Wernher von Braun's 1950s plan to get humanity to Mars

Before Wernher von Braun designed the mammoth Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon, the German rocket scientist nursed a dream to see men travel to Mars. In the 1940s, he started studying different Mars missions that were ahead of their time but feasible with the technology and techniques he had at his disposal at the time.

Wernher von Braun, Rocket Scientist

During the Second World War, Third Reich scientist Wernher von Braun gained notoriety as the technical director behind the V-2, the missile that dropped bombs on London in the closing months of the war. The technology behind the V-2, which was a liquid-fueled rocket with a bomb as payload, caught the attention of the American military. It wasn't hard to see how having that technology in the U.S. would be beneficial. After the close of the war, von Braun turned himself in to U.S. troops and was eventually brought to America with 110 of his hand-picked engineers under Project Paperclip.

The group's first stop was Fort Bliss in Texas, where they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army. While there, von Braun wrote his first plan for a mission to Mars in his spare time. First published in German as Das Marsprojekt in 1948 and later translated as Project Mars in 1952, von Braun's was an audacious vision. It wasn't a preliminary mission of exploration like the two-man Apollo Moon landings he would later help engineer. The idea was for a large-scale mission modeled after the international scientific expeditions that traveled and set up camp in the Antarctic.

Von Braun's Mars Project

The mission parameters called for 70 men to travel to Mars in 10 spacecraft. The men would travel in groups of 10 divided between seven passenger ships equipped with 20-meter-in-diameter habitation spheres. The other three ships were unmanned cargo vessels that would each carry winged landing vehicles and substantial fuel stores and supplies for the whole expedition.

This was to be a massive fleet, far too large to launch from Earth at once. Even the individual ships, weighing a staggering 3,720 metric tons each, were too heavy to launch on a single rocket. So von Braun proposed launching the 10 spacecraft in pieces using fully recoverable and reusable three-stage rockets that could deliver 25 metric tons of cargo and 14.5 metric tons of propellant each. From there the ships would be assembled in Earth orbit at an altitude of about 1,075 miles. Even with this plan in mind, it was still a colossal operation. All told, it would take 950 launches on 46 of these fully reusable rockets over eight months. The proposed launch site, Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean, would be extremely busy that year.

Mars-fleet-by-Bonestell01.jpg

A fleet much like von Braun describes being assembled in orbit.
(Image Credit: Chelsey Bonestell/Collier's, via Paleofuture)

After the eight-month building period when all 10 ships were assembled, fueled and manned, they would fire their engines for 66 full minutes — a burn that would consume more than three-quarters of the propellant on board — and set off for Mars. The plan was for the ships to go into an orbit around the Sun that would have them intersect with Mars after a 260-day cruise. During the journey, small space boats would shuttle crew members and supplies between the main ships.

Upon reaching Mars, each ship would fire its engine again. This time, the burn would slow their speed enough to enter into orbit around Mars. The crew would jettison the empty fuel tanks as the spacecraft became new satellites orbiting the equator of the red planet about 621 miles above the surface.

After a brief stay in orbit the crew would split up. One landing boat would separate from the pack and maneuver to a Martian pole. The crew would use telescopes to pick a good landing spot: ideally on a long stretch of snow or ice, since their vehicle was the only one with skis instead of wheels as landing gear. They would de-orbit and glide in the winged vehicle to a smooth landing — it would look a little like the space shuttle landing.

This glider's trip was one way. Instead of an ascent vehicle it carried pressurized habitat-crawlers to the surface. The glider's crew would move into these habitat-crawlers after landing and spend about 80 days traveling to the Martian equator. There, they would build a landing strip, which was a necessary construction since the other two gliders used wheels for landing gear and would need the smooth surface.

These wheeled gliders, unlike the glider with skis, had an ascent stage the crew would use to return to orbit. As soon as they landed on the constructed runway, the crew turned the gliders horizontal. This gave everyone a quick escape in case on an emergency.

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Explorers and rockets on the surface of Mars.
(Image Credit: Chelsey Bonestell/Collier's, via Paleofuture)

The surface crew of 50 men would have 400 days to explore the surface of Mars; the other 20 would stay in orbit, minding the ships, making observations and conducting remote surveys of the planet.

To leave the planet, the landed crew would launch inside the upright winged gliders and rendezvous with the orbiting ships. The crew would transfer materials collected from the surface into the main vehicles before abandoning their gliders. Burning the engines again would send the whole fleet back to Earth, another 260 day trip. At Earth, the crew would fire their vehicles one last time to get into orbit around our home planet before returning to the surface in specialized shuttles.

The Reality and Shortcomings

Von Braun's plan was feasible give the chemical propulsion and technology of the day. "Neither the scale nor the expense would seem out of proportion to the capabilities of the expedition or to the results anticipated," he wrote in the introduction. He noted that the total fuel needed for the mission, an impressive 5,320,000 metric tons of propellant, was only 10% of the amount delivered in the Berlin Airlift and would cost only $4 million. "The logistic requirements for a large, elaborate expedition to Mars are no greater than those for a minor military operation extending over a limited theatre of war."

The only problem with this proposal, aside from the size and weight that would prohibit any like mission flying in today's climate, is that Von Braun didn't have the knowledge of Mars we have now when he wrote that proposal. Some of his method wouldn't work, though he recognized that the number of unknowns associated with his type of mission wasn't insignificant.

In 1948, the intensity of cosmic and solar rays and the likelihood of being struck by a meteoroid were both unknown. For this mission to work the crew would need substantially better shielding throughout the interplanetary flight. The Van Allen belts, belts of radiation surrounding the Earth created by the planet's magnetic field, were likewise unknown in 1948, so assembling the fleet at 1,075 miles out wouldn't work. That's right in the lower Van Allen belt, a region where there's enough radiation to seriously damage human tissue and cause cancerous mutations.

Von Braun did suggest that prolonged exposure to zero gravity could have adverse effects on the crew. He suggested tethering passenger ships together and spinning them to create artificial gravity for the crew. He also suggested that a small number of ships could be added to the fleet as dedicated gravity ships. They could spin all the time, providing a place for the crew to go for a few hours of fitness training every day.

Navigation was another problem without a solution in von Braun's proposal. Without a good handle on navigation in deep space, he assumed the crew would use stars and planets as guides to stay on track. That, and the Martian atmosphere was another unknown for von Braun. Just one percent as thick as ours, gliders wouldn't be able to make the smooth landings he imagined.

Von Braun's Changing View of Mars

The book spawned a series of articles that appeared in Collier's magazine in the 1950s. It brought this plan, among other proposed future mission, to the American public. But by then his vision had changed. In 1948, he pictured this mission launching in 1965. By 1954, he thought it would be at least a century before men ventured to Mars. "Will man ever go to Mars?" he wrote in an April 30, 1954 article in Collier's. "I am sure he will — but it will be a century or more before he's ready." There was more to learn, he said, citing space stations as the test ground for these big missions to Mars.

More than 60 years after the original work, we're no closer to seeing von Braun's future realized, though we may be on track for his revised future mission around 2054.

Amy Shira Teitel is a space historian with a lifelong passion for the space race in all its technological, political and human glory. A space writer and blogger, all her work can be found on her website, www.amyshirateitel.com.

Editor's Note: By happy coincidence, Paleofuture's Matt Novak very recently dove into the 1950s Collier's article here. Highly recommended reading as a companion to this piece.

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