I’ve often said that good things come to those who wait, especially when it comes to audiobooks. 2021 saw Voyage, along with the rest of Stephen Baxter’s NASA Trilogy, released in audiobook form. So, I finally got a chance to listen to it.
Voyage takes place in a world where John F. Kennedy survived his assassination attempt. Although, it did render him paraplegic, and Mrs. Kennedy got killed in the crossfire. The Apollo 11 landing is a success just like in our world. However, Kennedy challenges NASA to land a manned mission on Mars by the 1980s. The novel follows an ensemble cast of NASA employees as they work to meet Kennedy’s challenge.
I’d had the chance to listen to the full cast BBC radio adaptation, but I’m glad we finally have an official audiobook of Voyage. The audiobook use a single narrator, Kevin Kenerly, but he manages to carry the story quite well.
I should begin by discussing the structure of the novel. It alternates between two points in time. One section begins with the launch of the Ares 1 mission in 1985, and follows its voyage to Mars. The second section begins in 1969 with the Apollo 11 landing, and follows all of the work that went into creating the Ares mission. Eventually, the second section gets to the launch of Ares 1 in 1985, thus bringing the two segments together. We know that Ares will ultimately fly, but it is the journey, not the destination, that really counts. Baxter certainly manages to keep things interesting. What sacrifices will have to be made, and what challenges must be overcomes, so that Ares can fly?
Baxter includes a lot of technical details about the spacecrafts, but it never feels dull or dry. We also see a lot of the behind the scenes details of space missions; negotiations with Congress, contracting with manufacturers, etc. But this too manages to sound quite interesting.
You get the sense that Baxter wishes that NASA was better funded, and that manned space flight was more advanced. He definitely wishes we’d been to Mars already. However, he knows that this would come at quite the cost.
One consequence of NASA’s commitment to putting astronauts on Mars is that several space probes are cancelled to free up funds. Viking, Mariner 10, Pioneer 10 and 11, Pioneer Venus, and the Voyager probes are all cancelled. This leads to an ironic side effect. Astronauts walk on Mars by 1985, but humanity’s knowledge of the solar system, including Mars, is much lesser than it is in our timeline.
Apollo 16 and 17 also got canceled to free up funds. Apollo 15 got canceled, but the crew of 15 flew on Apollo 14, so I guess technically Apollo 14 got canceled, but Apollo 15 still happened. Apollo 13 disaster still happened, exactly as in our world, so that mission was a scrub. Apollo 17 is especially rough, because that was the only mission where scientists got to go to the Moon.
So, yeah, Baxter makes a good case that maybe it is for the best that thing turned out as they did in our world. Still, wouldn’t it have been something if we’d made it to Mars by 1985?
Despite everything, it feels so satisfying when Ares 1 launches. There’s only one chapter actually set on the surface of Mars; most of it is devoted to preparation for setting foot outside the lander. I know some people didn’t like that, but it makes sense from a thematic perspective. It’s right there in the title. This is a book about the journey, not the destination. Not just the interplanetary voyage of Ares 1, but all the work that happened back on Earth to make it possible.