VR-190: Stalin’s Rocket

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Diagram of the VR-190’s capsule. NASA image via archive.org

What it was: An attempt to turn a Soviet copy of the V-2, the R-1, into a suborbital manned rocket.

Details: After the fall of the Third Reich and the scattering of its rocket scientists to the winds, all three of the main Allied powers found themselves in possession of at least a few V-2 rockets. All of them then considered putting a man on top of one for a suborbital flight. In the case of the British and the Americans this was barely more formal than someone saying “Hey, why don’t we put a man on top of one of these things?”, but in the Soviet Union a considerable amount of design work was done before the project eventually came to a halt.

To some extent this was because the Russians did far more work with the V-2 than the other two powers. They managed to retrieve only a very few German-built V-2s and so set about learning how to build them on their own. In 1951 the home-built R-1, a copy of the V-2 with a few local improvements, was accepted into the Soviet military as their first operational ballistic missile. This work was done by OKB-1 under Sergei Korolev and lead quickly to the R-2 (AKA the Scud), the abortive R-3, and eventually the R-7 that was used to launch Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin into space.

The R-7 was famously built to use a core engine with strap-on boosters (four in the case of the R-7), as opposed to the Americans’ pre-Shuttle tendency to use a serially fired stages for manned flights. The initial Soviet studies on strap-on launchers were done by a relatively unknown GIRD member named Mikhail Tikonravov, who was one of the very few notable rocket engineers to escape the pre-War purges and so was well-positioned to work on Russian missiles as soon as the war was over.

His projects prior to studying the pros and cons of what he called “packet” launchers included the VR-190. As mentioned earlier, the US and UK never got very far into manned space travel based on the V-2 due to extreme skepticism on the part of the responsible parties in both countries. The USSR was the exception, and surprisingly Stalin was not only aware of it—Tikhonravov mailed a proposal directly to him in March 1946—the Soviet dictator specifically approved of it. The designer, who was Deputy Chief of NII-1 (“Scientific Research Institute-1”) worked on this goal until 1949.

Dubbed the VR-190 (Vysotnaya Raketa, “High-Altitude Rocket”), Tikhonravov’s variation on the V-2 took advantage of Russian work (partly done by the German engineers they had dragooned back to Kaliningrad) on separable nosecones for the V-2 that had been incorporated into the R-1. The German missile had problems with falling apart as it re-entered the atmosphere and the Russians and their Germans had realized that they could save weight and trouble by only worrying about the payload — the rocket itself had done its job by the time the dive back down arrived, and it could be dispensed with.

With the idea of a nosecone that could be swapped in or out now floating around, there were several different ideas put forward for how this capability could be used scientifically. In the early 1950s OKB-1 would fire R-1s into suborbital space with scientific instruments, gas sampling containers, and “biologicals” on board; the first living things to go to space and return were a pair of dogs, Dezik and Tsygan, who went up on July 29, 1951 (Charmingly, Tsygan was adopted as a pet afterwards by physicist Anatoli Blagonravov, later a negotiator for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Dezik, unfortunately, did not survive his second flight).

The VR-190’s payload was to be a manned capsule containing two cosmonauts—a word coined by Tikhonravov—seated side-by-side but facing in opposite directions. Its mission was not even suborbital in the technical sense that it would not have been launched any distance downrange. Rather, it was a pure vertical hop, aimed for maximum height at the cost of all else.

Perched atop the modified R-1, the cosmonauts would have ridden up to 190 kilometers before their capsule separated from the main body of the rocket. A parachute would have returned them safely to Earth, where dry land was the target. A moment before actual landing a probe on the underside of the capsule would detect the ground and fire retrorockets to counter the last of the craft’s speed—a tactic familiar from actual Soviet and Russian craft built later, first conceived of here.

What happened to make it fail: Despite Stalin’s approval, it seems to have bogged down in bureaucratic rigmarole and never got the attention or funding it would have needed. Certainly many of the people to whom Tikhonravov reported were skeptical of spaceflight, and in the atmosphere of terror that Lavrenti Beria cultivated in the 1940s USSR few were willing to stick out their necks, not least because there’s evidence that Beria himself was not sold on manned spaceflight. A few months after making his proposal Tikhonravov was moved out of NII-1, where he was under the control of a doubtful Ministry of Aviation, to the newly formed NII-4. This new bureau’s job was to develop theoretical concepts for military use of rockets but he was assigned quite strictly to that. He and his team continued to work on the VR-190 in his spare time.

By 1949 the focus of biological experiments had been shifted to the aforementioned dogs, and Stalin’s interest had drifted toward the far more sophisticated Sänger-Bredt spaceplane and sent Mstislav Keldysh on a quixotic quest to build one for the Soviet Union. Tikhonravov’s attempt to refocus it back in early 1950 was slapped down by the powers-that-be, who felt he should stick to what he had been asked to think about. Tikonravov was demoted from his position at NII-4 and eventually wound up at OKB-1 working under Sergei Korolev as a spacecraft designer. His previous work was instrumental to getting approval for launching Sputnik 1 in 1957, and he was a key person in the design of “Object D”, later dubbed Sputnik 3, which followed Sputnik 1 and Laika’s Sputnik 2 into space.

What was necessary for it to succeed: At the time rocketry was #2 on Stalin’s list of important military goals. Developing nuclear weapons was #1 and rocketry research was relatively focused on military applications of fission and then fusion bombs. The key turning points both came in 1953: Stalin’s death in March, and the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb test on October 12, 1953. The Soviet leadership was thrown into fratricidal chaos internally and stasis externally, not least because of Stalin’s micromanagement—for example, Georgy Malenkov, one of the initial triumvirate which took over, was ostensibly on the committee controlling the development of ballistic missiles prior to Stalin’s death but in practice he actually knew very little about the projects he supposedly oversaw.

With the pressure off to catch up with the United States in nuclear arms after the successful test, missiles to deliver them moved to the top of the Soviet wish list at the same time the grip of the country’s leadership had faltered enough to let the designers work on space projects that would have got them shot under Stalin and Beria (the latter judicially murdered himself in December 1953).

So the key to getting the VR-190 into space with its two cosmonauts aboard might be to have Stalin die (or be assassinated) not long after he approved Tikhnonravov’s initial proposal. The new leadership would be inclined to let things roll on their course for a while until more sure of themselves (as they did in real history) and the shakeups of the Politburo’s civil wars might have got pro-rocket Ministers in place of the pro-aviation ones that stopped Tikhonravov in 1949-50. This wouldn’t have been a sure route, but it would at least open up possibilities that did not exist in the late Stalin-era USSR.

That the VR-190 could have been successful is fairly clear given the pace at which events moved from 1953 to 1957. The R-1 was much less powerful than the R-7, but then the R-7 was much above the requirements of a suborbital flight. Reaching space in a vertical shot is much easier than orbiting the Earth, yet Vostok 1’s historic flight was a full orbit  launched on top of a slight variant of the very rocket which produced Sputnik 1 in 1957. The VR-190 would have been dangerous (two of its eight dog flights ended in death) but the USSR or, for that matter, the US or even UK with their captured V-2s, could have grabbed the first laurel of human spaceflight sometime about 1951, more than half a decade before the Space Age actually began.

Sources: Challenge to Apollo, Asif Siddiqi. “The Man Behind the Curtain”, Asif Siddiqi, published in Air and Space Magazine, Oct.-Nov. 2007. “Tikhonravov”, Russian Space Web, Anatoly Zak.

We have liftoff!

Welcome back, everyone. Below you’ll find the first new entry to the blog since I wrapped up the text of the eBook that was the intended goal of False Steps since day 1. It’s a recent proposal, a concept dating to 2011, just to show that failed space vehicles didn’t stop after the 60s and 70s.

On that note, the book is now available—you can use the links in the sidebar to the right to order it. Those of you with Kobos/Nooks stay tuned: it’s been shipped to both the Kobo store and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK store, but has not yet made it into their catalogs. I’ll post the links for those when they become available.

You may also be interested in the most recent post to my other blog, Passing Strangeness, which is about the Magdeburg Rocket. While not strictly about manned spaceflight, it runs down the details of the first attempt to build a manned rocket that reached the prototype phase—in 1933! Oh, those ever-so-optimistic boys from the German VfR….

Enjoy!

NAUTILUS-X: Getting Past the Moon, In Style

The Nautilus-X, having shaken out in cislunar space, heads out for its first mission to an NEO, 2001 CQ36, in late May of 2021. Composite of two images sourced from NASA.

The Nautilus-X, having shaken out in cislunar space, heads out for its first mission, a 354-day round trip to Near-Earth Object 2001 CQ36, in late May of 2021. Composite of two images sourced from NASA.

What it was: A large spacecraft concept intended for long-term missions developed in response to two goals in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010: developing a crewed exploration vehicle capable of operating beyond Low Earth Orbit, and incorporating new technologies into NASA programs.

Details: Long-term readers may have noticed that, even for a blog devoted to space projects that didn’t happen, few of the ships discussed here are very big. Contrast this with the regular images of spacecraft in science fiction, even the ones with pretensions to realism like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mission to Mars. Gravity is a harsh mistress and real spacecraft like Soyuz and Apollo are miracles of miniaturization because the cost of launching anything larger is prohibitive.

The notable exceptions are vehicles that were proposed for missions beyond the Moon, such as the Manned Venus Flyby or Mars Expedition 1969. You can get away with stuffing three astronauts into a space the size of a walk-in closet for a week or two, but it becomes a problem if you want to do it long enough to go to Venus, or Mars, or even a Near-Earth Object. This is one of the main reasons why, as of this writing, the leading candidate for NASA’s “next step” mission involves an unmanned craft grabbing a large boulder off a NEO and taking to lunar orbit, then sending a crewed mission in the relatively small Orion capsule to this “moon of the Moon”.

One of the most recent concepts to go build a big ship for further out came in January 2011. The NAUTILUS-X (supposedly a tortured acronym for Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States eXploration, but almost certainly instead a shout out to the Nautiluses of Rickover and Verne as well as the X-planes of the past) was floated as a concept by NASA’s Technology Applications Assessment Team as part of a general program to build infrastructure and spacecraft that either developed or integrated new technology.

Prior to the building of the craft two main projects would be undertaken: the development of cryogenic propellant depots for placement in LEO and at the Earth-Moon L1 point, and the building and testing of an inflatable centrifuge ring for attachment to the ISS. Once these were in place, the NAUTILUS-X would refuel at one and incorporate a finished version of the other.

The centrifuge ring is perhaps the most interesting part of the concept, as it would have represented the first time anyone had tried to generate artificial gravity in space (barring an experiment with Gemini 11 that produced an imperceptible 0.00015 g) despite the fact that dodging the problems of free-fall this way has been a dream since the earliest days of spaceflight. The intention was to aim for a ring 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter spinning at a rate of 10 RPM and producing a third of a g—much less than Earth, but more than the Moon and comparable to Mars.

Furthermore the centrifuge was to be the keystone of another aspect of NAUTILUS-X: it and a number of other cylindrical, non-rotating modules were to be inflatable, a coming technology that’s actually due for its first test starting in a few weeks when the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is to be launched by SpaceX and then attached to the ISS. On the LEO and NEO versions of the craft there would be three of these, and a extended-duration mission (up to 24 months) version that would have ten. In both cases two would be used for logistics and one for environmental control, a plant-growing facility, and an exercise area. The remainder on the extended-duration craft would be used for stores and a gradually increasing amount of living space as the stores were used.

The NAUTILUS-X would be built in pieces over a proposed 2-3 launches, at least one of which would be by a heavy launcher (the SLS, though that was still seven months away from being proposed publicly) putting the “spine” of the space vehicle into LEO. This was to have consisted of a solid operations module 14.5 meters long and 6.5 meters wide. Attached to the end of this would be a truss for supporting the inflatable units and a propulsion unit docking collar—the innovative idea behind this being that the NAUTILUS-X could swap out propulsion units depending on the mission. A solar electric ion engine was assumed for the basic setup, with more a nebulously defined unit for a Mars mission. In the same area of the ship was a radiation shelter using the LH2 and LOX fuel tanks around it for shielding.

At the front of the core module would be an Orion MPCV docking port and a small command/control and observation deck would stick out of the core’s side; a similarly sized “industrial” airlock stuck out the other. Once built the NAUTILUS-X could use its ion engine to slowly spiral out from Earth to the Earth-Moon L1 point, where it could be used as a passive space station-like fuel depot and headquarters for up to six astronauts launched later (it being impractical for them to be aboard during the spiral because of the Van Allen radiation belts) en route to the Moon. The craft would also be well-positioned to be take astronauts to NEO objects.

After a mission, NAUTILUS-X would return to a pre-arranged propellant depot in geosynchronous orbit for refuelling, while the astronauts on-board would return on the Orion that had brought them to it in the first place. They would re-enter, of course, but NAUTILUS-X was designed to stay in space permanently. Ultimately, a bespoke propellant depot would take its place at L1, letting the craft be used solely for missions and making it possible to refuel without returning to GEO repeatedly.

The design and build of the NAUTILUS-X was projected to cost a total of US$3.7 billion over 64 months beginning in 2015, with the shakedown mission (one sticking close to the Earth) taking place around 2020-21.

What happened to make it fail: It was too much, too soon. While NASA’s budget has gone up a bit since 2010, the Obama administration and various Congresses have been relatively cool to money for manned space exploration, many statements to the contrary, and so NASA has been hard-pressed to meet all the goals set out for them in 2010. Accordingly they’ve been focusing on the Orion MPCV and the Space Launch System as the two parts necessary to reach all the other goals. As NAUTILUS-X would be fulfilling the goal all the way down at the other end, it or anything else like it (for example, 2012’s Deep Space Habitat) have made no progress at all.

What was necessary for it to succeed: More money is the main one. Despite the addition of new technology to the NAUTILUS-X there’s nothing inherently absurd or difficult about the concept. Depending on how the tests of the inflatable centrifuge ring went on the ISS it would have undergone a redesign to a greater or lesser extent, but it’s a fairly conservative extrapolation of current space technology and almost certainly could be built in one form or another.

A more subtle problem is its reliance on a propellant depot. There’s reason to believe that there’s considerable internal debate at NASA over the wisdom of storing propellants in orbit, and without an orbital “gas station” a reusable ship with no re-entry capability is pointless.


Links

The original public presentation of Nautilus-X (PDF Format)

A very nice rendered video of the construction and then flight of the Extended Duration Explorer

Just a little picture teaser…

Image

Cover

If all goes according to plan, False Steps should be published via Smashwords this coming weekend, with iBooks store, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble in the couple of days following that. For now I thought I’d share the ever-so-retro cover, which looks as if it’s travelled here straight from 1959. (The image is from 1969, appearances to the contrary).

Expect a new blog entry at the same time, just as a little sweetener so you’ll all come back then.

Commencing Countdown

Welcome aboard, all passengers. This is your author speaking, just to let you know that False Steps is within a couple/three weeks of being published as an eBook through Smashwords. Just imagine! Some day your children or grandchildren might be reading these very words on a computer no larger than a refrigerator! Why you yourself will not be needing to code False Steps into your vacuum tube behemoths using machine language any more! What a strange and wondrous world we live in.

In all seriousness, the countdown begins today. If you’d like to keep an eye out, bookmark this page on Smashwords, or just stay tuned here. If you happen to be intrigued by my previous book (already available for sale for a mere $0.99 or, as we sometimes say, one micro-SLS) while there, so much the better.

If nothing else, watch for a few new entries here on space projects not yet covered. The plan is to get a little bit of new content for new readers brought here by the book, once every couple of weeks or so for the next couple of months at least.

Chief Designers 6: Max Faget

"Cutaway Diagram of Project Mercury"

A cutaway drawing of Max Faget’s biggest achievement, the Mercury capsule.This 1959 diagram was drawn in an unsettled period between the “C” and “D” designs of the craft, the latter of which flew. Public domain image from NASA.

Maxime Allen Faget was the premiere American spacecraft designer from the days of the Mercury capsule to the initial stages of the Space Shuttle. It was due to his understanding of Harvey Allen’s “Blunt Body Theory” that American spacecraft had their iconic bell shape, and his strong opinion about his ideas for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo led contractors to coin the aphorism “What Max Faget wants, Max Faget gets”. Experience proved that going against his intuitions was the quickest route to a losing bid in NASA design competitions.

Faget was born in Stann Creek, British Honduras (now Dangriga, Belize) on August 26, 1921. His father was a noted tropical disease researcher, employed by the British, and his family was of French descent via Hispaniola and New Orleans (his last name was pronounced in the French manner, fa-Zhay). His father was also American and so so was young Max; accordingly the family eventually returned to the United States. The younger Faget reportedly had a passion for science fiction—he had a subscription to Astounding Science Fiction—and model airplanes, interests which presumably led him to his ultimate career.

Max Faget and Frank Borman

Max Faget, foreground, and astronaut Frank Borman. This photograph was taken in April 1967 during the investigation into the Apollo 1 fire. Public domain image via NASA.

In 1943 he graduated from Louisiana State University (where his roommate was rocket designer Guy Thibodeaux) with a degree in mechanical engineering, then served on the submarine USS Guavina during World War II. After the war ended he joined NACA in 1946, which meant he was in on the ground floor when that agency was became NASA in 1958.

Even before that happened he had been working on the design of a space capsule radically different from what had been considered before. Experiments in the mid-1950s with ballistic missiles had proven that the best simple way to get something safely out of orbit was with a blunt-ended capsule rather than the sharply pointed craft that had been imagined necessary until then, or the lenticular shape that was also considered at the time. Taking this idea, Faget came up with a rough sketch that would eventually evolve into the Mercury capsule.

This work was mostly done after Faget joined the Space Task Group, a group of 45 people—37 of them engineers—based out of Langley Research Center in Virginia until 1961. With the addition of Canadian Avro engineers, Faget gained his right-hand man for Mercury, Jim Chamberlin. Then in 1961, following Kennedy’s declaration that the United States was going to send a man to the Moon, the Space Task Group was greatly enlarged and moved to become the Manned Space Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston, Texas. Their task was to follow through on Kennedy’s promise, and Faget was its Chief Engineer from February 1962.

As a result, Mercury went ahead with him in the lead; among other things, he created the escape tower for Mercury and later adapted for use with Apollo. He would then go on to shepherd the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft designs to completion.

Faget had an informal veto on NASA’s spacecraft designs from about 1958 to 1970, and he was not afraid to use it. Most notably the design competition for the Apollo spacecraft was jury-rigged to select the second-best scoring proposal over that of Martin-Marietta because it more closely resembled what he had designed himself in counterpoint to the external proposals.

Space Shuttle concepts

Space shuttle concepts around 1970. Faget’s “DC-3” is second from the top on the right. The bizarre SERV is top left. Public domain image from NASA.

His touch left him only once during his career at NASA, during the Space Shuttle design. At first he favoured something like Big G, but he soon came over to the side of a reusable spaceplane. While each NASA spaceflight centre had its own ideas, Faget considered all of them too complex and came up with a simpler, stubby-winged design called the “DC-3” in honour of the great cargo plane of the early days of aviation. This set off a battle within NASA over the cross-range capability of the Shuttle-to-be, with one side eventually settling on a delta-winged configuration and one side taking up Max Faget’s design as adopted and submitted by North American Aviation. Only the delta-wing arrangement would give the Shuttle a high cross-range, and that was felt to be useful enough that many in NASA held out against Faget’s proposal until the scales were tilted in their favour. Faced with a budget crunch, new NASA director James Fletcher arranged to have the US Air Force brought on as a partner for the spaceplane, and their requirement for cross-range was even higher than that envisioned by the delta-wing partisans at NASA. The DC-3 was abandoned and the Space Shuttle as we now know it began to take shape. His failure to get his design selected was apparently a source of minor annoyance to Faget for the rest of his life, but he dove into the construction of the new spaceplane and helped bring it to completion.

Faget left NASA in late 1981, not long after the flight of STS-2. He founded Space Industries Incorporated in 1983, which focused on projects intended to explore the unique conditions of space as they could be applied to industry and chemistry. Their Industrial Space Facility—a small, unmanned space station—never flew, but the Wake Shield Facility (which used its motion through space to make a “shadow” of ultra-high vacuum behind it it) ran experiments on three Space Shuttle missions from 1994-96.
Faget died of bladder cancer on October 10, 2004 at the age of 83.

Chief Designers 5: Wernher von Braun

von Braun and Nebel, c.1932

Wernher von Braun, right, and VfR compatriot Rudolf Nebel, circa 1932. Image origin unknown, believed to be in the public domain. Please contact the author if you have more information. Click for a larger view.

For many years Wernher von Braun was considered the paramount figure in the history of spaceflight. Certainly he had the unique distinction of being a key figure in two national space programs: the precocious and abortive German one, and the dominant American one. However against this we need to set the fact that he was “only” a rocket designer and was not intimately involved in developing the spacecraft that rode on top of them—one could make the argument that Max Faget was the most important figure in American manned spaceflight history because he was dominant in that role—and he pales in comparison to what we have learned about Sergei Korolev’s role in the Soviet space program since the 1980s. He and Korolev were the two greatest visionaries of the early space program, but then von Braun also suffers from having the most morally problematic career of any leading person in the history of space as well.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany (now Wyrzysk, Poland) on March 23, 1912. From 1915 he and his family lived in Berlin. Reportedly the present of a telescope and later a copy of Herman Oberth’s seminal book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket into Interplanetary Space) fascinated him and drew his attention to space.

A peripatetic school career let him develop his skills in physics and mathematics, ultimately leading to a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin in 1932 and a degree in physics from Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in 1934. It was in 1930, however, that his future was cemented by his joining the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (“Spaceflight Society”, commonly known as VfR), which had been founded three years previously. Their experiments with rocketry drew the attention of the German Army, particularly Walter Dornberger.

Under Dornburger, von Braun became the head of a rocket research program at Kummersdorf—the thesis for his 1934 degree was classified and unpublished until 1960—and civilian testing of rockets was banned. Unfortunately for Germany and the world as a whole, these preliminary steps were taken under the new German government of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Von Braun’s fortunes and that of German rocketry would rise and fall with them.

After several years of success at Kummersdorf, von Braun’s group was moved to Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. There they developed the A4 rocket, better-known as the V-2. This was the first man-made object to reach space, doing so several times on suborbital test flights, possibly as early as the steep misfire that was the fourth V-2 test flight on October 3, 1942 and certainly no later than the end of 1944. Unfortunately for von Braun’s future legacy it was used to launch conventional warheads at the UK and later the invading Allied armies after D-Day. Both London and Antwerp suffered under his rocket. Perhaps even worse was the fact that from the autumn of 1943 the V-2 was built in the Mittelwerk using slaves taken from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Von Braun managed to distance himself from this during his lifetime by pointing to his imprisonment by the Gestapo for two weeks in the spring of 1943, but the historical consensus since then is that von Braun knew more than he let on during his life and did little to resist the SS (who ran Mittelwerk, and of which von Braun had been an honorary member since 1940) after his release from prison so long as he could continue his rocketry work.

Ultimately his efforts to clandestinely jumpstart a German space program as a side effect of his military research came to a halt with the end of World War II. He and some 500 others of his Peenemünde group surrendered to the American 44th Infantry Division and were eventually sent to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip, a program to transfer as many key German scientists as possible out of Germany and away from the USSR and UK. Upon arriving in the US he and his compatriots had their war careers and Nazi activities hidden by the American government. For the next five years his role was to teach the US Army about the V-2 and its underlying technology while essentially under house arrest at Fort Bliss, Texas.

In 1950 he and what was left of the Peenemünde group were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, where their conditions were relaxed and they were allowed to enter civilian life in the United States. Von Braun became technical director of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, whose purpose was to develop a long-range ballistic missile. This they did, the Redstone. During this time, von Braun also became famous as a public advocate of spaceflight, helping to write a popular series on the future possibilities called “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” for Collier’s magazine in 1952-4; later he was technical director and a spokesperson for a highly rated television special on the same topic for Disney in 1955. He also became an American citizen during this time.

At this point the United States was close to launching its first satellite into space, but the government was loath to have it done by the German expatriates. Only after the launch of Sputnik 1 and the answering failure of the United States’ first Vanguard launch on December 6, 1957 was the Army and von Braun able to overcome this reluctance. On January 31, 1958, the first American satellite, Explorer 1, rode into orbit on top of a Jupiter-C rocket—a Redstone derivative produced by the Huntsville team.

Wernher von Braun's NASA portrait, 1960

Wernher von Braun’s NASA portrait, 1960. At age 48 he had just become director of Marshall Space Flight Center after already being the most important person in Germany’s wartime rocketry program. Public domain image.

For the next two-and-a-half years, von Braun’s responsibilities were slowly transferred from the Army to the US’ new civilian space agency NASA. Project Mercury was begun, and used Redstone derivatives for launches. Hunstville began work on a heavy launcher named Saturn, initially for an Army space program but then that was transferred to NASA too. Finally all Army space activities were passed over to NASA on the order of President Eisenhower. On July 1, 1960 the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville was renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center and put entirely in the hands of the civilian space agency. Von Braun was to be its first director, a position he held until 1970.

Those ten years saw von Braun living his dream, developing the Saturn V and being a key contributor to the Apollo program that landed men on the Moon. His vision of America’s future in space began to diverge from reality post-Apollo 11, however. He was a strong advocate of continuing on to Mars—the Integrated Program Plan’s Mars mission was largely his baby—and after two years in Washington following his transfer from Huntsville he came to realize that it was not going to happen. He resigned from NASA on May 26, 1972.

In 1973 he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which slowly sapped away his life. Before he was done, however, he helped to found the National Space Institute, one of the precursors the National Space Society, a major space advocacy and education group. He served as its first president before his hospitalization and then death on June 16, 1977 at age 65.