The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

In 1952, Collier’s magazine sponsored a gathering of the world’s greatest space experts who, in a series of illustrated articles, outlined one of the first comprehensive scenarios ever conceived for the exploration of space.

Collier’s was one of the four top-circulation general magazines that flourished during the 1940s and 1950s. It was rivaled only by Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post. Concern about the potential military use of space had led its editors to investigate the feasibility of space travel in the near future. The series of illustrated articles that this concern finally spawned had its beginning as a symposium on space travel that had been held at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. Collier’s editor Gordon Manning was so impressed that he decided to sponsor a symposium of his own. He assembled a dream team consisting of Wernher von Braun, then technical director of the Army Ordinance Guided Missile Development Group; Fred L. Whipple, chairman of astronomy at Harvard University; Joseph Kaplan, professor of physics at UCLA; Heinz Haber, of the US. Air Force Department of Space Medicine; and Willy Ley, an authority on space travel and rocketry who will serve as general advisor (and who was also the only professional writer among the group). The symposium was placed under the general direction of Collier’s associate editor Cornelius Ryan.

To translate the hardware concepts of von Braun and Ley into visual form, Ryan commissioned artists Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman and Rolf Klep.

The team, left to right: Rolf Klep, Willy Ley, Heinz Haber, Wernher von Braun, Fred Whipple, Chesley Bonestell; far right from top: Joseph Kaplan, Oscar Schachter, Fred Freeman.

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The results were published in series of articles that ran from March 22, 1952 through April 30, 1954.

According to the symposium, the United States could have an artificial satellite in orbit by 1963, a fifty-man expedition to the moon by 1964 and a manned mission to Mars soon afterwards. The first two parts of the program were expected to cost a mere $4 billion.

Both Collier’s and its team of experts were entirely serious. The technology existed to carry out their plans, they insisted, however grandiose they may seem. As the magazine scrupulously pointed out: “Speculations regarding the future technical developments have been carefully avoided,” or, as von Braun explained, “While the [Collier’s] designs may be a far cry from what Mars ships some thirty or forty years from now will actually look like, this approach will serve a worthwhile purpose. If we can show how a Mars ship could conceivably be built on the basis of what we know now, we can safely deduce that actual designs of the future can only be superior. Only by stubborn adherence to the engineering solutions based exclusively on scientific knowledge available today, and by strict avoidance of any speculations concerning future discoveries, can we bring proof that this fabulous venture is fundamentally feasible.”

From today’s vantage much of the Collier’s space program seems an unsophisticated, brute-force approach to space travel. However, even if the symposium members suspected the possibility of some of today’s technological advancements, their point was not to show that space travel was a possibility of the future, even the very near future, but that it was possible in 1952.


The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS The satellite launcher, by Bonestell.


The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS The baby satellite, by Bonestell.


The first step proposed is the launching of a 10-foot cone-shaped “baby satellite” carrying three rhesus monkeys. It was orbit at an altitude of 200 miles for 60 days. It would eventually be allowed to reenter the atmosphere, where it would burn up (after the monkeys are given a merciful dose of lethal gas).

Cross-section of the satellite, by Freeman: The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS


Re-entry of the satellite, by Bonestell: The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

Following the successful launching of the unmanned satellite, the go-ahead would given to begin the full-scale manned space program. It would take 10 years and cost $4 billion. The orbital spaceship would a monster rocket, 265 feet tall—as tall as a twenty-four-story building—and would weigh 7,000 tons, as much as a light naval cruiser. By comparison, the Apollo program’s Saturn V was 363 feet tall and weighed 3,211.5 tons. The Space Shuttle, which the Collier’s ship most resembled in both form and function, was 184 feet tall and weighed 2,250 tons at takeoff.


The giant ferry rocket, by Klep. The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The first stage would be powered by fifty-one rocket engines, developing a total thrust of 14,000 tons. The third, manned, stage was in reality a winged aircraft with a crew of ten (some of whom, the authors pointed out, would be women) and capable of carrying a useful payload of up to 36 tons (compared with the present-day shuttle’s 24 ton capacity).


Von Braun and the ferry rocket.

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS


Symposium chairman von Braun designed this ship to ferry into orbit the material needed for the construction of the 250-foot diameter space station that was a necessary part of the scenario. No individual component of the station was to exceed the maximum payload of one ferry rocket.

The massive launch site was to be constructed at a location where the downrange trajectory of the spacecraft could be over water. Two locations were proposed: Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean and the Air Force Proving Grounds at Cocoa, Florida. The latter was a prescient choice: it is the location of what eventually would evolve into the Kennedy Space Center. The first and second stages of the ferry rocket are designed to be recovered at sea.


The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasSBonestell with one of his Collier's paintings; the spaceship model on the left is the return rocket from the proposed Mars mission.


It was hoped that ten or twelve ferries would be in operation during the space station construction period. At the height of the work there would be as many as one launch every 4 hours! Once the first and second stages had been recovered, they would be reassembled in a vertical assembly building. The complete rockets would then be wheeled to their launch sites on giant crawlers—a sequence of events familiar to anyone who has observed the operations involved in a present-day shuttle launch—and which was also anticipated by Fritz Lang and Hermann Oberth in the film Frau im Mond.

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS


Cross-section of the space station, by Freeman

The 200-foot wheel-shaped station would accommodate several hundred crewmembers and was scheduled for 1963 (revised to 1967 in the later book version). Once the station had been built and put into service, only one supply or personnel launch every third day would be necessary.

Then the second phase of the master plan could begin: the expedition to the moon. Since the magazine’s design team was self-limited to the technology available in the 1950s, the authors rightly pointed out that there was no realistic hope of reaching the moon using only a single rocket launched from the earth. That would require, according to von Braun, a rocket taller than the Empire State Building—and ten times the weight of the Queen Mary! The Collier’s experts proposed instead a two-step operation, with the first being the construction of the moonships in earth orbit.

The moonships, by Klep:

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

To construct the enormous lunar spaceships, an ambitious “spacelift” would to be undertaken, with 360 ferry rocket flights made to carry the required materials into space. Three rockets would be launched every 48 hours for nearly 8 months. In addition, 346 flights would be needed to haul the necessary fuel into orbit.

Meanwhile, a manned trip would to be made around the moon. The vehicle for this would be made of cannibalized fuel tanks and engines from a ferry rocket’s third stage. The flight is one of reconnaissance only: the spacecraft would be incapable of landing.

Approaching the moon, by Bonestell: The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The three moonships that would be assembled near the space station are huge bulks. Each of them 9 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty and consisting mainly of clusters of fuel tanks.

Von Braun's sketch for the lunar lander: The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The spherical tanks would carry the fuel needed for the departure from earth orbit and would be discarded when empty. The next set of four large tanks contained fuel for the landing on the moon. They would be jettisoned on the lunar surface. The remaining smaller cylindrical tanks would be for the return trip.

The landing, by Ron Miller after a lost Bonestell painting: The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

One of the three ships carried no fuel for the return flight. The space these tanks would have occupied is taken up by a single cylindrical cargo “silo” 75 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter. This contained all the necessary equipment, supplies and provisions for the 6-week sojourn on the moon. The cargo cylinder itself was designed to be split lengthwise into two Quonset-type buildings.

The lunar habitat, by Freeman:

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost Was

The ships carry 100-watt transmitters operating at 3,000 megacycles per second. Von Braun hopes that this will be sufficiently powerful for signals to be detected back on the earth, though he thinks the astronauts might have to resort to Morse code to do so (by comparison, the Voyager spacecraft sent television signals from the vicinity of Saturn—almost a billion miles from the earth—using only 25 watts!).

The personnel sphere by Freeman, who included Willy Ley, von Braun and other fellow Collier's team members among the astronauts:

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

Each 30-foot personnel sphere has five floors. From top to bottom: the control cabin the navigation deck, living and dining quarters, the storeroom and engineering deck, and the life support equipment and machinery. Immediately below the last deck is the airlock. Fifty crewmembers are divided among the three ships.

Exploring Harpalus, by Bonestell:

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The tractors carried in the cargo silo will carry explorers as far as 250 miles from the landing site, to explore the 24 mile-wide crater Harpalus (which also figured as the landing site in Destination Moon) and the region surrounding it.

When the 6 weeks of exploration is completed, the scientists set up automatic telemetering stations, which will continue to radio data back to the earth. All fifty members of the expedition then reboard the two passenger ships. After a relatively gentle 3.5 g takeoff, the crew settles in for the 5-day return trip to the space station.

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The members of the symposium never attempt to set a date for the third and final part of their plan for the conquest of space: the manned mission to Mars. The original Collier’s version of the Mars expedition described a massive assault on the planet calling for a fleet of no fewer than ten enormous spacecraft crewed by seventy astronauts. The building of these in earth orbit will require the launch of 950 ferry rockets. The cost is estimated at “ten times” that of the post-war Berlin airlift, or about $2.24 billion.

Von Braun's original sketch for the mars glider: The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The stars of the expedition are the giant 450-foot-wingspan gliders which will make the landing. Von Braun was clearly influenced by the flying wing bombers being developed at that time by Northrop. The glider makes a spectacular appearance, along with the von Braun space station, in the Collier's-inspired George Pal film, Conquest of Space.

The Great 1952 Space Program That Almost WasS

The explorers will live in a 20-foot inflatable “tent” for the year they will remain on the planet. Von Braun and his colleagues have allowed for every conceivable human need—from washing machines to pencil sharpeners.

The Collier’s scenarios prompted mixed reactions from readers, both civilian and official. Wernher von Braun’s colleagues made the most thoughtful critiques, for the most past singling out either the grandiose nature of the project or its overt military overtones. Others chose to comment upon the series’ over-optimism and lack of allowance for testing and experimentation.

The magazine’s letter columns, however, were filled with generally enthusiastic responses while, on the other hand, Time devotes a cover story to a less-than-salutary synopsis of von Braun’s ideas. The magazine admonishes an “oversold public . . . [which] happily mixing fact and fiction, apparently believes that spaceflight is just around the corner.” Fritz Haber (brother of Heinz) believes that the whole idea of space suits has to be abandoned; Hubertus Strughold does not believe that man will ever be able to function in free fall. One of von Braun’s most bitter critics exclaimed, “Look at this von Braun! He is the man who lost the war for Hitler. . . von Braun has always wanted to be the Columbus of space. He is thinking of spaceflight when he sold the V2 to Hitler. He says so himself. He is still thinking of spaceflight, not weapons . . . “

The series was collected in three books: Across the Space Frontier (1952), Conquest of the Moon (1953) and The Exploration of Mars (1956), all now highly prized collectibles, as are the magazines themselves.

In 1969, after the success of the Apollo 8 circumnavigation of the moon, Cornelius Ryan wrote to von Braun, reminding him of the Collier’s articles: “My mind went back to 15 years ago and the days when newspapers and magazines are calling me ‘Blast Off Ryan’ (and you even more derogatory names) because of the Collier’s space series. I guess a little ground is broken then. I know it is for me and so I can tell you how I felt when I saw your rocket and your design streaking skywards culminating for you what surely must have been a lifetime of hoping and finally fulfillment.” Dr. von Braun replied: “It is good to learn that you are keeping up with things during the Apollo 8 flight. It has indeed been a few years since the days of the articles in Collier’s. Don’t forget that you yourself had something riding on that flight. None of us have ever forgotten the impetus to space that you helped to provide ‘back when.’ And who knows? We may have to call on you again. I’m delighted to know that you’re still a good space man . . ." In a postscript, von Braun added: “You wouldn’t believe how many people still remember ‘our’ Collier’s series. Time and again complete strangers tell me that those articles really opened their eyes to these new possibilities ‘out there.’ You surely deserve a lot of credit for the success of Apollo 8, and this ain’t no empty flattery!”

The AIAA has recently reprinted the entire Collier's series in its on-line newsletter. New scans were made of all the pages which were then digitally restored and enhanced.

Australian film maker David Sander has been working for several years on an alternate history take on the Collier’s space program. See what he has accomplished so far with Man Conquers Space! It’s what space exploration should have been...

Chesley Bonestell artwork copyright Bonestell LLC