Getting to Mars – 1954

Written in 1954 with cooperation from Dr. Wernher Von Braun, a principal architect of the US space program, this article details a proposed expedition to Mars. It’s interesting to note the realistic, confident tone of the piece. Although optimistic about future advances, the authors make clear that such an undertaking would not be possible until the mid 21st century. The amount known, even then, about the technical necessities and dangers of such a mission is surprising.

When scientists speak of a mission to Mars today, they couch it in small-scale terms. Perhaps because rather than being a distant fantasy, today the prospect is tangible, and would need to be budgeted for. It has been said that in the scientific zeitgeist of the 1950’s, technical problems were seen as peripheral bumps in the road that needed only to have force leveraged against them. This was an era when entire orchards of grapefruit were purposely irradiated in hopes of creating serendipitous mutations, and the idea of using nuclear explosives to widen the Panama canal was considered feasible.

For the expedition to Mars, Von Braun proposed, “…a flotilla of 10 massive space ships, each weighing over 4000 tons” staffed by a crew of 70. “The Mars-bound vehicles, assembled in the orbit, will look like bulky bundles of girders, with propellant tanks hung on the outside and great passenger cabins perched on top. Three of them will have torpedo-shaped noses and massive wings-dismantled, but strapped to their sides for future use.”

Aside from the unknown effects of prolonged weightlessness, other dangers await the crew during the journey. Cosmic radiation, hopefully to be remedied by an undiscovered drug. Problems with crew psychology, “Little mannerisms -the way a man cracks his knuckles, blows his nose, the way he grins, talks or gestures- create tension and hatred which could lead to murder.”  Also, not insignificantly, meteors, “Astronomers estimate that one out of 10 ships on a 16-month voyage might be damaged badly.” Dime sized meteors would “…rip through the bumper and skin like machine-gun bullets. If they strike anything solid, they’ll explode with some force. If not, they’ll leave through the other side of the ship -but even then they may cause trouble. Holes will have to be plugged to maintain cabin pressure… the friction created by their passage through the cabin atmosphere will create enough heat to singe the eyebrows of a man standing close by.”

“Upon reaching the 600-mile orbit -and after some exploratory probings of Mars’s atmosphere with unmanned rockets- the first of the three landing craft will be assembled. The torpedo nose will be unhooked, to become the fuselage of a rocket plane. The wings and a set of landing skis will be attached, and the plane launched toward the surface of Mars.”

“The landing of the first plane will be made on the planet’s snow-covered polar cap -the only spot where there is any reasonable certainty of finding a smooth surface.

“Once down, the pioneer landing party will unload its tractors and supplies, inflate it’s balloonlike living quarters, and start on a 4000-mile overland journey to the martian equator, where the expedition’s main base will be set up.”

“At the equator, the advance party will construct a landing strip for the two other rocket planes. In all, the expedition will remain on the planet 15 months.”

“When it’s time to go back, the two ships that landed on the equator will be stripped of their wings and landing gear, set on their tails and, at the proper moment, rocketed back to the 600-mile orbit on the first leg of the return journey.”

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