The Mars Project! Von Braun’s Ideas for a Mars Mission. Collaboration with Vintage Space

The Mars Project! Von Braun’s Ideas for a Mars Mission. Collaboration with Vintage Space


Did you know that it’s been almost 45 years
since humans walked on the surface of the Moon? Of course you do. Anyone who loves space exploration obsesses
about the last Apollo landings, and counts the passing years of sadness. Sure, SpaceX, Blue Origins and the new NASA
Space Launch Systems rocket offer a tantalizing future in space. But 45 years. Ouch, so much lost time. What would happen if we could go back in time? What amazing and insane plans did NASA have
to continue exploring the Solar System? What alternative future could we have now,
45 years later? In order to answer this question, I’ve teamed
up with my space historian friend, Amy Shira Teitel, who runs the Vintage Space blog and
YouTube Channel. We’ve decided to look at two groups of missions
that never happened. In her part, Amy talks about the Apollo Applications
Program; NASA’s original plans before the human exploration of the Moon was shut down. More Apollo missions, the beginnings of a
lunar base, and even a human flyby of Venus. In my half of the series, I look at Werner
Von Braun’s insanely ambitious plans to send a human mission to Mars. Put our two episodes together and you can
imagine a space exploration future with all the ambition of the Kerbal Space Program. Keep mind here that we’re not going to constrain
ourselves with the pesky laws of physics, and the reality of finances. These ideas were cool, and considered by NASA
engineers, but they weren’t necessarily the best ideas, or even feasible. So, 2 parts, tackle them in any order you
like. My part begins right now. Werner Von Braun, of course, was the architect
for NASA’s human spaceflight efforts during the space race. It was under Von Braun’s guidance that NASA
developed the various flight hardware for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions including
the massive Saturn V rocket, which eventually put a human crew of astronauts on the Moon
and safely returned them back to Earth. Von Braun was originally a German rocket scientist,
pivotal to the Nazi “rocket team”, which developed the ballistic V-2 rockets. These unmanned rockets could carry a 1-tonne
payload 800 kilometers away. They were developed in 1942, and by 1944 they
were being used in war against Allied targets. By the end of the war, Von Braun coordinated
his surrender to the Allies as well as 500 of his engineers, including their equipment
and plans for future rockets. In “Operation Paperclip”, the German scientists
were captured and transferred to the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where
they would begin working on the US rocket efforts. Before the work really took off, though, Von
Braun had a couple of years of relative downtime, and in 1947 and 1948, he wrote a science fiction
novel about the human exploration of Mars. The novel itself was never published, because
it was terrible, but it also contained a detailed appendix containing all the calculations,
mission parameters, hardware designs to carry out this mission
to Mars. In 1952, this appendix was published in Germany
as “Das Marsproject”, or “The Mars Project”. And an English version was published a few
years later. Collier’s Weekly Magazine did an 8-part
special on the Mars Project in 1952, captivating the world’s imagination. With a little Googling, you should be able
to get your hands on the original Mars Project book, or the Colliers magazine. I’ll put a link in the notes. Here’s the plan: In the Mars Project, Von
Braun envisioned a vast armada of spaceships that would make the journey from Earth to
Mars. They would send a total of 10 giant spaceships,
each of which would weigh about 4,000 tonnes. Just for comparison, a fully loaded Saturn
V rocket could carry about 140 tonnes of payload into Low Earth Orbit. In other words, they’d need a LOT of rockets. Von Braun estimated that 950 three-stage rockets
should be enough to get everything into orbit. All the ships would be assembled in orbit,
and 70 crewmembers would take to their stations for an epic journey. They’d blast their rockets and carry out
a Mars Hohmann transfer, which would take them 8 months to make the journey from Earth
to Mars. The flotilla consisted of 7 orbiters, huge
spheres that would travel to Mars, go into orbit and then return back to Earth. It also consisted of 3 glider landers, which
would enter the Martian atmosphere and stay on Mars. Once they reached the Red Planet, they would
use powerful telescopes to scan the Martian landscape and search for safe and scientifically
interesting landing spots. The first landing would happen at one of the
planet’s polar caps, which Von Braun figured was the only guaranteed flat surface for a
landing. At this point, it’s important to note that
Von Braun assumed that the Martian atmosphere was about as thick as Earth’s. He figured you could use huge winged gliders
to aerobrake into the atmosphere and land safely on the surface. He was wrong. The atmosphere on Mars is actually only 1%
as thick as Earth’s, and these gliders would never work. Newer missions, like SpaceX’s Red Dragon
and Interplanetary Transport Ship will use rockets to make a powered landing. I think if Von Braun knew this, he could have
modified his plans to still make the whole thing work. Once the first expedition landed at one of
the polar caps, they’d make a 6,400 kilometer journey across the harsh Martian landscape
to the first base camp location, and build a landing strip. Then two more gliders would detach from the
flotilla and bring the majority of the explorers to the base camp. A skeleton crew would remain in orbit. Once again, I think it’s important to note
that Von Braun didn’t truly understand how awful the surface of Mars really is. The almost non-existent atmosphere and extreme
cold would require much more sophisticated gear than he had planned for. But still, you’ve got to admire his ambition. At this point in the story, Von Braun’s
Mars adventurers have set up shop on the surface of the Red Planet, and shortly, I’ll let
you know the thrilling conclusion. First, though, it’s time to thank a few
of our amazing patrons Matt Dalpe, Tripp Bishop, Terri Harshman, JMAutobot, and the rest of
our 731 patrons for their generous support. If you love what we’re doing and want to
help out, head over to patreon.com/universetoday. With the Mars explorer team on the ground,
their first task was to turn their glider-landers into rockets again. They would stand them up and get them prepped
to blast off from the surface of Mars when their mission was over. The Martian explorers would set up an inflatable
habitat, and then spend the next 400 days surveying the area. Geologists would investigate the landscape,
studying the composition of the rocks. Botanists would study the hardy Martian plant
life, and seeing what kinds of Earth plants would grow. Zoologists would study the local animals,
and help figure out what was dangerous and what was safe to eat. Archeologists would search the region for
evidence of ancient Martian civilizations, and study the vast canal network seen from
Earth by astronomers. Perhaps they’d even meet the hardy Martians
that built those canals, struggling to survive to this day. Once again, in the 1940s, we thought Mars
would be like the Earth, just more of a desert. There’d be plants and animals, and maybe
even people adapted to the hardy environment. With our modern knowledge, this sounds quaint
today. The most brutal desert on Earth is a paradise
compared to the nicest place on Mars. Von Braun did the best he could with the best
science of the time. Finally, at the end of their 400 days on Mars,
the astronauts would blast off from the surface of Mars, meet up with the orbiting crew, and
the entire flotilla would make the return journey to Earth using the minimum-fuel Mars-Earth
transfer trajectory. Although Von Braun got a lot of things wrong
about his Martian mission plan, such as the thickness of the atmosphere and habitability
of Mars, he got a lot of things right. He anticipated a mission plan that required
the least amount of fuel, by assembling pieces in orbit, using the Hohmann transfer trajectory,
exploring Mars for 400 days to match up Earth and Mars orbits. He developed the concept of using orbiters,
detachable landing craft and ascent vehicles, used by the Apollo Moon missions. The missions never happened, obviously, but
Von Braun’s ideas served as the backbone for all future human Mars mission plans. I’d like to give a massive thanks to the
space historian David S.F. Portree. He wrote an amazing book called Humans to
Mars, which details 50 years of NASA plans to send humans to the Red Planet, including
a fantastic synopsis of the Mars Project. I’ll put a link to his book in the show
notes. I asked David about how Von Braun’s ideas
influenced human spaceflight, he said it was his… “The reliance on a conjunction-class long-stay
mission lasting 400 days. That was gutsy – in the 1960s, NASA and contractor
planners generally stuck with opposition-class short-stay missions. In recent years we’ve seen more emphasis on
the conjunction-class mission mode, sometimes with a relatively short period on Mars but
lots of time in orbit, other times with almost the whole mission spent on the surface.” Well, what do you think about Von Braun’s
ambitious plans to send humans to Mars? How do you think this compares to our more
modern plans? Are there other ideas about the human colonization
of Mars you’d like me to look into? What would you like Amy and I to investigate
next? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Next episode. Fusion, it’ll be about fusion. Seriously. Maybe? Want more? As I said, this is a collaboration with Amy
Shira Teitel, so you’re going to watch what she’s got to say about the mission Moon
missions. I’ve created a playlist that starts with
Amy’s video, and then carries on to other related videos about the Von Braun plans including
recreations in Kerbal Space Program. Click here to get started. And then return back to Mearth. Karla: Mearth? Back to Mearth.