The Mars Mission That Hasn’t Happened Yet: 1954

Chesley Bonestell's 'Weightless in orbit 1,075 miles above earth, workers in space suits assemble three moon ships' (left half of double-page image); 'Man on the Moon THE JOURNEY' by Dr. Wernher von Braun; Technical Director, Army Ordnance Guided Missiles Development Group, Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama; Collier's magazine, page 52 (October 18, 1952)

Collier's magazine cover: 'Man Will Conquer Space Soon.' (March 22,1952)From 1952 to 1954, Collier’s published “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” — a series of articles describing a step-by-step plan for landing on Mars.

The first step was building an Earth-orbiting space station.

Then we would build ships to reach Earth’s moon: and finally assemble a fleet for an expedition to Mars.

Man on the Moon
Collier’s magazine, page 52 (October 18, 1952)

“Scientists have dreamed for centuries of a lunar voyage. Now we know it can be done within the next 25 years—if we get started right away. In this symposium, a distinguished panel tells how….”

So far, we’ve achieved one of those goals. Maybe one and a half, two or three, depending on what value’s given to space stations which have been built and the Space Shuttle.

Moon Landing: a Revised Schedule

Collage, folks around the world watching video from Apollo 11 on Earth's moon. (July 1967)The Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series began March 22, 1952.

A little over 17 years later, the Apollo 11 crew returned from humanity’s first visit to another world.

Granted, we only sent an orbiter and a lander: not Collier’s three ships. We put off designing a space shuttle until later, and still don’t have a spinning space station.

I think setting up an orbiting space station first, then using it as a shipbuilding facility, would have made sense. But that’s not how America’s Apollo program reached Earth’s moon.

I figure we skipped a few steps partly because an unpleasant situation we call the Cold War was in progress.1

Beginnings and Endings, Periodization and a Little Politics: the Space Race

NASA's 'Earth Rising over the Moon's Horizon,' taken during Apollo 11 mission; Lunar terrain is Smyth's Sea on the nearside. (July 1969)

The Space Race began in 1944 when a German V-2 missile crossed the Kármán line, a somewhat arbitrary “edge of space” 100 kilometers above Earth’s mean sea level.

The New York Times editorial, 'His Plan is Not Original;' insisting that rockets need air to push against, so they can't possibly work in space. (January 13, 1920) via timesmachine.nytimes.comOn the other hand, maybe the Space Race began in 1945. That’s when the United States Government realized that a New York Times editorial had been wrong and Robert Goddard had been right.

Or the Space Race began in 1921, when the Soviet Union’s Gas Dynamics Laboratory began developing solid-fuel rockets.

Who won the Space Race depends on who you’re listening to.

The Soviet Union won the Space Race in 1957, 1961 and 1971: with Sputnik 1, Vostok 1 and Salyut 1; the first satellite, first human orbital flight and first space station.

Or the United States won in 1961, 1966 and 1969: with Freedom 7, Gemini 8 and Apollo 11; the first human-piloted spaceflight, then the first orbital rendezvous and docking. And, finally, the first humans landing on Earth’s moon.

At any rate, the Space Race ended in 1986, when the Soviet Union began assembling the Mir modular space station. Or in 1998, when in-orbit assembly of the International Space Station began.

Or it’s still in progress, with more nations and several private-sector outfits competing.

I don’t know exactly when the ‘who’s first in space’ competition between the Soviet Union and United States started being called the Space Race, or how long that moniker will be in use. I’ve talked about periodization, historiography and similarly-dusty topics before.2

Space Travel Gets Real: Tracking John Glenn, Flight Control Policies

Virgil Finlay's cover art for 'Bullard of the Space Patrol', Malcolm Jameson. (1951)I started noticing the Space Race in the early 1960s, and remember tracking John Glenn’s Friendship 7 orbiter as it circled Earth: along with the rest of — I think it was the fifth-grade class.

That was on February 20, 1962.

Yuri Gagarin had orbited Earth in Vostok 1 the year before: April 12, 1961. But the first human-piloted spaceflight was Allan Shepherd’s suborbital jump on May 5, 1961.

I don’t know why my country’s first astronauts were pilots while the Soviet Union’s early space pilots were functionally passengers. Maybe we had an edge in flight control technology.

Or maybe there was some truth in a wisecrack I read at the time: that folks running the Soviet space program wanted assurance that their pilots would come down in Soviet territory.

Then again, maybe not. I gather that Vostok 1 had functioning flight controls. But they were locked, with the unlock code in a sealed envelope which Yuri Gagarin could open.

That does make sense, sort of, since apparently the Soviet flight controllers weren’t sure about how a human would react to extended missions in micro gravity.

I’m guessing that by the early 1960s, many Americans had realized that space travel really could happen. And that we had the technology which made it possible.

Much of the mid-20th century’s technical progress may have been inspired by science fiction’s ‘Golden Age,’ from around 1940 to 1950. Or 1930s to 1960s. Opinions vary.

Or maybe we reached the moon despite the profusion of pulp fiction tales filled with sound, fury and wildly-inaccurate science.

Then there were the Bullard of the Space Patrol stories: and I’m drifting off-topic.3

Destination Mars: Getting Ready

Chesley Bonestell's illustration: 'The first landing party takes off for Mars,' 'Can We Get to MARS?' by Dr. Wernher von Braun with Cornelius Ryan, Collier's magazine, pages 26-27 (April 30, 1954)
“The first landing party takes off for Mars. Two other landing planes will wait until runway is prepared for them, and the remaining seven ships will stay in 600-mile orbit….” (Collier’s (April 30, 1954))

Collier's magazine cover: 'Can We Get to Mars? Is There Life on Mars?'  (April 30, 1954)The Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series ended with two articles in the April 30, 1954 issue: “Can We Get to Mars” and “Is There Life on Mars?”

Dr. Fred L. Whipple’s “Is There Life…” article said, basically, ‘we don’t know,’ and speculated that maybe we’d find something like bacteria, lichen, moss: or something completely different.

Back in the 1920s, some astronomers thought that they’d found evidence for oxygen and water vapor in the Martian atmosphere. Others had found no evidence of any sort of atmosphere.

By 1925, Donald H. Menzel published his analysis of observations to date. He said that the Martian polar caps were some sort of surface (not atmospheric) phenomenon, that Mars had a measurable atmosphere: and that it couldn’t have any more than 0.18 Earth’s sea-level pressure.

That’s about one-fifth Earth’s sea-level pressure. Pressure at the top of Mount Everest averages roughly one-third sea-level pressure.

Dr. Whipple was right. Even with Martian air pressure as high as then-current high-end estimates said it might be, it’d be “…so low that an earth man couldn’t survive without a pressurized suit….”4

Ideal Air Pressure, Limits and ‘Hollywood Magic’

NASA/JPL's flyby image taken by Mariner 4: Mariner cra(July 14, 1965)Ideal air pressure for humans is Earth’s sea-level pressure. At or below the average pressure at or below 150 meters, 450 feet, actually.

And, assuming we’re using something like SCUBA gear, less than 150 feet underwater; give or take a bit.

Our limits involve partial pressure of oxygen, metabolism, individual differences. It’s complicated, which is an understatement.

I live in central Minnesota, 1,250 feet above sea level, but have long since acclimated, so breathing is no problem for me.

At higher altitudes, however, no amount of acclimation will let us get enough oxygen.

Our minimum air pressure, assuming Earth’s nitrogen-oxygen mix, is 35.6 kilopascals. Approximately.

Kilopascal is geek-speak for a thousand Pascals. Earth’s average sea-level pressure is 101,325 pascals, or 101.353 kilopascals. It’s also called one standard atmosphere, and don’t bother trying to memorize all this. There will not be a test.

Even at the top of Mount Everest, humans don’t need pressure suits. We can get by, carrying extra oxygen along for altitudes in the death zone.

But since water’s boiling point drops as air pressure goes down, at some point water will boil at our normal body temperature. At that point, called the Armstrong limit, pressure suits aren’t an option: they’re a requirement.

Although nifty special effects in the film Total Recall (1990) may have been inspired by the Armstrong limit: that’s ‘Hollywood magic,’ not science. And that’s another topic.

Now, because I like lists and tables and stuff like that, here’s average atmospheric pressure at various places on Mars, Earth and Venus. The units are kilopascals:5

  • 0.03 Olympus Mons summit
  • 0.6 Mars average
  • 1.16 Hellas Planitia bottom
  • 6.25 Armstrong limit
  • 33.7 Mount Everest summit
  • 35.6 or less — death zone
  • 101.3 Earth sea level
  • 106.7 Dead Sea level
  • 9,200 Surface of Venus
Orbits and the Van Allen Radiation Belts
NASA's illustration, a cutaway model of Earth's inner and outer Van Allen belts. (February 13, 2013)
Earth’s inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts. (NASA illustration)

Chesley Bonestell's illustration of a rotating space station orbiting 1,000 miles above Earth, for Collier's magazine. (March 22, 1952)Wernher von Braun had good reasons for putting the Collier’s space station in a 1,075-mile-altitude almost-polar orbit.

That way, folks on the station would circle Earth every two hours. The orbit’s plane wouldn’t change, but Earth would keep turning; so after 24 hours folks on the station would have had a view of every spot on Earth.

Just one problem. Orbiting at 1,075 miles altitude, the Collier’s space station would have been at or near the edge of the inner Van Allen radiation belt.

The inner belt’s energetic protons aren’t good for electronics or humans, so most satellites stay below that danger zone.

The International Space Station is in low Earth orbit, about 250 miles up. Partly because that’s below the inner Van Allen radiation belt.

Missions to Earth’s moon went through the belt, but since they spent very little time rubbing elbows with the Van Allen belt charged particles, astronauts weren’t exposed overly much.

Once outside the Van Allen belts, they picked up radiation from Solar particles. But again, not enough to be a health hazard.

Starting around 1895, Norway’s Kristian Birkeland in Norway studied how electron beams and magnets interact. Henri Poincaré of France analyzed his results, Carl Størmer — the point I’m making is that when Explorers 1 and 3 detecting what we call the Van Allen belts, it wasn’t a surprise.

Radiation belts are among of the “physical … rigors” we learned about after Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series hit America’s newsstands. We’ve also been learning about coronal mass ejections and other space weather.6

Humanity’s Arrival on Mars: Timetables and Technology

NASA's 'Journey to Mars:' Perseverance rover's caching strategy.

The Collier’s 1952-54 “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” articles were right: we knew the science and had most of the technology, either off the shelf or in development, to reach Earth’s moon within 25 years.

Dr. Wernher von Braun and Cornelius Ryan may be right about our timetable for reaching Mars.

“Can We Get to MARS?”
Dr. Wernher von Braun, Cornelius Ryan, Collier’s (April 30, 1954)
“…Will man ever go to Mars? I am sure he will — but it will be a century or more before he’s ready. In that time scientists and engineers will learn more about the physical and mental rigors of interplanetary flight — and about the unknown dangers of life on another planet. Some of that information may become available within the next 25 years or so, through the erection of a space station above the earth (where telescope viewings will not be blurred by the earth’s atmosphere) and through the subsequent exploration of the moon, as described in previous issues of Collier’s…”

But the last time I checked, outfits like NASA still have the late 2030s penciled in as our target date for landing humans on Mars.

That’s about two decades ahead of the Collier’s best-case estimate. It might seem overly optimistic, considering that we still don’t have Collier’s ‘big wheel’ space station.

Folks have, however, sent orbiters and various landers to Mars; many of which are still in operation or were shut down earlier this year.

  • Orbiters
    • Mars Odyssey (2001) U.S.
    • Mars Express (2004) ESA
    • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (2006) U.S.
    • Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) (2013) India (mission ended April 2022)
    • MAVEN (2014) U.S.
    • Trace Gas Orbiter (2016) ESA/Roscosmos
    • Hope Mars Mission (Emirates Mars Mission) (2021) United Arab Emirates
    • Tianwen-1 (2021) China
  • Surface explorers
    • Mars Science Laboratory (2012) U.S.
      • Curiosity (rover)
    • InSight stationary lander (2018) U.S.
    • Tianwen-1 (2021) China
      • Zhurong (rover)
    • Mars 2020 (2021) U.S.
      • Perseverance (rover)
      • Ingenuity (helicopter)

'Crossing the Last Frontier,' Dr. Wernher von Braun, Collier's magazine (March 22, 1952) Illustration by Fred Freeman. Caption: 'A self-contained community, this outpost in the sky will provide all of man's needs, from air conditioning to artificial gravity.'I think some the apparent disconnect between Collier’s predictions and what actually happened is illustrated in Fred Freeman’s 1952 cutaway of the Collier’s space station.

Those things that look like large television screens almost certainly are not.

One of the labeled work stations is “photographic screen control,” and another “photographic screen.”

There’s also a darkroom, labeled “developing room,” on the deck below “telescope control.”7

Let’s remember that the Collier’s series was a no-nonsense look at what could be done, using cutting-edge technology of the day.

Technology that existed as practical devices. Not ‘Buck Rogers’ gadgets. Like television.

Scientists, Buck Rogers, “Televista,” “Detecto-Television” and DuMont Laboratories
Philip Francis Nowlan's Buck Rogers being shown a Detecto Television device. Detail from a Buck Rogers comic strip. (ca. 1930s)
Buck Rogers and a Detecto-Television set. (ca. 1930s)

Television technology arguably started with mechanical facsimile machines like Alexander Bain’s in the 1840s and Frederick Bakewell’s in 1851.

By 1914, Archibald Low’s “Televista” impressed retail magnate H. G. Selfridge. He made Low’s Televista part of the Scientific and Electrical Exhibition in his department store.

But these were all laboratory models. They worked, but were too expensive and not nearly high-resolution enough for commercial use.

Then, in 1928, WRGB became the first (experimental) commercial broadcast television station in the world.

Or maybe it was Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft’s station, during Weimar Germany.

RRG had been broadcasting public radio back in Weimar days. Maybe it ran the first broadcast television station. But, possibly because the National Socialist German Workers’ Party took over RRG, what little I’ve found about its television station is sketchy.

Electronic television’s roots go back to the late 19th century. In 1926, Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton announced “not very successful” experiments involving a cathode ray tube and what he called “distant electric vision.”

Philo Farnsworth’s 1928 demo model has gotten credit as the first working electronic television system, but it wasn’t commercially viable; since most folks want to watch more than a straight line.

DuMont Laboratories manufactured and sold the first all-electronic television sets for the general public in 1938. American broadcast networks popped up during the 1940s.

Color television goes back to Vladimir K. Zworykin’s 1925 cathode ray device. DuMont Laboratories displayed a demo color-projection model in 1938, but it wasn’t until 1946 that RCA released an all-electronic color television set.8

“I Love Lucy” and Robot Spaceships

Collage: a rotary telephone, ca. 1955; Number One Electronic Switching System, 1976 and after; title card for The Addams Family titles, ca. 1964.; family watching television, 1958; publicity still from Batman, ca. 1967.By 1952, an increasing number of Americans were watching television.

So scientists and technicians working with Fred Freeman would have known that Buck Rogers’ Detecto-Television wasn’t entirely fictional.

But I suspect they also thought that orbital weather observers needed better image quality than viewers of “The Roy Rogers Show” and “I Love Lucy.”9

And they would, I think, have been right.

So how come we still haven’t had meteorologists working full-time in space stations, but have sent robot spaceships to Mars?

The Abacus, the the Analytical Engine and Terrain Relative Navigation
JPL/NASA's Figure 6. Mars 2020 flight system in the Launch / Cruise Configuration. (2014-2017)
NASA/JPL’s illustration: Mars 2020 flight system.

The abacus is still the best data processing tech for some applications.

But during the 19th century, folks like George Boole and Charles Babbage worked out some of the math needed for next-generation abacuses.

Or should that be abaci? Never mind.

Babbage made what’s probably the first non-abacus mechanical computer: his Difference Engine. Then, lifted programming tech from the 18th century Jacquard loom controller, he developed the Analytical Engine.

Skipping lightly over William Eccles’s crystal diode oscillator, Julius Edgar Lilienfeld’s field-effect transistor, Bell Labs’ point-contact transistor and a whole bunch of companies that made the very first transistor radio —

From 1906 to 1954, solid-state electronics went from laboratory curiosity to commercial personal electronics.

Skipping even more lightly over the next several decades, computers and robots scared some folks silly, made life more interesting and productive for others.

And by the time NASA launched the Mars 2020 mission, the lander was piloted by the Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) system.

Oversimplifying something fierce, photos of the MARS 2020 landing site had been sent back by robot spaceships orbiting Mars. Folks at JPL and NASA gave TRN those photos, told it what they figured a safe landing spot would look like, and let the robot handle final descent.

Considering how long it takes signals to get from Earth to Mars, it’s the only practical way to handle Martian flight.10

We’re not at the point, yet, where mission control tells a rover or flier where to go next: and the robot says (in ‘robotese’) “no, that doesn’t make sense; I’m going over here, and will let you know if I find something interesting.”

But I think we’re going in that direction, and that’s another yet topic.

Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” Series: to be Continued

Rolf Klep's illustration, page 27 of Collier's March 22, 1952 issue: cutaway view of three-stage reusable ground-to-orbit shuttle. (March 22, 1952)I was going to talk about the Collier’s shuttle, and their rather grandiose Mars expedition. But I’ve run out of time this week, so that’ll wait.

Meanwhile, here’s the usual link list. This week’s is mostly what I’ve written about spaceflight and how I see robots:

1 Moon programs, imagined and real:

2 Remembering the Space Race:

3 Science fiction, science fact:

4 Martian air, mostly:

5 Atmospheric aspects:

6 Charting the Solar sea, metaphorifcally:

7 Collier’s space station and recent Mars missions:

8 Television, from laboratory curiosity to mass media:

9 Two shows from the 1950s:

10 computers, history and a robot pilot (sort of):

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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