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By 2001 we were supposed to have gigantic bases on orbit, the Moon and Mars. After the moon landing the United States dropped all major plans for going beyond Low Earth Orbit. But what if another country did? What if the Soviet's failures with the N1 rocket never occurred and they ventured boldly out into the Cosmos? This is a story of a different Space Race!
Point of Divergence
1961: A different design of the N-1 was designed and found more practical.
. The Soviet Union had already done significant effort on nuclear rockets (both ion and thermal) and had also done work on Habitat modules for the Salyut Space Stations. Their engineers quickly threw together a small Mars mission based on existing hardware and launch vehicles. The N-1 rocket would be their rocket to Mars as the Saturn V was to the Moon.
The Soviet Union was shocked by the American success at landing on the Moon in 1969. However, Soviet scientists saw it as little significance as the US was in the process of ending the program by the 1970s anyway. They had major success with the N-1 and were ready for a manned Interplanetary flights.
1977: Interplanetary missions to Mars and Venus are flown. 1 N-1 Rockets were used to assemble it on Orbit along with Nuclear Ion engines to increase efficiency and reduce fuel needed. Alexi Leonov would be hailed as a hero after he became the first human to set foot on Mars on June 15th. Von Braun, the visionary who had first created space capable rockets, watched the grainy black and white TV images as the first footprint and flag were planted on Mars. Von Braun died the following day from pancreatic cancer, his dream, vision and lifes finally accomplished.
Small three crew landing sorties would continue until 1989 when the rocket began sending the first long duration missions to the Moon and Mars.
United States responseThe United States was shocked by the Soviet interplanetary missions. NASA was far behind the Soviet Union as the US did not have rockets as powerful as the N-1 at the time which often resulted in complex mission designs of eight launches for an interplanetary mission. NASA responded by renewing plans for a wheel-shaped space station. In 1981 the first Artificial gravity space station was launched. Home to over 21 people this station provided an advanced Laboratory and Home for conducting Scientific experiments. Transport to it was by a small one pilot X-15 launched and later Dynasoar by Navaho missiles.
In the late 1980s with the Shuttle Derived Heavy lift Vehicles operating Ronald Reagan's Star Wars defense program was scaled up to include a Mass accelerator on the Moon capable of launching lunar rocks as high speed projectiles to possible enemy targets. This was never used, however, as the Speech given by Alexi Leonov on Mars inspired the world to better relations with races, genders and nations.