Wernher von Braun, Novelist

Half a century ago, the rocket scientist tried his hand at fiction.

Von Braun at his desk at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1960, years after writing Project Mars. NASA

Who else but Wernher von Braun would include a 62-page scientific appendix full of equations in his first novel? And who else but Fort Bliss, Texas, developing rockets for the U.S. Army, when he decided to present in fiction an idea that had long intrigued him—the first human expedition to Mars, which he set in the 1980s. When von Braun submitted the manuscript of his Marsprojekt (“Project Mars”) to publishers, he got back 18 rejection letters. Discouraged, he hid the manuscript in his attic, according to biographer Erik Bergaust. The appendix was subsequently published, as were sections of the novel in magazines. But until Gary Holt and crew step out onto the Red Planet—which turns out to be, in one of von Braun’s rare flights of fancy, not entirely uninhabited.
The first eighteen human beings to land on Mars were grouped around the door leading to the upper surface of the huge wing. They listened intently to the hiss of the escaping air as the cabin was brought down to the low pressure outside. Then the door opened and they stepped out, Holt in the lead. Clad in their pressure suits and spherical, transparent helmets, they grouped themselves around him on the wing.

Curiously, and with mixed feelings, they gazed upon the wide expanse of snow surrounding their motionless vessel. Although encumbered with their space suits and not yet accustomed to walking and standing in the long-unfamiliar gravity, there was a feeling of release at no longer being cooped up within the small confines of the vessels in which they had made their long and silent journey. The scene before them might well have been that presented by a snow-covered plateau of their own familiar Earth, glistening in the sunlight from a dark blue, cloudless sky. Yet they beheld the scenery of a strange place, which to their loved ones at home appeared hardly different from any of the myriad denizens of the heavens.

Holt and Hubbard walked to the trailing edge from which the landing flap sloped towards the snow, six meters away.

“Go ahead, jump!” shouted Holt gleefully into his microphone and pointing downward.

Hubbard looked sheepish.

“How about the boss being the first man on Mars?” he asked.

“You’re the fellow who got us here safely,” returned Holt. “Get on with it!”
Hubbard, without further ado, sprang down, landing no harder than if the jump had been two meters or so, for Mars’ weak gravity seemed barely to pull him through the six meters between the wing and the surface. He gathered a handful of snow in the clumsy mitts of his pressure suit and tried to toss it up. It broke in the air, returning as powder to dust the transparent top of his helmet.

“We’ve got powder snow,” he called into his microphone. “Did we bring any skis?”
As soon as the excitement of the arrival subsided, unloading operations were begun by opening the belly hatch and lowering the first of the caterpillars. The Chrysler Corporation had developed them especially for conditions on the Red Planet, and they varied considerably from familiar patterns on Earth.

The power plants in particular had been designed to be independent of the atmosphere, except for cooling, for it had been thought unwise to rely upon burning any fuel in the relatively low oxygen concentration of the Martian atmosphere. Supercharging, similar to that used in aircraft engines for high altitudes, might have been effective, but Holt’s judgment was that this would be a questionable expedient in view of the refusal of the spectroscope operators on Lunetta to commit themselves.

The caterpillars, therefore, were driven by two propellants, concentrated hydrogen peroxide, as used in the reaction pistols, and common fuel oil. The hydrogen peroxide was first dissociated into water vapor and oxygen in a catalyzing chamber. This mixture evolved steam at high temperature by the energy of dissociation. Into it was injected a metered quantity of fuel oil, which promptly burned in the oxygen portion of the mixture. A row of successive nozzles injected water into the flame, thus producing steam of moderate heat, only slightly contaminated by carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide from the combustion of the oil.

The flow of this steam could be regulated by throttling the admission of its three constituents. It turned a turbine which provided power for the caterpillar.

The steam was condensed in a low-pressure condenser, cooled by a blower, after passing through the turbine. The carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide remained in the vapor phase and were drawn off and expelled by a second and smaller blower, while the water in liquid phase was recirculated from the condenser to the combustion chamber. The water loss of the system, therefore, was limited to the portions affected by dissociation of the peroxide and the combustion of the oil, by being ejected into the atmosphere as withdrawn from circulation.

The efficiency of this system was quite high in view of the necessity for providing artificially the oxygen which an ordinary engine would extract from the atmosphere, and considering that this oxygen formed part of the propellants and so tankage had to be provided for it. In order to conserve supplies, the cruising speed of the land vehicles was restricted to 13 mph.

The tracks of the caterpillars extended across their whole lower surface and their twelve foot length in order to diminish their surface loading and give maximum traction on the softest ground. In the weak Martian gravity, the vehicles weighted but 28% of their terrestrial tonnage. This reduced the danger of becoming mired, but it also diminished the traction to the same extent. Thus the maximum obtainable length tended to prevent non-propulsive “churning” of the tracks.

Directional control was obtained by braking one or the other of the tracks, their low ground pressures permitting this despite their great width.

The power plant was located between the tracks, and above it was an elongated cylindrical body which could be pressurized and which provided space for passengers and lading. Forward it had two large, oval windows through which the driver might view the ground, and several circular ports along the sides for the passengers. Two hemispherical, plastic gun turrets stood above the forward and after ends of the cylinder. Just behind it, mounted on the framework of the strange vehicle, was a small crane such as is used on wrecking tow cars. From the crane’s jib to the forward end of the cylinder ran the radio antenna which was to aid communication via the radio bombs.

When all three caterpillars had been lowered and given a short test run to insure that their power plants were working properly, Holt deployed them around the helpless landing boat in the untoward event that the hitherto invisible Martians might undertake some hostile action. But nothing happened.

After the removal of the three huge caterpillars, unloading began in earnest. Three folding trailers were dropped through the hatch and assembled on the snow beneath the belly of the boat. The first one completed, standing upon its wide wheels, was placed beneath the hatch while busy hands under the expert direction of Clark Winslow piled it with a vast assortment of cases and equipment. As each was hauled away with its load, the reserve fuel tanks to supplement the tankage of the caterpillars were filled by gravity hoses from wing tanks of the landing boat. The long voyage ahead precluded the tractor-caterpillars from carrying adequate fuel supplies in their own tanks.

For twelve hours the landing party bent its united energies to the accomplishment of the seemingly endless task, but when the work was done, no restful night came to induce sleep in their wearied limbs. It was Summer at the Martian south pole and the midnight Sun remained visible in undiminished splendor. It made but a sweep at the horizon, returning in a great circle in the sky to a point due south.

All hands were much relieved when Holt ordered the hatch closed on their boat and the air valves opened to bring up the pressure. Wearily they had trooped through the door and divested themselves of their space suits to seat themselves around a table hastily constructed from various bits and pieces of the stowage gear. One of the soldiers proved himself to be no mean cook, and it was a novel experience for them all to eat and drink in the old familiar fashion from open plates and glasses. That night, when the shades were drawn over the landing boat’s ports to keep out the brilliant glare reflected from the snow, the men retired to their acceleration couches, somehow grateful not to be floating in space, despite the sometimes painful pressure which even the light Martian gravity inflicted upon them.

They arose next day to find the Sun shining as brightly as before. Donning their space suits and releasing the pressure in their abandoned landing boat, Billingsley, Gudunek and Woolf stamped their way through the powdery snow to the Panther, Holt’s caterpillar, which was to head the column moving northwards. The driver was Sergeant Regand, a tough farmer from North Dakota, Brooks, Oberth’s radio man, would attend to communications. Holt himself would man the forward gun if things got tough, while Brooks would take the after one.

The Jaguar, under Glen Hubbard, was manned by Clark Winslow and four soldiers, while Leopard was to bring up the rear under Lieutenant Hampstead and the remaining five men of his guard.

After each caterpillar had picked up its trailer, Holt sent Winslow back to assure himself that the abandoned landing boat was as well moored as circumstances permitted, lest she capsize in some storm or blow away across the limitless wilderness of snow. The thought of burning the boat as Cortez had done with his ships ran through Holt’s head. Both the lack of propellants in her tanks and her station near the pole effectively prohibited any return to the orbit where their friends still circled Mars. But finally Holt’s natural conservatism prevailed upon him to preserve what few material possessions he had brought to this distant goal.

As the caterpillars rattled and snorted northward with their trailers, Holt stood in the gun turret of the Panther and surveyed the vast snow field ahead. In the pressurized interior, he had removed his helmet and laid it upon the breech of the gun. Like the others, he still wore his pressure suit. As the mileages were called up to him from below, he entered each odometer reading on the chart where he kept track of their progress along the 190th meridian to which the gyrocompass held their course. If he had estimated correctly, some 25 miles should bring them to the mysterious, concrete Quonset hut which had so attracted his attention during the landing approach.

Tom Knight, whirling around Mars high overhead, had been kept closely in touch by radio with all that occurred. He had returned a description of the joy of the Mars-circlers at the successful landing on the 82nd parallel of latitude, and was fully aware of their course towards the mysterious building Holt had described. Shortly before, he reported that he was able to make out the three dark spots of the caterpillars on the blind snow through Bergmann’s great telescope, and that he had located the mysterious gray building during the half hour that his vessels were able to view the region where the landing party was making its slow progress.

The northward trek had continued for two hours at 12 mph when Holt saw the previously clear horizon become misty and blurred. This he took to be the effect of the melting zone and the haze which would naturally form above it. He turned to look astern. The tracks left by their caterpillars, which had theretofore been almost indistinguishable in the mixture of hoar frost and powder snow, were now clear and distinct, indicating that the snow must be growing stiff and sticky. Sure enough, the thermometer outside his glass dome showed 30° Fahrenheit: just under freezing.

As he meditated upon the rapid increase in temperature, a rounded silhouette rose out of the haze ahead. It could only be the mysterious building!
Quickly he called Jaguar and Leopard with orders to man the guns, again bracketing his binoculars on the projection above the monotonous expanse of snow. There was no movement, no sign of life. But with surprise, he beheld at each end of the strange structure two small turrets protruding from its smoothly rounded roof. Had there been smoke, he would have taken them for chimneys. The heavy machines clattered towards the mystery and stopped 200 yards away at Holt’s radioed command.

The lenses of his glasses revealed nothing. There was no path nor road leading to the building. Around it, crevices in the now melting snow showed green vegetation, apparently thick and mossy. There were no windows nor other apertures in the great, gray block 300 by 100 yards square. The rounded roof met the ground hemispherically at either end. Nor did the two turrets help to uncover the mystery. Their twelve feet of height and nine or ten of diameter were topped off by hemispherical, smooth caps. They could not be chimneys.

No snow was on the rounded roof, but the light northerly wind bringing the haze towards them might have blown it away. That was quite possible… Could there be heat inside?
Staring through the glasses, Holt’s eyes burned with curiosity and concern. Now they seemed to tell him that the upper portion was more lightly shaded than the gray of the lower. Sure enough, he detected a marked line of separation running horizontally around the roof at mid-height. Where the building ended hemispherically, the line ran upward and across the rotund gable. The central portion of the roof was unmistakably of a different material and seemed to have been let into the main structure.

Holt ordered the caterpillars to disperse, one at each end of the weird building, while he with the Panther took position fifty yards from the long, curved southern wall. Useless as they seemed, the tiny gun barrels swung around toward the giant mass.

Calling to Billingsley in the compartment behind him, Holt suggested a little sally to the placid Briton.

“Quite so.. Might be rather fun, you know,” came back the imperturbable voice.

Slipping on their pressure helmets, they airlocked themselves out into the wet snow and took a tall ladder from the loaded trailer. Dragging it behind them, they approached the curving wall with the floating step which characterized the light Martian weights of their bodies. Holt drew a heavy knife from his belt and scratched at the strange material.

“Harder than concrete,” he remarked with a shake of his head.

They pushed the ladder carefully up the sloping surface before them and mounted to a point at which the angle was flat enough to prevent their slipping on the roof itself. As they reached the mysterious line, the waiting crews saw them throw themselves down with their heads just across it, gazing fixedly at the surface.

What they saw took away their breath, for the whole upper part of the roof was of transparent, glass-like material! Below it was a huge engine room, reminiscent of a giant terrestrial power plant! They counted fourteen huge, circular, red-painted shapes, neatly ranged within the silver-glittering hall!
“Pumps, or I’m a Chinaman!” said Holt after getting his breath again. “Old man Hansen was right…”
“And your Percival Lowell, God rest his soul,” chimed in Billingsley.

Holt pressed his helmet to the glass.

“Feel it? The machinery’s running.”
“Look, old fellow,” grunted Billingsley, “I’m sure I just saw one of their chaps running about down there.”
A diminutive, dark-haired figure of human bearing and carriage was walking down the length of the great room. He stopped and inspected one pump after another as he gradually approached the spot above which they kept their watch.

The Martian wore a white garment reminiscent of a Japanese kimono with multi-colored ornamentation. The man, for no other name could be applied to him, was beardless. His face was swarthy, with warm and friendly eyes and delicate features. His arms and legs showed nothing different from those of homo sapiens, as exemplified by the quaking observers on the transparent roof.

“Almighty God must have found that our species has some good points, if He chooses to plant something so much like us on Mars,” meditated Holt.

“But look at the enormous skull the fellow has!” whispered Billingsley as though he feared eavesdroppers. “My dear chap, if what that skull contains is all intelligence, we may be able to learn something yet from these bally Martians!”
Holt gazed solemnly at the creature below who still seemed unaware of his brethren from another planet.

“John,” he finally remarked, “now I think I’ve got my theory working. These Martians are undoubtedly subterranean, and cannot live in the open. The whole pumping station is pressurized. Why else the curvature of this roof? Their whole civilization is pressurized and air conditioned! Otherwise, how to explain the rest of it? No streets, no cities, no life above the surface but this huge pumping station, and the radio music Lussigny picked up the other day?”
Billingsley brought his hand up as though to scratch his head through the plastic of his hermetic helmet.

“Bergmann,” he said, “once confided to me that he believed this to be the answer. But he was a bit bashful about declaring it openly. Probably thought it rather on the fantastic side, you know. But I don’t see why they shouldn’t have done it judging from this…”
“Do you think we should try and communicate with the lad down there?” asked Holt. “If we’re right about their civilization, we shall run into similar structures anywhere we go and have similar difficulties. We can’t get in, and they may not come out! Wouldn’t that be a joke on us, if we sailed half-way through the solar system to find that we can do no more than look at a Martian through several inches of glass!”
“I jolly well don’t see why the blighter shouldn’t come out,” huffed Billingsley. “If his bally job is to pump water, he must look southward once in a while to see how the melting snow is holding out, and how much more water he can expect before the pumping season is over. Or do you think that might be a blooming terrestrial point of view?”
“You’re probably quite right about it. We’ll dash back to our caterpillar and make a report to Tom Knight who ought to be hanging around somewhere above us right now. He can retransmit what we’ve seen to Earth. Our voyage will have had some value, no matter what happens from here on. We’ll tell him to bracket the big ‘scope on us while we make a racket which the fellow down there’ll be bound to notice. Then we’ll see what happens.”
“Jolly good idea,” said Billingsley. “Perhaps our Martian here in the frozen south will be a bit more pleased with interplanetary visitors than the authorities of some large town. They might be frightfully annoyed if we were to drop in on them unannounced.”
“Well,” concluded Holt, “if our friend down there should have some kind of death ray, or otherwise make it hot for us, the caterpillars can always retreat in a hurry and send the bad news to Knight. Let’s go.”
Reprinted by permission from Project Mars: A Technical Tale by Wernher von Braun, published by Apogee books.

Von Braun at his desk at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1960, years after writing Project Mars. NASA

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.