May 25, 2000

Wheels in the Sky

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May 26, 2000 -- The space shuttle Atlantis has spent much of this week docked to the infant International Space Station (ISS), zipping around the planet at 17,000 mph in the airless space 200 miles over our heads. Astronauts are delivering batteries and supplies to the Station in the fourth of more than 40 missions that will soon make an occupied permanent station in space a reality.

Long before such an extraordinary 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.

Above: 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. [more information from NASA/Goddard's Astronomy Picture of the Day]

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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.

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Left: Wernher von Braun (right) poses next to Walt Disney (left). [more information from NASA Liftoff]

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.

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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.

Right: This digital artist's concept shows the International Space Station passing above the straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea after all assembly is completed in 2003. [more information from]

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.

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: Duane Hilton's recollection of the famous space station from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Viewing the film in the late 1960's inspired Hilton to become a space artist later in life.

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.Web LinksWernher von Braun -his life and work, from NASA Liftoff.