Legacy of a Space Titan

Wernher von Braun was born one hundred years ago, but his blueprint for space exploration still has relevance today.

A blueprint for the future: Still relevant

Friday March 23rd is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), the man most responsible for creating and implementing a vision of humans in space. Von Braun is legendary in space circles – both admired and criticized by observers within and outside of the program.  As a young space enthusiast and physicist, he worked on solving the practical problems of liquid rocket engines.  Working for the German Wehrmacht, he led the team that designed and built the world’s first ballistic missile weapon, the A-4 (or V-2, as we know it).  In the post-war years, he wrote and spoke about humanity’s imminent future in the new frontier of space.  As head of the Saturn development team and Director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, he designed and supervised the building of the Saturn family of launch vehicles – the rockets that sent men to the Moon.

Von Braun’s contributions are numerous, but in this post, I want to focus specifically on his most lasting legacy, what I call the “von Braun Architecture” – the sequence of steps that von Braun believed would send humanity into space – to live and settle, not just to visit.  To von Braun, space was indeed the “new frontier,” whereby exploration consisted of initial surveys followed by a permanent presence.  In his view, great powers aspire to and accomplish great deeds and the opening and settlement of a new frontier would be the greatest task any nation could undertake.

Wernher von Braun set out his architecture in a series of articles for Collier’s magazine, a popular news feature forum in the early 1950’s.  It was a very well received among the young and confident generation that came of age in the shadow of the nuclear bomb  (when science and technology became simultaneously a blessing and a curse to mankind).  Because the series was so popular, it was expanded into three books (Across the Space Frontier, Conquest of the Moon and The Exploration of Mars).  Walt Disney used them to create a three-part episode in his 1955-57 television series Disneyland. The programs described and dramatized each of the major steps of the von Braun architecture: space taxi (shuttle), space station, Moon tug and Mars mission.

To document how his end-to-end system design would work, Von Braun presented detailed engineering drawings and supporting calculations. It was definitely not a mere outline of broad, vague terms listing obvious incremental steps needed to settle space.   Much of his systems analysis is still valid, although today some ideas would be updated to reflect new technologies.  For example, in his architecture, electrical power in space is generated by a solar thermal/mercury vapor turbine system, as photovoltaic arrays had not yet made their appearance in the early 1950’s.  Some of his more advanced concepts have seen partial implementation, such as a reusable space launch system.  Other innovations have yet to be accomplished, such as artificial gravity for the LEO Space Station and cislunar space tugs.

Technical details of von Braun’s half-century old architecture are of lesser importance than his influence on policy.  In broad terms, we’ve been following an implementation of the von Braun space architecture since the Space Age began more than 50 years ago.  The most notable exception and departure from his plan is the Apollo program, which bypassed the shuttle/station stage and headed straight for the Moon because of a geopolitical imperative to beat the Soviets there.  Because of that looming deadline, a new architecture (one that could launch the entire lunar mission in one fell swoop) had to be developed that would bypass the complex and time-consuming development of a reusable launch vehicle and orbiting space station.  Von Braun tackled this problem with his usual enthusiasm, imagining first an 11 million pound super-rocket (the Nova) and then, a “smaller” 6.7 million pound behemoth (the Saturn V) to take America to the Moon.  It was this decadal imperative of Apollo that drove von Braun to develop the heavy lift Saturn V, not some Teutonic tendency toward super-sizing his creations.

After Apollo completed our national goal, NASA fell back on the von Braun Architecture (as the agency always does once it completes a significant milestone):  Shuttle was to provide cheap, routine access to LEO, Space Station was to serve as an orbiting space base and platform to journey beyond and the “moon tug” was to be the Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV), designed to transport people and robots to and from high Earth orbits in cislunar space, including geosynchronous orbit (where communications and weather satellites reside), the Earth-Moon L-points and  lunar orbit (it requires the same energy to reach all three from LEO).  Each new NASA program was part of the master plan for space that von Braun laid out sixty years ago.

The von Braun Architecture has staying power because it remains a logical, incremental and cumulative plan that will systematically extend human reach beyond low Earth orbit.  Von Braun wanted space to become a “new ocean” and intended to build the navy to sail it.  He is often remembered for the Saturn V and an alleged penchant for brute-force (i.e., giant rockets), yet the techniques and pieces of the von Braun Architecture (solutions to logistical problems in space), are still being actively studied, advocated and pursued today, including reusable launch vehicles, in-space assembly and fueling, planetary resource utilization and long-duration (read: permanent) residence in space by humans.

Some believe that von Braun was a “technocrat,” primarily interested in megarockets and space power politics; that perception is an unfortunate and incomplete picture of his contributions.  He was as much a space dreamer as Arthur C. Clarke and Gerry O’Neill.  Von Braun believed humanity had a promising, unbounded future in space.  Not content to simply focus on developing a widget here or planting a flag there, he envisioned a path that would enable all activities.  He created an architectural framework that made constant, incremental progress without losing focus on long-range, strategic goals.  For humanity to live and work permanently in space, he understood that we would have to learn how to make what we need from what we found there.  He was not interested in new and ever more distant “stunt” missions; he was interested in and dedicated to, the long-term settlement of space, an objective vital to the future of the human race.

Happy birthday, Wernher von Braun.  We salute your accomplishments, appreciate the trail that you blazed, and miss your guiding wisdom and vision.

Note: Special thanks to my friend Bill Mellberg, historian and humorist (who does a great von Braun impression), for giving me a “heads-up” on the forthcoming von Braun centenary.  Listen to his recent appearance on The Space Show, where he discusses the history of commercial aviation and its parallels (and lack thereof) to modern commercial space.

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