Counterfactual history (also virtual history) is a form of historiography that attempts to answer the What if? questions that arise from counterfactual conditions.  As a method of intellectual enquiry, counterfactual history explores history and historical incidents by extrapolating a timeline in which key historical events either did not occur or had an outcome different from the actual historical outcome.  As a literary genre, we find counterfactual history in two sub-genres, alternative history, and speculative fiction.

In 1952, the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed a comprehensive series of global geophysical activities to span the 18-month period from July 1957 to December 1958.  This scientific program was to be known as the International Geophysical Year, IGY.  The International Geophysical Year was intended to allow scientists from around the world to take part in a series of coordinated observations of various geophysical phenomena.  Simply said, the purpose of the IGY was to study the planet earth.

The United States and the former Soviet Union both announced plans to place an instrumented satellite into earth orbit.  This news of was received without much public fanfare.  In fact, the construction and opening of Disneyland in Anaheim California, received far more press than either of these announcements.

The United States had two separate rockets programs at the time: the army’s Jupiter program, which was the brainchild of the former German rocket scientist, Dr. Werner Van Braun, and the Vanguard program under the auspices of the United States Navy’s Research Laboratory, the NRL.

Von Braun’s Jupiter rocket was really a missile and could have placed a small satellite in low earth orbit; but then President Eisenhower wanted to play down the military aspect of space exploration.

With the Jupiter effectively eliminated from putting a satellite into orbit, America pinned its hope on the Navy’s Vanguard rocket.  But on October 4th, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik and the world would never look at the skies the same way again.

When then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was told about the achievement, he nodded politely to the officer who brought him the news and went to sleep, after all, both the Soviets and Americans had announced they were going to place satellites into earth orbit so what was the big deal?  Even the official communist party newspaper, Pravda, only wrote a short blurb at the bottom of page one—in essence, no one thought Sputnik was a major news event; that is until the American press got hold of the story.

The American media immediately announced that there was a “missile gap” and began excoriating NASA’s precursor the NACA for falling behind the Russians.  The resulting public outcry lit a fire in Washington and after another failure of the Vanguard the White House authorized the use of the Army’s Jupiter C to put “Explorer I” into orbit to answer the Russians.

Several years later in April of 1961 Alan Sheperd was preparing to be the first man into space.  But a group of experts raised safety concerns because of several unanticipated physiological reactions by a chimpanzee during a preparatory flight and had the first manned space flight put on hold—Sheperd and NASA were furious—and the flames of controversy were fanned by the media.  Americans were told that black-outs, blindness and worse would accompany weightlessness and further testing with live animals was imperative before putting a man in space.

But on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union disabused the press of their notions by putting Yuri Gagarin into earth orbit and “the space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union began in earnest.

By creating the “missile gap” and “the space race” the press produced a sense of urgency in the American public’s mind about space.  So impressed was young President John F. Kennedy by America’s reaction to the news stories, that shortly after the safe return of astronaut Alan Sheperd on May 5th, 1961, he issued a challenge to the nation when he said, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

President Kennedy made this statement after ONE sub-orbital flight and a full nine months before NASA’s first orbital space mission!  The expertise to send a man to the moon and back did not exist; in fact, the technology to build a rocket capable lifting a huge payload into earth orbit and the mission plan to land on, then lift off from the moon, rendezvous with another craft in space and finally to return to the earth in a command module hadn’t even been conceived of when President Kennedy issued his challenge.

It’s been conjectured that had Vanguard beaten Sputnik or if Alan Shepard had preceded Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong may not have walked on the Moon in July of 1969 or maybe not even at all because the American public may have been bored with the details.  The attitude could well have been, “Hey, we won; we were first, now it’s over.”