The Space Race was the last great era in human exploration. Space programs had the backing of the public, its participants were adored, and governments saw them as a source of pride (rather than the burden that the government treats them as today).

With America and the Soviet Union in a race to reach the skies and a landing on the lunar surface only a few years away, both superpowers were looking farther into the night sky for the next step.

They saw Venus.

After the moon, Venus is the brightest object in the night sky.  Named after the goddess of beauty, she is approximately the same size of Earth and has often been called Earth's twin.

The similarity pretty much ends there.  The Venusian atmosphere is 96.5 percent carbon dioxide with pressure 92 times that of Earth.  The surface temperature is a balmy 480 degrees centigrade (894 degrees Fahrenheit) under the intense flashes of lightning and rain showers of sulphuric acid.

Obviously, landing on Venus would mean death in the most spectacular and nasty way possible, but a flyby of the inhospitable world was tempting to both NASA and the Soviets Space Agency who both conceived what would have been a long and ambitious mission.

Using equipment created and perfected from the Apollo program, the NASA mission would have launched on October 31, 1973 and passed by Venus on March 3, 1974 and returned to Earth by December 1st.

With a mission that would last well over a year, the lunar orbiter would have been far too small to sustain the astronauts on the trip to Venus and back, therefore NASA was prepared to build a command module "workshop" similar to what was built on the Skylab station.  An unusual feature of this design was that the astronauts would be required to sit backwards -- in a way that the thrust of the launch would push them out of their seats rather than into them.

The Soviet plan, if successful, would have launched even earlier and been even more ambitious.  Their space craft, called Tyazhely Mezhplanetny Korabl or TMK-1, would have left Earth on June 8, 1971 and embarked on a three-year mission to fly by Mars.

Unfortunately, after NASA put Apollo 8 on the moon, public clamor for space travel waned as did government ambition and the support that the space agencies once enjoyed were replaced by budgetary concerned and bureaucratic cowardice.  While it was a long shot that these missions would have ever actually launched, once cannot help but wonder what these missions would have been like or where they might have taken us.

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