This book (the third in Sales’ ‘Apollo Quartet’) opens with a scene that many will be familiar with – the press conference that NASA held to announce the team that would provide the first American in space. Many of us have seen “The Right Stuff”, and so this event is very well known. But wait – there are thirteen astronauts at the top table, and they are all women. This is another alternate history of the space programme, one where the Korean War has dragged on and the USA needs all its male pilots and can’t even spare any for a high-profile project such as Cold War manned spaceflight rivalry.
As ever, the research is impeccable, though this time we do not see bits of kit that never made it off the drawing board. What we do see is the way that attitudes to female equality were so different back in the 1960s; one of the major disputes between the astronauts and the NASA designers, the question of how much control the pilot should have over the spacecraft, is shown with a different outcome.
But there is also a parallel story which comes together with the first narrative in a worrying way, as NASA continues to insist that whilst women might have been first into space, it should be a man who is first to step onto the Moon. Women are relegated to performing (comparatively) workaday tasks, and one of those precipitates a chain of events that leads to war.
The alternate history in this book is quite heavily variant from our own; the Korean War has continued, and there are some unspecified changes in Russia that change Sino-Soviet relations.
In writing about a Cold War subject, Sales has inevitably produced stories (two out of the three in the series so far) which have nuclear war as a key feature. I have recently been reading around the subject of the origin of the First World War, and one thing that the Apollo Quartet is showing is the way in which NASA, an ostensibly civilian organisation, was inextricably linked with wider political and military objectives. We were fortunate that we avoided nuclear war, in that when two armed camps are engaged in an arms race, there is a high risk that it is only a matter of time before war erupts just because it can. This was one of the results of the race for naval supremacy between Britain and Germany in the early years of the Twentieth Century; Sales’ work in ‘The Apollo quartet” is increasingly highlighting that we are perhaps fortunate to live in what really might be the best of all possible worlds.