Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Truly Trivial: How did Wernher von Braun try to jumpstart a US space program a decade before NASA?

Dr. von Braun Standing by Five F-1 Engines A p...Image via Wikipedia
If one were to construct a Mt. Rushmore of rocket scientists, almost any quartet of visionaries enshrined there would have to include Wernher von Braun, architect of the early American manned spaceflight program. (For this geek's money, von Braun would be joined by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and Hermann Oberth, though you could also make a good case for Sergei Korolev as first alternate.) Fifty-one years ago tomorrow, President Eisenhower transferred von Braun and his team of engineers from the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) -- where he built the famous Redstone rockets -- to the newly formed NASA, where von Braun would create the launch vehicles for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

All of that, however, very nearly never came to be.

Wernher von Braun was the leader of a handful of German scientists that developed the infamous V-2 rockets that the Nazis used to bombard London during World War II. As Germany began to fall at the end of the war, various factions were vying to capture von Braun and his compatriots in order to secure the German rocket expertise for themselves. Moreover, von Braun rightfully suspected that the German SS had orders to execute the rocket scientists should it become likely that they would fall into enemy hands. Thus, von Braun and his team decided they should actively surrender to Allied forces before they could be killed; the only question was to which Allied nation?

Von Braun's group surrendered to the Americans, with von Braun's brother Magnus literally flagging down a U.S. infantryman riding a bicycle and shouting: "My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender." Von Braun noted that they chose the Americans in part from fear of how they would be treated as POWs by the Soviets, who were also advancing on the position where the German rocketeers surrendered. Still, had von Braun's team been sequestered elsewhere (as nearly happened) or been forced to abandon their research and take up arms in defense of Germany (as other scientists were forced to do), he may never had made his way to NASA.

Once captured, the U.S. military had to "bleach" von Braun's record in order to clear him for service, as President Truman stipulated that no German war criminals could work for the United States. Wernher von Braun was an SS officer, and his V-2 rocket program employed slave labor, though von Braun himself claimed both actions were forced on him the Nazi power structure. After he was "cleared" to design rockets for the U.S., the military assigned him to build missiles, rather than space vehicles -- despite the fact the von Braun actively campaigned for a manned spaceflight program.

Thus, von Braun resorted to a rather unusual public relations maneuver in an attempt to "jumpstart" public demand for manned spaceflight in 1949 -- nine years before NASA existed.

How did Wernher von Braun try to jumpstart a US space program a decade before NASA?
In 1949, Wernher von Braun wrote -- but failed to publish -- a science fiction novel. Titled Project MARS: A Technical Tale, the book was a classic Golden Age sci-fi adventure story which also laid out von Braun's vision for a manned mission to Mars. This vision included launching a ten-spacecraft fleet towards the Red Planet -- using only 1940s-era technology. Most reviewers concede the book is terribly written, even allowing for the standards of the era and for its translation to English from German. This would explain why no less than 18 publishers rejected it. However, as a technical primer, Project MARS is an almost peerless historical document. That's probably why Apogee Books finally published Project MARS in 2006, more than fifty years after it was written.

The ideas von Braun detailed in Project MARS would become the basis for a far more successful public relations campaign that he waged in the 1950s. Von Braun enjoyed early success as part of Project Hermes, wherein he and his fellow German rocketeers refurbished captured V-2s for American use. This led to von Braun's transfer to Huntsville, AL, where he began to develop the Redstone rockets. This afforded him the leeway to speak to the press, and on May 14, 1950 The Huntsville Times ran the headline "Dr. von Braun Says Rocket Flights Possible to Moon" on its front page.

This, in turn led to von Braun's participation in an illustrated series in Colliers Weekly in 1952 titled "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!" The popularity of the initial Colliers article eventually led to von Braun consulting on a Disney studios television project, Man in Space, which detailed future manned spaceflight missions -- animated in the signature Disney style. Man in Space first aired in 1955 and is still considered one of the most influential popular media depictions of human spaceflight ever created.

Thus, when the 1957 launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik I forced the United States into the space race, there was no doubt that Wernher von Braun was a necessary component of the technical effort. And a fair portion of that necessity was derived from the publication of ideas that von Braun detailed in Project MARS many years before.

It's fascinating to imagine what might have been. What if a country other than the United States captured von Braun and his team? (Warren Ellis's Sidewise Award-winning Ministry of Space graphic novel examines what could have happened if the British, not the Americans, had liberated von Braun.) What if von Braun had been killed in the war, and Korolev led the Soviet space effort without a comparable American rival? What if the U.S. had entertained von Braun's spaceflight ideas sooner, rather than having their hands forced by Sputnik? Could the ideas in Project MARS truly have come to pass? It's an answer that goads the imagination, and resides in the realm of the Truly Trivial.

After years of writing trivia columns I've come to embrace the fact that almost everyone reading these things is smarter than me, which is why you always seem to find omissions, mischaracterizations, and outright screw-ups in my work. And like all great businessmen, I intend to profit from my own ignorance and sloth. Thus, I invite you, the reader, to call me out on these entertaining little glitches in each Truly Trivial column. The responder with the smartest, best-sourced, and/or most amusing gotcha will earn a place of honor in the subsequent column by having his/her/its comment highlighted next week in this space, along with an excuse, rebuttal or (more likely) half-hearted mea culpa from me. Yes, that is your sense of self-importance rising to the bait. Don't fight it. I dare you.