Watching the Space Race: A Better Engineer than Economist

by Walt Staples

The face of America's space effort from early on was Dr. Wernher von Braun. In the mid-to-late 50s, we kids became aware of him and indulged in some harmless hero worship. I first saw him on Walt Disney's “Disneyland” TV show, when von Braun appeared in “Disney's Man in Space” episodes (“Man in Space”--spring 1955—and “Man and the Moon”--Christmas 1955). He had everything going for him that NASA could ask for; good looks, a slight German accent, a comfortable speaking style, and the ability to make you believe that manned space flight was just around the corner. This was increased by the release of his movie biography in 1960, “I Aim at the Stars,” in which he's portrayed by the guy who played the honorable U-Boat skipper opposite Robert Mitchum in “The Enemy Below” (Curt Jurgens).

Half a century later, feelings about von Braun are rather more mixed. One of the problems with being an adult is that your heroes become real people having the warts with which we're all prone.  Like most of us, he had a history—in his case, one NASA's PR folks would have cringed over if it had been noised around at the time. Whether there was guilt or innocence, I'll let the final Arbiter decide. Instead, there's von Braun and his vision and the fact that he was no economist.

Looking at a manned flight to Mars, as depicted in his books, Project Mars: A Technical Tale (1950) and The Mars Project (1953), one must admit that the man thought big.

The first step he called for was to lift the parts required to build ten interplanetary ships for the flight to Mars to Earth orbit. According to the 1953 book, three of the craft would be winged landers and the rest would carry consumables to Mars orbit and return. To lift these parts and consumables would require 950 flights to low MEO (Medium Earth Orbit*) by 46 three-stage transports, each of which would carry a payload of 80,000 pounds (36,290 kg). Each flight would burn 11,166,000 pounds (5,064,812 kg) of propellant—the total for all the flights would run to 10,640,000,000 pounds (4,826222,817 kg)--as he helpfully points out, this is about ten times the total amount of fuel used during the 1948 Berlin airlift or about 443 tankers of the period having a displacement of 12,000 tons. He figures this would cost about $500,000,000 in 1953 dollars using $100 per ton (about a nickle a pound or approximately seven times what a gallon of gasoline would have cost at the time—as a WAG on my part, this comes out to something like $7,600,000,000 in present day dollars). And yes, we are throwing around units of billions here, boys and girls. To help visualize the amount we're talking about, NASA's total budget for 2010 was $18,724,000,000 (its initial budget of $89,000,000 when started in 1957 was equivalent to $448,000,000 in 2007 dollars). Mind you, that this is merely the fuel cost to MEO; it doesn't include the fabrication of any of the spacecraft, either orbital or interplanetary, their crewing and supplies, or ground support. On these small items, his book is silent.

Once the parts were in orbit and the interplanetary craft were assembled and stocked, the 70 man crew (and remember, this is 1953, so it would be “man”) would depart Earth orbit and begin their 260 day-long voyage to Mars orbit.

On reaching Mars, the three “landing boats” carrying a total of 50 men would use their extremely large wings to make aircraft-type landings on the surface. The wings in question would be required to give lift in an atmosphere whose pressure he gives as 1/12th that of Earth's 15 pounds per square inch at sea level (63 N). Von Braun considered this offset somewhat by the lighter Martian gravity which he gives as .38 G. The first lander would make a ski-equipped landing in the polar region. The crew would then abandon the spacecraft, trek to the Martian Equator, and prepare a landing strip for the other two wheel-equipped  landers.

After 400 days on the surface, the pair of Equatorial landers, with wings removed and fuselages raised to a vertical orientation, would return to Mars orbit where they would be abandoned. The total crew would then depart in the remaining spacecraft on their 260 day flight back to Earth orbit, where they would transfer to winged transports for return to the surface.

To my mind, von Braun envisioned an effort on the scale of the Manhattan Project. In his novel, Project Mars: A Technical Tale, he puts forth a UN-like “World Legislature” that fulfills the mission (one suspects that the book was largely finished before Kim Jong-un's grandaddy decided that he wanted all of Korea and came boiling across the 38th Parallel in the summer of 1950). The reason for this massive push is the evidence that Mars supported intelligent life (another thing to remember, Martian canals were still fairly respectable into the 1960s. It wasn't until the 1965 Mariner 4 flyby that the stake was finally driven into their hearts). Unfortunately, here von Braun's imagination falters, and the reader learns that the inhabitants of Mars are just folks like us (though having big heads, of course, and being much wiser and friendly—haven't I tripped over this meme somewhere before?).

The result leaves me, at least, of the opinion that Wernher von Braun was a far better engineer than a economist--or a xenobiologist.

*   LEO = up to 1,243 miles [2,000 km]--MEO = from LEO to GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit), 22,236 miles [35,786 km]

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