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False Steps: The Space Race as It Might Have Been

False Steps: The Space Race as It Might Have Been

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False Steps: The Space Race as It Might Have Been

383 pagine
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Aug 12, 2015


There have been many different ways that the United States, USSR, and other countries have tried to put people into space. Very few of them have succeeded. From the precocious rocketry of Germany in World War II to the latest proposals from NASA and RSC Energia, this book covers the rockets, space capsules, shuttles, and more that might have made their mark on history like Apollo 11 -- but didn't. Meticulously researched from the best available sources, including those long kept hidden away in Russian archives until recently, False Steps is a lively, illustrated, and informative journey through some of spaceflight's least-known and most interesting projects.

Topics include: The Army/Rand World Circling Spaceship, the X-15B, the Lunar Gemini, Project 714, the Nuclear Shuttle and more.

Aug 12, 2015

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False Steps - Paul Drye



Barry Hinchcliffe tracked down contemporary documents related to two British projects detailed here, the Armstrong-Whitworth Pyramid and the Multi-Role Capsule, which enhanced both entries. Dwayne Day helped straighten out the chronology of the First Lunar Outpost.

And as always, I have to thank my family and friends for putting up with me as I was researching and writing what you’re about to read.


I was born in March of 1970, a few weeks before Apollo 13, so I don’t remember any of the Moon landings. The first part of my life was spent in the doldrums of the Space Age but a collection of National Geographics and a good local library sparked my interest in space. By fortunate chance, though, many of that library’s books were out of date—a common enough situation, I would imagine, given the massive amount of information we learned about the Solar System in just two decades following 1957. I had a chance to be instilled with the romantic notions of Mars and Venus that had been blown away by Mariner and to read with childish eyes about the bright future out there that was just around the corner.

The actual story of manned space travel turned out to be rather different from the one pictured in those books, but it’s also had plenty of room for dreamers. This book is about what they dreamed.

As an industry, manned space travel has been in boom or bust for money and attention since the very beginning. In bust times workable ideas lack funding and projects often get to the testing phase or even implementation only to be cancelled before they reach their goals. Oddly enough, booms in funding often produce the same effect: so much money is floating around, and so much prestige is to be gained, that many ideas are floated and get some effort put into them before one particular program becomes the focus and much else falls to the wayside.

This book aims to trace the ways in which people tried to travel to space and how they failed, all the way from Nazi German rocketry and the post-WWII fallow period, through the crazy times of Sputnik to Apollo, on the second down time of the mid-1970s, and then finally the gradual revival of human space travel into the present day. The focus here is on conventional rocketry, which is to say that what you’ll find here is near-mainstream as opposed to the more unusual approaches like, say, Project Orion. Certain projects such as the X-20 Dyna-Soar or the Soviet shuttle Buran have been passed over in silence as they’re relatively well-known and good books devoted to them exist. In a few cases a lack of sources has led to the omission of certain projects or proposals that would have fit into the book otherwise (this is particularly true of some Soviet work), but here and there you’ll find short descriptions of the ones I felt were too good to leave out.

The one other category of spaceflight left out of this book is unmanned space missions (of which there were plenty planned that never left the ground). I mentioned above the romantic notions of outer space that first entranced me as a child. I’ve nothing but respect for the results of the Mariners, Veneras, Voyagers, and other similar missions and I agree with the conscious decision to not have to worry about the safety and eventual return of human beings to any of the destinations they reached. But I still have to admit to a visceral thrill when there’s a person involved even if something as relatively simple as putting a bootprint on Mars seems to recede endlessly. But have no fear: the salad days of the 60s and the desperate scramble for money in other times produced plenty of things worth exploring even if this survey is necessarily incomplete.

The Early Days (WWII-1957): What Actually Happened

This era of space exploration reached its culmination during the mid-1950s as it became more and more well-known that a ballistic missile could reach orbit. In the United States this can be pinned on a series of articles published in Collier’s magazine from 1952 to 1954 under the general title Man Will Conquer Space Soon! With the aid of Willy Ley, Fred Whipple, Heinz Haber and journalist Cornelius Ryan, Wernher von Braun presented his vision of space exploration to the American public.

While there wasn’t an enormous amount of official interest in United States space exploration, the concept seeped into American general public’s consciousness just in time for the International Geophysical Year (IGY). In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions called for a worldwide push of geophysical research from July 31, 1957 to December 31, 1958 and dubbed it the IGY. The death of Stalin in 1953 had led to a mild thaw in the Cold War and the possibility of some scientific cooperation between the capitalist West and the USSR and its clients, so the IGY was a great success.

As part of the lead-up to the IGY, the United States announced Project Vanguard, which was to launch a satellite some time before the end of 1958. The US Army, Navy, and Air Force—all of which were developing rockets for their own use—each tried to snag this plum and its associated funding. The Air Force had little to offer as their Atlas rocket was still at a relatively early stage of development: it would not make its first orbital launch until December 1958, and even that was only possible because of a massive increase in funding and personnel during the phantom missile gap crisis that couldn’t have been foreseen at the time.

The Army and Navy each made their cases more plausibly. Wernher von Braun’s Huntsville team proposed modifying a Redstone nuclear missile into the Jupiter C as a launcher. It was quite close to completion but suffered from two political problems: it had been designed primarily by German engineers, many of them former Nazis, and it was derived from a weapon at a time when the US was interested in establishing space exploration as a peaceful endeavor. If nothing else, President Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t interested in potentially ratcheting up tensions with the Soviet Union by launching what could be reasonably seen as a nuclear missile; his balancing of the American budget depended on military cuts.

Meanwhile the Navy had worked with Glenn L. Martin (later part of Martin Marietta, in turn now part of Lockheed Martin) to develop the successful Viking sounding rocket and proposed extending it with another two smaller upper stages so it could act as an orbital launcher. While less far along than the Redstone, it contrasted favorably with it for political purposes: it had been developed primarily for scientific research and by American engineers. In the absence of any great time pressure, the choice was obvious. The Navy proposal was selected, and their prospective rocket named Vanguard.

Von Braun didn’t take this lying down and engaged in a stealth campaign to give his Huntsville team the laurels he’d long chased. On September 20, 1956 they test-launched a four-stage version of the Jupiter C that was quite capable of putting a satellite into orbit. Unfortunately for him the powers-that-be were quite aware of his dissatisfaction and watched the launch preparations to the point that there was an observer on site to ensure that the final stage of the rocket was unfuelled and loaded with sand. Von Braun was not going to be allowed to launch anything into orbit accidentally on purpose.

This leisurely attitude, and the first era of space exploration, came to an end on October 4th, 1957, when the Soviet Union short-circuited the American effort by unexpectedly launching Sputnik 1 into space.

The Sänger-Bredt Silbervogel: The Nazi Space Plane

Image of the Silbervogel taken from the 1952 translated edition of Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt’s 1944 A Rocket Drive for Long Range Bombers. An inset of the entire craft at launch is at upper left. Public domain image.

What it was: A boost-glide intercontinental spaceplane. It would reach space, if not orbit due to lack of speed, but manage to get all the way around Earth once by repeatedly skipping off the upper atmosphere to gain more altitude. During World War II it was positioned as an extreme long-distance bomber (capable of, for example, carrying a 3600-kilogram bomb to New York City from a launch site in Germany), but it also would have made an interesting surveillance vehicle—utterly immune to being shot down and the next best thing to a spy satellite.

Details: Ever since space travel became even marginally possible, doing so has been torn between two approaches. One is to stick a one-shot capsule of some sort on top of a rocket and then let it return ballistically after the mission is over; the other is to build a spaceplane which either gets to space under its own power or is launched on a rocket, and then is capable of gliding (or even powered flight) back to Earth. Theoretically planes are cheaper because of their reusability while capsules are easier to build. In practice, though, no-one’s ever been able to develop a spaceplane that could undercut a capsule in cost because the added complexity of the plane adds back on to the saved costs. As a result, with the exception of the Americans’ long excursion into the Space Shuttle program, all spacecraft that were successful for more than one or two flights have been capsules.

Both approaches date back to the first time and place that had any chance at all of putting something into space, which is to say Germany in the 1940s. Wernher von Braun’s ballistic rocket approach has been the one followed by the USSR and China, while the United States used it into the 1970s and is returning to it now with the upcoming Orion MPCV.

Less well-known is Eugen Sänger and Irene Bredt’s Silbervogel (Silverbird) which was the first serious attempt at building a spaceplane, work on which contributed to the success of several other later spaceplanes that flew, and which itself was refactored and raised as a possibility as late as the 1980s.

Sänger began work on the concept in his original engineering thesis for the Vienna Polytechnic Institute. When it was rejected as too radical in 1931, he submitted a second, more acceptable thesis on a different subject, but arranged for the original to be published by a different route in 1933. At the same time he perfected a regeneratively cooled rocket engine (which is to say that it used the expansion of the rocket fuel’s gases to carry away heat and keep the engine from overheating). His research couldn’t secure funding in his native Austria, but an article in the journal Flug (Flight) in 1935 attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe in Germany. He was invited to set up a research facility there, which he did in 1936 and then the real work on Silbervogel began.

By 1942 he had advanced the rocket engine which would power the craft, worked on the rocket sled and track which would be used for its initial boost launch, and worked out the aerodynamics of a plane that would be both subsonic and supersonic as well as flying in the near-vacuum of space.

The Silbervogel would have been a two-part ship. The spacecraft itself was to have been a 10-ton, streamlined plane with two stubby wings and two tailfins, both raked upwards at about ten degrees. Four fuel tanks took up most of the fuselage and contained liquid oxygen and kerosene which would burn in a single rocket engine over the course of 168 seconds. On the ground the plane would be mated with a rocket sled which would give it an initial boost from behind along a rail track for a mere ten seconds but with nearly five times the thrust of the spaceplane’s engine.

Once the Silbervogel completed both burns it would be moving at a minimum of Mach 13 (15,926 km/h) and as much as Mach 20 depending on its mission and payload, and would reach a maximum altitude of anywhere from 31 to 121.5 kilometers, the latter value being well into space. Just to put this in perspective, the air speed record in 1944 was 1130 kilometers per hour (Mach 0.92), while the altitude record in an aircraft was 17.3 kilometers. Sänger and Bredt did not think small.

The Silbervogel would then begin a roller-coaster-like ride up and down into the Earth’s atmosphere, using its wings and angle of attack to skip off the denser air at about 20 kilometers up and regain altitude for another distance-eating hop. An example diagram in the 1944 paper discussed below shows no less than eight such skips before settling into a steady flight at 20 kilometers and a return to base after a complete trip around the world.

What happened to make it fail: It was too advanced for the time, and even Sänger (who underestimated the technical difficulties of the heat Silbervogel would have to endure when skipping into the atmosphere) thought that it would not fly for many years. As World War II heated up, the Nazi government officially put the program on hold in 1942 to save money and resources for weapon systems that could be used before the end of the ongoing fighting. Oddly enough, despite the stop Sänger was still assigned to it and continued work on it until 1944, as the Nazis looked at several possibilities for being able to bomb the United States from the Azores if fascist Spain and Portugal could be brought into the Axis.

In that year he and Bredt published their final version of their research, which was published as Über einen Racketantrieb für Fernbomber (translated after the war as A Rocket Drive for Long Range Bombers). This remarkable document outlines how the Silbervogel would have looked and worked, as well as how it might have been used in a variety of ways—for example avoiding the difficulty of having to go the whole way around the Earth by setting up a second Silbervogel landing and launching base in the Japanese Marianas Islands or, better, in the occupied territory of California which the Japanese would helpfully conquer for the Nazis. A cheerful diagram is included showing the complete destruction of Manhattan from roughly Union Square north to the corner of 27th Street and Broadway and south to Houston Street, as this would be possible with a mere 84 sorties with 3600-kilogram bombs. Note that the Space Shuttle Discovery holds the record for the most flights above 100 kilometers by any one spaceplane, 39, racked up over the course of 27 years.

What was necessary for it to succeed: Under any reasonable circumstances, it wasn’t going to work as initially designed. The design was hampered by too many unknowns about high-speed, high-altitude flight that would have proven fatal on the first launch, and in any case war-ridden Germany couldn’t come up with the physical resources or money to build one.

That said, if there had been no war, and if the Germans had had access to high melting-point molybdenum for its belly (or developed heat-resistant ceramic tiles as would be used on the US’s Space Shuttle), and if there had been the political will to spend those marks and metals—and that’s an awful lot of ifs—something like the Silbervogel could have flown around 1960. It likely would have been heavily redesigned by then.

Sonnengewehr, the Sun Gun

At the end of World War II the United States famously snapped up as many German scientists as it could with Operation Paperclip. While they were from a wide variety of disciplines, the ones most remembered today were the rocket designers and, as London and Antwerp were still sporting spectacular V-2 craters, public interest in them was high at the time.

By the end of 1945 most of them would relocate to the United States, but in the period immediately following the end of fighting in Europe they were still in Western Europe and being interrogated by US intelligence personnel keen to learn about a line of weapons development in which the Nazis had jumped far ahead of the rest of the world.

It was in this setting that a few articles were published in major US newspapers and magazines (Time, Life, the New York Times and others) during July 1945 outlining one bit of information the US was getting from the captured scientists. All the articles were based on a single news conference held in Paris at the end of the previous month. While the conference apparently covered a wide variety of weapons that had been under development when the war ended, the articles picked up on one spectacular one and focused on it: the Sonnengewehr, quickly dubbed the Sun Gun.

The Sun Gun idea had been brought to the attention of the US by a group of scientists and engineers at Hillersleben, Germany (now part of the town of Westheide in Saxony-Anhalt, which was once part of East Germany). Though mostly unassociated with Wernher von Braun’s more-famous group they too had experience with rocketry, having worked on rocket-assisted artillery weapons and tank shells during the war.

As reported, in an unfortunately garbled way that makes it clear the reporters didn’t understand the underlying physics, the Sun Gun would have been a disc-shaped space station in a 3100-mile (5000-kilometer) orbit; some sources say 5100 miles, but this seems unlikely as German engineers would have expressed themselves in kilometers and that would be an unwieldy 8208 of them. Either way, neither would have been geosynchronous, an oddity pointed out even by some of the reporters in 1945.

Regardless, the station would have been coated with metallic sodium—chemically reactive and so easy to tarnish in the atmosphere, but which would stay clean in vacuum—polished into a mirror. The mirror would be pointed at a receiver off the coast of Europe and used to boil ocean water for power, but when the need arose it could be used on military targets—it had a projected ability to heat anything on the surface to 200 Celsius. Other numbers are scant and not clearly from the scientists themselves, but one that raises an eyebrow is that the mirror would have had an area of 5000 square miles (a round number in non-metric units, which is suspicious, and matches a diameter of 128.4 kilometers). Other sources suggest a much more realistic 9 square kilometers, which is a still-vast mirror 3.4 kilometers in diameter.

Life magazine was the most expansive on the topic, and published several drawings on the construction and operation of the station. Unfortunately their accompanying text and some of the details in the illustrations themselves suggest that the article’s authors were engaging in speculation on both topics. For example, they have the station being built of pre-made sections—cubes, oddly enough, which makes it a bit hard to produce a disk—when there’s reason to believe that it would have been made on a skeleton of long cables reeled out from a central station. Also contrary to this, Life has the inhabitable area around the edge of the disk, though this would have turned the Sonnengewehr into a filled-in version of the torus-shaped stations so favoured by von Braun during his lifetime

Immediate post-war reports to the contrary, it’s very unlikely that there was any sort of official work done on the Sonnengewehr beyond some tentative memos and discussions. If nothing else, consider the sheer mass of material that would have to be lifted into high orbit to build it. One source suggests one million tonnes of sodium metal, a figure considerably larger than the mass of everything ever lifted into orbit by all the world’s nations between 1957 and the present day.

Instead it seems to have been at best something batted around as a possible ultimate destination—even the scientists involved were thinking along the lines of the year 2000—in the culture of grandiosity that Nazism embraced and that also produced things like the Landkreuzer P. 1500 and Hitler’s architectural enabler Albert Speer. Even the mainstream rocketry program at Peenemünde was looking to run before it learned to walk, and this was just an extreme example of this attitude in the embryonic German space program. It may not have even been as tentative as that: at worst, it was merely discussions of an idea floated by the father of German rocketry, Hermann Oberth, in 1929—conversations at the cafeteria table to pass the time.

Any gloss of reality the Sonnengewehr got likely came once the war was over and the Hillersleben group were under the control of the American military. In that precarious situation they would have been searching for anything to impress their captors of their usefulness and the Sun Gun inflated from cafeteria-table discussions to the preliminaries of a project. It did get them a little attention at the time, to be sure, but its sheer fantasticalness made it quickly drop back out of the limelight.

Army/RAND World-Circling Spaceship: War is Over, Space Is Just Begun

Three views of the World-Circling Spaceship. On the left is the two-stage LOX/LH2 version, while in the centre is the more-developed four-stage LOX/Alcohol version. On the right is a view of the four-stage rocket as it might be assembled on the pad (support vehicle shown, far right). Images from Preliminary Design of a World-Circling Spaceship.

What it was: The first attempt to build a ship that could actually reach orbit by an organization that had the wherewithal to do it. Proposed in May 1946, the World Circling Spaceship was in fact two of them: a four-stage Liquid Oxygen/Alcohol rocket whose 500-pound (227-kilogram) upper stage would reach orbit, and an alternative two-stage LOX/Liquid Hydrogen rocket with a similar 500-pound upper stage. While primarily intended for unmanned payloads, putting a man into space with either was considered.

Details: The WWII German rocket team had a design, but no backing. Right after the war, the US Navy could have come up with the funds, but their design (actually several designs) to build a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle would never have worked—SSTO was beyond the technology of the 1940s.

The US Army Air Force, however, could have had both sometime immediately following the spring of 1946. In March they arranged for Douglas Aircraft to put together Project RAND to study intercontinental warfare by means of missiles. Their list of consultants was stellar, and even included Luis Alvarez, later much more famous for his paper proposing an asteroid strike as the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs and who would also be on the commission looking into the Challenger disaster.

By May 2, 1946 they had produced the first of what would be a very long line of reports from what would soon be the Rand Corporation. This one was devoted to artificial satellites and was called Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship. In it they studied the various issues standing between the present state of the art in rocketry and putting something into orbit, and they came to the conclusion that it could be done with 1946-era engineering. Working backwards from a goal of putting 500 pounds into orbit, they then proceeded to lay out two preliminary designs: a four-stage rocket using liquid oxygen and alcohol for fuel (the same fuels used by the V2 rocket) and an all-cryogenic two-stage rocket using liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. They also noted that their initial analysis’ conclusion that a rocket burning LOX/LH2 would be best if it had two stages had turned out to be wrong, and that if time permitted they would have redesigned the second concept to use three stages—not a bad result for 1948, as this prefigures any number of successful three-stage rockets developed since then.

The first actual all-cryogenic three-stage rocket didn’t come about until the Delta IV in the early 21st century, though, as liquid hydrogen is a bit of a bear to handle. In 1946 the knowledge of how to do so simply didn’t exist, so the alcohol fuelled rocket was considered the more conservative choice. As a result the report focused on the four-stage vehicle. Its length was 60 to 70 feet, and its width at its maximum was 12 to 14 feet. Altogether before launch (and including fuel) it would have weighed about 100 tonnes. Promisingly, this makes it quite similar in size to the two-stage Atlas B, a late 1950s rocket which had a payload of 70 kilograms.

A hypothetical launch of one of these rockets would begin on an equatorial Pacific Island, an idea we’d see again a few years later in the Army’s proposal to use Christmas Island as a spaceport for Project Horizon. As with that future plan, this was to take advantage of a long downrange area clear of human life as well as getting the maximum possible boost from the Earth’s rotation.

The rocket’s four stages, from largest to smallest and first-firing to last, were charmingly named Grandma, Mother, Daughter, and Baby, with the final one being the orbiting section; in the cryogenic rocket, Baby was perched on one single large stage (unnamed in the report, but call it The Mother of All Stages if you like). Each of these stages would have been stripped-down accumulations of fuel and rocket engines with the exception of Baby; it was in charge of guidance for itself and any earlier stage still attached to it and firing, an approach taken by the Proton K/D used for the Soviet circumlunar Zond spacecraft.

Baby’s payload cone would have been 3 feet (0.9 meters) in diameter and 7 feet (2.1 meters) in length, with an internal space of 20 cubic feet (0.57 cubic meters), and the payload’s weight would be no more than 500 pounds. While the assumption was that at first the Baby would be unmanned, a short chapter in the report—almost an aside, not even two full pages long—suggests that this would be big enough for a man and a vivarium to provide him with oxygen. Considering that the cramped Mercury capsule, by far the smallest manned craft ever made, had 60 cubic feet (1.70 cubic meters) of internal space, this was probably optimistic.

Baby’s instrument payload would be swapped in and out to fill a variety of roles. Fundamental research of the near-Earth environment was first, and RAND also pointed out the usefulness of a satellite for geodesy, ultraviolet astronomy, and communications. They even discuss the advantages of a satellite in geostationary orbit, but never actually mention that there’s a considerable difference between 500 pounds to LEO and 500 pounds to 35,786 kilometers up. Probably bearing in mind that RAND was funded by the Army Air Force, they also suggested that Baby could watch the weather over enemy territory, act as a spotter for a nuclear missile in a co-orbit, and send back pictures after an attack to assess its effect. There’s also a surprisingly prescient prediction, eleven years before the Sputnik 1 flap, that Baby would provide value simply by existing, so that it could increase world opinion of the United States.

Though they do mention using

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