Wernher von Braun and Early Concepts for Missions to the Moon and Mars

Cover of Collier’s magazine, April 30, 1954. The ultimate objective for the first set of pioneers was a human expedition to Mars, the arrival of which is depicted in this painting by Chesley Bonestell. It helped to energize public excitement for the possibility of a wondrous future in space.

In the middle part of the twentieth century, as spaceflight appeared on the verge of reality, several individuals began speculating on how to fly to the Moon and Mars. No one was more eloquent in this effort than German engineer Wernher von Braun, the godfather of the V-2 rocket and a postwar immigrant to theUnited States with a contingent of associates who had built this first ballistic missile in human history.

In essence, von Braun envisioned an expedition much like that conducted by Lewis and Clarke on the American frontier. In a 1952 plan, outlined in Collier’s magazine, von Braun described a fifty-person expedition on a six-week reconnaissance of the Moon. Technicians in space suits, von Braun proposed, would assemble three very large spaceships in the vicinity of an orbiting space station. Each spaceship would measure 160 feet in length and, fully fueled, weigh more than 4,000 tons. Two of the ships would carry sufficient fuel to land on the Moon and return to the Earth orbiting station. The third would carry a 75-foot-long cargo container to the lunar landing zone. Once on the lunar surface, astronauts would unload supplies from the cargo container using large construction cranes. The empty cargo container would removed from the landing craft and split in half to create two ready-to-use Quonset huts for the expedition’s base camp.

Wernher von Braun in the 1950s.

Von Braun proposed that astronauts set up their base camp in a crevice beneath a towering mountain range, so as to protect the expedition from cosmic radiation. To do this, astronauts would need to tow their equipment from the landing site to the base camp using three pressurized tractors. “The principal aim of our expedition during this first lunar exploration will be strictly scientific,” von Braun and astronomer Fred Whipple promised, by which they meant that military objectives would not dominate the mission. (At the time he outlined his proposal, von Braun designed missiles for the U.S. Army.)

Expedition leaders would probe the origins of the Moon, conduct experiments, and search for raw materials. They would dispatch ten persons on a ten-day round trip excursion to Crater Harpalus, 250 miles away, proceeding in a convoy of tractors and trailers. Plans called for the expeditionary corps to remain on the Moon for forty-two days.

Artist’s conception of lunar mining, after 2020, artwork by Pat Rawlings. Many believe that the resource rich Moon may one day sustain human efforts to remain in space indefinitely.

Eventually, most thinkers on spaceflight believe that the effort must be self-sustaining and mining Helium-3 (He-3) on the Moon has been advanced by many, especially Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmidt, as a commodity that could pay for itself many times over. It is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron sought after for use in nuclear fusion research. Virtually unknown on Earth, it is thought to be embedded in the upper layer of the lunar regolith by solar wind bombardment over billions of years. Many conceptions of lunar exploitation involve mining this or other rare materials.

In 1948, Wernher von Braun also developed specifications for a Mars expedition which he hoped to present in a science fiction novel. The novel was never published in his lifetime, but the technical plans were.

In von Braun’s view, the first expedition would travel to Mars in a flotilla consisting of ten spaceships. Once in orbit around Mars, von Braun recommended that the expedition team fly to the surface in three airplane-like spacecraft. The first of the three landing craft would descend to the polar ice cap. Its crew would use skids instead of wheels to stop on the ice, the only surface thought sufficiently smooth for a safe landing. Unloading tractors and supplies, the crew would drive 4,000 miles to the Martian equator, where they would prepare a landing strip for the other two planes. For one of von Braun’s books on the exploration of Mars, Chesley Bonestell painted a famous landscape incorporating the winged space planes and the expeditionary corps surveying a desert-like terrain.

Chesley Bonestell's artistic vision of what a Mars landing might look as envisioned in the 1950s.

According to von Braun’s plan, the expedition would remain on Mars for 15 months, waiting for the two planets to realign themselves for the return voyage. Removing the wings from their landing craft, ground crews would set the space planes on their tails. The expedition team would gather on board, blast off, rendezvous with the spacecraft in which they had come, and head home.

Two conclusions are appropriate. First, those early plans for lunar and Martian missions were ambitious and at some level outrageous. Reflecting on them from the twenty-first century, they seem impossible. Have perspectives really changed to much that these ideas are now impossible when they appeared feasible in an earlier era? Second, I am struck by how the scenarios for missions to the Moon and Mars have evolved over time, but also be the continued desire to undertake them.

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17 Responses to Wernher von Braun and Early Concepts for Missions to the Moon and Mars

  1. Spacegary says:

    I don’t believe the Martian atmosphere (at less than 1psi) is dense enough to support winged flight. Was this not known at the time the winged landers were proposed?


    • Rick says:

      No, it wasn’t – the atmosphere was known to be much less dense than Earth’s, but denser than it turned out to be. (Winged aircraft actually could fly on Mars, but only at very high speeds, ~1 km/s – the problem isn’t flying as such, but flying slow enough to land.)


  2. Doug says:

    Wow. I had known of these concepts in abstract, of course, but had no idea that they were quite so ambitious in terms of crew size, flotillas of spacecraft, and astounding surface-driving distances. (I do like the idea of cracking open the cargo container to become the habitat – very clever.)

    Boggles the mind! A little like the “overwhelming force” military doctrine of the Colin Powell. Maybe there’s something to be said for being a little less timid in our thinking.

    Nice article.


  3. Roger:

    Great stuff, as always.

    Your readers might benefit from the following: my book HUMANS TO MARS, available online for free at NASA History, looks at these plans and many more hatched from 1950 through 2000. My blog Beyond Apollo is best summed up by its tag line: “Space history chronicled through missions and programs that didn’t happen.” After all, the vast majority of proposed space projects never even got to the drawing board.


    Until just before Mariner IV reached Mars in 1965, prevailing opinion had it that Mars’s atmospheric pressure was about 10% of Earth’s. The true figure is closer to 1%, not 1 psi.

    Von Braun’s thinking was conditioned by the exploration exploits of his day; for example, Operation High Jump, which saw 4000 men, 13 ships, and 23 aircraft explore Antarctica in 1946-1947. In his The Mars Project, he compared the quantity of propellants needed to launch his Mars flotilla off Earth with the amount of aviation gasoline needed to carry out the Berlin Airlift (1948-1949). He found that launching his Mars expedition would need only 10% as much fuel as the Berlin Airlift. With these big logistical feats occurring as he wrote about his Mars expedition, it’s not too surprising he opted for a big scale.



  4. mike shupp says:

    My recollection is that when questioned about the cost, von Braun argued it would be affordable, as “no more than a theater of war in a broader conflict.” I.e., something about the size/cost of US operations in middle east at present — or several hundred billion dollars per year. In retrospect, that doesn’t look like an especially outrageous number.


  5. Harris Tweed says:

    Your note that 3He is a commodity that could pay for itself many times over is an oft repeated mantra of lunar development advocates. In fact, that might be the case if we knew how to use it to generate energy. Right now, we don’t. So there is a lot of work that needs to be done before the cash starts raining in. Also, it most certainly isn’t “virtually unknown” on Earth. 3He is a natural (but very small — about one part in a million) portion of terrestrial 4He deposits. Many cryo labs have tanks of the stuff for use in dilution refrigerators. It’s not cheap, and they didn’t get it from the Moon, but it’s certainly well known.

    It is indeed remarkable that von Braun was set to justify his huge lunar expedition as being for science. Surely this was a feint, as he was smart enough to know that the nation would never have invested that kind of money in science. It would be interesting to better understand his true motivations for doing it. Perhaps species expansion, and perhaps more likely, given the times, soft-power and some relation to national security.


    • launiusr says:

      Thank for your comment. The question of rationale is the really significant barrier to be overcome in expansive space activities. There has to be a compelling reason for expending the resources necessary to go to the Moon or Mars, etc., and engage in sustained activities there, and thus far we have not found one. The economic motive certainly would change the dynamic, start a 21st century gold rush, etc., and helium3 might be that economic active. We are not there yet, however. I hope I’m around to see it.


    • Paul says:

      Lunar 3He reminds me of the saying “If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” Not only do we not have reactors (and certainly nothing close to an economical reactor) to burn 3He, we are even farther away from being able to mine the material in any practical way. Remember, it occurs in the regolith at maybe 10 parts per billion by mass. Mining 1 ton of 3He means processing 100 million tons of regolith. It’s not even clear this can be done in a way that uses less energy than the 3He would produce.


  6. Tom Matthews says:

    I believe that von Braun’s greatest affect on (contribution to?) to space exploration was to change the way people thought about the possibility of rockets as something more than glorified fireworks. Before the A4/V2 rockets were not taken seriously in the United States, witness the name “Jet Propulsion Laboratory” and the fact that Goddart’s WW II work was on a liquid fuelled rocket system to help aircraft get into the air called JATO (Jet Assisted Take Off). After the A4/V2 big rockets were sexy and every general had to have one.
    The Collier’s magazine articles, the lectures that von Braun was constantly giving, and the Disney TV shows spread the idea that this was something that could happen soon among the American public. The A4/V2 shook lose the money to develop military rockets even if the early ones were poor weapons. The publicity campaign helped convince people it could be done. The problem with big rockets in the 30s and 40s was not that they couldn’t be built, but that no one was silly enough to spend the very large amount of money required to do the engineering.


  7. mclaren says:

    While Van Braun’s dreams remain inspiring and wondrous, as a matter of practical reality none of these schemes falls even remotely into the realm of possibility.

    Consider, first, the issue of “technicians in space suits” assembling giant space vehicles massing more than 4000 tons. We have hard data on the physiological problems involved with EVA work. Astronauts quickly become exhausted.

    “When Eugene Cernan attempted to don a jet-powered backpack on Gemini 9, he was the first to attempt to do susbtantial work during EVA. Cernan quickly found how difficult it was to maintain control of his body position in a completely Newtonian environment. The slightest twist, turn of push against the spacecraft would send his mass flailing away from where he wanted to go. Soon, the stress of his exertions began to take their toll on him, and because his suit could not cope with the heat he was generating, his visor began to fog up on the inside. When he was exhausted, he was called back by his commander, Tom Stafford. Almost unable to see through his visor, he drew himself hand over over hand along his umbilical back to the hatch.” [How Apollo Flew To the Moon, W. David Woods, Springer: 2011, pg.456]

    The likelihood of assembling four million pounds of space vehicle in orbit via EVA seems so outlandish that it’s not worth discussing. This leaves aside the problem of boosting a four million pound payload into orbit. The space shuttle had a payload capacity of 53,600 lbs. To boost four million pounds of payload into earth orbit would require roughly eighty shuttle flights. Given what we now know about the likelihood of fatal accidents, we could expect four shuttle crews to be lost during that effort. The degree to which public support for such an exterprise would erode after the fourth shuttle explosion seems to require no comment.

    But wait. It gets worse.

    Galactic cosmic rays would blast through the astronauts on a Mars mission during their eighteen-month-long trip, giving them a fatal dose of radiation. Any astronauts would be dead long before they reached Mars. If GCRs didn’t kill them, the lack of gravity would produce such extreme osteoporosis after eighteen months that the astronauts’ bones would fracture as soon as they set foot on Mars. Of course, once on Mars, with its near-total lack of magnetic field, they would against themselves subjected to merciless bombardment by galactic cosmic rays (heavy nuclei accelerated to near relativistic speeds by cosmic phenomena). So our putative Mars explorers would find that their first job would involve digging deep bunkers under the Martian soil so they could huddle deep underground and operate exploratory probes by remote control.

    There seems no point in a manned Mars expedition. We might as well operate the remote probes from earth, rather than having astronauts huddle deep underground in bunkers on Mars doing it.

    Manned lunar bases and manned lunar exploration requires no discussion, since the moon entirely lacks any resources that would justify sending humans there. Since the moon looms so close to earth (roughly one light second away), any presence on the moon should clearly be robotic rather than human.

    The dreams of space travel proved delightful during the middle of the twentieth century. Reality, it turns out, fails to accommodate such fantasies.


    • @mclaren. Your points about building large structures have merit. However, I don’t think you can use the very first example of someone trying to do work on an EVA, rather than just floating around for show, as justification. NASA learned a lot from Cernan’s unsuccessful EVA. The construction of the ISS is the result and presumably it provides much more valid data on the physiological problems of EVA. It’s like saying we shouldn’t build pavements or sidewalks because a 1-year-old had difficulty taking two strides.


  8. Pingback: Ep. 340: Wernher von Braun | Astronomy Cast

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