Elon Musk, Wernher Von Braun and Gigantism: What is Old is New Again

Interplanetary Transport System at Enceladus. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Enceladus. (Credit: SpaceX)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Elon Musk’s obsession with making giant leaps forward in technology and how the approach has likely contributed to some of the company’s problems. I posited that SpaceX needs fewer leaps and more plateaus so its employees can consolidate what they have learned and get really good at it before moving on to the next level. [SpaceX: Giant Leaps, Deep Troughs But No Plateaus].

Elon Musk threw any chance of that happening right out the window when he unveiled his plan to colonize Mars in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday. The plan is light years beyond anything he and SpaceX have ever attempted, and it makes NASA’s much more modest effort look positively puny and uninspiring by comparison.

Project Mars by Wernher von Braun
Project Mars by Wernher von Braun

As John Logsdon pointed out to me, the Elon Musk of 2016 resembles no one so much as the Wernher von Braun of the 1950’s. Von Braun wrote a book, “The Mars Project,” that featured a fleet of 10 ships that would carry 70 men on an expedition to the Red Planet. The fleet would be assembled in low Earth orbit using fully reusable rockets with dozens of first-stage engines that would launch components and fueling depots before returning to their launch site.

The illustrations of rockets on the surface of Mars that adorned the cover of the English translation of von Braun’s book look strikingly similar to the images of the Interplanetary Transport System released by Musk on Tuesday.

Von Braun’s work formed the basis for a famous 1952-1953 series of articles in Collier’s magazine titled, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” The articles, in turn, were used for three episodes of a television series produced by Walt Disney about humanity’s conquest of space.

colliers_mars_coverVon Braun didn’t live to see humans walk on the face of Mars. He did get the opportunity to send men to walk on the moon. They flew in ships that, while representing state-of-the-art technology of the time, were small compared with what von Braun envisioned sending to the Red Planet.

Instead of leading to the establishment of a permanent base on the moon and a precursor to manned missions to the Red Planet, Project Apollo proved to be a dead end. NASA landed 12 men on the lunar surface during six missions and then abruptly ended the program, much to von Braun’s dismay. Nobody has ventured beyond Earth orbit since 1972.

Musk has taken von Braun’s ideas and supersized them. No 10 men each on seven ships for Elon. Try 100 people on one ship, then 200, with dozens and then hundreds and thousands of voyages  to Mars. Eventually, a million people or more would inhabit the planet’s frozen deserts, forming humanity’s first off-Earth colony.

I have no idea whether Musk’s plan has any chance of working. There are so many aspects to it (financial, political, technical, sociological) and unanswered questions (funding, life support, Mars habs) that even two days after watching him present this plan, I’m still having a hard time getting my head around it.

The one thought I do have is that Musk’s Mars plan smacks of a syndrome I call gigantism that has caused problems for space exploration over the years. Essentially, initial successes lead people to attempt giant leaps that have a high chance of falling short.

After his initial success with the V-2 rocket, von Braun imagined scaling up the technology for manned voyages to Mars. It proved to be a pleasant and ultimately frustrating illusion.

After landing men on the moon, building a fleet of airliner-sized space shuttles that could fly to 50 times per year and make space travel routine, safe and affordable should have been a comparatively easy task. The shuttle was a technological marvel, but it really didn’t accomplish any of these goals.

After flying SpaceShipOne into space three times, Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites proceeded to develop the much larger SpaceShipTwo to make suborbital space travel routine, safe and (relatively) affordable. Twelve years, hundreds of millions of dollars, and four deaths later, we’re still waiting for the vehicle’s first flight to space. NASA completed the Apollo program in less time.

And then there’s Rutan’s other brainchild, Stratolaunch. The twin fuselage carrier aircraft with the 385-foot wingspan is a giant leap beyond the next largest plane Scaled has built, WhiteKnightTwo. What rocket(s) it will air launch is still not clear. Some critics don’t believe the aircraft will ever fly.

With visions of spreading humanity out into the solar system dancing in his head, Musk seems to have succumbed to gigantism. The question is whether he can make it work. That remains to be seen.

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