|Skylab 1 Orbital Workshop atop a Saturn V rocket (foreground) and Skylab 2 Saturn IB rocket (background). Image credit: NASA.
Apollo as we knew it included over its seven-year series of flights a total of seven major hardware elements. They were: the Saturn V rocket, available in three-stage and two-stage varieties; the two-stage Saturn IB rocket; the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft; the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) Moon lander; the jeep-like Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV); the Skylab Orbital Workshop, a temporary space station; and the ASTP Docking Module (DM).
Apollo missions 1, 2, and 3 either did not fly (in the case of Apollo 1, which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee on 27 January 1967) or were cancelled (in the case of Apollo 2 and Apollo 3). Flown missions began with Apollo 4, the first test of the Saturn V rocket (9 November 1967). It carried no crew. Apollo 5 was a Saturn IB-launched LM test without a crew. Apollo 6 was the second Saturn V rocket test, again without astronauts on board.
All subsequent Apollo and Apollo follow-on missions save one (Skylab 1) were launched bearing three-man crews. Apollo 7 (11-22 October 1968), the first piloted Apollo, was a Saturn IB-launched CSM-only mission in low-Earth orbit. It accomplished the mission originally planned for Apollo 1. Apollo 8 (21-27 December 1968) was a Saturn V-launched lunar-orbital CSM-only mission motivated in part by rumors of a Soviet piloted circumlunar flight, Apollo 9 was a Saturn V-launched, Earth-orbital CSM/LM test, and Apollo 10 was a lunar-orbital dress rehearsal for Apollo 11 (16-24 July 1969), which carried out the first piloted lunar landing.
NASA gave alphanumeric designations to the Apollo missions; Apollo 8 was, for example, designated C-prime. Apollo 11 was the first and only G-class mission. The Apollo 11 moonwalk lasted a little over two hours and the crew remained on the Moon for only 22 hours. Though momentous (and the signal to most people that Apollo could end), Apollo 11 was really a full-up engineering test of the Apollo lunar mission system from Earth launch to Earth splashdown and post-mission quarantine. It paved the way for the H-class missions: Apollo 12 (H-1) which, after a pinpoint landing near the unmanned Surveyor III lander, included a 32-hour surface stay and two moonwalks; Apollo 13 (H-2), the "successful failure" (as NASA called it) which through adversity hinted at Apollo's untapped potential; and Apollo 14 (H-3), which included the longest lunar surface traverse on foot of the Apollo Program.
NASA originally planned for Apollo 15 to be H-4, but upgraded it to J-1 after NASA Administrator Thomas Paine, in an ill-advised attempt at horse-trading with the Nixon White House, cancelled one H mission and one J mission. J missions included LMs with longer landing hover times, lunar surface stays of about three days, improved space suits supporting up to four moonwalks, and the electric-powered LRV. Individual moonwalk duration was stretched to almost eight hours, in part because of suit improvements, but also because riding the LRV reduced astronaut metabolic rates; seated, they used less oxygen and cooling water than when on foot.
|Apollo 17 Lunar Module Challenger at Taurus-Littrow, December 1972. Image credit: NASA.
Six months after it abandoned the Moon, NASA launched Skylab 1, the first and only Skylab Orbital Workshop, unmanned atop the first and only two-stage Saturn V to fly. Three Saturn IB rockets each launched a CSM bearing three men to Skylab 1 for stays of up to 84 days. They lifted off from a makeshift raised platform ("the milkstool") on Saturn V Pad 39B. The last mission, Skylab 4, returned to Earth on 8 February 1974.
Eighteen months after Skylab, the last Saturn IB to fly launched the last CSM to fly into low-Earth orbit for a meet-up with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. The last CSM was named only "Apollo." The first and only DM, an airlock that enabled crews to move safely between the incompatible atmospheres of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, rode inside the tapered shroud that linked the bottom of the CSM to the top of the Saturn IB's S-IVB second stage.
Upon reaching Earth orbit, the ASTP Apollo spacecraft turned end for end, docked with the DM, detached it from the S-IVB, and began maneuvers that led to the first international docking in space. On 24 July 1975, six years to the day after Apollo 11 returned from the Moon, the ASTP Apollo CSM parachuted to a splashdown in the Pacific.
Though Apollo hardware remained, none of it reached space. A second Skylab workshop was placed on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Two Saturn Vs, one of which might have launched the second Skylab, and an assortment of Saturn IB rockets, CSMs, and LMs in various states of completion were parceled out to NASA centers and museums for display or were scrapped.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a NASA supporter (in 1958, as Senate Majority Leader, he had been instrumental in its creation), predicted Apollo's premature end. In 1967, Congress slashed to just $122 million the $450 million he requested to start the Apollo Applications Program (AAP). AAP — which would rapidly shrink to become the Skylab Program — had been intended to exploit Apollo hardware and operational experience to accomplish new lunar and Earth-orbital missions. In a somber address on the future of the Apollo Program to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center employees in December 1967, Johnson mused that, "the way the American people are, now that they have all this capability, instead of taking advantage of it, they'll probably just piss it all away."
What if Johnson had got it wrong? What if, somehow, Americans cared more about space exploration and so sought to wring from their $24-billion Apollo investment everything they could?
The Soviet Union for many years numbered its Soyuz missions consecutively regardless of changes in spacecraft purpose and design. If Apollo had been allowed to survive and thrive, perhaps the United States would have adopted a similar numbering policy, ultimately yielding impressively high alphanumeric mission designation numbers. What follows is an unabashed exercise in alternate history speculation (and, above all, shameless wishful thinking). It is based on actual NASA and contractor plans and is written as though the events it recounts actually occurred.
A word of caution: in order to simplify an already complex timeline, I have ignored the possibility of accidents. Spaceflight is risky; yet in this alternate history all missions occur exactly as planned. The likelihood that every mission described below would come off as planned, with no mishaps or outright disasters, would in fact be very small.
Because no one sought to kill Apollo, NASA boss Paine felt no urge to trade away two Apollo missions in the vain hope that Nixon would support his plans for a large Earth-orbital space station. This meant that Apollo 15 remained H-4. The first J mission (J-1) was Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 was J-2.
Apollo Earth-orbital space station flights began in late 1971. Apollo 18 was the unmanned launch of the first two-stage Saturn V bearing a temporary Earth-orbiting space station. In keeping with NASA's old penchant for program names from Greek and Roman mythology, the station was dubbed Olympus 1. The Olympus name had a heritage in the world of space station planning going back to the early 1960s.
Within days, Apollo 19, the first K-class Earth-orbital CSM, lifted off on a Saturn IB from Launch Complex 34 bound for Olympus 1 with three astronauts on board. K-class CSMs included batteries in place of fuel cells, an electricity umbilical for linking to the Olympus station power system, a retractable main engine bell to make more room in the S-IVB shroud, extra storage compartments in the Command Module (CM) capsule, an option to install up to two extra crew couches, a pair of small steerable dish antennas in place of lunar Apollo's large four-dish system, and smaller main-engine propellant tanks. It also included modifications that enabled it to remain semi-dormant attached to an Olympus station for up to six months (for example, heaters to prevent fluids from freezing in its tanks and propellant lines).
Apollo 19 remained docked to Olympus 1's axial ("front") docking port while its crew worked on board the station for 28 days – twice as long as any U.S. space mission before it. They returned to Earth on Christmas Eve 1971. The Apollo 20 (K-2) crew, launched on 23 January 1972, subsequently demolished Apollo 19's new record by living on board Olympus 1 for 56 days.
Apollo 21 (I-1), a Saturn V-launched mission to lunar polar orbit, marked the start of a new phase of Apollo lunar exploration. Two astronauts orbited the Moon for 28 days in a CSM with an attached Lunar Observation Module (LOM) in place of an LM. From mid-March to mid-April 1972, the astronauts charted the Moon's surface in great detail to enable scientists and engineers to select future Apollo landing sites and traverse routes.
Apollo 22 (K-3), launched in June 1972, delivered a three-man crew to Olympus 1 for a 112-day stay, doubling Apollo 20's stay-time. Ninety days into their mission, the two-man Apollo 23 (K-4) CSM docked at Olympus 1's single radial ("side") docking port for 10 days. One of the Apollo 23 astronauts was a medical doctor; he conducted health evaluations of the Apollo 22 astronauts. If any member of the Apollo 22 crew had been found to be unhealthy, then all would have returned to Earth in either their own CSM or with the Apollo 23 crew in its CSM, which included three spare couches (the empty Science Pilot couch and two couches located against the Apollo 23 CM’s aft bulkhead).
As it turned out, the Apollo 22 astronauts were in good shape and high spirits, so NASA authorized continuation of their mission to its full planned duration. Before returning to Earth, the Apollo 22 crew used their CSM's main engine to boost Olympus 1 to a higher orbit, postponing its reentry by up to 10 years.
NASA referred to the Apollo 22 astronauts as the third Olympus 1 resident crew and the Apollo 23 astronauts as the first Olympus 1 visitor crew. The full alphanumeric designations for Apollos 22 and 23 were O-1/K-3/R-3 and O-1/K-4/V-1, respectively. Most people did not pay attention to those designations, however, being satisfied to call the missions by their Apollo numbers.
NASA ordered 15 Saturn V rockets for the Apollo Program. In 1968, NASA Deputy Administrator for Manned Space Flight George Mueller asked NASA Administrator James Webb for permission to order more Saturn V rockets for AAP. With budgets for post-Apollo space programs already under fierce attack, Webb rejected Mueller’s request.
In our alternate timeline, Webb's answer was different. Apollo 24 (J-3) (October 1972) used the last Saturn V of the original Apollo buy. This fact aroused only passing interest, however, since in our alternate timeline no one seriously considered halting the Saturn V assembly lines. Apollo 25 (J-4) launched atop the first new-buy Saturn V, the 16th Saturn V to be built.
Two months after the Apollo 24 LM ascent stage lifted off from the lunar surface, the Apollo 25 LM landed about a kilometer away from the derelict Apollo 24 LM descent stage. The Apollo LM descent engine kicked up potentially damaging dust during landing, so the Apollo 25 astronauts inspected Apollo 24's descent stage, LRV, and ALSEP experiments to determine whether a one-kilometer landing separation distance was adequate.
The Apollo 25 crew carried out other technology experiments. They deployed an experimental solar array designed to withstand the cold of the two-week lunar night and a small battery-driven remote-controlled rover. Controllers on Earth drove the small rover several hundred meters in preparation for longer remote-controlled traverses to come.
Apollo 26 (O-2) (January 1973) was the Saturn V launch of the Olympus 2 space station. It lifted off from Pad 39C, a new Complex 39 launch pad north of the existing 39A and 39B pads at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. 39C was designed for both Saturn V and Saturn IB launches, putting NASA on track to retiring the Complex 34 Saturn IB pad located south of Kennedy Space Center, within the boundaries of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Soon after Olympus 2 reached orbit, the last Saturn IB to use Complex 34 launched Apollo 27 (O-2/K-5/R-1). Its epic mission: to stretch the world spaceflight endurance record to 224 days. Over the course of the Apollo 27 mission, NASA launched four unmanned Saturn IB rockets with Centaur upper stages. Though not given Apollo numbers, the flights are often referred to unofficially as Apollo GEO A, Apollo GEO B, Apollo GEO C, and Apollo GEO D. Two lifted off from Pad 39C and two from newly upgraded Pad 39A.
Each boosted into geostationary orbit one Radio/TV Relay Satellite (RTRS); three operational satellites and a spare. Olympus 2 thus became the first space station capable of uninterrupted voice, data, and TV contact with Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and Payload Control at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The Saturn IB-launched Apollo 28 CSM lifted off from Pad 39C 45 days into the Apollo 27 crew's stint on board Olympus 2. The six-day, three-person mission, designated O-2/K-6/V-1, included the first female U.S. astronaut. Apollo 29 (O-2/K-7/V-2), another six-day, three-person mission, reached Olympus 2 110 days into the Apollo 27 mission. It included the first non-American to fly on a U.S. spacecraft.
Apollo 30 (O-2/K-8/V-3), a 10-day, two-person mission nearly identical to Apollo 23, reached Olympus 2 190 days into the Apollo 27 mission. The Apollo 27 astronauts proved to be in good health, so NASA authorized them to continue their mission to its full planned duration. The Apollo 30 crew returned to Earth in Apollo 27's CSM, leaving behind their fresh CSM for the long-duration astronauts. The Apollo 27 crew used the Apollo 30 CSM's main engine to boost Olympus 2 to a higher orbit with an estimated lifetime of more than a decade.
Just before the Apollo 27 crew ended their record-setting stay in space in July 1973 — a record that would hold for more than a decade — the unmanned Apollo 31 Saturn V launched a pair of modified RTRS satellites (one operational and one spare) into a loose orbit around the quasi-stable Earth-Moon L2 point, 33,000 miles beyond the Moon. When NASA launched Apollo 34 (J-5) to the Moon's Farside hemisphere, out of sight of Earth, the satellites provided continuous radio, data, and TV communication with both the CSM while it orbited over the Farside hemisphere and the LM parked on the Farside surface.
The Apollo 32 (O-3) Saturn V launched Olympus 3 — intended to be the first "long-life" space station — from Pad 39A (December 1973). Olympus 3 included three equally spaced radial docking ports, expanded solar arrays, an uprated life support system, a "greenhouse" plant growth chamber, improved internal lighting, an observation cupola, and guest living quarters.
The next month, the three-man Apollo 33 (O-3/K-9/R-1) crew lifted off from Pad 39C to begin a 180-stay on board Olympus 3. Starting with Apollo 33, 180 days became the standard duration for Olympus station missions. The Apollo 27 crew had remained on board Olympus 2 for 224 days so that NASA could have in place a "cushion" of biomedical knowledge in the event that a 180-day mission had to be extended; for example, if a resident crew's CSM proved faulty when time came to return to Earth and a rescue mission had to be mounted.
Apollo 34 (J-5) (February 1974) was, as indicated above, the first piloted mission to the Moon's hidden Farside. The last of the J-class lunar landing missions, its crew included the first woman on the Moon.
Olympus 3 could support visiting crews for longer periods, permitting Apollo 35 (O-3/K-10/V-1) to be the first three-person, 10-day visitor mission. It delivered the first Cargo Carrier (CC-1) to Olympus 3 60 days into the Apollo 33 mission. Drum-shaped CC-1 rode to orbit inside the segmented shroud between the top of the Saturn IB's S-IVB second stage and the bottom of the Apollo 35 CSM's engine bell.
After S-IVB shutdown, the Apollo 35 crew separated their CSM from the shroud, which peeled back in four parts and separated from the stage. They then turned their CSM end-for-end to dock with CC-1's "outboard" docking port and detached the carrier from the S-IVB.
|Image credit: NASA/David S. F. Portree.
Apollo 36 (O-3/K-11/V-2) was another 10-day, three-person visitor mission to Olympus 3. Its crew included an African-American mission Commander who had flown first as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 24. The Apollo 36 CSM docked with CC-1's outboard port 120 days into Apollo 33. When time came to return to Earth, they undocked CC-1's inboard port from Olympus 3. Following their deorbit burn, they undocked their CSM from CC-1's outboard port and performed a small separation maneuver. CC-1, packed with trash, burned up in Earth's atmosphere, and the Apollo 36 CM capsule splashed down in the Pacific.
The Apollo 33 resident crew undocked from Olympus 3 and returned to Earth, and two weeks later the Apollo 37 (O-3/K-12/R-2) CSM arrived with Olympus 3's second resident crew and, on its nose, a hefty telescope module. The crew gingerly docked the telescope module to the radial port on the side of Olympus 3 opposite the radial port used for Cargo Carriers, then undocked their CSM from the telescope module's outboard port and redocked with Olympus 3's axial port. Olympus 3 thus became the world's first multi-modular space station.
Attention then shifted back to the lunar track of the ongoing Apollo Program. Apollo 38 (L-1A) (August 1974) saw an unmanned uprated Saturn V-B rocket launch directly to the lunar surface an LM-derived Lunar Cargo Carrier (LCC-1) bearing a nuclear-powered Dual-Mode Lunar Rover (DMLR). The piloted Apollo 40 (L-1B) mission saw the first Augmented CSM (ACSM) and the first Augmented Lunar Module (ALM) launched to lunar orbit on a Saturn V-B. The Apollo 40 ACSM remained in continuous contact with Earth over the Moon's Farside hemisphere through the RTRS satellites at Earth-moon L2.
The ALM descended to a landing within about a kilometer of LCC-1. The astronauts deployed the DMLR and drove it on five traverses during their one-week stay on the Moon. They then reconfigured it for Earth-guided operation. After the DMLR retreated to a safe distance under Earth control, the Apollo 40 ALM ascent stage ignited to return the crew to the orbiting ACSM and, subsequently, to Earth.
In October 1974, a month after the Apollo 40 astronauts left the Moon, DMLR began a 500-kilometer overland trek to the next planned Apollo landing site. As it moved slowly over the rugged surface, it imaged its surroundings, took magnetometer readings, and occasionally stopped to collect an intriguing rock or scoop of dirt. A pair of spotlights permitted limited lunar night-time driving. Assuming that the DMLR reaches its goal, the next ALM crew, set to land next to a pre-landed LCC in July 1976, will retrieve its samples for return to Earth, reconfigure it for astronaut driving, use it to explore their landing site, and then reconfigure it again for Earth-guided operation.
|Image credit: NASA.
The Apollo 41 (O-3/K-14/R-3) CSM docked with the third Olympus 3 radial port bearing the station's third resident crew in early January 1975. The start of their mission overlapped the end of the Apollo 37 resident crew's 180-day stay in space. The handover marked the start of Olympus 3's continuous occupation, which lasted until the station was safely deorbited in July 1979.
Apollo 42 (O-3/K-15/V-4), another 10-day visitor mission to Olympus 3, docked at the CC-2 outboard port in March 1975 and, when they returned to Earth, deorbited CC-2 over the Pacific Ocean. Apollo 43 (O-3/K-16/R-4) in June 1975, the second 180-day mission resident crew of 1975, delivered CC-3. A week after the Apollo 43 crew arrived, Apollo 41 undocked and returned to Earth. The Apollo 43 crew undocked from CC-3 and redocked at the radial port Apollo 41 had vacated during July.
Apollo 44 (0-3/K-17/V-5) docked with Olympus 3 on 19 December 1975. On their way to Olympus 3, they performed a rendezvous with Olympus 1 to assess its condition. Apollo 43's return to Earth on 31 December 1975 rounded out NASA's 1975 piloted spaceflight launch schedule.
On our alternate timeline, NASA's Apollo-based piloted space program is hitting its stride. Earth-orbital operations are becoming routine; lunar-surface operations are continuing to evolve and advance.
On our own timeline, Apollo has drawn to its ill-considered close. Apollo would attract general public notice twice before the first Space Shuttle flight in April 1981: in September 1977, when funding cuts compelled NASA to shut off the science instruments the six Apollo lunar landing crews left behind on the Moon; and in July 1979, when Skylab reentered Earth's atmosphere less than a week ahead of Apollo 11's 10th anniversary, pelting Australia with debris.
A Bridge from Skylab to Station/Shuttle: Interim Space Station Program (1971)
Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Two: Naming Names
Jimmy Carter's Space Shuttle
Space Station Resupply: The 1963 Plan to Turn the Apollo Spacecraft into a Space Freighter