Von Braun's Space Station

Space flight historian Michael J. Neufeld wrote an article about Wernher von Braun’s advocacy of space stations, Wernher von Braun’s Ultimate Weapon, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007.

An expanded version of that article appeared as ‘‘Space superiority’’: Wernher von Braun’s campaign for a nuclear-armed space station, 1946–1956 in a journal, Space Policy, 22 (2006) 52-62

This article sheds light on the universe of von Braun’s science fiction novel Project Mars

Von Braun sets Project Mars in a post-World-War-3 world, after a showdown between a Communist bloc and western powers. The western powers won World War 3 with “Lunetta”, a space station in an odd, 1075-mile polar orbit. Lunetta exists as a nuclear weapons platform, used to bomb the Commies into submission, and impose a world government.

The 1075-mile altitude orbit is unusual. Geosynchronous orbits, where communications satellites fly, is 22,236 miles. GPS satellites fly at 12,640 miles, with a 12-hour orbital period. Typical polar orbits for spy satellites or remote sensing or weather satellites is 400-500 miles.

Because of the construction and use of Lunetta, reliable launch vehicles, on-orbit construction technology and experience, space medicine, and an industrial base that can build a fleet of cargo carrying launch vehicles and the Mars expedition fleet already exist. Von Braun’s Project Mars expedition can’t succeed without earth human’s having built and used Lunetta.

I missed this in my earlier posts. In my review of By Spaceship to the Moon I glossed over the warmongering of Project Mars, while noting that in contrast, Pratt and Coggins have nuclear arms on the moon as an explicit goal.

My review of Project Mars ignores that 25% of the Mars expedition personnel that went to Mars were a fighting force of sorts, and that one of the justifications for funding the Mars expedition was to find out if Martians were hostile, or a danger to Earth humans.

Neither Great Power in the post-WW2 Cold War actually built a space station to rain nuclear missiles on the other side, probably because ablative heat shields were invented in 1951. Since the concept was kept secret until 1958, von Braun apparently did not know about it.

Ballistic atmospheric re-entry of atomic bombs without ablative heat shields would be impossible, which must be why “intermediate range ballistic missiles” like Thor and bombers like the B-52 and B-58 were developed.

Once von Braun imagined the possibility of an armed space station, everything falls into place. A 1075-mile altitude orbit has an exactly 2 hour period.

lunetta orbit movie

Above is a movie of 12 Lunetta orbits, a full day. Each frame shows the earth-track of a single, 2-hour, Lunetta orbit. Each orbit’s ground track is roughly two time zones to the west of the previous orbit. Because this is a polar orbit, and the movie is a planar projection, orbits are shown going “up” over a pole, and then reappearing on the other side of the world going “down”. You can determine the direction (going north or going south) by observing that the ground track has a westerly (left-moving on screen) component. A diagonal line slanting from lower right to upper left is the space station traveling north. A diagonal line slanting from upper right to lower left is the space station traveling south.

Lunetta would release radio-controlled supersonic-gliding, winged nuclear bomb re-entry vehicles, very similar to the 3rd stage of the cargo launch vehicles used to transport materials and men to orbit to build Lunetta, and later, the vehicles of the Mars expedition. Without electronic guidance systems and ablative heat shields, this probably seemed like a method to deliver nuclear bombs that cannot be defended against.

gliding re-entry vehicle

That’s what von Braun thought a manned re-entry vehicle would look like, in 1952. Canards and sharply swept wings, very stylish. A bomb delivery vehicle would probably have a similar appearance, without the windows and pilot’s canopy.

re-entry diagram

Above is a diagram showing how von Braun envisioned a manned re-entry vehicle would perform a supersonic glide to scrub off orbital speed. Note that “orbital velocity of station and third stage” is given as 4.4 mi/sec. Substitute supersonic glide re-entry bomb for third stage, and if you look at the speeds of the third stage, you’ll see that Lunetta would lag the supersonic glide re-entry bomb part of the orbit, and lead the other part. It’s entirely possible to have a human pilot radio controlling a gliding re-entry bomb vehicle, with line-of-sight to the vehicle.

Once you’ve built and used Lunetta, you’ve got a lot of leftover industrial base, lots of skilled rocket pilots, and lots of skilled workers. What better to do with all that than fly to Mars?

Possible Influences

In Robert A. Heinlein’s 1948 juvenile novel Space Cadet, the Space Patrol enforces world peace by (threatening to?) drop atomic bombs from orbit on miscreant nations. I believe it’s implied there are multiple space stations orbiting the earth, so if there’s an influence, it’s diffuse.

Von Braun might have influenced Lester del Rey. In del Rey’s 1952 Marooned on Mars, The hero and a rocket pilot fly “a few miles away” from a donut-shaped orbital station, used for atom-bombing enemies in case of war.

Neufeld doesn’t find any record of von Braun publicly advocating for a nuclear armed space station before the 1952 Project Mars. Neufeld does mention Heinlein as a US science fiction author that von Braun probably read, explicitly citing Space Cadet in footnote 11 of Space Superiority.

Perhaps Heinlein, del Rey and von Braun arrived at the idea of bombing from orbit independently. It seems more likely to me that since von Braun submitted Project Mars to 18-20 publishers, many people got to read the manuscript. According to Wikipedia, “during 1952 and 1953, del Rey edited several magazines”. It’s entirely possible that del Rey read and was influenced by Project Mars.


The space station thumbnail is from Conquest of the Moon, Viking Press, 1953. The re-entry diagram and line art of a re-entry vehicle is from Across the Space Frontier, Viking Press, 1952.