Yuri Gagarin's historic flight was just one of many Soviet victories in the Space Race, but the United States still won the big victory when they landed on the Moon. But what if the Russians had gotten there first?
That's the question explored by Piers Bizony, co-writer of the Gagarin biography Starman, as well as space historian Dr. Christopher Riley. In an interview with BBC News, Bizony and Riley imagine how things might be different is the Soviet Union had made it to the Moon before the United States - itself an unlikely but not entirely impossible eventuality. The key factor here might be the differing motivations of the Soviet and American space programs, as Bizony explains:
"The Russians were in the business of conquering space. The Americans felt they were in a race and the nature of a race is that once you think you've won it you tend to stop running."
So, whereas for the US reaching the Moon was an end in and of itself - as evidenced by the fact that, after six successful Moon landings between 1969 and 1972, we've never even so much as left low-Earth orbit since - the Soviet Union might well have had grander plans in mind. As a totalitarian regime, the USSR would not have had to contend with growing apathy towards lunar flights in the same way NASA did, allowing them to pour far more resources into continued exploration of the Moon if they so chose.
Under those circumstances, the US would have had little choice but to go to the Moon as well, and that means the Space Race would have kept right on going. Dr. Riley thinks Moon bases might have been a legitimate possibility if both the US and the Soviet Union remained committed to the Space Race after the first lunar landing. But even that might have paled in comparison to the full American response to a Soviet Moon landing.
Dr. Riley explains that a mission to Mars would have been the only logical response:
"They certainly had it in their minds and on their drawing boards and there were designs of methods to get to Mars that might have been put into action in response to a Soviet landing on the Moon...The history that followed in the decades afterwards would have been completely different."
Mars was seen as a legitimate goal for the US space program in the late 1960s, at least by politicians. In 1969, Vice President Spiro Agnew predicted NASA would have Americans on Mars by 1980, which didn't seem entirely ridiculous considering the incredible strides made over the previous decade. Of course, whatever America's technological capabilities - and it's hard to judge whether the Apollo program and other contemporary engineering efforts could really have gotten us to Mars - they were nothing against the growing tide of public disinterest.
For more on why the US ultimately overtook the Soviets and declared victory in the Space Race, check out BBC News.
Image via CNET News.