Project Mars

The first workable proposal for a space program is apparently Wernher von Braun’s Project Mars. Project Mars is a work of fiction, but it lays out a space program that could probably take humans to Mars with the technology of 1955.

Project Mars didn’t see print until 2006, although it’s technical appendix was published as The Mars Project. in 1953.

This book is said to have been a side-project while von Braun was detained at Fort Bliss, Texas, 1945-1950. It’s got a weird history, as it was translated into English by a US Navy officer, and reviewed for classified information, but wasn’t published until 2006.

Project Mars takes place between 1980 and 1985, so I should probably consider it as a work of near future sci fi. This is hard to do, as 1950 was 72 years ago. The “near future” story takes place in the past.

As A Work of Science Fiction

This book is terrible science fiction. The Prose is florid. A high percentage of nouns have adjectives. Words like “hitherto”, “therefrom” abound. The characters are all stereotypes:

  • Devoted Housewife,
  • Retired Military Man who says “yes” to every challenge out of a Sense of Duty
  • Very British Army Officer
  • Scientists with wild, poorly cut hair,
  • Wily Confucian Chinese diplomats,
  • Highly evolved Martians with large heads and metallic gowns.
  • Aircraft company “Old Man”

Many “Old Men” existed in real life, In the USA alone, Dutch Kindelberger, Jack Northrup, Glenn L. Martin and Donald Douglas are all examples of aircraft company “Old Men”. I expect that von Braun encountered quite a few German “Old Men”. Maybe Kurt Tank fit that mold. Von Braun give his Old Man a lot of importance, but doesn’t ascribe superhuman design skills to him. That seems like an accurate portrayal.

To modern ears odd phrases like “maneuver of adaptation”, “satellitic orbit” interrupt the flow of the story. This might be an artifact of looking back at von Braun after 80 years of rocketry and space exploration. He had to invent terminology for previously unimagined things and processes.

God of the Gaps religious prose intrudes every once in a while, even with respect to the Highly Evolved Martians. Von Braun was a man of faith, apparently.

Von Braun actually did some credible work describing the effects of living in artificial environments on the Martian culture. There’s little or no discussion of the Martian’s biology or anatomy. I’ll just note that a much larger head implies that the Martians may not be placental. The human head is almost too large to pass through a human birth canal.

As “Near Future” Sci fi

Project Mars was written by 1952. It takes place 1980-1985 in-universe, 30 years after von Braun finished writing it. Virtually nothing came true. There was no nuclear WW3 pitting western countries against communist Russia and China. Nobody has used nuclear weapons in war since 1945. There’s even an atmospheric test ban treaty that’s generally adhered-to. Humans still haven’t build a big, rotating, wheel-shaped space station, all of the human space stations leave their inhabitants in free-fall. Electronic computation progressed far faster than von Braun predicted. The engineers of Project Mars are basically stuck with slide rules and a very few seemingly-un-programmable computers. Most of the mid-course corrections are pre-computed. Control systems appear to be completely analog. Mars is utterly unlike what von Braun depicts.

I’m going to have to give von Braun a “C” grade on this. He got almost everything wrong, but predicting things is hard, especially the future.

Didactic Instrument

von Braun works the teaching end of this book well, maybe because he wanted the physics and engineering to be totally realistic. There’s a detailed discussion of interplanetary radio communications, and planetary atmospheric observation trivia, There’s some orbital mechanics, particularly well explained by United Spacecraft’s Old Man when testifying before the World Congress.

The scene describing radiation protection of the “nacelles” has an echo in Heinlein’s relativistic spaceflight epic Time for the Stars if memory serves me (I don’t have a copy at hand).

There’s lots of practical spaceship design criteria, including a discussion of how and why a space ship on a long duration flight might want to eject garbage and other waste matter. Von Braun describes space navigation and how it might be accomplished with gyros, small telescopes and slide rules. There’s a whole lot of logistics such an expedition might entail, including getting the material into orbit, and how a multi-year space expedition might be provisioned.

The story has one of those mandatory micro-meteor impact scene, which might actually be the first, but not the last. Virtually all sci-fi stories and movies that pretended to reality had a meteor impact. George Pal’s The Conquest of Space has one, every 1950s “near future” space exploration sci-fi book had one. Since Project Mars wasn’t published until 2006, it’s possible that there’s some other source for this.

As A Space Program

As a life-long fan of the USA’s 1960s Space Program, I have to consider what von Braun proposes through the lens of reading a lot about Project Apollo. The 1960s Space Program was a giant, sprawling enterprise, involving a lot of the aerospace industry of the day. Von Braun only mentions a single company, United Spacecraft. I’m not sure if this is a blind spot, or literary shorthand necessary to keep his story moving.

Although von Braun beats the logistics of his space program into the ground, he doesn’t notice that environmental impacts of 970 flights to earth orbit would be immense, as would the impact of the spaceport on Christmas Island.

I don’t think von Braun had any knowledge of how much ionizing radiation interplanetary flights would encounter. The effects, short and long term, of ionizing radiation weren’t known, either. He did include consideration of effects that long term micro-gravity might have on the crew of the voyage.

I’m going to give this aspect tentative approval, mainly because it’s a first cut. Unforeseen circumstances were bound to intrude on any enterprise of this scale.

As a source of inspiration

Because Project Mars didn’t get published until 2006, it probably has had minimal effects as inspiration for other fiction. The technical appendix which has been in and out of print since 1953, almost certainly had a much greater effect.

Project Mars ended up inspiring a series of 3 hard-cover books, Across the Space Frontier, The Conquest of the Moon, and The Exploration of Mars. These hard-cover books seem to have inspired many, many people to become engineers and astronomers.

Those books certainly inspired a lot of science fiction. Lester Del Ray’s 4-part juvenile series (Step to the Stars, Mission to the Moon, Moon of Mutiny and Marooned on Mars), the 1955 movie The Conquest of Space, and who knows how many even lesser works were inspired by the hard-cover non-fiction books.