Home Articles Facts Games Poems & Quotes
Wheels in the Sky 

Long before the International Space Station (ISS) project was actually underway, a permanent space station where people live and work existed in the minds of science fiction writers and the imaginations of those who read their books.

by Patrick Barry

Orbiting 1,075 miles above the Earth, a 250-foot-wide inflated "wheel" of reinforced nylon was conceived in the early 1950s to function as a navigational aid, meteorological station, military platform, and way station for space exploration by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun.

Among those fascinated by tales of women and men living in space was a teenage boy growing up in Germany in the 1920s. Young Wernher von Braun was so inspired by the dream of space travel that he devoted his life to space science and rocketry. After a circuitous path that led through Nazi Germany (the SS and the Gestapo once arrested von Braun for crimes against the state because he persisted in talking about building rockets which would go into orbit around the Earth and perhaps go to the Moon), Wernher von Braun went on to become one of the leaders of the American space program and a celebrity for his early predictions of the coming Space Age.

In a groundbreaking 1952 article in Collier's magazine -- five years before Sputnik -- von Braun wedded fantasy to physics in his vision of how then-existing technology could be used to put a permanent space station into orbit around the Earth.

Soon after, von Braun appeared in a three part Disney television show, which he helped to produce, on the future of space travel. The shows -- "Man in Space," "Man and the Moon" and "Mars and Beyond" -- were enormously popular.


Wernher von Braun (right) poses next to Walt Disney.

In 1950, von Braun and his team were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, his home for the next twenty years. Between 1950 and 1956, von Braun led the Army's development team at Redstone Arsenal, resulting in the Arsenal's namesake: the Redstone rocket.

Still dreaming of a world in which rockets would be used for peaceful exploration, in 1952 Dr. von Braun published his concept of a space station in Collier's magazine. This station would have a diameter of 250 feet, orbit in a 1075 mile-high orbit, and spin to provide artificial gravity. In his vision, it would be the perfect jumping-off point for lunar expeditions.

Dr. Von Braun also worked with Disney studios as a technical director for three television films about Space Exploration. Over the years von Braun continued his work with Disney, hoping that Disney's involvement would bring about greater public interest in the future of the space program.

As Director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), von Braun's team then developed the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone rocket. The Jupiter-C successfully launched the western hemisphere's first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. This event signaled the birth of America's space program.


Displaying a model of the Explorer 1 are (l-r): Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Director Dr. William Pickering, Dr. James van Allen of the State University of Iowa, and Dr. von Braun.

NASA was established by law on July 29, 1958. One day later, the 50th Redstone rocket was successfully fired off Johnson Island in the South Pacific as part of Project Hardtack. Two years later NASA opened the new Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and transferred von Braun and his development team from the ABMA at Redstone Arsenal to NASA. Dr. von Braun was the center's first Director, from July 1960 to February 1970.


Von Braun with the original Mercury Astronauts in ABMA's Fabrication Laboratory during a 1959 visit.

The public enthusiasm sparked by the shows and the Collier's article, which ran 4 million copies, is considered a turning point in the American pursuit of space travel by some historians.

"Von Braun (caused) a great shift in public opinion in terms of space flight," said Mike Wright, historian for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where von Braun conducted much of his work.

"(He moved) that view of peaceful space exploration -- the idea of going to other planets -- into the realm of a potential, of a reality," Wright said.

People took von Braun's predictions very seriously, Wright said. After all, von Braun was the technical director for the Army Ordnance Guided Missiles Development Group at the time, and later became the director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

In other words, he knew what he was talking about.

Still, von Braun's space station concept looks considerably different from the International Space Station's design.


A digital artist's concept of the International Space Station.

While the ISS resembles something constructed from an Erector Set, the paintings in the Collier's article look more like the space station in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Shaped like a wheel with two spokes, von Braun's space station would spin like a carnival ride to create centrifugal force that would act as a false gravity. Inside the wheel, three decks would provide room for the communications equipment, earth observatories, military control centers, weather forecasting centers, navigational equipment, living space and mercury-vapor power generating turbines that would facilitate the many functions that von Braun imagined the station would perform.

Many of these details were devised by von Braun, but the concept of a spinning wheel-shaped space station had been thought of before.

In the 1928 book The Problem of Space Travel, Herman Potocnik laid out detailed plans for a wheel-like space station that he called the "Habitat Wheel."

In 1926, when he was 14 years old, von Braun found inspiration in German physicist Hermann Oberth's The Rocket Into Planetary Space. (Just four years later, von Braun would be working as an assistant to Oberth in his rocket program.) The science fiction works of Jules Verne, such as From the Earth to the Moon, also inspired the young von Braun, according to Wright. That story was published in English in 1873.


Duane Hilton's recollection of the famous space station from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey popularized the idea of space stations in the Apollo and post-Apollo eras, but fictional accounts of a space station appear as early as 1869, when Edward Everett Hale published a story called The Brick Moon. In that story, Hale depicted a manned satellite that functioned as a navigational aide to ships at sea. Before that, fantasies about traveling in space date back as early as the second century, when the Greek rhetorician Lucian wrote an account of a voyage to the Moon.

But while space travel and space stations had appeared frequently in writings of science fiction and scientific speculation, von Braun brought charisma and political savvy to the cause.

"He was revolutionary in his science and his engineering, but he was also revolutionary in this approach of going directly to the public," Wright said. "Von Braun said we (scientists) can publish scientific papers and treatises until hell freezes over, but if we don't get the attention of the tax payer, we're not going anywhere."

The first sentence of the 1952 Collier's article certainly got people's attention. In the shadow of the growing Cold War, von Braun began his space prophecy:

"Within the next 10 or 15 years, the earth will have a new companion in the skies, a man-made satellite that could be either the greatest force for peace ever devised, or one of the most terrible weapons of war -- depending on who makes and controls it."

Certainly von Braun would have been happy to see that one of his dreams -- the International Space Station -- is finally becoming a reality. Best of all, the space station of 2000 is not a weapon of war, as von Braun feared, but an unprecedented cooperative effort of 16 nations including the United States and Russia.



Home   l  Biology   l  Physics   l  Planetary Science   l  Technology   l  Space

First Science 2014