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.
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.
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.
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.