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.






  • windbourne

    I have to say that back in my 30s, I was single and having a great time in life. However, I would have gone to Mars in a HEARTBEAT as long as I stood better than a 50% chance of getting to the surface alive.
    Because once you get to Mars, your chance is actually fairly decent. It will have to be underground, and I would NEVER go without a nuclear energy being available (solar only would be the kiss of death).

  • windbourne

    So, what launch system only focuses on launching just your satellite?

  • Nicola Pecile

    Because freedom of information allows you to read any article… Misinformation and negative writing will not help private commercial space initiatives. At least, if he were a good reporter, he would have reported exclusively on the title of the article. What do the SpaceShipOne and Two programs have to do with this article? He’s comparing apples with peanuts, as if Scaled or VG ever spent a penny of his or anybody’s pocket…

    Moreover, if he had studied history, he would have learned that Von Braun ideas for Mars were not a “frustrating illusion”, and they were simply killed by political indecision and loss of interest in the outer space program, without considering that nobody really wanted to accept the risk of losing a crew on the way to Mars

  • kmbog

    The one that is getting paid to.

  • publiusr

    40 billion for half an Apollo stack. Musk says he can build his monster for 10,

    Musk has said a lot of things. How about this? How about the new spacers use their own money and not pull themselves up by trying to put other folks out of work. Musk got bailed out by COTS. Libertairan alt.spacers didn’t mind NASA money when it went to their pet projects.

    No, I’ll stick with a more conservative design. Now, Bezos can spend his own money. He and Musk need to pool efforts. Hell, if BFR actually flies, I can see SLS tankage used as an upper stage for that thing.

    Now if I could KNOW that BFR/ITS would be real–that’s one thing. I’d want funding for that–in the same way that both old Space EELVs and Falcon fly. Maybe we will have three HLLVs. The trend does seem to be going in the right direction. Just because SLS can be killed doesn’t mean that ITS will get its money. More likely, it would go elsewhere.

  • publiusr

    Overlords–they work for me. Infrastructure is something libertarians just don’t get. Even if we had anti-gravity tomorrow, keeping rockets around (like how sailing ships are used by some navies for training) would be a good thing.

    NIF/ITER–they keep pools of professionals around–a base. Libertarians are all about offshoring and destroying bases–downsizing. This will result in a ” a lack of cultivation of skillsets in younger generations that we need to maintain what we have into the future.”

  • publiusr

    Then do it on your own. You want to pull yourselves up[ by pulling better men down.

  • windbourne

    well, that is exactly how SpaceX works. The same as others.
    ULA has lots of side projects being worked on as well.

  • windbourne

    and what exactly is your background?

  • ThomasLMatula


    Sorry for the delay, I was on the road as part of my moving here to Texas.

    Yes, it often is but the B-52 was a pretty big jump from the B-47. And look at the SR-71 compared to other jets of the era. Big jumps are possible, it is just a matter of focusing on the details.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Which is what you need for both space settlement and industrialization. If he meets his performance goals he will find markets beyond just Mars.

  • Emmet Ford

    Musk has said a lot of things.

    He does a lot of things, too. He notoriously bad with schedules, but drops jaws with the way he can stretch a buck. Nobody believed that SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 for 400 million. NASA did an audit. Then they believed. When Musk said 10 billion for ITS development out loud, he was thinking 6 to 8.

    How about the new spacers use their own money and not pull themselves up by trying to put other folks out of work.

    That is the real argument. That is the crux. Old Space is entitled to that annual distribution of federal money by virtue of long established practice, because they have earned it with past performance, because Old Space has grown dependent upon it. New Space is not entitled. Go away. Don’t screw this up for everybody. I have a mortgage. My kids have to go to college.

    That’s not a good argument. NASA does space exploration. It’s not a jobs program for Alabama, Louisiana, Colorado and Texas. Well, it is a jobs program for Alabama, Louisiana, Colorado and Texas, but that’s not the goal. That’s not NASA’s purpose. The jobs program was instituted to support NASA’s purpose and to lock in long term Congressional support. But that arrangement has not been working for quite a while. The cost plus jobs program has become a burden. It’s bleeding the human space flight program dry. And all of a sudden, we have viable alternatives.

    All that stuff Old Space did for NASA, Old Space got paid for. Cost plus. That’s 58 years of no skin in the game.

    Here’s the answer: compete.

    Just because SLS can be killed doesn’t mean that ITS will get its money. More likely, it would go elsewhere.


  • windbourne

    2 postings and nothing but hatred for doug.
    I have to wonder if you are just a troll, or are you really working for VG and just hate him for speaking up about VG?
    Im guessing the former.

  • Conway Costigan

    ironically, reusing an SLHV like SLS is quite possible while the hobby rocket space airliner is not.

    If the advanced boosters for the SLS are pressure fed and structurally strong enough to be parachuted into the ocean they can be recovered like the space shuttle boosters.

    Since they can be cleaned and given a light refurbishment without needing to be sent to Utah, cleaned and have new fuel cast they will be the least expensive reuse possible.

    The core engines of a lunar mission SLS would boost a wet workshop stage out of orbit, separate from the workshop and then take a lunar free-return trajectory back to a reentry and ocean recovery with it’s own heat shield, parachutes and water-safe covers.

  • Hug Doug

    I think the Strong Tether Centennial Challenge is technically still open, as there has yet to be a winner. There hasn’t been a formal competition since 2011, however, there have been many tether-climbing robot competitions.

    I do not understand why you say the risk isn’t worth the rewards, what risk?

  • Kenneth_Brown

    A tether could weigh in at a billion tons or more. An accident during construction or sabotage/damage once in place would kill millions of people and cause massive devastation as it falls and wraps around the equator.

  • Hug Doug

    LOL a billion tons. citation desperately needed LOL

  • Doug Weathers

    “Things cost what they cost.”

    Well, yeah. Things also have benefits. You pay the cost to get the benefits.

    Tom, myself, and every other NewSpace person I know all think that the benefits provided by SLS are not worth the cost.

    Am I being clear enough here? It’s not an ideological dislike of SLS, it’s an engineer’s dislike of wasting money. We’d rather launch more payloads for less money, end of story.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    You must have left your engineering degree in your other jacket if you think that a ribbon a couple of nanometers thick and 3-5 centimeters wide is going to do the job. Try imagining a cable meters in diameters times the length required. The idea is to haul tonnage into orbit not grams. 10kg at terminal velocity is not going to be a good thing to have dropped on your head if it could survive frictional heating.

  • Hug Doug

    Look up the tensile strength of carbon nanotubes.

    I’ll wait.

  • Doug Weathers

    Engineering is about tradeoffs. What Musk showed us is the end result of his team’s tradeoffs. We can guess they were optimizing for fast and cheap and doable by SpaceX. There may be more tradeoffs that cause the puzzling aspects of the ITS design that we don’t know about, but we can start with these and see where it takes us.

    Fast and cheap means don’t develop a lot of vehicles. Specialized deep-space liners and Mars cyclers and boost stages and Mars-orbit refueling tankers might all come later, since it looks like they might save some money. But do it as quick and cheap as possible first.

    One of the things that surprised me was getting to Mars faster than a Hohmann transfer. That costs a lot of delta-v – at both ends. On the Mars end, maybe they need to aerobrake or they won’t even make Mars orbit? I should run the numbers and see. If so, they come in hot and head straight for the surface, no loitering in orbit first. That’s what the video shows.

  • publiusr

    But it isn’t a waste of money. It is capability we didn’t have before. Starting and stopping projects is the waste. And the sunk cost fallacy only works if you agree that the initial cost was wrong–which it isn’t. Sigh.

    Look, ITS/BFR is well in the future. SLS will fly soon. If Musk plays his cards right–he should be asking Congress to kill SLS. Like it or not–that isn’t going to fly with Congress.

    You know what might work? Go after F-35. Musk might do some powerpoints on orbital military platforms. Talk about how our immense ColdWar/WWII infrastructure and architecture is essentially socialist. With space bombardment, we don’t have to mobilize slow carrier groups, airplanes that take off from an airfield with a CNN reporter watching–like an ISIS fighter can’t look at a stopwatch and guesstimate a strike.

    No–with more isolationism–Musk might get more traction by diverting aerospace funding to his projects. Musk, Bezos and NASA need to work together. IHis ITS/MCT is about the size/mass of SLS itself. I can see SLS becoming a hydrogen upper stage for the BFR in case the more busy ITS has problems. It is a potential out worth looking at.

    Also, SLS tooling may play a part. I want BFR to be a giant Saturn IB myself. Having clister tanks with the top and bottom of the tanks “floating” between top and bottom plates may make more sense for BFR than one big resonating tank. There were gaps between the Redstones around the Jupiter. I can see longer landing legs fitting into those gaps offered by cluster tanks.

    If BFR should hit two hard with the tankage as it stands…it migght be more easily damaged. Besides, someone shoots a hole in a cluster tank–swap it out on a carousel.

    Lastly, I think Musk and Bezos need to go into the toy manufacturing business.

    Face it, there are not many folks like us who hang out on space sites.

    But popularize ITS/BFR with big playsets–and you put the bug into the minds of kids who grow up to be space voters.

    That’s your path.

  • publiusr

    Well, it is a jobs program for Alabama, Louisiana, Colorado and Texas, but that’s not the goal.

    Like ITER–it is keeping folks in the game–folks that can go to other projects. Musk had to have folks to draw upon. Old and New Space need to work together.

  • Emmet Ford

    Oh, absolutely. The Old/New Space terminology gets pointless quickly when you are talking about companies doing business. I don’t expect ULA and SpaceX to unveil a joint undertaking in the next 6 months, but Lockheed, Boeing and SpaceX do business with one another all the time. Small New Space companies get work from Old Space companies all the time.

    Elon will set up shop in Mischoud, perhaps 2 years from now. But that half-promise of intent will hang in the air over every discussion going forward. One does not get the impression that he wants a war with NASA’s Congressional base. That does not get him where he wants to go.

    Musk has never been interested in playing the upstart/outsider role. He is not disaffected, disenfranchised or in any other way marginalized by entrenched interests. That’s not his posture. That’s not his thing. He does not spend much time talking about what other people should do. He mostly talks about what he is going to do.

  • Spacetech

    Ya got me! At least I had a high tech spin mop!

  • publiusr

    BFR needs to be New Armstrong. Also, ITS actually looks a bit like a football–so, that might be a way to attract interest perhaps. He does need to make toys of his mega-vehicles–get into the youth zeitgeist like Trek did.

  • Alex watchtower

    What a short sighted, and nearly rude argument!

    Musk is doing what the paying customers are asking him to do, launch their satellites. Last time I checked a company is allowed to make a profit, and it’s none of NASA’s business what he does with that profit. Or any other customer. If he wants to spend it on strippers, mariachi bands, Ferraris, or R&D for Mars rockets, it’s his business. We should be grateful it’s not strippers and here we have at least one billionaire, who actually plans on doing something for humanity with his wealth.

    Where the hell are you getting that NASA is paying for his research? Aside from government provisions for the commercial sector, the company’s hard earned profit is paying for it….which they have a right to earn and do whatever they want with it!

    And with all that, it still comes at a fraction of the cost NASA’s contractors ask them. And those guys, like Boeing, who ONLY spend our tax payers money, their companies’ profit simply goes to investors and shareholders or fat checks to their CEOs. I don’t hear you criticizing that.

    What the hell man?

  • Alex watchtower

    This would make sense if Elon’s original plan was to launch satellites, and then got greedy and wanted Mars. It’s not the case. It was always Mars for him. He didn’t set out to start a satellite launching company. He originally wanted to buy rockets from the Russians to put some plants on Mars for God’s sake just to get people interested in Mars again.

    Also, the big difference here is von Braun depended on government money. The government stopped having a need for him and after using him to get us to the moon to win their political race with the Russians, they couldn’t wait to get rid of him because he was an ex-Nazi who they really just wanted out of the way and to break up his team of ex-Nazi engineers.

    The government was never interested in human exploration to begin with, they never cared about ANY of von Braun’s visions, just his talent for missile building and to win the space race against Russia. They just really wanted to make sure the Russians wouldn’t have satellites that could hover over us, launch nukes on us, wanted to be able to have OUR own satellites to spy on everyone else, at will, and win a political race to the moon.

    Human exploration in space or science to begin with was ALWAYS secondary, and after they achieved their purpose, they sure as heck made sure NASA would plateau after the 1970’s once von Braun was ran out of town and showed just how much they valued human exploration in space and science. Actually there’s a better word for that: stagnation. And handing out fat contracts to old friends.

    The fact Musk is mimicking von Bron’s plan from the 1950’s actually goes to show you how behind we are. And unlike other fields, whether we are talking about the airplane, car, computer, cell phone, you name it….none of them needed to plateau and it’s been innovation and pushing technology forward that’s actually kept those companies in business and selling iteration after iteration of their products.

    Elon musk has a sound business plan based on common sense which is a lot more I can say about our government space program. He doesn’t plan on scrapping the Falcon 9 any time soon. In fact that part WILL plateau as you want, in order to fund the remaining portion of his ORIGINAL vision. It’s not a leap, It’s not gigantism. It’s merely the next step in his plan. His original plan. His original vision.

    He set out to try and make sure we get to Mars. He’s still working on the same plan. Hopefully he succeeds. He just unveiled some of the technical details of that rocket and now has a rough draft for the engineering. That’s all.

  • Alex watchtower

    You can’t sustain an outer space presence based on tourism to the moon. Rich folks will go for a joy ride once, maybe twice. That’s about it. It’s not sustainable and the moon cannot sustain a colony without far more expense than Mars ever will be because of the lack of local resources. That’s why Musk has the right idea of going to Mars.

  • Doug Weathers

    I think we must be talking past each other, even though I’m using the simplest language I can. It must be some fundamental difference in our worldviews.

    Perhaps it’s that you want new capabilities sooner, and I/we want cheaper space launch sooner? Given the same dollar, you will want to spend it on a new capability and I want to spend it on lowering the cost of launching existing payloads. Does this sound reasonable to you?

  • publiusr

    I want capability across the board. SLS wil fly sooner than BFR–maybe even sooner than Falcon Heavy. I just want folks who work on shuttle-derived heavy lift the same respect that JPL and other space workers get.

    They are all doing a good job.

  • Doug Weathers

    I am sure they are doing a good job. I have huge respect for every NASA employee and contractor I’ve ever met. I spent two summers at WSTF, and they’re heroes, every one.

    I just wish the people working on SLS were working on something else that might actually make progress on the goals that I think are important. Opportunity cost, again.

    Thanks for responding in such a calm and civilized manner. It’s nice to have an actual conversation in an Internet forum.

  • publiusr

    There often is a lot more heat than light on some boards–but people fight because they **care** and that’s a good thing.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Strangely enough, SpaceX is claiming that it was a failure of a COPV by way of how it was being filled. Nothing of a metallic nature mentioned.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Elon’s fortune is not exactly liquid. A few years ago he had to borrow money from friends to pay personal expenses even though at the time he was rich by most people’s definition. His assets are extremely fragile too. The way ™, SC and SX are intertwined financially, if one fails it could drag the other two down.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Well, DD was blackmailed into not going but at least he made one trip and died on the moon. Mars via chemical rockets will be even tougher on the human body. All of the time spent in zero G ending with high G orbital insertion maneuvers will take being in good condition to survive. Once on the surface there wouldn’t be any recovery time. Colonists will need to go straight to work.

  • Oh, I’m sorry, I was referring to Physical Metallurgy Principles, 3d Edition, by Reza Abbaschian and Robert E. Reed-Hill, wherein atoms are atoms, and only the valence electrons have metallic character. The magnitudes of the covalant cohesive forces are basically very similar.

    The COPV does have a metallic liner as I understand.

    Again, something either ignited and/or broke. I just wasn’t aware that they were using liquid helium to flash the tanks up to flight pressures. That has greatly changed my thinking on this.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    At 4-5°K, using liquid He seems a bit silly. With its high thermal conductivity, unique (strange) characteristics and cost, there are better and safer ways to get the job done.

    I’ve had many situations where an exotic material would eek out a slight improvement and found the cost significantly higher ie: solder at $1,800/lb, and/or special handling required due to health and safety concerns.

    Making the F9 a reliable vehicle instead of constantly trying to get more performance out of it and using the engineering time to get the F9H to the pad makes more sense to me than what they have been doing.

    Landing the first stage for reuse is interesting, but they haven’t taken it to the next step of reusing one. That’s millions of dollars spent without the follow on. I could even call it a stunt since the same type of thing has been done before (I was part of one of those teams) and the competition, Blue Origin, lofted their vehicle to space 5 times before retiring it with a 100% recovery rate.

  • Silly or not, it now appears that is exactly what they were doing.

    Stunt or not, he is going to start reflying his used cores and he will be attempting to recover those used cores whenever it is possible. You can remain in denial of this for as long as it takes.

  • SteveD

    People have to realize that Musk is not some genius inventor. What he IS is someone with lots of money who is willing to spend it on trying to make long-dreamed-of ideas come to life. He hires the people with the know-how to design and build what he wants. Assembling a large ship in orbit because it’s too big to launch in one piece in a practical manner is old news.

    And landing a rocket on it’s tail? Hell, Abbott and Constello were landing rockets on their tails on Mars in 1953. Nothing new there either: http://www.flickattack.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/09MILLER.jpg

    But just because one can afford to build it doesn’t mean a project idea is a good one. There are reasons these concepts were rejected long ago and other paths taken.

  • SteveD

    Yes, but much needs to be learned first. We were building and navigating Mayflowers long before we attempted Titanics.