One of the perks of a history degree, other than the fact that three years can be spent alternately drinking, sleeping and watching documentaries about Hitler, is that you're trained to ask the big What If? questions. Yep, that's What If? with a capital W and a capital I. Big. What If Hitler hadn't issued the order to pursue direction Epinal, and the Wehrmacht had wiped out the BEF in 1940? What If Kennedy had lived? What If Gorbachev had brought the USSR back from the brink in 1991?
What a history degree can't help with is 'what ifs' with a capital 'WTF?' What you need for that is a computer game from 1995. That's right readers, what we are going to answer today is a question that's been bugging me since, oh, since I thought this column up on the bus ninety minutes ago. With the help of Interplay's seminal 'Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space', we're going to answer this question:
What if the US government had appointed a rank amateur whose father hadn't actually been born yet as head of NASA in 1957?
1957 – President Eisenhower announces that Psycorp603 will head up the new National Aeronautical and Space Administration.
Psycorp603 announces the budget will be spent on re-engineered V2 missiles, and satellites that look a little bit like a fish.
1958 - Psycorp603 announces he's recruited a batch of Astronauts, and he hopes a man called 'Cox' will be the first man in space – 'Because it'll be funny'. First US Space Launch scheduled for
November 1958 – 'Explorer 1', man's first space launch, is a roaring success. Psycorp603 credits his success on pure luck.
1959 – High on success, Psycorp603 claims that the Mercury programme will have Cox in space by 1961, just you wait and see!
1960 – Psycorp603 announces that 'Mercury 1 will blast off in November, and those damn pinko commies will eat their furry flappy hats.'
November 1960 – Cox becomes the first man in space on Mercury 1's sub-orbital flight. Psycorp603 releases a statement reading Yuri Gagarin? No, now the world will all love Cox! See, funny!
1961 – Psycorp603 announces that he needs a bigger rocket. Mercury 2 will feature a bigger, manlier rocket to put an astronaut into a full orbit.
November 1961 – Schirra becomes the first man to orbit the Earth – Psycorp603's proposed 'Moon-over' of the USSR is vetoed.
1962 – Psycorp603 sulks over vetoing of the 'Moon-over'
1963 – April: Gemini 1 sets on fire, both astronauts escape with minor injuries. Psycorp603 blames Dirty Commie saboteurs and hides in a cupboard.
June: Ranger 1 becomes the first human satellite to orbit the moon. Soviets announce success of the first 2 man space flight, first space walk and first orbital buttock-baring. Psycorp603 leaves cupboard to shake his fist at the sky.
1964 – Psycorp603 sulks like a girl. Cancels Gemini programme and announces Apollo 1.
1965 – Apollo 1 explodes, astronauts barely escape with their lives. Psycorp603 announces success of NASA's new parachute system before locking himself back in the cupboard.
1966 – Soviet Soyuz 2 orbits the moon, carrying three cosmonauts - Psycorp603 shouts wildly about landing on the moon.
1967 – Apollo 2, man's first lunar landing attempt launched – Eagle lunar module ploughs into the moon's surface. Psycorp603 sacked, has his cupboard confiscated and is exiled from the USA.
1969 - Soviet Cosmonauts walk on the surface of Luna - conspiracy nuts point to shadows, ripples in the flag and a sign saying 'Studioski Troika1' as evidence that the landings were faked.
So there you have it – Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space gives us the answer – if the US government had appointed a rank amateur whose father hadn't actually been born yet as head of NASA in 1957, space would be full of Cox and the moon would be full of corpses.
You can download the Windows XP version of BARIS from this fansite, thanks to the kindness of the game's programmers who decided it should be freeware.