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The Von Braun Master Plan: National Dream or National Nightmare?

The Mars Project by Wernher Von Braun and Willy Ley. Buy now at Amazon and own a piece of rocket science history.
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Manoa - Nov 03, 2003
In his recent testimony before Congress, my fellow planetary scientist Wes Huntress made the following cryptic statement: "Fifty years ago, in 1952, we developed a national dream of space exploration. As a nation of people who make dreams happen, and who explore to provide for a better life, we didn't do too badly with making that mid-Century dream of space travel come true."

The Congressmen were probably puzzled by the first sentence of this quote. To most people, the US space program started with Vanguard and Explorer in 1958. But we hard-core space cadets know what Dr. Huntress was talking about: the famous series of articles by Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Cornelius Ryan, Chesley Bonestell, et al. In COLLIER'S magazine (1952-53), later published as a series of large-format books.

This was the first presentation of an integrated vision for the human exploration of space. And the Von Braun Master Plan was trumpeted to the public over and over again (in many formats from Walt Disney TV specials to comic books) all though the 1950s until it was practically engraved on the brains of the Baby Boom generation..

So Huntress is not exaggerating when he calls the Plan "our national dream of space exploration." However, he is dead wrong when he says "we didn't do too badly" at it. Actually, we have utterly failed to achieve that dream, for two reasons:

A) the space program outlined by Von Braun in 1952 had excessively grandiose goals and was wildly optimistic in terms of funding and scheduling.

B) the solar system is both a lot more dangerous to human life and a lot less interesting than we thought it was in 1952.

The slavish adherence of NASA to both the spirit and the letter of this unworkable and long-obsolete plan is one of the main root causes of our current mis-direction in space.

Like most space cadets, I learned the Von Braun Master Plan from the later book publications. However, a month or so ago I visited the Mold-Covered Oversized Periodicals section of my local library to read the original magazine articles. Anyone interested in space policy should make this pilgrimage. These articles are brilliant pieces of pro-space propaganda.

The writing is direct and forceful, and the illustrations are stunning. The Bonestell paintings and Fred Freeman cutaway drawings are spread out over two big pages and the quality of the color printing is actually higher than in the books. Even after 50 years in Hawaii's book-hostile climate, the copies I saw were bright and fresh.

But the main reason to seek out and study these particular holy icons is that the COLLIER'S articles contain a lot of specific details of the Von Braun Master Plan that were glossed over or just omitted from the later book publications:

- - COLLIER'S was oriented toward an audience of super-wealthy East Coast Establishment Roosevelt-hating conservatives, so von Braun played up the role of the Space Station as a surveillance and nuclear strike platform. The introduction written by the magazine's ultra-conservative editors is straight Space Power Doctrine: Space is the New High Ground, the Reds are moving to seize it, the Free World will be toast if they do, so we must get there first. I actually turned back to the cover to confirm that this was published on 22 March 1952, over five years before Sputnik 1! This whole military justification is mostly missing from the books.

- - There are some actual numbers in the articles:

  • Von Braun 1952 Ferry Rocket:
  • Lift-off Mass: 7000 tons
  • Fuels: Hydrazine / Nitric Acid (+Hydrogen Peroxide for turbopumps)
  • # of engines: Stage I: 51 / Stage II: 34 / Stage III: 5 (total 90)
  • Up Cargo Mass: 36 tons to 1075-mile polar orbit
  • Flight Rate: 4 launches per day from 2 pads on Johnston Island
  • Stage 1&2 Recovery: Water landing, ribbon parachutes + solid rockets
  • Return to launch site in floating drydocks
  • Turn-Around Time: ~5 days
  • RV Configuration: Winged Canard, ~20deg sweepback on all surfaces
  • Thermal Protection: hot-structure, radiant cooling plus active refrigeration Landing Speed: 63mph
  • Unit Cost: $5.9M per Ferry in FY03 $ (assumes production run of 20)
  • Total Program Cost to 1967: ~$25B in FY03 $ (includes Space Station)

  • A 50-man expedition to the Moon would leave the Station in 1977 and establish a permanent lunar base.

    It is easy to understand why all specific numbers were omitted from the book publication of this scheme (probably censored by Willy Ley, an experienced science popularizer). The flight rate is impossible; it would have taken most of the US Navy's amphibious and salvage ships just to return the huge boosters. The ninety closely-packed engines would have required an extraordinary high level of individual reliability. The reentry vehicle design is unworkable, the rocket engine technology is less advanced than Goddard's Roswell tests of 1938, and Johnston Island is far too small to accommodate the vast facilities needed to refurbish, erect and fuel a 20-Shuttle fleet. [Just after I finished writing the above section, a more technical analysis of von Braun's various Ferry Rocket designs was posted at Mark Wade's indispensable site which takes a different but also highly critical view.]

    But the most absurd aspect of this grandiose proposal is the estimated cost and schedule. In current dollars, the US military services spent about $220B on rocket technology in 1951-63 and NASA then spent another ~$135B on Apollo and ~$30B on Shuttle to the first flight in 1981, a total of about 15 times von Braun's estimate. In return we got a Shuttle fleet that flies about 1/200th as often -- and in the year 2003 (after many billions more) we still don't have a useful space station, much less geologists surveying the Moon from Quonset huts inside a lava tunnel.

    - - The tasks assigned to the Space Station (strategic recon, sea surveillance, weather prediction, Space Telescope, communication) are essentially identical to the main tasks actually done in space 50 years later. The difference is that UNMANNED spacecraft have taken on these functions. The reason von Braun & Co. Didn't realize this would happen is that most of these tasks involved A) imaging, which required film, plates,or MkI eyeballs, or B) tube electronics which required constant repairs back then. Even Arthur C. Clarke admits that he didn't envision unmanned comsats until they actually appeared, and Clarke was involved in advanced radar research during WWII. So von Braun's underlying concept of justifying and subsidizing trips to Moon and Mars with near-term useful sub-projects no longer makes sense. The futile search for alternative "useful" projects for men in space has swallowed up an immense amount of time and money to no good purpose.

    - - The 2-hour polar orbit chosen for the Space Station would be ideal for the tasks proposed. It allows two launch and landing windows per day, and is high enough that air drag is zero and no reboost burns are needed. So why aren't we using this orbit? Because it would put the station in the heart of the lower Van Allen Belt and the crew would die of radiation poisoning. In fact, nowhere in the Plan is there any attention given to the danger of radiation in space, even though cosmic rays were known at the time. Now we know that all deep-space ships and stations will have to carry heavy solar flare shelters, unless we want to play Russian roulette with our crews like the Apollo program did. This makes manned expeditions to the planets much more expensive.

    - - The fantastic Chesley Bonestell paintings of astronauts with toolbelts putting together deep-space vehicles out of free-floating Tinkertoy(TM) parts seem even more fantastic in 2003 than they were in 1953. That is because in 2003 we have all watched the real thing on the NASA Channel so often that we understand that space suits and microgravity make any manual task in space absurdly difficult. Even changing a few black boxes on the Space Telescope is a multi-shift project. If the kind of orbital assembly postulated by the Plan is ever done, it will be by docking together large modules by automatic means. This destroys another major justification for a manned Space Station, whether in LEO or some other point such as currently fashionable SEL-2.

    - - The ultimate goal of the Plan is a manned expedition to Mars. But this Mars is far more interesting and habitable than the real Mars we discovered with robot probes. It has enough air that the astronauts can land horizontally in a glider. It has "canals", vegetation, and maybe primitive animal life. This was not some science-fiction fantasy, but the mainstream scientific view in 1953. (Artist Bonestell was strongly criticized for his harsh landscapes of red rocks and dust, thought by the Mars experts of the time to be not enough like Earth!) The real Mars has none of this interesting stuff. Today's space advocates are reduced to dangling the prospect of fossilized Martian microbes before a jaded audience. (In fact, if there were any real evidence of Martian life, manned exploration would be out of the question, because humans in leaky spacesuits would contaminate the planet with terrestrial microbes.)

    So the Von Braun Master Plan of 1952-53 has turned from a dream into a nightmare. It was never achievable for a price we could have paid, most of the reasons for it are obsolete, and NASA's continued attempts to pursue it have wasted immense amounts of money and political capital that could have been used for another program that makes sense. At every key decision point, NASA's leadership has chosen to laboriously build up another stage in the immense infrastructure needed to carry out the Plan, rather than step back and look for an easier and more productive role for men in space.

    In 1971 they sold Von Braun's Space Station Ferry Rocket to Richard Nixon (camouflaged as a cheap satellite booster), even though Max Faget's ballistic capsules had shown us a better way. In 1984 they sold Von Braun's Tinkertoy(TM) Space Station to Ronald Reagan, even though innumerable studies had shown that a better station could be launched in one piece on a leftover Saturn V. In 1992 they sold the International Tinkertoy(TM) Space Station to Bill Clinton as an anti-nuclear-proliferation project, even though the end of the Cold War gave them a perfect reason to dump it. And now in the Great Crisis of 2003 they want to design TWO MORE Ferry Rockets to replace the dead Shuttle!

    And there has never been any shortage of alternate visions of manned space flight. In the 1970s there were the space colony proposals of Gerard O'Neill. In the 1980s there was a strong push to move space into the private sector. In the 1990s there was Bob Zubrin's Mars Direct. NASA either ignored these alternate visions, or actively fought against them. They are immutably committed to the obsolete vision of manned space flight that is enshrined in those mouldy old magazines.

    Clearly, we need a new program. I'm not sure what that other program should be, but it certainly isn't the one presented by Dr. Huntress at that Congressional hearing. That plan is essentially the Von Braun Plan with yet more costly and unnecessary intermediate steps (like L-2 and asteroids) inserted into the schedule before we finally go to Mars. The space advocacy community needs to come up with some fundamentally new ideas that address the real needs of today and not the vanished demands of the Cold War. Until that happens, the manned space program will continue to chase its tail in Low Earth Orbit..

    Dr. Jeffrey F. Bell is Adjunct Professor of Planetology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the University.

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