The man who designed the V2 rocket also helped America reach the Moon. And he had a plan for deeper space exploration that was ahead of its time, it appears.

Homo Spaciens: Our new life off Earth

On 9 March 1955, 42 million Americans – around a quarter of the total US population at the time – tuned in to watch a new Disney TV series. It featured no dancing mice, princesses in peril or orphaned ungulates. Man in Space was fronted by a handsome, warm and engaging rocket engineer setting out his vision for the future exploration of the cosmos.

Surrounded by beautifully sculpted spacecraft models and futuristic artwork, Wernher von Braun addressed the viewer, talking through his plan for a practical passenger rocket achievable, he claimed, within 10 years. The programme included spellbinding dramatic animations and a suspenseful orchestral score, full-sized spacesuits and detailed diagrams.

Ten years earlier, von Braun had been leading the development of Hitler’s V2 rockets – ballistic missiles built by slave labour and targeted at civilians across Europe. Now he was the poster child for the American space programme and being welcomed into homes across the nation.

Opinion on the German rocket engineer is probably even more divided today than it was in the 1950s. Some historians suggest he was an amoral opportunist – exploiting Hitler’s desire for a futuristic weapon, to further his own ambitions for space exploration. For many others he remains a hero – a space visionary that won the race to the Moon and presented America with a roadmap to the stars.

Whatever you feel about the man, the fact is that 60 years after those first broadcasts people still refer to the von Braun Paradigm. Put simply, it’s the steps the engineer set out to take mankind into space, with a shuttle and a space station, followed by missions to the Moon and Mars.

He was obsessed with the Moon, that was his childhood ambition – Michael Neufeld

“What he was trying to do was lay out an architecture for how spaceflight might be possible,” explains Michael Neufeld, senior curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and author of three books and numerous articles on von Braun. “He was obsessed with the Moon, that was his childhood ambition.”

“The plan was very influential in the 60s and it lived on,” Neufeld says. “When going straight to the Moon became the project he was enthused by that and didn’t necessarily adhere to this rigid shuttle, Moon, Mars scheme but for a lot of engineers at Nasa that was the logical programme for human space exploration.”

Shuttle without a station

Throughout the 1960s, von Braun pursued the development of the giant Saturn 5 rocket that would take men to the Moon. But, in the minds of some in the American space agency, this was just a diversion.

“Nasa kept trying to come back to the script,” says Neufeld. “At the end of the 60s, the Space Task Group tried to recommend to [President] Nixon that we need to build a space shuttle and a space station and then we’ll prepare for expeditions back to the Moon and onto Mars.”

With the Moon race won and space budgets slashed, all that emerged was the space shuttle programme – a reusable vehicle conceived to service a space station. But without a space station. “Not so much a space policy as an excuse not to have one,” says Neufeld. However, the von Braun Paradigm remained close to the hearts of many.

Von Braun died of cancer aged 65 in 1977, four years before the first Space Shuttle flight. But his plan lived on. “Nasa returned to the idea of a space station and then President Bush stood on the steps of this museum in 1989 and said we’re going back to the Moon and Mars,” says Neufeld. “That also was a failure.”

 Our charter is to continue what he began – Les Johnson

In the minds of many, however, von Braun’s stepping-stones to Mars have never gone away. “Nasa keeps coming back to it,” says Neufeld. “’What do we do now?’ is a perennial problem with Nasa because the future of human spaceflight has been a lot less than the dreams of the believers.”

But there are still plenty of believers out there and, right now, they perhaps have every reason to feel optimistic. In fact there is still a whole department at Nasa dedicated to these future footsteps.

“Von Braun started this office back in the 1960s,” says Les Johnson, technical advisor for advanced concepts at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and owner of a DVD copy of the original Disney series. “Our charter is to continue what he began – it is a direct linear descendent of what he did.”

“I have a conference report from 1964 looking beyond the Moon – and this was before even Project Gemini – and he was already telling his folks to start planning that Mars trip,” says Johnson. “If I was to compare it to what we do today, most of the issues we’re wrestling with were things he outlined in 1964.”

Strong leadership

The parallels are striking. Johnson’s office has recently been grappling with the challenges of building the new Space Launch System (SLS) – the first rocket since von Braun’s Saturn 5 capable of taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit and, potentially back to the Moon and onto Mars.

Johnson believes that as well as von Braun’s visionary concepts we should also admire his leadership. “Whenever you have a team of people working towards a common objective – whether that’s a team of 10 in a small business or tens of thousands with project Apollo to go to the Moon – you’ve got to have someone who keeps it all on track, who has that big vision,” says Johnson.

“It’s the difference between a leader and a manager, unless you have a leader articulating the vision, the manager doesn’t have anything to manage.”

If you ignore the inconvenient truth that America jumped a couple of steps by going to the Moon early, it now appears we are back on track with the von Braun Paradigm. We have done the shuttle and space station, now we push on to the Moon and Mars.

This was certainly the official narrative during last year’s launch of the new Orion spacecraft and when I visited the factory where the SLS is taking shape. The new head of the European Space Agency, Jan Worner, also told BBC Future recently  of his vision for a village on the Moon.

Unlike in von Braun’s day any deep space exploration is likely to be international in nature

In fact Johnson too, has something of the visionary about him. “Space is the future,” he tells me. “We’ve got to move out, we’ve got to explore and move beyond the Earth.”

Johnson cautions, however, about the whole vision thing. “A person who’s a visionary is a single point failure, so I’m always nervous when someone says ‘the great leader will get us out of this’.” And, realistically, unlike in von Braun’s day any deep space exploration is likely to be international in nature – involving the US, Europe, Russia, Japan, Canada and maybe even China and India. A shared vision is likely to be a much more solid foundation for the future.

It is, nevertheless, remarkable that we are still talking about von Braun 60 years after those Disney shows and almost 40 years after his death. Even private space rivals Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk refer to von Braun and his name was invoked recently in their recent ‘mine is bigger than yours’ spat  over who has built the best reusable rocket.

“I’m surprised he’s not been forgotten more,” admits Neufeld. “It’s partly the space visionary dimension and partly the Nazi question – either he’s a bad Nazi or he’s our space hero, it’s hard to hold in your head that he could be both of them simultaneously.”

“He was the space populariser of the 50s and 60s,” says Neufeld. “He remains among space buffs the one with a vision for a future space programme.”

Wernher von Braun would doubtless be pleased people are still following his vision but even more pleased that a Mars mission is a serious prospect. As someone who understood the price of these gargantuan undertakings, however, he would also probably point out that no mission to the Moon or Mars is yet properly funded.

Still, to adopt that old Disney adage: When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. Eventually.  

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