PART III : 1958-1959

11. Large Engines and Vehicles, 1958



The Army's Bid to Develop Large Launch Vehicles


[207] Although the Air Force took the initiative in sponsoring studies of large rocket engines, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency took the lead in proposing specific large vehicles. These began with studies by Wernher von Braun's missile development team in 1956 and led eventually to the Saturn vehicles developed during the 1960s. By the time the first Saturn was authorized by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1958 and a decision made about which propellants to use in its upper stages late in 1959, large launch vehicle concepts had undergone a number of changes. Von Braun's team initially opposed the use of hydrogen and oxygen in the second stage of the Saturn. To understand why and to follow the evolution of Saturn in its early phases, a few observations about von Braun and his team are helpful.


In 1930, when 18, Wernher von Braun was working with Germany's rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth, and von Braun's entire subsequent career was devoted to rockets and spaceflight. As technical director at Peenemunde, he was responsible for developing the V-2, the beginning of modern liquid-propellant rocketry. He headed the 120 Germans brought to the United States by the government at the end of World War II. In 1950, the Germans became the core for an expanding organization assigned to the development of Army guided missiles at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. By 1956, the guided missile development division at Redstone, with von Braun as technical director, numbered over 2000, of whom 350 were Army officers. Over 200 of these officers were graduate engineers who strengthened the civilian staff of engineers and technicians. By 1958 the division (then called development operations) had a complement of over 2800, about 80 percent of the ballistic missile agency.4


As head of large engineering organizations both in Germany and the United States for almost a quarter of a century, von Braun managed by committee or group decision. At Redstone, his division consisted of ten laboratories representing various technical aspects of missile development, each headed by a highly competent member of his old German team. He used these men as a council for decision making; at meetings, von Braun assumed the role of chairman or moderator. He knew how to listen, maneuver, [208] and persuade; proposed actions were thoroughly thrashed out until mutual agreement was reached. Thereafter, all united behind the decision to make planned actions a success.


The loyalty and competence of the von Braun team were outstanding. The core of hand-picked German engineers had worked for von Braun in developing the V-2. They had suffered through the Allied air raids together, escaped the advancing Russians in the closing days of the war, and migrated to a new land and new life in 1945. At Fort Bliss, Texas, they were enemy aliens who, though well treated, could not go into El Paso without a military policeman as escort.5 These experiences tied the group together-loyal to each other and to von Braun as their leader. As excellent engineers, they were determined to prove their worth.


A third observation is about von Braun's ability to sell himself and his ideas. A man with charisma, he knew how to deal with bureaucracy,* how to compromise, and how to maneuver to achieve his objectives. He used his talents to fire the imagination and stimulate interest in spaceflight unabashedly, to gain support for his team and his ideas. The publicity given von Braun seems not to have bothered his German colleagues, who worked as much in obscurity as he did in the limelight. The team understood and appreciated von Braun's ability in public relations and willingly assisted him in building up his reputation and image, because the group shared in the rewards of increased support.


Von Braun was as conservative an engineer in actual design and construction as he was a bold innovator in concepts. The design of the V-2, Redstone, Jupiter, and Saturn all reflect the conservatism of von Braun and his team. They looked askance at such lightweight structural innovations as Bossart's thin-wall, pressurized tanks for the Atlas ICBM, which they jokingly referred to as "blimp" or "inflated competition." They preferred husky, sturdy structures which Krafft Ehricke characterized as "Brooklyn bridge" construction. Their structural designs were sound, if somewhat on the heavy side. This conservative design philosophy mitigated against the use of liquid hydrogen which, more than conventional fuels, depended upon very light structures to help offset the handicap of low density.6


The final observation about von Braun and his team stems from their alliances. By fate and by choice, these engineers were aligned with the military in Germany and in the United States; those alliances were both an advantage and a handicap. The advantage lay in pressing military requirements in both countries, which assured the team virtually a blank check in developing rocket missiles. Emphasis was on achieving success rapidly and seldom, if ever, on minimum cost. But the same reasons that gave the team liberal support also restrained them from deviating from the immediate task at hand. This meant little tolerance for indulging in schemes for spaceflight, von Braun's greatest interest. He was arrested and jailed in 1944 for alleged sabotage of the [209] A-4 missile he was developing because he was overheard speculating on spaceflight.** At the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal, von Braun was under similar restraints, although he soon found a kindred spirit in Maj. Gen. J.B. Medaris, commander of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency.


Von Braun wanted to adapt existing missile equipment to launch a satellite as early as 1954. He lost out to Vanguard in a 1955 bid to launch satellites for the International Geophysical Year, but by 1956 he had assembled equipment capable of launching a satellite. Sputnik I gave him the long-awaited opportunity and he succeeded with Explorer I on 1 February 1958.


Explorer I was the opening gun in the Army's campaign for a strong role in space. Following the initial Russian and American satellites, it became clear that Russian launch capability far exceeded that of the U.S. and the von Braun team was quick to respond to the U.S. outcry for larger launch vehicles. Among those envisioned was one of multiple stages; the first stage, a cluster of 4 engines, would develop a total of 6.7 meganewtons (1.5 million lb of thrust). The report on this study was submitted to the Department of Defense on 10 December 1957: "A National Integrated Missile and Space Development Program." It was the first of several bids for a space role by von Braun and Medaris.


The December 1957 report was updated in March 1958; it described 11 launch vehicles starting with the Navy's Vanguard and Army's Juno 1, and continuing to the very large vehicle of 6.7 meganewtons (table 6). Two of the proposed vehicles used high-energy upper stages with hydrogen-oxygen as one of the candidate propellant combinations.7 One of these was the stage that Krafft Ehricke had proposed in December 1957 (p.194).


The March 1958 report also recommended the development of 14 propulsion systems including two large engines (table 8, p. 216). One was a cluster of 4 Rocketdyne E-1 engines of 1.8 meganewtons (400 000 lb of thrust) each, using kerosene-oxygen; the other, Rocketdyne's F-1 engine of 4.5 to 6.7 meganewtons (1-1.5 million lb of thrust), also using kerosene and oxygen.***


The Army Ballistic Missile Agency proposed that hydrazine be considered as an alternative to kerosene for first-stage engines. Also recommended was an array of upper stages and engines: large-thrust engines using space-storable (non-cryogenic) propellants, hydrazine-fluorine, and nuclear fission; and small-thrust engines using electric or solar power. These advanced engine concepts indicated that the von Braun team was not at all conservative when it came to planning and proposing.


photo of Centaur stage on left and Atlas-Centaur rocket lifting off from launch pad

[210] Fig. 53. The Centaur stage (left), 3 m in diameter, was the first to use liquid hydrogen. The Atlas-Centaur (right), 37 m tall, was first flight-tested in 1962 and within a decade 25 flights, had been made, 19 of which were successful. The vehicle were is still in use, but may be replaced at the end of the 1970ís or early 1980's by the shuttle. ( 1965 and 1967 photographs.)


photo of Werner Von Braun

[211] Fig. 54. Wernher von Braun, father of modern rocketry and developer of Saturn launch vehicles. Shown with a Saturn 1B. 43 meters tall, used to launch the first flight test of the Apollo lunar module on 22 Jan. 1968.



* At a dinner honoring von Braun at his departure from NASA in 1972, Eberhard Rees, his longtime deputy and associate, spun a yarn about German bureaucracy. Peenemunde purchase requests had to be approved by Army headquarters, and a request for a gold-plated instrument mirror was rejected as insufficiently justified. Rees, attempting to write a technical justification, was stopped by von Braun. Just tell them we want it because a solid gold one would be too expensive, he advised. Rees did and the request was promptly approved. Interview with D.d. Wyatt, Bethesday, MD, 31 Aug.1975

** Walter Dornberger, former commanding officer of Peenemunde, described the incident in his book, V-2 (New York: Viking, 1958), pp. 200-207, quoting Field Marshall Keitel: "The sabotage is seen in the fact that these men have been giving all their innermost thoughts to space travel and consequently have not applied their whole energy and ability to production of the A-4 as a weapon of war."

*** According to H.C. Wieseneck, Rockwell Intetnational, Rocketdyne conducted a series of rocket engine studies during 1957 and 1958 in support of the Juno vehicle studies at ABMA. Among options considered was the use of 8 existing ICBM engines that led to Rocketdyneís H-1 engine, which was used in Saturn I. Wieseneck to M.D. Wright, NASA, 6 Feb. 1976.