After the moon, mars… What if John F. Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and developed the space programme?
Stephen Baxter applied to become an astronaut in 1991. He didn’t make it, but achieved the next best thing by becoming a science fiction writer, and his novels and short stories have been published and won awards around the world. His science background is in maths and engineering. He is married and lives in Buckinghamshire.
This longing is very obvious in 'Voyage'. Baxter decides to take a crucial point in the history of the U.S. space program - Kennedy's call to go to the moon and Mars. Kennedy here survives the assassination attempt and goes on proclaiming manned space missions. At the end of the sixties, Nixon decides to expand the manned missions to go to Mars as well...
A fever possesses NASA. Almost everything goes to Ares - the name for the Mars mission. And almost a generation later, in the mid-eighties, 'man' (i.e. woman) stands on Mars... Ohhh yes, it would have been so nice.
The Ares mission to Mars has a expensive price ticket. A lot of other things have to be cancelled, there is simply not enough money for them in the NASA budget. So, there are never more then just three Apollo missions; there is no space shuttle. Many other missions are cut down: no Magellan to Venus, no Voyagers 1 & 2 to the gas giants. We don't know anything about them what we do know in our own universe.
Are we better off in this alternate universe? Maybe not for non-Martian planetary scientists. But by going to Mars so soon, NASA and at least the U.S. commit themselves to the red planet - and maybe other nations will get Mars fever as well, and start lowering their weapon budgets. I suppose NASA in the 'Voyage' universe will get a huge increase in their post-Ares budget.
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Baxter also initially looks to have bitten off more than he can chew with the books structure, as the novel follows every step of an 18-year long NASA program there is a huge unwieldy cast of characters. Amazingly though, after a fairly drab first couple of hundred pages, Baxter starts pulling all his threads together, and the novel develops into a real page-turner. The actual flight and landing on Mars only take up a small part of this novel, as for the most part Baxter concentrates on the struggles to get the mission off the ground. There are moments of high drama as one of the testing crews meets with a fatal accident whilst testing an experimental nuclear rocket in orbit, and compelling moments of human drama, such as when we see small time contractor JK Lee ground up by the NASA machine as he overworks himself into virtual psychosis.
The political manoeuvrings that NASA goes through to ensure the flight to Mars are intriguing, and Baxter is brave enough to have even his lead astronaut question the real value of putting a man on Mars whilst people on Earth die from starvation.
Admittedly, due to it's realistic basis, Voyage lacks the scope of Baxter's previous science fiction with all it's aliens, time travel and exotic ideas, but for a change of pace to a more serious novel Voyage is surprisingly compelling stuff, and the final scenes on Mars more than fulfil the promise of the journey.
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