Here we go again. But better.
Yes, it’s a cliché. But not this time.
JFK’s injuries forced early retirement in deference to LBJ. But JFK lived to see humans walk on the Moon and safely return home. He lived to witness the fulfillment of his own famed “Before This Decade Is Out”, man-on-the-moon mandate.
Nixon was elected President in 1968.
One of the first things on Nixon’s desk: a plan submitted by NASA for a radically-altered next-step in U.S. piloted space flight. The plan would turn from humans reaching other bodies in the solar system. Instead, it would focus on near-earth-orbit (NEO). Much valuable science could be learned in a large NEO vehicle. And the crew of a large NEO vehicle could do much valuable utility: such as launching– and, more remarkably, capturing, repairing, and re-launching– satellites.
And taxpayer money would be spared. This NEO vehicle would be a new thing under the sun (pun intended): reusable. One vehicle could fly many missions for years. The plan envisions an enormous fuselage with a snub-nose and delta wings: a hybrid space-plane. Because of its re-usability, it would be a “space shuttle”.
But in this proposed-NEO wilderness, there’s a lone voice crying out in protest: that of JFK. He continues to speak out in support of piloted interplanetary travel. And listening to The-President-Who-Cheated-Death-Twice (remember PT-109) is an enthusiastic, large public audience (much to the private chagrin of Nixon).
It seems JFK’s man-on-the-moon mandate was more than Cold-War geopolitics. It seems his mandate was more than showing the world, democratic republics achieve more than socialist societies (Read, “USSR”). The mandate was more than enticing the USSR to follow NASA, but veering off into national bankruptcy in the attempt. It seems JFK has a sincere romance with the idea of humans flying to and from the planets.
And because of JFK’s continued fame and popularity, his visionary romance (again, to Nixon’s private chagrin) is attractive.
Nixon, naturally, is keen for a second term. To gain that second term, to satisfy the electorate spellbound with JFK’s vision, Nixon publicly issues (while he privately grumbles) an apparently-enthusiastic call for the nation to once-again unite in support of piloted space exploration: this time, a near-term piloted mission to and from Mars.
Privately, Nixon denies NASA’s “shuttle”. Publicly, he supports relatively-economical expansion of the fledgling “Skylab” space-station operation in support of the Mars mission.
The journey begins and spreads above and around the entire globe.
At NASA headquarters, the halls echo with the lament, “How can we ever do this on-time with existing technology?” The last of the “Moonwalkers” still on duty– perhaps candidates for the Mars crew– are publicly respected but privately tolerated.
The Moonwalkers consider the Mars dream.
In the night skies over Cambodia is a U.S. Air Force pilot. His orders: sustained attacks on North Vietnamese forces, in Cambodia, operating the “Ho-Chi-Minh Trail”. But his missions are illegal and secret. Yet he anticipates inevitable public disclosure. And he wonders– at best– how his career ever could survive that.
In the Nevada desert, a bubbling young engineer experiments toward the construction of an ideal inter-planetary flight-power source: a rocket safely-powered by a nuclear reactor.
His accomplished post-graduate rockhound girlfriend begins to wonder if the future is not in the stone beneath her feet, but in the sky above.
In the USSR, a veteran, famed cosmonaut is detached to NASA to support (spy-upon?) the Mars effort.
At a NASA operational center works a scientist who survived the brutal Nazi slave factory that produced rockets bombarding Britain late in World War II. Only he knows: he works again for the same German engineers for whom he once slaved. Further, he might have something to contribute to the Mars mission. But his involvement is unlikely because of his modest career station.
Space vehicle contractors and sub-contractors– some experienced, some surprising upstarts– trumpet old and new, familiar and strange, concepts as they fiercely compete for the bids to build the Mars vehicles.