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)
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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.

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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.

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