Debunked: Wernher von Braun confirmed that rockets can't leave earth

JFDee

Senior Member.
In both moon landing hoax and flat earth context, a quote from Wernher von Braun (leader of the Apollo program) is used by believers. The claim is that he allegedly confirmed that it is impossible for a rocket to leave the earth at all.

Source: https://twitter.com/rokro11/status/1009157353940414464


This is the quote as text - it's supposedly from the 1953 book called "Conquest of the Moon" (Wernher von Braun, Fred L. Whipple, Willy Ley):
"It is commonly believed that man will fly directly from the earth to the moon, but to do this, we would require a vehicle of such gigantic proportions that it would prove an economic impossibility. It would have to develop sufficient speed to penetrate the atmosphere and overcome the earth’s gravity and, having traveled all the way to the moon, it must still have enough fuel to land safely and make the return trip to earth."
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[Note that the actual text is unconfirmed. I have just ordered a used copy of this book and will confirm the quote later.]

However, the quoted passage itself and the available reviews of the book are sufficient to debunk the claim.
  1. The most obvious objection to the interpretation in the tweet is that the impossibility involved is defined as economic. It doesn't say anything about a fundamental impossibility.
  2. The specification of a direct flight from earth to moon leaves open the consideration of alternative approaches. That is in fact one of the main issues discussed in the book, according to the available reviews.

There was a review of the book by Heinz Haber in The Saturday Review, January 1954 (facsimile available). It outlines what the book is about:
The objective of the project described is the exploration of a limited section of the moon's surface. The personnel of the expedition consists of fifty highly specialized and selected scientists and engineers who make the trip to the moon, land there, spend a total of six weeks on the desolate, airless face of the moon, and return to the home planet.
The project requires: (1) a space station and (2) three moonships. ...
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The alternative to the "direct flight" is given as the construction and launch of the moon crafts in orbit, in the vicinity of an orbital space station.

The calculations of the necessary amount of propulsion for a direct moon flight - deemed economically impossible - was based on the considerable size of the expedition: 50 people for six weeks on the moon, including a 'tank' for moving around and the construction of an underground base there.

In any case, this is obviously not the alleged admission of space travel being impossible from an engineering point of view.

Follow-up edit:

I have received my copy of "Conquest of the Moon". It's a bit smelly but in very good condition.
Here is my scan of the respective page:

CTM14.png
The quote is accurate, however when put in context with the whole page, the debunk is confirmed.
The next paragraph after the one with the quote says:
From the space station's orbit, however, a journey to the moon becomes feasible. In the orbit we can construct the type of vehicles we require for the lunar trip, in the same way that we can build the space station. These vehicles will already have a speed of 15,840 miles per hour - the speed of the space station as it moves around the earth. Since we have this running start, we will not need excessive amounts of propellants or very powerful rocket motors [...]
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deirdre

Senior Member.
The alternative to the "direct flight" is given as the construction and launch of the moon crafts in orbit, in the vicinity of an orbital space station.

yes, it seems to me perhaps he is arguing for his space station. I found this link
in the Collier’s magazine series, together with several other authors, notably his friend Willy Ley. The first issue, on 22 March 1952, and the first book that came out of the series, Across the Space Frontier, introduced the public to aesthetically improved versions of his booster and station as redrawn by artists Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep. The magazine endorsed von Braun’s militant Cold War argument for using the space station to establish “space superiority” over the Soviet Union. In two more issues in October 1952, and in the spinoff book, Conquest of the Moon, von Braun presented his conception of the first lunar expedition, which involved three ships and 50 men and took six months to assemble in the space station’s polar orbit. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/29806/vBparadigm.pdf
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The Collier magazine articles are online in full color, they are pretty cool.
https://www.rmastri.it/spacestuff/w...-articles-on-the-conquest-of-space-1952-1954/

I'm just reading the March 1952 issue now
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Alexandria Nick

Active Member
His statement is very clearly referring to a massive, single stage rocket capable of direct ascent from both the Earth and Moon, which was definitely in line with the general pop culture idea of what a lunar mission would be like. Such a vehicle might actually be impossible, for non-economic reasons, as there are some fun engineering problems that might be unsolvable (like the shockwave from ignition reflecting back with enough force to destroy the vehicle). But, we just circle back to his original point: Regular Guy on the Street has an idea from the movies that a man like von Braun must dispel when arguing his case for an orbital station, Kondratyuk's lunar orbit rendezvous concept, or even just multi-stage vehicles. It confuses me how anyone could interpret that sentence to mean "all rockets."
 

deirdre

Senior Member.
His statement is very clearly referring to a massive, single stage rocket capable of direct ascent from both the Earth and Moon

It might be clear to spaceship geeks, who know the pre-Apollo space history. But I never knew Rockets were ever single stage. I also never knew they wanted to send 50 scientists up for 6 weeks to study the moon, which is why I looked into this, because I found that quote in the OP completely unbelievable.
 

Mick West

Administrator
Staff member
It might be clear to spaceship geeks, who know the pre-Apollo space history. But I never knew Rockets were ever single stage. I also never knew they wanted to send 50 scientists up for 6 weeks to study the moon, which is why I looked into this, because I found that quote in the OP completely unbelievable.
The V-2 was single stage, and something von Braun was largely responsible for. The V-2 was used by the US after the war as a sounding rocket, and took the first photo from space (65 miles up). So he would have been thinking of that type of thing.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-2_rocket

After the Nazi defeat, German engineers were moved to the United States and the USSR, where they further developed the V-2 rocket for military and civilian purposes.[58] The V-2 rocket also laid the foundation for the liquid fuel missiles and space launchers used later.[59]
....
At the end of the war, a race began between the United States and the USSR to retrieve as many V-2 rockets and staff as possible.[73] Three hundred rail-car loads of V-2s and parts were captured and shipped to the United States and 126 of the principal designers, including Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger, were in American hands. Von Braun, his brother Magnus von Braun, and seven others decided to surrender to the United States military (Operation Paperclip) to ensure they were not captured by the advancing Soviets or shot dead by the Nazis to prevent their capture.[74]

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Hevach

Senior Member.
"Direct" is ambiguous in and of itself. Most of the acceleration of the Apollo spacecraft was parallel to the surface of either body, they didn't fly straight up aiming at the moon.

And either way, he was right: The Saturn V was a rocket of mind boggling proportions, and required technologies that von Braun had not yet conceived of to accomplish, and which some leading rocket scientists questioned the viability of even while it was being built.

It's hard to imagine just how unprecedented the Saturn V was. When it launched, it was five times more powerful than the second biggest rocket ever launched, and the margin was even bigger if you limit that to its own direct predecessors. And to this day, no rocket with a track record can lift a quarter of what it could - the Energia and N1 were close but both were failures, the Falcon Heavy has had one test flight and is still barely half the capacity. The SLS will still fall short in its ultimate form (but is meant for a program similar to the one described in the articles above - fleet launched with a mix of orbital and in situ assembly), and the BFR will only match it in a configuration that might never actually be used.
 
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Whitebeard

Senior Member.

Cos it's still the biggest thing yet built rocket wise.

As of 2018, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful (highest total impulse) rocket ever brought to operational status, and holds records for the heaviest payload launched and largest payload capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO) of 140,000 kg (310,000 lb), which included the third stage and unburned propellant needed to send the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Module to the Moon.
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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturn_V
 

Whitebeard

Senior Member.
silly. :) I meant why don't they build rockets now that can carry more of a payload? They don't need payloads that big anymore?
Maybe cos technology has advanced to the point where it's cheaper, more cost effective and less risky to launch a number of smaller payloads and assenble stuff in orbit, rather than blasting things up in one big lump?
 

Z.W. Wolf

Senior Member.
Quick history:

Von Braun's dream concept in the '50's before NASA founding - Assemble a space station in low Earth orbit. Then use crew to build dedicated single stage moonship in orbit, which would land on Moon and ascend from Moon. Jettison fuel tanks at times.

When the Apollo spacecraft feasibility study was conducted by NASA, starting in July 1960, the Space Task Group considered two pre-existing concepts for the "mode" ...

- Direct assent. Massive multistage rocket called "Nova." This would skip space station phase and lift the dedicated moonship.

- Earth orbit rendezvous; Von Braun's updated concept. Two smaller (but still large) multistage rockets. One would lift the dedicated moonship, without any fuel in its tanks. The second would lift the fuel in an unmanned tanker. These two ships would rendezvous in low Earth orbit, the fuel would be transferred to the dedicated moonship, and the tanker would be left behind.

Then, an obscure guy, John Houbolt, who remains obscure to this day, came in from the outside world and lobbied for his "mode." Lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR). There is no dedicated moonship. Instead there is a command module and a lunar module (LM). The LM is ultralight, leaves much of itself behind on the Moon, and the rest gets left behind after lunar orbit rendezvous with the command module. There's a big savings in structural and fuel weight. Now you have the single multistage Saturn V, gigantic, but much smaller than Nova. Von Braun was skeptical at first, then supported the concept. Houbolt was never a part of the STG.



Side note: My father worked at Rocketdyne from the 50's until 1967, then transferred to another division of North American. He was Bill Kaysing's boss, and told me stories about krazy Kaysing when I was a teenager. I can clear up a couple of Bill Kaysing myths. Kaysing was not the Head of Publications at Rocketdyne. He was the librarian at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory - the test site. He was the only Publications employee at the SSFL. So in a sense he was the head of the division... at the site. Kaysing was not fired, he resigned because he had a dream of becoming a writer of travel books; and he was modestly successful. Later he became the first Apollo Hoax theory guy, in case you don't recognize the name. My father was unaware of that until I told him about it in the early 90's.
 
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MikeC

Closed Account
Here's the wiki page on the Nova rocket, and a size comparison - not much taller than the Saturn 5, but 1 extra stage with considerably larger diameter fuel tanks for the 1st 2 stages:

 

Hevach

Senior Member.
silly. :) I meant why don't they build rockets now that can carry more of a payload? They don't need payloads that big anymore?
The US manned space program imploded, and Russia was never as serious about the moon (and the N1's failure killed it to boot), instead going for a space station program that never required such large rockets. Skylab used a Saturn V, but it was somewhat jury rigged compared to its Russian counterparts, as it was just the translunar stage if a Saturn V hollowed out. It didn't need the Saturn Vs power to launch, but wouldn't fit on anything smaller.

An Orion-based lunar mission would require far beyond the Saturn Vs power to launch, and would be done with two SLS launches. Similar if a Dragon-based mission were mounted, several Falcon Heavy or BFR launches. Existing Mars proposals call for fleet launches using SLS or BFR, I've seen ideas as low as three launches and as high as ten.

Edit: also, unmanned probes are generally orders of magnitude lighter than manned craft, so require far smaller launchers, and modern space stations are closer to the Russian model than Skylab, so they require multiple light launchers rather than a single heavy lifter (the Chinese stations are closer to Skylab, but aren't launch date with the excess capacity Skylab was - the Long March rockets are about a quarter the power of the Saturn V and are enough to launch single piece stations).
 
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Rory

Senior Member.
His statement is very clearly referring to a massive, single stage rocket capable of direct ascent from both the Earth and Moon, which was definitely in line with the general pop culture idea of what a lunar mission would be like.

Hergé's Tintin adventures 'Destination Moon' (1950) and 'Explorers on the Moon' (1952) spring to mind:



The rocket in that was single-stage; spacious; and flew direct - yet was believed at the time to be quite realistic:
Hergé hoped for the story to be as realistic as possible, and sought to eschew fantastical elements. To ensure this realism, he collected a wide range of documents about rockets and space travel with which to conduct research. In this he was aided by Heuvelmans, who collected pictures of rockets and atomic research facilities for him. Hergé's research archive included an article from the American magazine Collier's which discussed how humanity could reach the moon, as well as books by Pierre Rousseau and Auguste Piccard. A further work that he used was L'Astronautique (1950), a book on putative space travel by the physicist Alexander Ananoff, with whom Hergé began a correspondence in April 1950. He also visited the Ateliers de Constructions Electriques de Charleroi's Center for Atomic Research, striking up a subsequent correspondence with its director, Max Hoyaux. Hergé incorporated much of this technical information into the story.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destination_Moon_(comics)
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Mick West

Administrator
Staff member


The rocket in that was single-stage; spacious; and flew direct - yet was believed at the time to be quite realistic:
it's also like a larger version of von Braun's V-2, which defined the style of rockets in the 1950s.
300px-Fusée_V2.jpg
 

Alexandria Nick

Active Member
silly. :) I meant why don't they build rockets now that can carry more of a payload? They don't need payloads that big anymore?

In addition to what Hevach has pointed out, the main limit, at this point, isn't building powerful enough engines to lift mass, but the fairing size. There's a lot of grief in the industry right now about just how wide we can actually make a rocket. We're caught in a loop of "there's no fairings bigger than 5.2 meters" "why not" "because no one wants to launch anything that big" "why not" "because there's no fairings bigger than 5.2 meters." When you're putting an upper limit on the physical bounds of your available vehicle catalog, you start thinking "we'll launch this thing in segments" when approached with something complex like a space station or a Mars transit hab and then the idea of eating the cost on a potentially single use ever system for a monolithic launch is the stuff of your nightmares.
 

Efftup

Senior Member.
Hergé's Tintin adventures 'Destination Moon' (1950) and 'Explorers on the Moon' (1952) spring to mind:



The rocket in that was single-stage; spacious; and flew direct - yet was believed at the time to be quite realistic:
Hergé hoped for the story to be as realistic as possible, and sought to eschew fantastical elements. To ensure this realism, he collected a wide range of documents about rockets and space travel with which to conduct research. In this he was aided by Heuvelmans, who collected pictures of rockets and atomic research facilities for him. Hergé's research archive included an article from the American magazine Collier's which discussed how humanity could reach the moon, as well as books by Pierre Rousseau and Auguste Piccard. A further work that he used was L'Astronautique (1950), a book on putative space travel by the physicist Alexander Ananoff, with whom Hergé began a correspondence in April 1950. He also visited the Ateliers de Constructions Electriques de Charleroi's Center for Atomic Research, striking up a subsequent correspondence with its director, Max Hoyaux. Hergé incorporated much of this technical information into the story.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destination_Moon_(comics)
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AND it looks like a V2.
 

DasKleineTeilchen

Active Member
Hergé's Tintin adventures 'Destination Moon' (1950) and 'Explorers on the Moon' (1952) spring to mind:


especially "explorers" is and will be forever one of my favourite comics, not only because its one of the best tintin ones, but its one of the best in general, a true classic; the artwork as a whole and the moon-landscapes in particular are beautiful drawn, with a surrealistic vibe in their realism and just a joy to look at them.

sidenote: odd enough, 1950 was the year george pals movie "destination moon" came out, also a classic on its own and with a kinda simmilar storyline, even plotpoints, as the two comics from herge and the film both are using the same technology and a somewhat similar design for their rockets (the now familiar "enhanced" V2);

Destination-moon-luna_8877.jpg

There was quite a discussion of who was inspired by whom here o_O
 
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Mauro

Active Member
Just as a curiosity: Urania is an Italian periodic SF magazine which has been published without interruption since 1952. This is the last cover I found featuring a 'V-2 like' rocket, on the December, 6 1959 #218 issue:

urania_218.jpg

Less than one month later we get the first clearly identifiable multi-stage rocket (#220, January 2, 1960):

urania_220.jpg

The covers can be found on

http://www.quadernidaltritempi.eu/rivista/numero40/approdi/q40_cop_urania01.html

I just gave a quick glance so feel free to correct me.

Edit: hmm I copy/pasted the images as per 'how to' instructions but I see a 'broken external image' tag. I don't know why.. at least the links are working. Sorry :( Edit: thanks to Rory, I found a way to fix that.
 
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JFDee

Senior Member.
As announced, I have bought the actual book "Conquest of the Moon", in the 1953 edition.

Not strictly on topic but for your pleasure I provide the cover page illustrations from a scan with decent resolution.

Innocent times ...
COTM_Kombi.jpg
 
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