by Vittorio Compagno
A bright red sphere millions of kilometers from here is what Mars meant for most people throughout human history. At first, it was just dance on the stage where the Sun and other stars revolved around the Earth, a luminous celestial body with its reddish reflections, until finally we recognized it as a planet.
Before recent space missions, little was known about the red planet, even if scientists observed its landscapes with telescopes, speculating what was out there.
They saw its white poles, dark spots here and there, and its amber color that fired the imagination of our forebears, who honored it by naming it after the god of war.
But it wasn’t only desolation people saw in those landscapes, they claimed to have seen vegetation amid those dark spots, other treasures in those red lands, perhaps signs of a civilization.
Martian fever overcame some who imagined that a spaceship, made of some esoteric technology, could traverse the 60 million kilometers between here and there.
And so the ingenuous dreamers of earlier times could not help but think of rivers of cities, entire civilizations that would have developed in that world that only later would have shown themselves to be barren and lifeless. From that mystery and ingenuity are born “Across the Zodiac“, “The War of the Worlds“ and “A Princess of Mars”, and other hundreds of books that inspired scientists, engineers, and film directors.
During the post-war era, a fertile ground for the science fiction genre, literature about the red planet proliferated, supported by giants like Arthur C. Clarke with award-winning books like “The Sands of Mars” and Wernher Von Braun’s “Project Mars”.
Von Braun creates a new genre, a “Technical Tale,” which probably represents one of the most important works in the history of space exploration.
To understand why, we first have to explore the life of the controversial German engineer.
Who was Wernher Von Braun?
Born in Wirsitz, Prussia (now Poland) in 1912 to a wealthy family, the young Von Braun displayed a peculiar intelligence, but a dislike for mathematics. One day his father gave him a book called: “Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen” (“The Rocket into Interplanetary Space”), by Hermann Oberth.
While the book captivated him and the idea of rocketry excited him, the mathematics necessary for the study of the subject held him back.
Frustrated by his ignorance, Von Braun soon covered the mathematical gaps in his knowledge, graduating in 1932 in mechanical engineering in Berlin. The passion for rockets in the mind of the young Von Braun was a reflection, a consequence of his love and dream of space exploration.
However, when the Second World War broke out, it did not take long for Von Braun to move up the ranks and to become a high-ranked general.
At the head of the German missile department, he invented the first short, medium and long range guided missiles in the history of mankind, the V-1 and V-2, which were mass produced at Peenemünde, where Von Braun worked as a Obergruppenführer.
The scientist was tried for war crimes after the war, as he was suspected of exploiting political dissidents in the Peenemünde missile factories, accusations confirmed later by survivors who worked there.
Von Braun would have had to face the death penalty, not uncommon for those who committed crimes of that kind, but along with his own surrender, he delivered to the American army a group of first-rate engineers, as well as a train of V2 missiles. His wits were such not to be wasted. Despite this, then president Eisenhower, decided that the German engineer had to stay in solitary confinement for some time, partly for his sins, partly to avoid alarming the U.S population about the presence of ex-Nazi generals on American soil.
The Technical Tale
It was in a military camp in Texas that Von Braun wrote, from ’46 to ’48, “Das MarsProjekt”, an astronautics treatise with one goal: illustrate the technical challenges of reaching the red planet.
Von Braun theorizes the presence of a space station orbiting in low earth orbit, a sort of shipyard where ships that will go to Mars are assembled, which he calls Lunetta. He also reported all the data, and calculations, such as the number of spaceships needed for the mission, or the number of flights from Earth to Lunetta to build them, the methods of propulsion, landing and moving on the Martian surface.
The ability to ideally weave a whole space exploration operation during isolation in a military camp, despite the limitations of the knowledge of his time, is impressive, and gives an idea of the true genius of Von Braun.
After 1946, the German scientist was rehabilitated, and began a career in the missile department of the US Army. It was in those days that the engineer understood the importance of popular and political consent, and transformed Das Marsprojekt into a Technical Tale, thus creating both a technical treatise and a novel.
Rocket Science and Disney
Von Braun’s story, characters and personality attracted the attention of the man who, more than anyone, knew how to channel people’s emotions, Walt Disney. The two started a collaboration that included the production of television programs, between 1955 and 1957, with topics such as space exploration and the great inventions that would come with that. The show had a huge success, roughly 42 million Americans watched it, despite television being a new technology, and the American population half the current one. The public was rapidly becoming attached to the idea of interplanetary travel.
Shortly after, NASA was founded in 1958, the Sputnik space program began a year earlier, and the space race began, in the midst of the Cold War.
Once again Von Braun proved to be ahead of his time, and having become director of NASA in 1960, carried out the Saturn program, which landed the first man on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission. His jewel, the Saturn V, is unique to this day, a marvel no longer duplicatable for the number of parts, complexity and power.
That same power, thought Von Braun, could have brought humans to Mars.
Why aren’t we on Mars yet?
Thinking about the Saturn V, it would be natural to ask whether that colossus, engineering marvel of its time, could also have pointed to Mars.
Von Braun thought that as well right after the success of the Apollo missions, and in August 1969, a month after the famous moon landing, he gave a speech at the Congress, asking for funding for the next big leap in space exploration.
The mission would have taken place in 1981, and, according to Von Braun, would have been financially achievable.
But what was initially considered a war of second order, the war in Vietnam, continued indefinitely, and the attention of the public, politics and lobbies shifted towards raising funds for the armed forces.
So, Von Braun’s proposal was denied, despite the engineer leading humanity to the moon, and US space policy headed in a direction that Von Braun did not agree with. That’s the reason why in 1972 he resigned from NASA. The consequent dismantling of the Saturn rockets marked the end of an era for space exploration, doomed to be ignored by governments for the years to come.
The hope of setting foot on Mars before the end of the millennium, as well as the space race died the day Wernher Von Braun left NASA.
Where are we today?
Over the years, NASA has made some mistakes, such as the Space Shuttle program, but has had significant successes, such as the Hubble telescope, Opportunity rovers, Curiosity and Perseverance.
But it has become clear that an organizatin so tied to the political will of a single country, and to the availability of funds allocated by that government, cannot be the leader of humanity in space exploration.
For this reason, in the last decade, new energy has arisen from the private sector and from other countries focusing on space exploration, trade and tourism.
From Virgin Galactic, which promises hotels around Earth’s orbit, to Elon Musk’s SpaceX ,which technologically proved to be further ahead than NASA itself, it is clear that much of the future of space exploration will lie in the hands of private companies. In any case, even if Von Braun’s dreams did not come true at his time, humankind will set foot on Mars before 2050, and a new era will begin for humanity.
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Other posts on space exploration in the blog include the Kepler Mission, Exoplanets, and the Voyager Missions.
The blog’s last post focused on DNA DAY.
A general in Hitler’s SS accused of abusing slave workers in Germany’s wartime rocket factories. I’d say definitively a flawed human being.
Indeed yes, and von Braun could have been more flawed than most. Yet his vision for space exploration elevates humanity, even if other aspects of his life denigrated it.
Life, and people, are rarely black and white.
I’ve heard it said all heroes are @ssholes.