The Space Race held as the hottest direct contest between the USA and the USSR in the Cold War. After Russia had won the first two legs with the first artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957 and the first man in space Yuri Gagarin in 1961, America had finally gotten ahead with their 1968 flyby of the Moon. Russian leadership had begun to doubt their Luna program with its unmanned probes, but the political climate changed completely as tragedy struck over Florida.
Just after launch, the Apollo 11 exploded, instantly killing its crew of Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. While none can be certain of the cause of the disaster, many theories have arisen after much of the wreckage was salvaged. Most agree that it was a hydrogen “hiccup”, a less dense bubble that caused imbalance in the rocket, jarring it viciously and tearing the craft apart until the explosives fell out of control.
While the United States mourned, the Soviets threw their resources into making up lost time. Automated docking of capsules had already been successful in 1968, and the manned Soyuz 4 and 5 missions had tested successfully the human elements involved. The Soviets planned to launch its cosmonaut to the surface of the Moon by September. Bad luck and mechanical problems slowed the launch until mid-October.
Meanwhile, the United States refused to sit idly. While many began to call for an end to the apparently suicidal space program and memories of Apollo 1’s fire still in the public mind, NASA had already secured its funding for the year and needed a success to guarantee that the program would not be shelved altogether. Apollo 12 would be their final chance. Hearing word of the Russian attempt, astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr, Richard Gordon, Jr, and Alan Bean would be put ahead of their November launch schedule to match the Russian deadline.
The rockets launched within hours of one another, and scientists on both ends worked frantically to streamline the process of travel in action, but mission clocks were ticking without much room to spare. On October 16, 1969, Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov touched down on the surface of the Moon. Only an hour later, Conrad and Bean would follow. Despite the potential dangers, NASA had adjusted the flight path to put them down near Leonov’s capsule.
Conrad would venture out of the American module and be followed out fifteen minutes later by Bean, after which Leonov would greet them having “walked” (bounced in the low gravity) from his half-mile distant capsule. His decision had been applauded and rejected by Russian mission control, but the effect was incredible upon public sentiment. The image of a cosmonaut and an astronaut shaking hands on the surface of the moon would be recorded by probe cameras and transmitted to televisions and newspapers the world over.
President Nixon (who also made mention of the success of President Kennedy’s promise to arrive on the moon before the end of the decade) would capitalize on the image and, in 1971, meet with Nikolai Podgorny of the Soviet Union in Moscow. The historic meeting would bring new balance to the Cold War, and gradually disarmament would begin. Without the terrors of foreign powers and even the invasion of Czechoslovakia recalled, the Russian people would have enough of their Stalinist past and recreate their government with the 1977 Constitution returning much of the power into the hands of people. While still economically planned, democracy grew in Russia. Meanwhile, trade with the USSR began to seduce the US into greater socialism, such as Carter’s reversal of Nixon’s privatized health insurance into a public, universal system.
Now something as half-breeds of one another, the two head of the world continue to dance around one another for power. Technology has torn down walls (much like the fall of Berlin’s wall in 1989), while the growth of populations in developing countries such as China and India look to change the world balance altogether.
In reality, Apollo 11 launched successfully and achieved orbit 12 minutes after takeoff. Neil Armstrong would be the first human to walk the moon’s surface, and their mission would plant an American flag, showing America’s success. Beaten, the Soviet space program would turn to orbital habitation and soon install Salyut 1, the first space station in 1971. The USSR would eventually fall in 1992, while the USA would continue with capitalism into the turbulent economic decades of 2000 and 2010.