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

Humans to Mars!

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 it together with Amy’s episode 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.

Wernher von Braun. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

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.

Von Braun and others standing in front a V-2 rocket engine at White Sands. Credit: U.S. Army/ Ordway Collection/Space Rocket Center

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.

The Mars Project

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.

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.

Ships being assembled in orbit. Credit: Collier’s

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.

A rocket-powered glider descending towards Mars. Credit: Collier’s

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.

Landed at the polar cap. Credit: Collier’s

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.

Preparing the gliders for rocket-powered ascent. Credit: Collier’s

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.

The planned trajectories to and from Mars. Credit: Collier’s

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 asked David about how Von Braun’s ideas influenced human spaceflight, he said it was his…

“… 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.”

RAISE: How to Capture 1,500 Solar Images in a Five Minute Flight

Quick: how do you aim an instrument at the Sun from a moving rocket on a fifteen minute suborbital flight?

The answer is very carefully, and NASA plans to do just that today, Thursday, November 6th as the Rapid Acquisition Imaging Spectrograph Experiment, also known as RAISE, takes to the skies over White Sands, New Mexico, to briefly study the Sun.

Capturing five images per second, RAISE is expected to gather over 1,500 images during five minutes of data collection near apogee.

Why use sub-orbital sounding rockets to do observations of the Sun? Don’t we already have an armada of space and ground-based instruments to accomplish this that stare at our nearest star around the clock? Well, it turns out that sounding rockets are still cost-effective means of testing and demonstrating new technologies.

“Even on a five-minute flight, there are niche areas of science we can focus on well,” said solar scientist Don Hassler of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado in a recent press release. “There are areas of the Sun that need to be examined with the high-cadence observations that we can provide.”

Indeed, there’s a long history of studying the Sun by use of high-altitude sounding rockets, starting with the detection of solar X-rays by a detector placed in a captured V-2 rocket launched from White Sands in 1949.

Credit: NASA.
Sub-orbital astronomy in 5 minutes: the flight of a sounding rocket. Credit: NASA.

RAISE will actually scrutinize an active region of the Sun turned Earthward during its brief flight to create what’s known as a spectrogram, or an analysis of solar activity at differing wavelengths. This gives scientists a three dimensional layered snapshot of solar activity, as different wavelengths correspond to varying velocities of solar material and wavelengths. Think of looking at layers of cake. This, in turn, paints a picture of how material is circulated and moved around the surface of the Sun.

This will be RAISE’s second flight, and this week’s launch will sport a brand new diffraction grating coated with boron carbide to enhance wavelength analysis. RAISE will also look at the Sun in the extreme ultraviolet which cannot penetrate the Earth’s lower atmosphere. Technology pioneered by missions such as RAISE may also make its way into space permanently on future missions, such as the planned European Space Agency and NASA joint Solar Orbiter Mission, set for launch in 2017. The Solar Orbit Mission will study the Sun close up and personal, journeying only 26 million miles or 43 million kilometres from its surface, well inside the perihelion of the planet Mercury.

“This is the second time we have flown a RAISE payload, and we keep improving it along the way,” Hassler continued. “This is a technology that is maturing relatively quickly.”

As you can imagine, RAISE relies on clear weather for a window to launch. RAISE was scrubbed for launch on November 3rd, and the current window for launch is set for 2:07 PM EST/19:07 Universal Time, which is 12:07 PM MST local time at White Sands. Unlike the suborbital launches from Wallops Island, the White Sands launches aren’t generally carried live, though they tend to shut down US highway 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo that bisects White Sands just prior to launch.

Currently, the largest sunspot turned forward towards the Earth is active region 2205.

Another recent mission lofted by a sounding rocket to observe the Sun dubbed Hi-C was highly successful during its short flight in 2013.

RAISE will fly on a Black Brant sounding rocket, which typically reaches an apogee of 180 miles or 300 kilometres.

Credit: NASA/SDO
A look at recent solar activity coming around the solar limb to be targeted by RAISE. Credit: NASA/SDO

Unfortunately, the massive sunspot region AR2192 is currently turned away from the Earth and will effectively be out of RAISE’s view. The largest in over a decade, the Jupiter sized sunspot wowed viewers of the final solar eclipse of 2014 just last month. This large sunspot group will most likely survive its solar farside journey and reappear around the limb of the Sun sometime after November 9th, good news if RAISE is indeed scrubbed today due to weather.

And our current solar cycle has been a very schizophrenic one indeed. After a sputtering start, solar cycle #24 has been anemic at best, with the Sun struggling to come out of a profound minimum, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in over a century. And although October 2014 produced a Jupiter-sized sunspot that was easily seen with eclipse glasses, you wouldn’t know that we’ve passed a solar maximum from looking at the Sun now. In fact, there’s been talk among solar astronomers that solar cycle #25 may be even weaker, or absent all together.

All this makes for fascinating times to study our sometimes strange star. RAISE observations will also be coordinated with views from the Solar Dynamics Observatory and the joint NASA-JAXA Hinode satellites in Earth orbit. We’ll also be at White Sands National Park today, hoping the get a brief view of RAISE as it briefly touches space.

It’s a great time for solar astronomy!

HI-C Returns Most Detailed Images Ever of the Sun’s Corona

NASA’s High Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C) mission, launched Wednesday, July 11 from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, successfully returned (as promised!) the highest-resolution images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired. These images of the dynamic million-degree region of the Sun’s atmosphere will provide scientists with more information on the complex activity found near the Sun’s surface and how it affects space weather throughout the Solar System.

Launched aboard a 58-foot-tall (17 meter) Black Brant sounding rocket, Hi-C was equipped with exceptionally well-made mirrors — some of the finest ever made, according to the mission report. These mirrors allowed Hi-C to image a section of the Sun’s corona in extreme ultraviolet light with a resolution of 0.1 arcsec/pixel, distinguishing features as small as 135 miles (217 km) across. That’s five times the resolution of SDO images, or any previous space telescope for that matter.

That’s like the difference between watching a program on a tube television and an HD flatscreen monitor.

The image below shows the same region as seen by SDO’s AIA array and Hi-C’s innovative mirror-and-“light-maze” system:

Read: NASA to Launch the Finest Mirrors Ever Made

“These revolutionary images of the sun demonstrate the key aspects of NASA’s sounding rocket program, namely the training of the next generation of principal investigators, the development of new space technologies, and scientific advancements,” said Barbara Giles, director for NASA’s Heliophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

During its 620-second suborbital flight, Hi-C took 165 images of a section of the Sun’s corona 135,000 miles (271,000 km) across, capturing wavelengths of light at 193 Angstroms emitted by the Sun’s super-hot 1.5 million kelvin corona. The images were focused on a large sunspot region, whose position was accurately predicted 27 days prior to launch.

“We have an exceptional instrument and launched at the right time,” said Jonathan Cirtain, senior heliophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. “Because of the intense solar activity we’re seeing right now, we were able to clearly focus on a sizeable, active sunspot and achieve our imaging goals.”

Even though Hi-C’s flight only lasted ten minutes, of which 330 seconds were used for acquiring images, the amount of data gathered will be used by researchers for months.

“Even though this mission was only a few minutes long, it marks a big breakthrough in coronal studies,” said Leon Golub, lead investigator from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “The Hi-C flight might be the most productive five minutes I’ve ever spent.”

Watch a 10-second video of the region shown above, seen from both Hi-C and SDO:

Read more about the Hi-C mission results here.

Image credits: NASA