What If NASA Never Existed? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
NASA is the most famous space agency in the world, responsible for all kinds of ground-breaking tech breakthroughs and scientific discoveries. But what if it had never happened at all? In this video, Unveiled imagines an alternative history timeline, where the American space agency was never created at all...

What if NASA Never Existed?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the most famous space agency in the world, responsible for all kinds of technological developments and scientific discoveries. Formally created by President Eisenhower in 1958, NASA has had its sights set on the stars for decades. But what if it had never happened at all?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if NASA never existed?

In the time before NASA, there was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. The NACA was established way back in 1915, and it ultimately helped the US and other allied forces win the First and Second World Wars. A dedicated American space agency became necessary in the 1950s, however, largely thanks to the Soviet Space Program emerging on the other side of the world, in the rival USSR, successfully launching Sputnik 1 and 2 in late 1957. The US government knew they needed to directly compete (and quickly), and Eisenhower was reportedly presented with four proposals, shortlisted by a panel led by one S. Paul Johnston, the then-director of America’s Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. Transforming the NACA into NASA (as we know it today) was actually the third option on Johnston’s list, but Eisenhower could have easily chosen any of the others… some of which would have led to very different scenarios.

Johnston’s first suggestion was to create a brand-new, space-centred government agency from scratch. And, as this one is quite the open book, there’s no real telling how it would’ve developed. There’s certainly the potential that an entirely new agency would have ended up pretty much like the modern NASA is now; as a civilian body beholden to American taxpayers and interested in peaceful ways to explore space. It’s with Eisenhower’s second and fourth options that we more clearly reach a three-pronged fork in the road, though. Down one path, yes, there’s NASA. Down the other two, however, there are distinct, history-changing alternatives.

Johnston’s second suggestion entailed giving the mandate of winning the Space Race to the AEC, the Atomic Energy Commission, while the fourth option would have handed responsibility over to the Advanced Research Projects Agency - a group today known as DARPA, which is part of the Department of Defense.

First, if the AEC had been given the task of putting Americans into space, it may not have ended well. In the real world, along the timeline that history actually took, the AEC was deemed unfit for purpose in 1975 and dissolved, replaced by various other bodies to control America’s nuclear interests. So, to begin with, any AEC-controlled space program may well have ended sometime in the mid-70s as well, and we might have needed another solution as to what to do about space travel even further down the line. The AEC itself was only established in 1947, so it wouldn’t have had experience on its side, either. And, seeing as one of the main reasons it was eventually abolished was because it was found to have lax health and safety measures in place, who knows how risky and dangerous an AEC-led space agency could’ve turned out to be.

Even before any of that, though, it’s also true that the goals of researching nuclear energy and putting a man on the moon aren’t exactly what you’d call similar. And, seeing as the AEC was most interested in the former, this was one group which, just fundamentally, wasn’t a space agency. The AEC counted within its ranks some of the world’s leading scientists, yes, but space just wasn’t their specialist field… and, in fact, even S. Paul Johnston himself admitted that the only real benefit to entrusting space exploration to the AEC would’ve been the potential for nuclear propulsion technology. If anyone or group was capable of achieving nuclear propulsion, it was probably them. And, as we are still experimenting with nuclear engine designs, even today, perhaps (with an AEC-fronted space agency) we’d have developed them by now. Regardless, it’s not as though such a technology wouldn’t still have the potential to be incredibly dangerous… with a failed nuclear launch potentially causing nuclear-bomb level destruction. Maybe, then, it’s no bad thing that Eisenhower didn’t wind up taking this particular route, in the end.

And yet, compared to Johnston’s fourth suggestion, the one where Eisenhower would be letting ARPA (now DARPA) loose on the Space Race, the AEC might’ve been the safer choice. Because giving the DoD the reins of American space travel back in the ‘50s, would’ve meant that space was instantly militarized; and humankind may have been instantly doomed.

Thankfully, today there is lots of legislation in place to prevent countries from developing a military presence in space; the most famous piece being the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed in 1967 and still forms the basis of space law. But this treaty was created nearly ten years after NASA was formed, meaning that NASA had about a decade without anywhere near so much red tape. And, in an alternate world where ARPA had control instead, the DoD might’ve taken a much more aggressive stance, and the Outer Space Treaty might never have been written up.

The worst-case scenario is really a pretty frightening thought for pretty much everyone living on Earth… what with the prospect of, at the height of the Cold War, WMDs being placed in orbit, ready to rain down at the push of a button. After all, ninety-nine percent of people don’t have access to nuclear bomb shelters, and were we ever to have had nukes in space… that could’ve been a serious problem! Rather than looking to the stars in wonder (as we’ve been encouraged to do by NASA), we’d have been looking to the skies in fear… not knowing if tensions between America and the USSR would ever boil over. With this extra level to it, the Arms Race would’ve certainly been even more intense. And that’s not to say that ARPA has never done anything to benefit the world; it can count the internet as one of its crowning achievements, as it had a major hand in its development. But even the internet’s no good if we had all died in a nuclear war sent from space, sixty years ago!

But, let’s now move away from S. Paul Johnston’s original list of four space agency alternatives, because what would’ve happened if none of these situations had come to pass? What if, for whatever reason, humankind collectively just wasn’t interested in going into space? Again, it would’ve resulted in a vastly different world.

As the Space Race was mostly a mutual thing between the USA and the USSR, if one side hadn’t cared about space, then it figures that the other won’t have been quite so preoccupied with it, either. Given that both sides benefited from the expertise of various Nazi-era German scientists, too, then perhaps the 1950s would’ve served as a shutting down period for rocket building, in general… rather than becoming the birthplace of modern rocket science, as it proved to be.

With neither superpower working to develop the science, we’d certainly be nowhere near as advanced with space travel as we are today. And, with publicly funded science looking in alternative, non-space directions, we may well not have had any civilian space agencies on Earth. But, as rocket building has historically gone hand-in-hand with weapons development, perhaps we could’ve avoided the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction, as well… perhaps even the entire Cold War could have been averted. This isn’t to say that NASA (or the Soviet Space Program) caused the Cold War, only that the rivalry between the two formed one major aspect of it.

Alternatively, say the USSR had just followed the same path as it has done through history, making early research into space travel and reaching various key milestones, but America and Eisenhower had simply never responded… what then? Well, by now, Russia may well have been the global centre for all things space. It may have been a Soviet cosmonaut, for example, to be the first to walk on the moon. And maybe even long-since shelved Soviet space plans - like the moon base, Zvezda - would’ve come to fruition, without the intense, high stakes competition coming out of NASA. If its construction had still gone ahead, then the International Space Station may have been a majority Russian initiative. And, perhaps even private space firms would be more likely based in Russia, rather than America.

On the other hand, history also shows us that when the lead scientist behind the Soviet Space Program, Sergei Korolev, died at the height of the Space Race in 1966, the momentum with the USSR quickly disappeared. If, then, Eisenhower never established NASA, but Korolev still died, perhaps the Soviet Union’s achievements in space wouldn’t have changed all that much… and, again, global efforts toward space exploration may have simply petered out by as early as the 1970s.

Without NASA, we would certainly still have had scientists and engineers interested in space travel… it’s just that they will have been based someplace else. Meanwhile, in America, the scientific focus might’ve shifted to other fields and ambitions… and the Cold War, and the post-Second World War era in general, would’ve unfolded very differently. And that’s what would’ve happened if NASA had never existed.