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

Wernher von Braun, Novelist

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

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“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.

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