21st Century Science & Technology

A Saga from the Dawn of Interplanetary Travel

by Krafft A. Ehricke

(partial text, reprinted from 21st Century, Spring 2003)

An imaginary account of space travel in the year 2050, written in 1948 by preeminent space visionary Krafft Ehricke (1917-1984). These are excerpts from his unpublished manuscript.


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We live in the age of fast-flying, far-reaching space ships, and are proud of what human ingenuity has achieved in this field. Research is going on with ultra-fast ships, reaching half the velocity of light and designed as powerful instruments for visiting our neighboring stars.

But the adult soon forgets the first stumbling steps of childhood, and the first attempts to reach our nearest cosmic vicinity has almost completely vanished from our memory.

Looking back through the centuries, we perceive a chain of heroic deeds which mark man’s grasp at other planets. Only 50 years ago, Glenn Wolf’s party landed on Pluto. Their flash light photographs showing the men wading through helium pools amidst fantastic structures of frozen gas which tower into the eternal night, belong to the standard equipment of astronomical books today.

A hundred years ago, Ted Aitken, the most fearless space explorer of his time, died in a bold attempt to reach Saturn. His ship, the famous "Nightmare," was smashed between the rocks of Saturn’s ring after a meteor had blown away the navigation room.

A hundred years before his time, Gordon Rockwell opened the golden age of discoveries. He was the first to jump in his ion-powered "Blizzard" over the great gulf–the vast gap behind Mars, as they called it–and intrude into the dangerous realm of Jupiter’s satellites. This pioneer discovered fossils of a strange life on satellite 111. It blossomed millions of years ago when the giant planet was still the hot, animating center of its extensive system. Rockwell actually founded the cosmic branch of palaeobiologic sciences and made Jupiter’s moons an El Dorado of cosmic life research.

Even farther back, old documents reveal the tragedies connected with the exploration of Venus and tell a tale of Duke Hatchword’s "sunny" trip to Mercury .?.?. yes, planet after planet unveiled their secrets before the eager spirit and ironclad will of keen explorers.

Yet, there is one planet which must be mentioned separately. Mars, the most familiar outer world for our generation, is connected with the very first beginnings of space travel.

Back in the 20th Century, when tiny rockets climbed a meager 200 miles (did you ever hear of a "V-2" or a "Neptune 8"?), Mars was the dream goal of those who believed in space travel, actually a fantastic conception when one considers the troubled and primitive world into which they were born. Mars was considered the most interesting planet in the system, the only one that might bear life. Some even dreamed of a Martian civilization, superior to ours, with which a cosmic exchange of ideas might be brought about. Small wonder that Mars became the first planet ever explored by man.

Circling Earth in small scout rockets, scientists and engineers, dreamers and adventurers, found themselves on the brink of a vast emptiness, beyond which new worlds lured and stimulated their desire to remove the barriers erected between man and star.

The first attempt to realize these dreams is known in history as "Expedition Ares."

Space visionary Krafft Ehricke (left) was interviewed by CBS correspondent Walter Cronkite on Sept. 26, 1966. Ehricke, who worked for North American Rockwell at the time, is discussing the features of a reusable transport vehicle that he designed. The initial stage of the vehicle consists of 12 turbo-ramjet engines. A supersonic ramjet engine allows the vehicle to achieve orbital velocity; the hypersonic spaceplane atop the transport would return to a landing site for reuse. [Courtesy of Krafft Ehricke]

. . .It was long, long ago in the year 2000. We are in space. A giant globe arches to our right, 500 miles away. Its bulky outline covers a major part of the sky. But only a slim sickle unveils its bright shape to the observing eye. The remainder is absolute blackness. It constitutes a sinister, blind hole in the glorious panorama of stars around, suddenly interrupting the gleaming galactic arch where countless stars are blending to shining clusters, looming at the edge of infinity.

Out of this black hole came our ancestors.

At the end of the 20th Century they finally shattered the chains which kept them in bondage of time and space. Vigorously they had invaded the realm of nature, making themselves masters of energies never dreamed of before. What had been achieved in a relatively short period was really amazing. . . .

Elated with what had been done, the best among them fought for the highest goal: Detachment from their star and flight into the glaring purity of untouched space. The planets, well known to us, were unknown land for the pioneers of these old days.

A few decades later, the first step was completed. One night, human eyes observed the first star in the sky which was man’s creation: "Space Station I."

No product of human skill ever earned more acclaim than this first artificial satellite. This tiny moon was hailed as the non plus ultra, the masterpiece of man’s ingenuity. It was compared to a gigantic sign board to mark the entrance to Earth from outer worlds. Once established, Space Station I became the springboard for even more daring enterprises.

The artificial satellite was very small. It consisted of a power station, which also housed the living quarters and the radio center. Around this main body were scattered several scientific laboratories and the space observatory. Many problems had to be solved before an actual space flight could be launched.

In the medical laboratory of Space Station I, Dr. van Horn developed space medicine beyond the guesswork of his predecessors, by experimental facts which could not be gained on Earth.

The physical laboratory witnessed the development of space navigation instruments, crude prototypes of today’s unerring and reliable homing devices. The 20-inch mirror in the space observatory recorded new facts about the planets. The investigation of solar and stellar spectra in the deep ultraviolet furnished new and important data for the understanding of the internal structure of the stars. Other important research objects were the primaries of cosmic radiation and the analysis of interplanetary matter, especially the mean density of meteors in space. A second tiny moon, measuring 900 feet in diameter, was discovered.

It is hardly believable with what primitive means of navigation the first ships hopped to Moon. But they did it, and gradually, as ships and navigation improved, Moon became a world "just around the corner," like the inner planets are for us now. The vast area between satellite and Moon became a training field for advanced students of the space navigation school attached to the station. Two agencies even obtained licenses for regular tourist flights around Luna, in small but rather comfortably equipped "space liners" as they were then called,

These were the general conditions at that time. . . .

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