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As stated in the topic: I would like to have Project Olympus-style space stations served by Apollo-like spacecraft in a world where neither nuclear power (and weapons) nor transistors were developed into actually workable devices.

My problem is: where to set the Point Of Divergence for alternate history of physics in order to achieve this?

Unfortunately, taking out Einstein does not seem to make a trick. My bet for now is to stuck physics in ultraviolet catastrophe with nobody coming up with the idea of energy packets known as "quanta". Is it sufficient? How the science would develop in such alternate timeline?

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you need nuclear power for 1970ties (or 2010ths) spaceflight? $\endgroup$ – Karl Nov 12 '17 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind Nasa originally did not use transistors as they had not been invented yet, instead using vacuum tubes. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 12 '17 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ So no smoke detector onboard? $\endgroup$ – user6760 Nov 12 '17 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ @John: And for many of the early flights, the "computers" were women using hand calculators. See e.g. amazon.com/Hidden-Figures-American-Untold-Mathematicians/dp/… $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Nov 12 '17 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ @MrLister -- who said hand calculators were not mechanical? We often called them adding machines, but some were quite advanced, and reasonably priced compared to the cost of doing all calculations by hand. I would include slide rules in the mix too. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Nov 13 '17 at 19:36

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Move the space race earlier. 1931.

There are not transistors or nuclear power because neither has been developed. But space is in reach.

AEG office, Berlin.  Engineers use slide rules from http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/calculators/1/44/157

1925: The Treaty of Versailles is enforced, and German re-armament does not happen. The Germans are, however, recognized to be masters of technology and innovation and their European adversaries allow this aspect of the German economy to flourish. Seeking an outlet for feelings of nationalist competition but with military competition out of reach the Germans turn to space, just as similar factors would produce the space race in our timeline - except thirty years and a devastating war later.

Without the prospect of war, the efforts of rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth are undistracted and backed by the full power of a resurgent German state with something to prove.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_Oberth

In the autumn of 1929, Oberth conducted a static firing of his first liquid-fueled rocket motor, which he named the Kegeldüse. The engine was built by Klaus Riedel in a workshop space provided by the Reich Institution of Chemical Technology, and although it lacked a cooling system, it did run briefly.[13] He was helped in this experiment by an 18-year-old student Wernher von Braun.

Two years later in 1931 and 10 years ahead of schedule, what in our timeline was called the V2 rocket reached the edge of space, and later than same year a rocket based on these principles put the first artificial satellite in orbit.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140905-the-nazis-space-age-rocket v2 rocket in flight

Western Europe (with the belated assistance of the US) rushes to keep up with the Germans while at the same time keeping a thumb on the scale in the form of monitoring for "treaty violations". The Soviets foray into this competition in their own fashion. Both of these parties are uncrushed by war and so resource and energy rich although neither has the benefit of the captured German rocket scientists who would lead the space race in our timeline.

None of this requires nuclear power or transistors. If the space race is the war that happens instead of WW2 - a war of technological prowess and bragging rights - there is not a need for weapons of tremendous destructive power.

But this space race is not just for bragging rights: it is actually a race to Mars. In this timeline observations around the turn of the century showed that although no atmosphere of significance is now present, there was very likely intelligent life on Mars at some point in the past. The first colonists on Mars can claim the planet for their side, and alien technology, if present, could be a game changer as regards the world balance of power.

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    $\begingroup$ Usable digital programmable computers can be built with valves, and have been built with valves in real history. In real history, digital programmable computers were developed as soon as there was a need for calculations of a massive scale... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Nov 12 '17 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ If I recall correctly, the Lensman universe was based on hyper-miniaturized vacuum tube technology, which was completely incompatible with transistorized tech. $\endgroup$ – nijineko Nov 12 '17 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP yes; however, digital valve computers need to be huge and power-hungry to achieve any noteworthy processing power. This timeline would probably have intensive research into analogue computers, which can give you in principle much more bang-for-the-buck, but are much harder to design in a way that they work reliably. When you have transistors, that's just not worth it, but with valves it probably would be worth it for many applications. $\endgroup$ – leftaroundabout Nov 12 '17 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ A good idea, but a lot of the space race was simply propaganda. Most of the missile technology was developed to deliver weapons over distances further than possible with artillery, and was almost perfectly suited for delivering atomic weapons. The satellites and men in space was almost an afterthought for those funding the technology. $\endgroup$ – Josh King Nov 13 '17 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ By then it was already far too late. The other issue, besides the Germans funding research into areas not covered by various treaties, was most scientists on the allied side were either ridiculed (Robert Goddard), or working in obscurity and secrecy (many Russians after the Revolution). Few, if any took the idea of long range rockets seriously. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 15 '17 at 0:28
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In our history, the idea of spaceflight was pretty well established as far back as Voltaire (Micromégas, 1752) and Jules Verne did many of the numerical calculations to get a good ballpark as to what was expected in his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. Edwin Everett Hale published another science fiction story The Brick Moon in 1869, concerning the launching of an artificial satellite.

So in a real sense, people were already primed to go into space long before the discovery of nuclear energy or electronic computers. (Sadly for your scenario, Charles Babbage published a paper proposing a mechanical calculator on 14 June 1822, which led to the Difference Engine and eventually the conceptual Analytical Engine, which is considered the precursor to all programmable computers).

The only thing lacking was technology to actually do the deed (the Difference Engine was actually doable with the technology of the day, but Babbage was a horrible project manager, the method of getting into space was the issue), but even here, help is on the way in the form of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the visionary Russian schoolteacher who laid down the theoretical foundations of rocketry in 1896. He also did a great deal of theoretical work on the practical issues of spaceflight, such as this sketch of a rocket powered spaceship:

enter image description here

Tsiolkovsky anticipated things like reaction wheels, and clearly understood the concept of free-fall

So now the contrafactual:

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had been in contact with various authorities in Russia with various proposals like metal airships and monoplane aircraft, but unlike OTL, his proposals were received with enthusiasm. Russia was in a difficult situation, having a very anemic economy, outdated industry and a very outmoded aristocratic form of government. The aristocracy could see that there was great danger both within (internal rebellions) and without (European Empires ready and willing to pounce on any perceived weaknesses). Having advanced aircraft and now rockets would allow the Russian Empire to leapfrog past the British, French, Germans, Austro-Hungarians and even those upstart Americans, and avoid the fate of the Chinese, whose empire was being divided among the various Imperial Great Powers of the age.

enter image description here

Model of Tsiolkovsky's spaceship

While the Russian Empire can throw massive resources and fine engineers into the problem, they will essentially be hand building everything. At this point, word could leak out and the other Empires become interested in the problem(s), either out of self interest or out of fear of Russian intentions. The Russians have plans for space greenhouses and long term occupation of space, after all.....

enter image description here

Tsiolkovsky's space greenhouse. Sunlight enters from the rounded end towards the pointed end....

So in this contrafactual, the Space Race is actually triggered by the Russians, but in the early part of the 20th century, rather than 1957....

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    $\begingroup$ sweeeeeeet Tsarist space greenhouses! With sketches! I love it! $\endgroup$ – Willk Nov 13 '17 at 0:23
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Having a whole space program without Atomic Energy is not a problem as the two things are largely unrelated.

Managing a whole set of space flights without numerical computers is much harder to imagine.

In order to do so you would need to have some kind of mechanical computers much better than what available (partly due to obsolescence of what available (e.g.: Olivetti Dvisumma 24) due to rise of electronic calculators).

The real problem, though, would be how to prevent quanta discovery. It would not be enough to have Max Plank to have an accident before his discoveries. History of Science have multiple examples that discoveries are almost never really linked to a physical person, but at a general "ripeness" of cultural society of the time.

There are several examples of multiple, independent, discoveries of essentially the same thing at almost the same time. Everybody knows what Lobacewsky did to Geometry, but almost none remembers Bolyai.

OTOH if someone was really "ahead of the times" often died without honor, possibly to be remembered many years (sometimes centuries) later; this is what happened to Evariste Galois and Gregor Mendel, among many others.

In order to steer our history away of transistors "killing Plank" won't suffice; you need to come up with a complete steering of the whole technology (toward mechanical devices, for example), but it's difficult to imagine a Space Race without a corresponding race to miniaturization... which will inevitably lead to the "infinitely small" and its quantization.

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  • $\begingroup$ Vacuum tube computers are OK for me, so perhaps the ground control of spacecraft won't be so hard - but I fear that transistors may not be too far from vacuum tubes and they development will in the end lead to transistors. $\endgroup$ – Ijon Nov 12 '17 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ I know that independent discoveries are common in science and that's also why "killing Einstein" does not help. I chose ultraviolet catastrophe as possible POD precisely because of this - I have heard an anecdote that scientists of the time considered physics as "almost finished", so maybe some alternate explanation would result in "completing" classical (Newtonian) physics as it was and stagnation. But I may be wrong. $\endgroup$ – Ijon Nov 12 '17 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Ijon I believe that the early vostok flights used vacuum tube technology $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 12 '17 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Ijon All old scientists think they have discovered everything and all that's left is the boring job to refine all the numbers until they form a glorious proof of their success. $\endgroup$ – Karl Nov 12 '17 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Karl Most old scientists think they have discovered everything that will be discovered in their lifetime. It's hard to learn so much without also learning that your life's work will be brutally dismembered every year by university undergraduates in a handful of century's time. $\endgroup$ – wizzwizz4 Nov 13 '17 at 22:29
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Just make life developing on the planet take a few billion years longer then it did, the U235 will be largely gone, and without that bootstrapping a fission reactor is kind of tough.

Nuclear science is there, people have built accelerators and colliders, but a reactor is (while understood in theory) impractical because producing sufficient fissile material is seriously problematic (read orders of magnitude too expensive for even nation states), you cannot breed meaningful amounts of fissiles if you don't have a decent source of neutrons to start with.

make the atmosphere contain more argon, and the star somewhat more active, then the prevalence of Si32 from cosmic ray bombardment will be greater in the silicon, and that is a beta emitter, so all of a sudden your transistors are a lot noisier and things like flash memory are a non starter due to SEUs generated by the decay of the chip itself, this forced development first of miniaturised field emission valves then of machines using non linear opticsal effects for computation...

QM is well understood, but if you cannot get reasonably pure Si28, then integrated circuits are not happening any time soon and you force the technology down another path. Don't diddle with the science, diddle with the materials availability.

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    $\begingroup$ "Just make life developing on the planet take a few billion years longer then it did, the U235 will be largely gone, and without that bootstrapping a fission reactor is kind of tough." So... what keeps its core molten? Because as I understood, Earth's core has retained its molten state due in a significant degree to the decay of radioactive isotopes, particularly uranium. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Nov 12 '17 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ There is other semiconductor except Si based. $\endgroup$ – talex Nov 13 '17 at 4:26
  • $\begingroup$ @NicolBolas That is decay heat (mainly from U238) not fission heating from the fission of U235, and U235 has a shorter half life the U238, so the longer you wait, the smaller proportion of natural uranium will be fissile. At the moment you can build a reactor that will run on natural uranium (If you make it large enough, heavy water and graphite moderators are both possible), at some point the concentration of U235 will fall far enough to make this no longer viable, any you need that first fission pile if you want to convert anything else fertile to a fissile material. $\endgroup$ – Dan Mills Nov 13 '17 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ @DanMills: Never heard of the Candu reactor. Use of heavy water coolant enables the use of unenriched uranium as fuel. $\endgroup$ – Pieter Geerkens Nov 13 '17 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ @PieterGeerkens That, plus the Israeli ("not a plutonium producer, honest gov") reactors were the ones I was thinking of when I mentioned heavy water moderation, also the German WW2 effort the Danish resistance sunk that ferry to stop. None of that works with U235/238 ratios very much lower then they are. $\endgroup$ – Dan Mills Nov 13 '17 at 23:43
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Realistic requirements

It would probably be extremely difficult to launch and operate a low-Earth-orbit space station, moon landing, or mars exploration without any numerical computers at all -- but the computers do not need to be anywhere near as powerful as a modern smartphone. A 128KB PDP-8 per spaceship would do it.

See, space is big. Really, really big. So even though rockets go kinda fast, it takes them a long long time to get anywhere interesting. Three days just to the moon, with maybe one mid-course correction. A few months to Mars. Maybe two years to Titan or Io.

This means that the on-board computer has plenty of time to carry out any navigation calculations. With lots of time available, the computer can be small and slow. I'm picturing a machine with few registers, no pipeline, and magnetic core memory, like a 1959 minicomputer but with valves instead of the discrete transistors. An astronaut would awaken, load the next task into the machine, press [Enter], and go about other business. Some time after lunch the computer would go ding ding and display the remaining distance to Jupiter or whatever.

Space travel would also be supported by several large valve-tech computers on the ground. These would, inter alia, precompute large ephemeris tables which would be preloaded into the onboard computers' ROMs. During missions the ground computers would also communicate by digital radio telemetry with the onboard machines via what we would think of as an infuriatingly slow LAN.

Alternate technologies

At the time that transistors became available, vacuum-tube technology was still quite immature. Although a valve needs to be an inch or so long if it has to switch significant power, it can be much smaller if it only needs to switch another tiny valve. In 1959, RCA and Sansui manufactured pentodes about the size of a pencil eraser. Some further miniaturization might have been possible.

Some other technologies were discovered but never developed because integrated circuit chips dominated the solution space. For example, the Hall effect can be exploited as part of a solid-state switch.

Of course, exactly which other devices and methods would have expanded to fill the gap depends on exactly why transistors were never developed into usable devices, and exactly what you insist on calling a transistor. Are Josephson junctions still possible? Superconductors? Liquid-crystal displays?

Ah, well, never mind. Vacuum plasmonic valves, magnetic cores, and wire-wound ROM ("rope" memory) are quite sufficient for the modest computing requirements of space travel.

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  • $\begingroup$ Although much larger, mechanical computers are also possible, and the sort of computers that were on the Apollo missions could have been replaced with mechanical computers. More powerful devices would be on Earth (as they were in the Apollo missions), and instructions sent to the spacecraft by radio, as is done even today. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 13 '17 at 20:36
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Mechanical calculators have been mentioned already, but imagine a strong focus on them with a strong drive to miniaturization. It's thinkable they work out intricate compact designs with small precise gears to make advanced calculations. A mechanical pocket calculator that is able to do all basic operations seems not impossible, and as such space ships that do automated calculations using nothing but such gear-driven devices. But you will need electricity nonetheless for space flight, unless you want your astronauts to work in the light of petroleum lamps.

To prevent transistors you'd have to prevent your society to discover the use of semiconductors, something which doesn't seem easy to prevent, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiconductor#Early_history_of_semiconductors

EDIT: Make is so that no world wars happen so that there is no strong need to develop certain technologies with important militaristic uses.

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    $\begingroup$ The Curta mechanical calculator is a fine example of how advanced these devices became just proper to being replaced by electronic calculators. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 13 '17 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ Consider the combination of a Curta to do simple arithmetic exactly, and a slide rule to do some transcendental functions approximately. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Nov 13 '17 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ Why the downvote? $\endgroup$ – Khris Nov 14 '17 at 6:30
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In our history, spaceflight was a spin off of the nuclear arms race that, when transistorised telecommunications became prevalent enough that extra bandwidth was required, was also used for telecommunications purposes. So without either of the two main reasons for funding development of space-faring rocketry, we would need to be looking at some other reason for going into space. Some ultimate disaster, such as crop disease in "Interstellar", might force us off the planet and into a space station. Mining rare elements from asteroids wouldn't make sense, since without post-transistor technology there's little need for them.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't think OP is after precise historical causality. First of all, politicians ceased arranging total wars one after another only when nuclear weapons for the first time in history put their personal well-being on stake. Without nuclear threat, we would have more funds allocated to strategic bombers, to tanks, to ballistic conventional missiles, but less to orbital space stations. $\endgroup$ – kubanczyk Nov 14 '17 at 9:39
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There was a lot of early science fiction that imagined space travel without the information revolution. Any story that visualizes space travel without advanced computers represents an alternative future that meets the requirements.

For example, Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sands of Mars" was first published in 1952. The space ship has an atomic drive, but that does not affect the story - it could equally well have been chemical.

The viewpoint character, a science fiction writer, takes photos with a camera that does not let him view the results immediately. He uses a typewriter and carbon paper to produce two copies of his writing. Although much of the operation of the ship is described as being automatic, some automatic monitoring gear is described as making noises.

The point of departure is simply things that do not happen.

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To avoid nuclear weapons, you have to remove radioactivity research: Have the Curie kicked out of college, before they could prove that grinding a metric ton of pitchblende ore to extract 0,1 g of radium was worth it.

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  • $\begingroup$ The Curies were hardly the only ones researching radioactivity, and radium is hardly the only interesting element of interest. (For example, Schmidt's paper on the radioactivity of thorium was published two months before Marie Curie's was.) $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 14 '17 at 0:12
  • $\begingroup$ True, there are many radioactive elements out there, but radium is several million times more active than thorium or uranium. You need a steady source of alpha particles to set up the Geiger-Marsden experiments, or to discover the neutron. $\endgroup$ – castor Nov 14 '17 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ My objection is that you're promoting the "Great Man" view of history. History mostly doesn't work that way, though: if Einstein hadn't done his work on Special Relativity, any of a dozen other physicists would have published within the year; if Columbus hadn't discovered America, Cabot or Cabral would have before the decade was out. Sure, without Hitler, WWII would have featured disorganized pogroms rather than the Holocaust, but such exceptions are rare. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 14 '17 at 21:37
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One possibility to even avoid vacuum tubes (and discovery of their physics which could indeed lead to inventing a solid state equivalent) would be to use magnetic amplifiers - they were invented IRL in the early 1900s but work on sufficiently different principles to not steer you right into the wrong direction.

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if your world isen't meant to be 100% realistic you can alwais go for analogue style devices that look more like clocks than computers and some steam punk-esk inventions... the spacecraft flight is the easy part because it's mostly chemical reaction ... the only problem is to know where you are going ...

Edit: The divergence point should be somewere during the WW2 or after it , ofuscating the way the war is actualy won would resolve the nuclear weapons problem , say somthing like the last remnants of the axis were forced to surender after a few years of alied siege. As for einstein and the nuclear fision dilema just go the rout of political partys demed it to dangerous and didnt' give the funds.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding Kaotis. Do you think that navigation would be the hardest problem? $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 14 '17 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding! While this is true, it doesn't answer the question of where the point of divergence is, so would you be able to edit your answer to do so? Thanks $\endgroup$ – Mithrandir24601 Nov 14 '17 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ just like the natzis found out during their misile project ... the hardest part is to control the rocket not to launch it, my guess would be you would have the same problem $\endgroup$ – Kaotis Nov 15 '17 at 9:27
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Impossible, unless you change the physics of your alternate world so transistors or nuclear power don't work. In a world with millions of scientists, everything gets discovered when the time is ripe.

And without transistors, spaceflight is so terribly expensive that nobody would start a large-scale operation such as Project Olympus.

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    $\begingroup$ Unless you were Russian and engaged in a space race... $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 12 '17 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Slarty OP said Project Olympus, that's late 1960ies. $\endgroup$ – Karl Dec 10 '18 at 22:32

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