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Nader Elhefnawy

In Warren Ellis's graphic novel Ministry of Space, a ruthless Royal Air Force officer uses captured German rocket scientists and Holocaust gold to launch a British space program at the end of World War II. Britain puts the first man in space in 1949, and not long after, has solar power stations in orbit, moon bases and Martian colonies, salvaging Britain's position as a great power, and turning the British empire into the world's first space empire.

Ellis's story may not be terribly plausible. It is hard to picture any amount of Nazi loot compensating for Britain's economic exhaustion in the 1940s, or for its industrial inferiority to the United States and the Soviet Union. Additionally, the challenge of translating its early successes into a lasting lead in the face of such powerful competitors, or developing such an extensive program in space without technologies that we have yet to develop in our own timeline, may well have been insurmountable.

Nonetheless, as Ellis himself acknowledges, there was a heavy element of pre-war fantasy in it, and it should be remembered that he was writing alternate history, and not a counterfactual, which goes by very different rules. (For a good summation of these, see the first chapter of Unmaking the West: 'What-If?' Scenarios That Rewrite World History, written by Philip E. Tetlock and Geoffrey Parker.) Ellis's book, as his fans might expect, is quite a compelling drama about a fascinating "what if?" that is as well thought out as its premise allows, and beautifully illustrated to boot, all in all quite deserving of the 2005 Sidewise Award (short form) that it picked up.

It is also worth mentioning because humanity's history in space has received so little attention from the writers of counterfactuals, even though the course of space development has defied a great many expectations--or more precisely, fallen short of them. The expectations most commonly discussed now were that more rather than less would have been accomplished by this point, that the asteroids might have been mined, that we might be enjoying cheap, clean, renewable energy from solar energy satellites orbiting above us, that overcrowded Earth might have been sending immigrants to the good life in the O'Neill cylinders passing through the skies overhead.

One can ask "What if the United States did not put a man on the moon in 1969?" but the sad answer might be that we would hardly know the difference, simply because putting twelve men on the lunar surface was all we did before shutting down the program. Even the celebrated technological spin-offs could well have come from other space initiatives, or entirely separate technological efforts (which may in fact have led to them more directly, as is often pointed out by critics of big-budget research and development of this kind).

Accordingly, it may be more worthwhile to ask "What if the United States did not abandon the moon in 1972?" For that matter, what if America did not drag its feet on rocketry in the late 1940s and early 1950s (as it did because of the military's early dismissal of ballistic missiles)? What if it did not scale down its efforts after the mid-1960s--as indeed, Stephen Baxter wonders in his own Sidewise Award-winner, 1996's Voyage (in which the point of divergence is President John F. Kennedy's surviving the assassination attempt on him in Dallas in 1963). On the darker side, one might ask, what if the United States and the Soviet Union did not succeed in reaching an agreement to keep nuclear weapons out of orbit, the one formalized in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty? Such questions are worth asking not only because of their inherent interest, but as a way of reflecting on our half-century old experience in space--as well as the future of those efforts, the course of which remains so undetermined.


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