THE BIRTH OF THE SPACE STATION
by Willy Ley
MOST ideas which finally took the shape of an invention have a long and usually complicated history. Talk about the submarine and you can, without straining, find dozens of examples of early thinking or dreaming about underwater travel.
The amount of early material on flying is almost overwhelming.
Even such a relatively simple machine as the typewriter can boast a lot of background—I remember the amazement with which I read a publication of the Society of German Engineers (VDI) some twenty years ago, for which a diligent researcher had collected dozens of century-old typewriters. Not just reports, but pictures of them and even a number of originals. Moreover, he had covered only the German-speaking countries of Europe.
Small wonder that nobody ever succeeded in writing a complete and reliable History of All Inventions, although there are at least a dozen books which bear some such title.
However, there are exceptions. The "idea" of photography, prior to the first picture actually taken, seems to have been only a few years old. As for earlier prophecy, there is just one old French science fiction novel in which something resembling photography was forecast.
Another exception is the X-ray. It did not have any earlier "history" at all. Dr. Konrad Rontgen discovered X-rays almost accidentally, immediately realized their value for surgery—especially military and industrial surgery—and that was that. Later, some German doctor discovered an older book, dating back about a quarter-century prior to the actual discovery, in which the author writing under the heading of Medical Fairy Tales had said, "We'll make the patient as transparent as a jelly-fish," and this was duly noted as the only "prediction" of the X-ray.
THE concept of the space station is such an exception, too. While the idea of space travel has a two-thousand-year history, the idea of the space station has virtually none. It appeared for the first time in 1897 in Kurd Lasswitz' famous novel On Two Planets, and it was introduced as a technological concept in 1923 in Prof. Herman Oberth's first scientific work on space travel by means of liquid fuel rockets. There is nothing between these two dates which may be said to have contributed to the concept.
True, old Herman Ganswindt told me that he had thought of space stations around 1880, when he toyed with the idea of reaction-propelled ships. Even if he remembered his youthful ideas correctly after so many years, he had not influenced anybody. At any event, he could not show me any documentation to prove he had mentioned the idea in public.
Nor can I bring myself to consider a certain French science fiction novel—now half a century old—as a contribution to the idea, even though the theme consisted in putting something in an orbit around the Earth a few thousand miles away.
This novel, Séléné Cie, was based upon the notion that people could save money ordinarily spent for the illumination of cities and roads if only the Moon were not 240,000 miles away, but circled the Earth at an altitude of 3000 or 4000 miles. (That it would spend a lot of time in the Earth's shadow when at such a short distance, which would eliminate it as a source of illumination, was nowhere mentioned.) The story relates that a mountain of pure iron is discovered in French Equatorial Africa which, wound with cables, makes an enormous and powerful magnet. Why this should pull the Moon closer is incomprehensible, but in the story it did. The outcome was less than satisfactory—the Moon wins and pulls the iron mountain clean out of the African soil.
The concept of the space station thus originated in just two places: first in a novel and then in a scientific book. It has to be mentioned, however, that Kurd Lasswitz, the author of the novel, was a scientist himself, specifically an astronomer and professor of mathematics. The space station he thought up for his novel is so unique that it has never been imitated by any other writer, simply because it would have been such an obvious imitation.
When Lasswitz wrote the book (during the years 1895-97), it was more or less generally accepted in astronomical circles that the planet Mars is inhabited by intelligent beings. Other theoretical reasoning had it that the planets were the older the farther they were from the Sun. Mars, as an older planet, had provided the proper conditions for the origin of life at an earlier date, so intelligent life had also appeared much earlier than here. Hence the intelligent Martians should be far ahead of us in every respect.
LASSWITZ drew from this the conclusion that, if space travel were possible at all, the Martians would come to us long before we could go to them. In order to explain the delay (for they might just as well have arrived during the reign of Nabopolassar of Babylon or of Augustus Caesar), Lasswitz made the problem of space travel appear much more difficult than it actually is. And he made the solution of the problem such that it could not be solved on Earth.
On Mars, he postulated, there is a substance which happens to be transparent as glass, but which has the far more important property that it can also be made "transparent" to gravity. Lasswitz got around a few important theoretical difficulties by saying that the energy of gravity did not appear as gravity in treated material, but "in other forms of energy."
He also was careful to point out that just as glass cannot be made completely transparent to light, this substance could not be made completely transparent to gravity, but only to a point where the still remaining weight did not matter any more. And finally he made it clear that the substance retained its inertia.
A takeoff from the planet, under these conditions, would then proceed as follows:
The ship, spherical in shape for structural reasons, would be made virtually gravity-free. Instead of following its planet around the Sun, it would continue in a straight line, a tangent to the orbit. After waiting long enough, the planet would have receded far enough so that its gravitational field hardly influenced the ship, even if susceptibility to gravity were restored. But the Sun would then influence the ship and, by diligent and precalculated maneuvering in the gravitational fields, the ship could go from one planet to another, in a tedious and dangerous voyage. (You can see where H. G. Wells got his idea for cavorite for his story The First Men in the Moon.) But then reaction propulsion is added to the ships and the safety of trips and the duration are improved enormously.
Still, a takeoff has to be made from the poles of the planet, where there is no rotation to interfere. It is still better not to take off from the surface at all, but from a space station. For Earth, this is an absolute necessity because the marvelous substance of the Martians happens to deteriorate in the presence of water vapor.
Hence the Martians first equip their planet and then the Earth with two space stations each, placed vertically over the poles; in each case, one planet-radius from the surface. Travelers come from a polar installation on the ground to the space stations by way of a specialized conveyance built for just this purpose, and then transfer to the true spaceships.
In appearance, the space stations resemble the planet Saturn sliced in half in the plane of its rings. There is a hemispherical main dome which has eight cutouts for the ships to berth in, with ring-shaped galleries around. The whole can be rotated around its vertical axis so that the station can be turned in such a manner that no part of its structure will interfere with a departing or an incoming ship.
Of course, nothing that is not made of this substance from Mars could be made to stay in place without moving over one of the poles. But aside from this, you might have noticed the first appearance of a number of very "modern" ideas; for example, the need for a specialized vehicle, capable of penetrating the atmosphere, for the trip from the ground to the station, while the spaceships proper never enter an atmosphere and are, in fact, incapable of doing it.
"NOW for the appearance of the space station concept in science. As has been mentioned, the idea was introduced by Professor Hermann Oberth in 1923 in the first edition of his book Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen ("A Rocket into Interplanetary Space"). Even there it cropped up very much as an afterthought, on pages 86-88, which are the last pages of the last chapter.
In that last chapter, Prof. Oberth, after having investigated mathematically the characteristics of liquid fuel rockets and discussed possible design features, spoke about likely applications of large-size liquid, fuel rockets. He had only two in mind at the time, one a high altitude research rocket — virtually what we now actually have with the rocket Aerobee — and one a man-carrying rocket ship for flights into space in the vicinity of Earth. Then he threw out a few estimates to indicate the general order of size which such rockets would have.
He estimated, for example, that a rocket ship for flights up to about 1000 miles with a pilot only would have a takeoff weight of 300 metric tons and that the rocket ship built for two men would need a takeoff weight of at least 400 metric tons. After that he started a new paragraph, writing (I am now translating from the original book):
"If we force such large-size rockets to circle the Earth, the rocket will behave like a small moon. Such rockets do not even have to be designed for landing. Contact between them and the Earth can be maintained by means of smaller rockets so that the large ones (let's call them observing stations) can be rebuilt in the orbit the better to suit their real purpose. If the continuing state of apparent weightlessness should have undesirable consequences, which, however, I doubt, one could connect two such rockets by wire ropes a few kilometers long and make them rotate around each other."
Here you have the whole concept in a few sentences: The rocket which stays in space and which is gradually changed round to such an extent that it cannot even land, anymore; the smaller transport rockets; the idea of substituting centrifugal acceleration for gravity, if needed. Then he went on to outline a few possible uses:
"With their powerful instruments, they would be able to see fine detail on Earth and could communicate by means of mirrors reflecting sunlight. [Remember that this was written about 1921, when radio was very much in its infancy.—W.L. ] This might be useful for communication with places on the ground which have no cable connections and which cannot be reached by electric waves. Since, they, provided the sky is clear, could see a candle at night and the reflection from a hand mirror by day, provided only that they know where and when to look, they could maintain communications between expeditions and their homeland, colonies and their motherland, ships at sea, etc. . . .
"The strategic value is obvious especially in the case of war in areas of low population density; they might either belong to one of the two countries at war or sell their services at high rates to one of the combatants .. . The station [at this point the term "station" is used for the first time] would notice every iceberg and warn ships . . . the catastrophe of the Titanic in 1912 would have been avoided by such means/'
AND then Oberth added another completely new idea which had not been voiced before anywhere.
"All this," he wrote, "amounts to practical advantages. But an even greater advantage could be gained in the following manner: one could spread a large circular wire net simply by rotating it around its center. Small plane metal mirrors could be fitted into the spaces between the wires and their position relative to the wire net could be controlled electrically from the station. The mirror as a whole should rotate around the Earth in a plane which forms a right angle with the plane of the Earth's orbit. The wire net would be inclined to the direction of the Sun's rays by 45°. By proper adjustment of the positions of the single facets, one could either concentrate the reflected sunlight on specific points of the ground or could diffuse it over large areas, or, if not needed, make the whole beam miss the Earth.
If, for example, the mirror is 1000 kilometers (600 miles) distant, the image of the Sun from each facet would have a diameter of 10 kilometers; if they are made to coincide, the energy would be concentrated in an area of 78 square kilometers. Since the mirror can have any size desired, it could have colossal effects. It would be possible, for example, to keep the shipping lane to Spitsbergen and the North Siberian ports ice-free by such concentrated sunlight.
If the diameter of the mirror is 100 kilometers, it could make large areas in the North habitable by means of diffused sunlight. In the middle latitudes, it could prevent sudden drops in temperature in Spring and Fall and save the fruit and vegetable crops of whole countries. It is especially important that the mirror is not stationary over any one point of Earth and is therefore capable of rendering all these services."
After a discussion .of the most suitable material for the mirror (Oberth believed sodium metal would be best), and the estimated costs (far too low), he continued:
"The observing station could also be a refueling station. If the hydrogen and oxygen [the fuels Oberth had in mind] are shielded against solar radiation, they'll keep for any length of time in the solid state. A rocket which is refueled at the station is no longer hampered by air resistance and not much by the Earth's gravitation . . . Furthermore, it no longer needs a high velocity of its own. In the first place, the potential of the Earth is lower at the distance of the station. In the second place, the rocket only needs to make up the difference between the required final velocity and the velocity of the station which is, in round figures, six kilometers per second.
If we now connect a large sphere of sodium metal which was assembled and filled with fuel in the station's orbit with a small solidly constructed rocket which pushes the "fuel sphere" ahead and draws its fuel from the sphere, we get a highly efficient apparatus which should be capable of flying to other planets."
Oberth's first book stopped at that point.
Then the concept of the station in space was adopted by others who added their own ideas. How the evolution of the space station progressed will be discussed here next month.
THE BIRTH OF THE SPACE STATION (II)
LAST month, I told how the concept of the manned rocket in an orbital path around the Earth and its possible subsequent development into a space station was evolved and presented by Hermann Oberth in 1923. After that, very little happened for about six years and the reason was a popular book.
Oberth's original work, while not long, was very hard reading for practically everybody. There were pages upon pages of massed equations and the "clear text" which followed after such a discussion made very little sense unless you had waded through the mathematics preceding them.
Oberth was approached by his own publisher with the suggestion of writing a popular version of his work. He was not opposed to the idea in principle, as many other German scientists of that time would have been, but he did not have the time to write it. Once or twice, I believe, he actually started to, but each time a new and unsuspected and most interesting mathematical relationship turned up which, of course, had to be investigated first.
Then, one day, a professional writer came to Oberth, suggesting that they do the book in collaboration. Oberth was to supply the information and the writer—his name was Max Valier—was to do the writing.
IT did not work out well. Valier was not able to follow Oberth's mathematical reasoning on many points. He suggested "improvements." Oberth tried to explain why these suggestions, far from being improvements, would not work. Sometimes he convinced Valier, generally he did not, and he had to explain later that Valier's book was, after all, Valier's book and not his. His problem was that many other people began writing about "Oberth's ideas," but took their information from Valier.
As for the space station, Valier had not mentioned it at all. He had simply skipped that portion of Oberth's work. I am not sure whether he failed to understand the concept or just what prompted him. At any event, instead of discussing the space station concept, he described a base on the Moon. When I questioned him about that once, he declared that he could not see why anybody should bother to build a space station when we have a ready-made natural space station in the form of the Moon.
I tried to reason with him that hauling anything to the Moon is obviously much more difficult than hauling the same thing to a height of, say, 1000 miles and providing it with a lateral push so that it would take up an orbit and stay there.
Valier replied that hauling something to an orbit would require a velocity of about 5.5 miles per second (including air resistance and a safety factor) while hauling something to the Moon would require "just 1.5 miles per second more." ('Tain't so. Seven miles per second will merely get you through the Earth's gravitational field. Then you need additional fuel to brake your fall and to adapt to the orbital velocity of the Moon.) Furthermore, Valier insisted, you would have to haul "everything" to the space station's orbit, but only essentials to the Moon, where you could build what you need from raw materials to be found there. (Optimistic, to put it mildly.)
Still thinking I might win, I pointed out that if the primary purpose of a space station were to serve as a refueling place for interplanetary ships, a ship leaving from the station would have a speed of some 4.5 miles per second relative to the Earth, and would only have to make up the difference between 4.5 miles per second and the actual velocity required for the interplanetary trip, which would be some 8.5—9 miles per second relative to Earth. The moon, I then said, has an orbital velocity of only 0.6 miles per second and more than that is needed even to overcome its own gravitational field.
No go. Valier insisted that the raw material for fuel would be found on the Moon, too, so it would be unimportant that the Moon's orbital velocity is of no real help.
Since his answers were pat, while my own portion of the discussion came out slowly and gropingly, I feel sure that he had had the same discussion with Oberth before and had not been convinced. And since, as I have already said, people absorbed Oberth's ideas from Valier's book, there was no space station discussion for quite some time afterward.
THE first book largely devoted to the idea of the space station appeared in 1929. Its author was an Austrian by the name of Potocnic who wrote under the pen name of Herman Noordung. The title page of his book stated that he was an engineer and a captain in the reserve. To this day, I have failed to find out whether these two statements belonged together — meaning that he was a captain in the engineer corps — or whether one was his peacetime occupation and the other a wartime commission.
The title of the book was Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums ("The Problem of Travel in Space") and Potocnic-Noordung succeeded in getting himself into the bad graces of all the rocket men at once by producing a fantastic method for calculating overall efficiency. Another point on which he failed to make friends was his insistence that a space station should be located over the equator, 22,300 miles above mean sea level. At such a distance, the station would need precisely 24 hours to go around the Earth once. If it moved in an easterly direction, it would seem to stand still over one point of the equator.
For reasons I still don't understand, Potocnic-Noordung considered this a great advantage, though actually such a position would be full of drawbacks. The station could be seen from only one hemisphere, but it could also observe only one hemisphere. Because of the long distance—costly in fuel consumption—it could not even observe very well.
But he did have a number of interesting ideas. His proposed space station consisted of three units: the "living wheel" (as he called it), the "power house" and the "observatory."
The first was to be a wheel-shaped unit, about 100 feet in diameter, which was to spin around its hub so as to substitute centrifugal force for gravity around the rim. Of course the entrance was in the hub and he drew a diagram of a counter-rotating airlock for the hub.
Potocnic-Noordung also pointed out that there would be a slight difference in apparent gravity between the head and the feet of a man standing upright, and said that one would have to compensate for this while moving, especially if it came to vertical movements. He stated correctly that power could be had free from the Sun, by means of a condensing mirror and steam boiler pipe.
Along with these essentially correct thoughts, however, there ran a number of boners. For example, he wanted to spin the wheel so rapidly that the centrifugal force inside would be one full g. This would require one complete revolution in 8 seconds. Actually there is no need for one full g inside a space station, just as there is no need for sea-level air-pressure. Even untrained people are adaptable enough so that g and about half-sea-level pressure (with a higher oxygen content) would be sufficient. This would cut down the number of revolutions per minute required and lighten the whole structure very considerably.
ANOTHER of Potocnic-Noordung's misconceptions I always look at with a smile is the design of his windows. They are slightly convex lenses and many of the windows are also equipped with a plane mirror in a frame on the outside, adjusted to reflect additional sunlight into the interior of the station. What everybody forgot until recently is that people aren't cold-blooded and that the "heating device" for a spacesuit is the guy inside. In fact, these "heating devices" are so annoyingly efficient that the main worry of the modern space engineer is how to get rid of all the surplus heat.
The second unit, the "observatory," was not described in much detail. It was merely stated that it would be cylindrical, like a boiler, to maintain pressure inside and that it would contain all the astronomical instruments. It was not supposed to rotate, but was to be connected with the main station or "living wheel" by two electric cables and a flexible air hose. It was to be properly heated simply by piping air of the right temperature into it, while the power cables were to supply electricity for the instrumentation.
The third unit, the "power house," was mostly a large parabolic mirror with a set of boiler pipes along the focal line (the description grew more and more vague) and the current generated was to be supplied to the "living wheel" or else to be stored in storage batteries.
As regards the purpose of the whole space station, Potocnic-Noordung merely paraphrased Oberth: Earth observation, astronomical observation, possible warlike action by means of a solar mirror and possible storage of fuels for long distance trips.
During the same year, 1929, there appeared a series of articles on the space station concept by another author, Count Guido von Pirquet, then Secretary of the Austrian Society for Space Travel Research. The articles were published in the monthly journal Die Rakete ("The Rocket") of the German Society for Space Travel, usually abbreviated as VfR.
While Potocnic-Noordung had devoted a lot of attention to design detail and virtually none at all to the optimum orbit, von Pirquet did not say a word about design detail, but calculated carefully where his space station should be located and why. In the course of these calculations, von Pirquet discovered a fundamental fact which has often been quoted since:
You can't have space travel at all with chemical fuels unless you build a space station first.
A secondary but almost equally important discovery was that the building of the space station, the necessary first step, is also the most difficult.
Everything that comes afterward is simple, or almost so, by comparison.
IT should be obvious by now that the various possible purposes of a space station are to some slight extent contradictory.
From the point of view of fuel economy, the nearer the Earth, the better.
From the point of view of Earth observation, you also do generally better if you are close, but the limits are somewhat different. You don't want to be quite as close as you would like to be from the standpoint of fuel economy.
From the point of view of refueling depot for long range trips, you may have trouble making up your mind. A "low" orbit will provide you with a higher orbital velocity, but a somewhat higher orbit might give you more room for maneuvering. The modern compromise orbit is the one advocated by Dr. Wernher von Braun — 1075 miles above sea level, which would produce a period of revolution around the Earth of precisely two hours.
Count von Pirquet solved this dilemma in a different way. Like Potocnic-Noordung, he advocated a three-unit station. But the three units were to run in three different orbits.
The one closest to Earth, the so-called Inner Station, was to revolve 470 miles above sea level with an orbital period of 100 minutes. The one farthest away, the so-called Outer Station, was to circle the Earth 3100 miles from the surface with an orbital period of 200 minutes. The third, or Transit Station, was to be on an elliptical orbit touching the other two orbits. Its distance from the surface would therefore vary from 470 to 3100 miles and its orbital period would be 150 minutes. When closely approaching either the Inner or the Outer Station, the velocity of the Transit Station would not match. There would be a velocity difference of about 3/4 mile per second which would have to be adjusted for the men and materials to be transferred.
While the two statements at which von Pirquet arrived while working on the problem of the space station are still valid and correct, his suggestion for a station consisting of several units in different orbits has not borne any fruit.
AFTER the publication of these articles, there was another hiatus in the development of the space station concept, lasting longer than the first, about twenty years. But then a lot of people started work in earnest. A good many of the papers read at the Second International Congress for Astronautics in London, 1951, concerned one phase or another of the space station concept. Somewhat earlier, Wernher von Braun had published his concept in the book Space Medicine; a few months later, it was revised after prolonged discussions and published in its present form in the book Across the Space Frontier.
Needless to say that the various concepts published do not closely agree with each other, for there is room for a variety of opinions. Obviously the space station will look different if designer A assumes heating by solar radiation, something which is known and can be calculated right now, while designer B assumes that the atomic engineers will have come up with a useful small atomic reactor during the time it took the rocket engineers to produce a suitable cargo-carrying rocket to bring the space station's material up into an orbit.
Although we can predict a good deal of detail right now, some of this will be subject to change during the next decade. We can be sure of one thing only:
There will be a space station in the reasonably near future.
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