Could Orion Nuke Ships have conquered the Solar System?

On the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing, I can’t help but think – what if the advanced USAF and US Navy advanced spaceflight projects of the 1960s hadn’t been cancelled by JFK’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara?

See, McNamara believed that the Cold War Arms Race was the US’ fault — that American technological prowess and advances made the Soviets fearful of their security, and drove them to keep up. So if US tech advances slowed, and the USSR achieved technological parity with the US, then there’s be nothing for them to fear, and we could achieve a lasting stable peMOLace with them. And one of the areas with the most dramatic advances was aerospace. McNamara shut down the X-20 Dynasoar, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory and many other projects – including the Orion nuclear pulse ship.

So in what alternate world could Orion Nuke Ships have conquered the Solar System?

Clearly, it couldn’t have happened if JFK had won the 1960 election. However, it could have happened under a Nixon presidency. So how do we get there?

The 1960 election was a close race, so close it was essentially decided by the nation’s first live televised presidential debate. The Nixon and Kennedy campaigns had agreed on the format, and also agreed to do the debate “aux naturelle” — that is, with no make-up on either candidate.

The Kennedy campaign took the debate seriously. They kept JFK in a hotel for several days drilling him on TV technique and practicing his lines and debate style. The Nixon campaign took the debate less seriously, as just one more check box to do. Nixon spent the day of the debate on the campaign trail, keeping to a grueling meeting and event schedule –while recovering from a cold.

The Kennedy campaign spruced up JFK — they made sure he wore the right clothes, they made sure every hair was in place and powder on his face to cut down on glare from the studio lights. Not quite keeping to the “no make-up” agreement. JFK looked rested, healthy and confident to the TV audience. In contrast, Nixon showed up after a long campaign day, in a rumpled suit and heavy 5 o’clock shadow. He looked tired and unkempt, the hot TV studio lights making him sweat.

After the debate, those polled who had listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won the debate — that he seemed more authoritative, that he was in more command of policies and the issues. In contrast, those who watched the TV debate thought JFK had won — that he seemed youthful, trustworthy, and vigorous compared to Nixon.

But what if — what if Nixon’s campaign manager had pulled him from his heavy schedule that day, convincing him to rest and recover from his cold before the event? Nixon then would have not been as telegenic as the younger JFK, but the gap would not have been so apparent. Clean, rested, and in command of policy issues Nixon could have won the debate, and been elected president in 1960.

So that’s the kicking off point for my Orion storyline – we reverse the order of the presidencies: Richard M Nixon wins the 1960, and is reelected in 1964. Henry Cabot Lodge loses to John F Kennedy in 1968, Kennedy promises to build  a moon base in his first term.p01xs9fk

What big things also change??

  1. Nixon call Kruschev’s bluff on the Berlin Wall, knocks it down as being built.  So the Soviets pull back and instead build the wall around Berlin and the A-bahn, creating a larger DMZ zone anyways
  2. Nixon supports Bay of Pigs and topples Castro, which pulled the US into a guerilla war in Cuba.
  3. There is no Cuba Missile Crisis.
  4. Nixon continued Ike involvement in Vietnam, escalates but weak US involvement given Cuban focus.
  5. Nixon space speech claims US will land a man on the Moon by 1970
  6. In 1968 Kennedy is elected to end war in Vietnam
  7. August 1969 speech commits the US to have a permanent base on the Moon within his first term in office
  8. 1970 US withdrawal from Vietnam, Cuba largely pacified.


US Space Programs during the 1960s

  1. USAF remains in top spending/authority for manned space
  2. NASA cooperates more on R&D and science missions
    1. Orion nuclear spacecraft continues to testing, flight in 1964 problematic and program shut down. Resources shifted to NERVA spacecraft.
  3. USAF programs continue
    1. X-20A test flights start in 1964, goes operational in 1966 as the S-20
    2. Manned Orbiting Laboratory launched in 1965
    3. USAF plans to go to the Moon start with Lunar Reconnaissance probe missions in 1963
    4. USAF starts Lunar Manned Flight (LUMEN) ops in 1966, series of unmanned flights with animal test subject and automated spacecraft. plans to send manned lunar orbiter around the Moon and back in August 1969
    5. Soviet Orion moon shot on July 20, 1969 steals the world’s attention


Soviet Space Programs in the 1960s

  1. Spurred on by US actions the USSR embarks on the MiG 105 Spiral (Raketoplane) program, launches in 1966
  2. Almaz space station launches in 1967
  3. Increasing sophistication of US space programs worries Politburo, set backs in Cuba and embroilment in Vietnam cast doubt on the Soviet project. They need to gain world attention as leader. Always seem a step behind in space. Decided on Moon mission to steal US thunder of manned lunar orbiter. Crash program, priorities ahead of Soyuz plans.
    1. Soviets stole Orion plans, fit in with their design philosophy and approach to nuclear power use, big bold program, bigger than Sputnik and will allow them to dominate the high ground of space. Their Orion program was commited to live launch. Series of underground tests, leading to above ground tests disguised as “normal” nuke tests fooled the West.
  4. Launched manned Orion spacecraft to the Moon on August 20, 1969 – same day landing at Tycho Crater stunned and amazed the world. Cosmonauts spend 3 days on the Moon, and return to Earth. Cosmonauts return via Vostok-style lander, the Orion is programmed to try and land in the Aral Sea, mostly destroyed. Soviets stage triumphal celebrations and announce plans to conquer the Solar System. The mission uses the one available Orion vehicle they have.


  • US response: August 1969 speech JFK commits the US to have a permanent base on the Moon within his first term in office. Activates Project Horizon lunar base, full resources. Reactivates Orion, also plans NERVA space testing.
  • Soviets respond with plans for their Zvezda moon base plans.
  • Both super powers begin to pour resources into Space, taking away resources otherwise planned for next gen ICBMs and strategic weapons systems.



  • 1969
    • July – Soviet manned lunar mission
    • December – US manned lunar mission lands at Sea of Tranquility
  • 1970
    • January – 2nd Soviet lunar mission using modified Soyuz and lander, Apollo style, while they are constructing more Orion ships
    • March – Launch and assemble large multi module Almaz space station, plans for it to be an Earth orbit way station to the Moon.
    • September – US begins assembling SS-1 Wheel space station in Earth Orbit
    • October – Soviets launch failure of second Orion ship, cosmonaut crew killed
    • US-North Vietnam sign armistice, US troops withdraw from Vietnam.
    • November – US launches Pilgrim Lunar space mission, leading to a manned based module placed on the Moon in the Fra Mauro highlands
    • December – Soviets 3rd Orion launch success, places initial manned base module on the Moon on Mare Imbrium.
  • 1971
    • US launches first NERVA rocket test flight to moon and back
    • US expands lunar base
    • USSR expands lunar base
    • USSR launches Mars mission with a Orion craft – announce dramatic fly-by success and “Grand Tour” mission to fly-by Jupiter and return. Had actually planned to land on Mars, but bomb propellant failure led to high speed fly by, had to slingshot around Jupiter and back to Earth. Dropped Mars probes onto Io and Europa.
    • US launches first test Orion
  • 1972
    • US launches second space station
    • US launches Orion mission to Mars – land and not return
    • USSR launches Orion mission to Mars same day
    • US launches NERVA follow-on mission to Mars with intent to be Mars shuttle cycler craft, take crew back and forth.
    • USSR launches 2nd Almaz space station
    • President Kennedy re-elected with VP Jimmy Carter
  • 1973
    • US Expands lunar presence, lands base at Gardner Megadome sites northern tip of Mare Tranquilatis at site of huge cave/lava tube complex
    • USSR expands Tycho base, lands new base on Mare Nubium to also take advantage of lava tunnels.
    • North Vietnamese assault on South Vietnam fails, US Air and Space Support help foil the invasion. The value of space-based weapons shown when US THOR kinetic bombardment systems devastated PAVN logistics centers and mauls a PAVN armored brigade from orbit. New armistice signed between the Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
  • 1974
    • With US assistance the UK launches its first space station
    • US and USSR expand Martian bases
  • 1975
    • With US assistance a NATO/EU base landed on the Moon
    • With USSR assistance a Warsaw Pact base is established on the Moon
    • European Space Agency launches NERVA mission to Saturn with US assistance
    • US and USSR launch Jupiter and Saturn missions
  • 1976
    • China lands first base on the Moon
    • General Atomics (US), PanAm and BAE launch the first commercial space station for tourism and research, serviced by the UK’s new Multi-Unit Space Transport And Recovery Device (MUSTARD) space plane.
    • Jimmy Carter elected as President, beating a weak Gerald Ford GOP candidacy.
  • 1977
    • The US retreats in Space:
      • Jimmy Carter taps Robert McNamara as his Secretary of Defense, and begins a series of détente initiatives to the USSR and begins to slow down US space programs. Carter believes that continued US military investments in nuclear, space technology and systems fuel an unwinnable arms race, and heavily promoted the Space Assets Limitations Treaty (SALT) to restrict and denuclearize space systems and de-weaponize space.
      • US cancels plans for a next generation Orion ship, cancels the Titan observation base (at Saturn) and begins restricting the number of Orion missions. Carter hopes the USSR will reciprocate.
      • Carter gets the Emergency Natural Gas Act passed which stalls new nuclear reactor and propulsion project and levies a punitive tax on the nuclear industry in favor of new non-nuclear energy sources like Natural Gas and Solar.
      • Carter beings a global campaign for human rights, talks down US and Soviet competition and severs aid to South Vietnam as punishment for their poor human rights record.
    • The Soviets, whose economy had been pouring resources into strategic space missions was flagging, and they saw Carter’s overtures as signs that they had outlasted the US – that the Capitalists were on the ropes. They engage in a political Maskirovka campaign, fueling the Space for Peace protests in the West and negotiating the SALT treaty which they have no intent on keeping.
  • 1978
    • The US and USSR announce the joint Titan Friendship Base mission to Saturn, with US science modules and crew to fly on a Soviet pulseship to establish a base at Saturn.
    • Carter begins steeply taxing commercial ventures in space and denying licensing, reaffirming US commitment to the Outer Space Treaty which forbids private ownership of space bodies – which he also interprets as space resources.
    • Carter begins steep defense and space project budget cuts, steering money into social programs and renewable energy research. He decommissions the THOR orbital strike system, directing the DoD to remove the satellites from orbit. His focus on Middle East peace leads to the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel. He pressures the Shah of Iran on Human Rights issues, cutting off millions in aid and forcing Iran to allow more active free speech dissident movements in the country.
    • The PRC announces a Vietnam moon base next to its own, declares space will be for all the developing nations of the world. In a copycat move, the USSR announces a new Cuban presence on the Moon.
    • The Soviets put a new generation of ground based ASAT missiles into place. The A-35M can also be used as an IRBM, and NATO nations begin protesting the deployment of this system into Eastern Europe.
    • Soviets secretly begins deploying its new PZ-1 orbital strike satellites into Low Earth Orbit, and also place a small number of PZ-1s into Mars and Lunar orbit, assuring the US these are a new generation of communications and navigation satellite.
  • 1979
    • US Malaise
      • Jimmy Carter’s policies wreak havoc on the US economy, causing energy prices to sky rocket. He gives his famous “malaise” speech, that the US cannot expect to tap limitless resources, and points to diplomatic successes in arms control and peace treaties.
      • Deep budget cuts lead to a significant number of US space assets being retired in place, US support for the Titan Friendship Base is defunded and the crew returned home.
    • USSR Expansion
      • The Soviets return a small metallic asteroid to Earth Orbit, reaping a windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars, pumping new life into the Soviet economy. They announce their intent for follow on missions.
      • With USSR and PRC material support, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam launches an invasion of South Vietnam. In a turn about of events, the USSR conducts a devastating series of strikes on South Vietnamese forces with the PZ-1 system. Supported by PRC airstrikes, Soviet satellite recon and PZ-1 strikes, the South Vietnam is quickly overrun by the North.
      • The Soviets also launch or support a series of coups and invasions globally to pressure the US into further retrenchment and collapse, including revolutions in Nicaragua, Angola, across South East Asia, and directly invades Afghanistan.
      • The Shah of Iran is toppled by revolution, and the US embassy staff taken hostage.
    • 1980
      • US Shock
        • Carter is shocked by Soviet actions, and responds with confusion. In an attempt to regain influence he authorizes a hasty rescue of US hostages in Iran. Budget cuts and confusion within the various service branches leads to disaster as one of the three US space shuttles used to land troops in Iran crashes. In the confusion, one shuttle is abandoned almost intact and the troops flee on the third shuttle back to orbit. The Iranians reap a PR windfall while the USSR reaps an intel windfall from the US shuttle.
        • Carter’s diplomatic overtures fail as Soviet backed forces topple a number of nations, he boycotts the 1980 Olympics as a symbolic protest.
        • Carter begins to restart US space defense projects, expanding budgets and demanding the DOD revitalize demoralized services.
      • USSR continued expansion
        • The USSR finds its attention captured by its Afghanistan invasion, but goes forward with a series of asteroid missions to identify and exploit several likely targets.
      • Ronald Reagan defeats Carter in the 1980 US presidential election, promising to reverse course and make the US strong again.

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