunk Works D-21 - from Lockheed Palmdale Aeronautics branch - clashed head-on with Sunnyvale Space Division; Gordon own revolutionary approach that was neither speed or stealth but space. So there were kind of three vehicles and three options: Ryan slow & stealth faced Lockheed speedy & airbreathing D-21; and the spaceborne Agena. The company had to pick an option among the two. Interestingly enough, both Agena and D-21 could eventually launch from a modified A-12 OXCART, providing an unmanned, standoff reconnaissance capability much needed in the wake of Power U-2 quagmire. Gordon knew that the Skunk Work geniuses in Palmdale would not budge to the space nerds of Sunnyvale; he wisely tried to defuse the tensions.

He went to see Clarence Johnson and his right arm Ben Rich; together, they managed to find a truce and bring Agena, OXCART and D-21 together. Together they bargained a string of compromises to achieve that goal. The D-21 two major issues, Johnson gracefully acknowledged, were its launch from the back of the A-12; and data recovery. While the D-21 by itself was a fantastic flying machine, on these two fronts the project was rather clunky. By contrast the Ryan drone was subsonic with immense wings and as such, he could parachute itself to a smooth landing and recovery by an helicopter. Also it was slow enough a C-130 could drop and launch it at low speed. Being thrice as fast the D-21 was not so lucky: its ramjet needed a mach 3+ launch, and recovery was equally difficult if not impossible for the simple reason the drone could not slow below mach 3 to sprout a parachute and being caught by the same Hercules or an helicopter. As such, the D-21 would be a one-shot silver bullet, and Johnson hated the idea. He also hated the launch method from the back of a modified OXCART at its top speed.

Johnson was also painfully aware that, as far as reconnaissance drones were concerned, the recoverable and stealth Ryan vehicle was probably preferable to the D-21: bluntly, he felt that speed was no longer fashionable enough to justify expending such an expensive asset as the D-21. Gordon appreciated that reasonning and worked his way from there. The Agena would provide even more speed than the D-21 yet somewhat paradoxically in its case, being expendable was not an issue; not with Agena-based CORONA and GAMBIT spysats in mass production and service. The NRO had long accepted the vehicle and cameras were expendable; and unlike the D-21 hazardous hatch ejection system, the capsule recovery business near Hawaii was working very well.

As for launching from an A-12, Gordon argued that the Agena, being a dumb cylinder without any wings, could very much be dropped like a bomb from a bay on the A-12 belly. He cited ongoing work done to drop AIM-47 Falcons, SRAMs and Polaris warheads from interceptors or bombers variants called F-12 and B-71 respectively. The Agena however was much more massive and could not go into the sidewards chines. Instead, the fuel "tank 1" below the cockpit would have to be cut or removed, evidently screwing range of that OXCART air-launch variant. Then again, Gordon argued, range wasn't needed when launching into orbit.

Such would be the speed boost provided by a Mach 3.3 platform, Grodon calculations showed the Agena not only would not need a solid fuel booster, but it could still launch a 1200 pounds reconnaissance packages into orbit; he suggested the KA-80A camera, perhaps married to the Bimat film-readout system. This way, he added, no need to recover film into a capsule: the Agena spysat could electronically beam to the ground, near real-time, a handful of pictures taken during its mission. Considering Bimat tight limits, it may be better to make only a handful of pictures during a suborbital pass over the target; then the Agena would climb into a stable orbit to beam back the pictures. After what the whole thing would be left reentering and burning into the atmosphere.

Gordon vision was essentially of an A-12 sending its camera flying over the target in a suborbital pass over the target. The D-21 would have flown over the target at mach 3 and 80 000 feet; in stark comparison a suborbital Agena would hit Mach 20 at an altitude of 200 000 to 300 000 feet. Johnson and Ben Rich, startled, noted this was RHEINBERRY very flight regime. To which Gordon answered that unlike that vehicle, an Agena wouldn't be piloted yet it could go into orbit and at far lower cost, since it derived from the already mass-produced and rugged Agena spysats. Unlike RHEINBERRY the Agena would not be recoverable but it actually did not needed recovery since it could either drop its film into capsules or more interestingly, beam them down to the ground via Bimat; and perhaps a much improved, laser-scan system in the future - what become FROG: Film ReadOut Gambit.

Ben Rich and Johnson instantly grasped Gordon had something big in his hands, potentially far more groundbreaking than the D-21 that was kind of dead end: trapped between COMPASS ARROW, RHEINBERRY and Gordon own system. They graciously accepted to drop the D-21 for a spaceborne system.

“I think Lockheed is going the wrong way with the D-21. We are going to create a one-shot, very expensive drone when Ryan subsonic vehicles are recoverable and cheap – the Firebees at least. I suggest we take a different approach: creating something akin to the Firebee, but in space; in orbit. And when you look at it this way, the Agena seems tailored for that job. If we play smart; if we succeed in making that Spaceborne Agena drone cheap, expendable and plentiful like the Ryan vehicles; then we will achieve something pretty exciting: affordable access to space. This may be a revolution, folks.”​
 

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Folks,
Not being a native english speaker ; and being only a wannabee amateur writter; I need feedback.

Would some of you be interested by part of the story in the shape of pdfs ?

I have a lot in my plate to thread into that story at the risk of being technical "dry"

What do you think ?
 

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So the year is 1962, and a young Lockheed engineer with the name of Owen Gordon invents a brand new strategic reconnaissance system: neither a SR-71, nor a Firebee drone, nor a spy satellite - but very much a mix of all three.

See attached picture: it is a brand new "niche" - as were the Ryan drones and spy satellites that year, 1962.

ISINGLASS and RHEINBERRY did overlap, but they were vastly different animals.

ISINGLASS kind of pushed beyind the SR-71: ramjets and airbreathing, but Mach 4.5 at 110 000 feet wasn't enough against nuclear-tipped SA-2s and SA-5s; and Convair was rebuked (ISINGLASS was a reborn FISH / KINGFISH)

RHEINBERRY was Douglas going all-rocket: speed and height were no longer an issue: 200 000 feet and Mach 20, with an engine the direct ancestor of the Shuttle SSME, called the XLR-129. The limits there was "Single Stage To" "sub-orbital" because the mass fraction would not allow it to reach orbit (it would take mach 26 to achieve it).
So suborbital it would be: Mach 20, 7 km/s: enough for 12 000 km ballistic range.

And of course MOL, Aerospaceplane and DynaSoar were bringing strategic reconnaissance to orbit, but none of the three was really worth the cost / benefit.

The gist of the idea is to launch an Agena spysat either in suborbital or orbital flight, for single-pass or multiple-pass reconnaissance. Unlike RHEINBERRY, Agena are cheap, unpiloted, and can easily go into orbit.

It's like a Ryan Firebee drone, except going into orbit.
 

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Archibald

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Meanwhile the Moon race is heating up, but in a more modest and subtle way than, say, the For all mankind timeline.
The fun is to take the Soviets vs US probes and projects and tweak that into a slightly more exciting lunar race even with a late POD in August 1967.

- Ranger hard landers
Three of them flew with the block II probes in 1961-62 and all of them died along the ride. Note that the dead Ranger 4 was followed through the hard lander emitter and this way it is known it hit the Moon in April 1962. So in a sense, the hard landers worked, but the Block V Ranger carrying the next batch was canned.
ITTL it returns as a cheap way to probe the Marius Hills underground.

- Lunar Orbiter 6 gets its ride to the Moon late 1967. Its Agena booster is loaded with these Ranger hard-landers; which are dropped over Procellarum and then the seismometers inside are activated by crashing the Agena... you guess, LCROSS style.

- the Sandia "Mars" penetrators: a tech inspired by bunker-busting bombs and... Lop Nur spying sensors - seismometers again, to check nuclear explosions. You guess, plans will be made to drop Sandia penetrators across the Marius Hills solid ground to try and seek what lies beneath.

- the Soviet answer: moar Luna 9 and Luna 13 "Ye-6" probes in 1967-68 to cover an OTL gap before sample return and Lunokhod (Ye-8).
The Ye-6 lander was a kind of beach volley ball bouncing on the surface with airbags and then deploying the payload inside. So it could bounce inside the Marius Hills pit to try and explore it, if needed

- Lunokhod will also land there and drive itself around the pit.

- Luna sample return (Ye-8-5M) vs Apollo 15: both could drill 2.5 m deep.
- What is fascinating is that Ye-8-5M drill was built by this guy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Barmin
He did that because he had this in mind. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zvezda_(moonbase)
When you want to create a partially underground lunar base, the best place to start is to get experience drilling the regolith... and Ye-8-5M exactly did that, three times.
So a pragmatic Barmin proposed to lend his services to G. Babakin, the Ye-8-5 designer at the former Lavotchkin OKB.
 

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Yeesss. Apollo 15 nearly went to Marius rather than Hadley - and it took Dave Scott own judgment to break a scientists deadlock & embarassment: rounds after rounds of debate had resulted in the conclusion that, as far as science went, the two sites were evenly matched.
With one major exception: emplacement of the ALSEP seismic network.
Hadley in relation to 11 - 12 - 14 sensors made more sense than Marius.
 

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And then there is Mao's PRC: China. They were kind of "third superpower" in the Cold War although far behind USSR and USA.

In the 60's they ended in a weird place, notably in 1969. In the north, they clashed with the Soviets; in the south, they helped North Vietnam / Vietcong against the USA.

Note that in both cases they managed to scare the shit out of both superpowers with the same argument.

Basically "we may have few if none nuclear weapons, but we can send (to Vladivostok or into Vietnam) a 200 million men invasion force / guerilla if you dare to provoke us. "

Brezhnev and Johnson both took the warning quite seriously. IMHO it is one of the very few instance in the Cold War a third party managed to scare one of the two superpowers.

the PRC Xinjiang also happened to be downrange of Baikonur cosmodrome and from time to time some unmanned and even manned Soyuz / Zond come uncomfortably close from the border.

The one and only case however a Soviet spaceship fell down in China happened on November 28, 1969 when a 7K-L1E was betrayed by its Proton and come crashing down 200 km north of Harbin. It was a Block D with a stripped-down Zond attached to it, so nothing to recover for the Chinese, unfortunately.

The CIA meanwhile did all kind of crazy whacky things to try and emplace sensors near Lop Nur nuclear test range. My favorite one is AQUILINE - the spying cyborg bird-of-prey. Got a great WTF moment and a good laugh first time I red about it.

It is not much known that a D-21B drone fell into the Chinese hands early 1971.
Same for Ryan Firebees send from Vietnam. In the later case they reverse-engineered the J69 engine (= WP11 = the Fouga Magister Marboré got a third life in China !) and also the drone itself, called WZ-5.

It is quite funny to tweak these OTL examples...
 

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During that Period
The USSR was thinking on nuclear attack China.
but there was issue "how would the USA react ?"
So Soviets Diplomats made "theoretical" question to US diplomats during diner parties
Henry Kissinger realised what the Soviets really ask and answer firm:
"In case the USSR attack China, the USA will retaliate !"
The Soviet Diplomats back away in horror, while Chinese Diplomats notice this
later they invited the US Ping Pong team to play in China
this star Chinese Diplomatic relationship with USA and "Nixon came to China"
 

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The Americans were rather neutral - they had little to no interest in blowing the planet to save the a$$ of any communist power :D
IF they sided with the Chinese, it might infuriates the Soviets and break Cold War precarious equilibrium.
If they sided with the Soviets, the chinese could make things even worse in Vietnam - as they done in Korea in November 1950.

Some fun facts

- On August 13, 1969 the Soviets and Chinese clashed on the Kazakh - Xinjiang border, at a point exactly in the middle of the way between Semipalatinsk (Soviet nuclear test grounds, Kazakhstan) and Lop Nur (China nuclear test grounds)
The Soviets crushed the chinese in a revenge and lesson of the March 1969 ambush at Zhembao. They had no intention of striking harder.

- The Chinese leadership was scared like hell and then self-convinced the Soviets were going for a "decapitation nuclear strike"
- on September 11 (when Kosyguin actually met Zhou Enlai to stop the bloodbath)
- then on October 1 (PRC 20th anniversary)
- then on October 20 (the day the Soviets delegates landed in Beijing: they feared Speznatz or a nuclear bomber was send instead)
Funnily enough, Mao fled - of all chinese cities ! - to... WUHAN (he didn't got COVID, ROTFL)

- On November 9, 1969 the first operational D-21B went to Lop Nur and then it forgot to turn and return, carried on straight ahead... into Kazakhstan, where the Soviets recovered it, examined it, and send to Tupolev who created the "Voron" over the next years.

- On November 28, 1969 a Proton from Baikonur went astray and dropped its Zond-block-D composite spaceships (7K-L1E) 200 km north of Harbin... in China !

- Also in October 1969, dear Nixon (and his damn Kissinger minion evil sidekick) picked that ackward moment to fool around with his "madman theory".


Basically: he tried to scare the Soviets with some kind of "high nuclear alert readiness" so that they put pressure on the Vietnamese to try and end the goddam war (sic).
They seemingly didn't realized the Chinese were convinced the Soviets were going to nuke them. They only thought about Vietnam !

By mid-October 1969 the Soviets were left scratching their heads
"WTF are the Chinese and Americans both in high nuclear alert readiness ?"

- On March 20, 1971 another D-21B in its fourth and last flight fell in Yunnan and just like the Soviets, the Chinese examined it (although it doesn't seem they tried to reverse engineer it as they had done with the simpler Firebees).

So you see, that peculiar corner of Earth has a lot of "Cold War going wrong" potential.
 

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One major shift compared to OTL is Lockheed D-21 drone meeting its fate at the hands of an air-launched Agena spysat.

The basic idea is the same: "Because of Soviet defense an A-12 can't fly inside Soviet borders. Instead, it will shoot its camera (Hycon, Itek, Kodak, Perkin Elmer...) across the said border on a supposedly invulnerable platform".

- but what platform ?

Behold "the strategic reconnaissance camera platforms war, 1962-1966"

- Ryan drone: a C-130 shoots the recon camera across the Soviet border on a subsonic stealth drone (147 or 154)
- Lockheed drone: an A-12 shoots the recon camera across the Soviet border on a Mach 3.2 drone
- ISINGLASS: A B-52 shoots the recon camera across the Soviet border on a piloted, ramjet aircraft at Mach 4.5
- RHEINBERRY: A B-52 shoots the recon camera across the Soviet border on a piloted, rocket aircraft at Mach 22

So one can see the spooks didn't lacked imagination when dealing with the next step after the A-12 & SR-71.

Basically in my story one guy comes and basically suggests "hey how about this ?"

- Air-launched Agena: a B-58 shoots the recon camera across the Soviet border on a suborbital or orbital modified Agena spysat.

In turn, this bring chaos into all the aforementioned systems that OTL all clashed and collided at the same time: 1962-1966 (and that's pretty fascinating, when you think about it !)

The D-21 becomes an early casualty of that war; Lockheed Sunnyvale (space, Agena, spysats) beat Palmdale's Skunk works (D-21 / D-21B) in the year 1962.

The Air Force grants full support to air-launch Agena spysats: their own SAMOS and GAMBIT.
They carefully keep the NRO and CIA (CORONA) out of it.

In turn, a frustrated CIA that also lost the D-21 turns to Ryan to make the Model 154 COMPASS ARROW happen three years earlier than OTL, 1963 rather than 1966.

End result: there will be CIA stealth drones overflying that Sino-Soviet hotspot on the Xinjiang-Kazakh border in 1969.

And the CIA being the CIA (sigh), when returning from Lop Nur to Peshawar (yes, the very place Francis Gary Power took off that fateful day) they can't help (carefully of course) probing the Soviet border with their Ryan stealth drones just to see if its get detected and triggers any reaction.

More generally, the COMPASS ARROW handled by the CIA rather than the Air Force, and some years earlier, will become a successor to the U-2 in the eyes of the spooks.
When you think about it, it corrects Project RAINBOW and F. Gary Power dismal failures.
Because it is truly stealth, and not piloted !

While it won't be as outrageous and disruptive as the 50's U-2 overflights - the times have changed - that CIA Ryan 154 business will nonethless bring some chaos and mayhem in the Cold War.
 
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Skunk Work won't give up, even after the D-21 death - with interesting consequences.


"...as for the “aeronautics / high speed” side of Lockheed, while they had seemingly lost the strategic reconnaissance battle in 1963, neither Johnson nor Ben Rich would capitulate that easily. All too aware of the flaws that had cost the D-21 its existence, they went back to work. And in the process, they ran into Marquardt, Bill Escher, and a wonder engine called the Supercharged Ejector Ramjet.

In the words of Escher himself

“In the process of meeting with Lockheed personnel on the NF-104A aircraft, and in general contractor liaison activities, the SERJ Team was invited to brief Clarence L. (Kelly) Johnson, director of the company's famed Skunk Works organization, aka Advanced Development Projects. But his time-availability had been foreshortened by prior commitments just at briefing time. Thankfully, there were few interruptions to roil the accelerated pace of the briefing, and it finished on time. At the beginning I had that nasty feeling the Skunk Works had no interest in my engine. How wrong was I. They were actually reworking their D-21 ultra-fast drone project that had been canned because of its basic flaws and also for orbital Agena spysats. Little could I have had guessed that this meeting marqued the beginning of Lockheed interest in rescueing the frail Marquardt company; a decade later our association would yield tremendously exciting results.”

By 1963 Marquardt while seemingly strong and prosperous was actually on the brink of abyss.

Marquardt merged General Applied Science Laboratories, Inc. (GASL), of Westbury, New York, into the company. It had been founded in 1956 by Antonio Ferri and Theodore von Karman.

Von Karman was a Hungarian-born scientist who had emigrated to the United States in 1930. It was von Karman who founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology in 1944. Ferri pioneered many breakthroughs in hypersonic flight, including Supersonic Combustion Ramjet (SCRAMJET) propulsion, and research into the proper shaping of airfoils, engine inlets, and hypersonic reentry phenomena. Crucially, between 1958 and 1963 GASL and Marquardt had competed on the Aerospaceplane air collection engine variations. Once that program was canned, they joined forces.

In 1960, Roy Marquardt had told the employees of the company that government procurement of the Bomarc Missile would end in mid-1962, and that an effort must be made to replace that business. That same year North American Aviation selected Marquardt to provide the reaction control system engines for the Apollo program spacecraft. By 1970 Marquardt was known primarily as "the" company for small rocket engines and thrusters. Practically all US space vehicles and satellites used their designs. Yet it still wasn't enough. Roy Marquardt solution was to use the great scientific and engineering capabilities of the company to develop new technologies. In a newsletter for summer he said "I believe that one of our more important actions this year has been to greatly increase company-sponsored and financed research and development, a program started late last year ... Much hard work lies ahead if we are to develop the programs and business replacing the Bomarc as it phases out..." As such Marquardt and its subsidiaries were a hot bed of scientific research activity. Roy Marquardt had always believed that the primary mission of the company was "Dedicated to Keeping the United States First in Technology". He kept a large roster of scientists and engineers in the company, and believed that the technical staff should make up about ⅓ of all the personnel of Marquardt. These large engineering and development costs however heavily taxed Marquardt's profits, making shareholders quite unhappy. They were now ready to topple Roy Marquardt in a coup and most importantly severely cut into that fanstatic pool of engineers and scientists, only for short term benefits and essentially dooming the company into stagnation in the long term. That unfainly fate was avoided at the last minute when the Skunk Works leadership, discussing with Bill Escher, realized a Marquardt – Skunk Work alliance may be quite formidable. After many twists and turns, in 1964 the alliance was a go. Lockheed would pump money into Marquardt pool of engineers and bring it closer from their own Skunk Works. Sinergies were everywhere, making an alliance all too logical. Lockheed gained access to a lot of Aerospaceplane air collection engines; the X-7 and dormant D-21 already used Marquardt RJ-43 ramjets; they needed the rocket thrusters for the growing Agena business and found the two companies were neighbourgs at Van Nuys airport near Los Angeles. They were also partners on the NF-104A, Marquardt being responsible of that bird Reaction and Control System.

Finally Lockheed realized Escher Supercharged EJector Ramjet would fit a reworked D-21 like a glove. It would expand its speed well beyond Mach 3.3.

In Escher own words, again

Mach 4.5, Half Again as Fast as the Fastest -- A word about SERJ's ultimately selected Mach 4.5 top-speed choice: this was "half again as fast" as the recently demonstrated Lockheed A-12 (with its F-12, M-21 and SR-71 variants) and North American B-70, with their Mach 3 speed capability. Mach 4.5 was selected as a reasonable upper limit for sustained, repeatable ramjet mode operation. The governing design criteria were those relating to materials and structures operating limits and -- particularly — the perceived need far active cooling of major components using JP fuel, with its long-term gumming and coking upper-temperature limits. An aircraft capable of flying at Mach 4.5 was strictly a presumption at this time.” Somewhat remarquably, Mach 4.5 had been the exact speed target of the ISINGLASS piloted reconnaissance vehicle studies at Convair.

“It was quite remarquable” Ben Rich noted later. “We had now a project bringing together drones, D-21, SERJ and ISINGLASS. It was very much the airbreathing reconnaissance vehicle ultimate stand against RHEINBERRY, the Ryan drones and Lockheed's Agena spysats – be them air-launched or rocket-launched.”

Swapping a SERJ in place of old RJ43 would allow the D-21 to slow down and land instead of self-destructing at the end of the mission, saving only its most valuable components – camera, film, guidance system. They were ejected to a rather uncertain recovery procedure; and this doomed the D-21 against the much slower but fully recoverable Ryan 147 and 154 drones. As for the landing gear, Lockheed went for a X-15 like system of skids plus nosewheel.

On the Marquardt side, the company had wanted to put a SERJ on a X-15 but theere were too few of them and they were need the end of their ropes. Lockheed reworked D-21 once again sounded like an evident alternative. The two companies however felt that the strategic reconnaissance mission was definitively lost with even a reworked D-21 probably squeezed between Agena and Ryan drones. Instead they wondered if a recoverable drone could be pitched as a potential X-15 successor after 1967; contacted, NASA proved quite enthusiast, notably its Marshall center in Alabama. Lockheed and Marquardt reasonned they could eventually return to the strategic reconnaissance mission later, perhaps to replace the Ryan 154 or the SR-71.

By getting their hands on Marquardt in the mid-60's Lockheed boosted the Skunk Works tremendously; they positioned themselves at the forefront of such important areas as scramjets, SERJ, air collection, ramjets and rocket thrusters. “All those shiny new propulsion techs would allow the Skunk Works, Palmdale, to get their revenge on the Sunnyvale space nerds and their prolific Agena rocket body.”
 

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What fascinates me is that the CIA / NRO / Lockheed D-21 and the Air Force / Ryan Model 154 drones were
a) both stealth a decade before the HAVE BLUE
b) build for the exact same mission of spying Lop Nur
c) yet extremely different (subsonic versus Mach 3)
d) yet started independantly some years apart (1962 and 1966, respectively)

And both died when Kissinger and Nixon went to China in 1972. D-21 was ready enough to fly four flights over 1969-71 (all of them failures); while Ryan's baby was not so lucky and too late.

Had history turned differently, there would have been two stealth drones spying Xinjiang circa 1969 - right in time for the second Sino-Soviet big clash there in August.

*A couple of stealth drones IOC - half a decade before HAVE BLUE* - ain't that impressive ?

I presently have a lot of fun swapping their OTL fates and, in passing, turning "prehistory of stealth, pre- HAVE BLUE" on its head.
 

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Presently re-writing Apollo 15 (on its 50 anniversary !) to its second-ranking landing spot (the one that lost to OTL Hadley rille - guess where ?) - with a lot of goodies, and some reference to space novels I enjoyed a lot.
 

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