What Language on Mars?

Predictions Revisited

What Language Will They Speak on Mars?

The planet Mars in Chinese script. Credit: About.com: Chinese Culture, written by “js”

Chinese, on present showing. Never mind that seven men – Russian (4) European (2) and Chinese (1) – are now two months into a 520-day isolation trial in Moscow, simulating a manned mission to Mars. That’s for show. Political willpower will settle the issue.

In 1964 the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun forecast a human visit to Mars by 1984. That might well have happened had the US not cancelled its proposed Orion rocket in 1965 – the year after von Braun made his prediction. The trouble was that Orion would have had nuclear propulsion, not merely by nuclear motors, but by nuclear bombs. So it had to be abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear test-ban treaty, much to the annoyance of Freeman J. Dyson and other enthusiasts.

Orion – the gigantic might-have-been

Here’s a diagram from my book Spaceships of the Mind (1978) which accompanied the BBC-OECA series with the same title, produced by Dick Gilling of BBC-TV. Assembled in Earth orbit, Orion would have carried about 2000 10-kiloton nuclear fission bombs, released at a rate of one a second to explode close behind a large spaceship. With a pusher plate absorbing the shocks, the spacecraft would quickly reach a speed that would take about 20 astronauts around Mars and back to Earth in just six months.

It may seem daft now but Orion was a recognition, at the very start of the Space Age, that if human beings are ever to become serious about space travel, they’ll have to think nuclear. That’s still the case, although nuclear fusion will be preferable, of course, with ignition as far from the Earth as possible.

When von Braun contributed to the New Scientist’s 1964 series on “The World in 1984” he remained mute about Orion although he glanced the nuclear option. At the time he was director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with the Apollo missions to the Moon at the top of his agenda. Here, for a start, are two early extracts from his article entitled “Exploration to the Farthest Planets”:

Wernher von Braun on technology (1964)

Man may have landed on the surface of Mars by 1984. If not, he will surely have made a close approach for personal observation of the red planet. Likewise, manned ‘fly-bys’ to Venus will have been made.

Lunar landings will have long since passed from the fantastic achievement to routine occurrence. Astronauts will be shuttling back and forth on regular schedules from the earth to a small permanent base of operations on the moon. A part of the activity on the lunar surface may well be the operation of an astronomical observatory, taking advantage of the favourable observation conditions there. …

Saturn V, the largest launch vehicle under development in 1964 in America, will have been able, before 1970, to shove a payload of 100,000 pounds to earth-escape velocity. But for the manned exploration of Mars and the build-up of a sizeable lunar base, a vehicle is needed that will haul ten times as much payload, including men and their life-support equipment. That is why a launch rocket far more powerful than Saturn V is under development in 1984.

While chemical propulsion is still used for the first stage of large launch vehicles, improved engines and new fuels give higher specific impulse – more thrust per pound of fuel. Nuclear heat propulsion is used for upper stages, doubling the size of payloads that can be lifted free of the earth’s gravity. The sustained low thrust and high fuel economy of nuclear-powered electric propulsion systems serves to push unmanned probes to the outermost planets of the solar system.

Instrumented payloads have been landed on some of the nearer planets. There may be one on one of Jupiter’s satellites, and perhaps one on an asteroid, and they are busily sending back data on surface composition, atmospheric environment and the like. Investigations of the comets may have developed into a particularly fascinating chapter of unmanned interplanetary rocketry.

We shall be much nearer to the answer to the mystery of the origin of the solar system. The existence of a low order of life on Mars will probably have been proven, and the significance of the seasonal changes of the Martian canals established.

Manned orbiting space laboratories with closed ecological systems have supported pioneering crews comfortably in space for an uninterrupted stretch of two years. The hazard of particle radiation, in particular that posed by giant solar flares, has been eliminated with efficient new shielding methods. Fuel cells, solar and nuclear systems provide ample power for extended space flights and for surface operations on the moon. Men and women in space keep in constant touch with friends at home through effective communications, even when they are scores of millions of miles away. …

To lead back to my question “What language on Mars?” nothing is more apt than Tom Lehrer’s Wernher von Braun. Recalling his role in Hitler’s V2 terror weapon, the song ends:

You too may be a big hero, / Once you have learned to count backwards to zero. / “In German oder English I know how to count down, / Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Wernher von Braun.

Among recent developments, President Obama has scaled back his predecessor’s plans for manned spaceflight – which still use only chemical rockets, of course. Meanwhile China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest economy, with commentators saying it will surpass the USA by 2025 or so. And as the Beijing Olympics illustrated, China’s present leaders are entirely ready to vie for global superiority by extravagant showmanship. In the 21st Century, the colonization of Mars will be the greatest show off Earth.

The West lost its way in manned spaceflight after the success of the Apollo missions. The Russians did too, and the International Space Station, which has consumed much treasure and some lives, is frankly a bore for the general public.More important than any financial constraints, in my opinion, is the fading of that feeling of the 1960s that a new frontier was opening up for humanity at large – when Apollo really did seem like a giant leap for mankind. We’re back to relying on science fiction like “Star Trek” to keep the dream alive.

Scientists stifle the sense of adventure, I’m sorry to say. I was at a space-science meeting in Florence in 1961, on the day when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in space. The city’s Mayor drove up with crates of bubbly, but he was kept hanging about in the lobby because there was no question of interrupting a session on space plasmas with this merely human news. And just last week Lord (Martin) Rees, President of the Royal Society, declared: “It’s hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the Moon or indeed sending people into space at all.”

The cart parks itself in front of the horse. Space science has been fruitful enough, but it’s always been a passenger on space technology initiated for political and technological purposes and sustained by strongly competitive rivalry between nations and blocs, which becomes cooperative only when convenient.

Although scientists have never understood that, the engineer von Braun certainly did. You may not go along with the way he worded it, but there’s no mistaking his conviction.

Wernher von Braun on motivation (1964)

Instruments continue to be indispensable in the exploration of space. But man has proven himself irreplaceable as an explorer of the moon, and is getting ready to explore the rest of the solar system in person. A man’s brain is still the ultimate in micro-miniaturization in size, weight, memory storage, and complex thinking operations. A large electronics computer might be superior at adding, subtracting, and in doing man’s routine clerical work. But, even in 1984, it remains for the brain of man to correlate unexpected observations, to perceive solutions to novel situations and to take independent action in the light of new data collected by his instruments. It is clear that man himself, and not just instruments, must explore the planets.

Gradually, space exploration has become a kind of standard behind which dynamic men with their courage, fighting instincts and talents have begun to rally for their advancement. Wars, which had somewhat similar ‘rallying’ effects, are no longer feasible between industrialized nations nor are they a suitable yardstick for their strength – now that any military exchange with weapons of mass destruction would mean total annihilation of friend and foe alike.

Just as the Crusades saved Europe much bloodshed by diverting the energies of its fighting men to a far-away objective, so space exploration provides a worthwhile outlet for the pent-up energies of man in the late twentieth century. Until recently, huge defence programmes had provided much of the stimulus for research and development work without which industrial progress comes to a halt. In 1984, the limitless scientific and technological challenges of the space-exploration programme have taken over this vital, invigorating role. The ‘spin-off’ products of the space programme, direct or indirect, are visible everywhere.

More citizens of the world than ever before are taking part in the affairs of government. Well-informed, thinking men will continue to support this intriguing and profitable endeavour of space exploration. How far we go in space – and how fast – will continue to be affected by the measure of public support.

Exploration of the planets, and later of the stars, may not be the one and only peaceful force to pull man and his culture forward. But it is the only one I know (in 1964) in which all men can enjoy both the excitement of conquest and the technological, economic, and spiritual benefits. If mankind in 1984 is freer in thought and spirit, as well as politically and economically freer of the shackles of the environment, I firmly believe it will, in large measure, be thanks to the benefits of space exploration.

The Chinese have let it be known that they’ll send astronauts to the Moon as soon as possible. Unless there’s a big change in the West’s half-hearted attitude to manned spaceflight, China may beat everyone to Mars quite easily. And it might be very rash to shrug and bid them bon voyage (or yī lù shùn fēng).

The opening up of the Solar System to human travel and settlement has often been likened to the maritime explorations that led to European political dominance in the colonial era. It was an opportunity that China missed, simply by the erosion of will that followed the earlier voyages of Admiral Zheng He. Here’s how I summarized the tale in my book Timescale.

Early guns were cumbersome, and the ideal vehicle for them was a sailing ship.

Ambitious Chinese saw that the time was ripe for domination of the world by gun-carrying ships. They pulled their high technology together and built dozens of large sailing junks with multiple masts, steered by sternpost rudders, navigated by magnetic compasses, and armed with guns. In AD 1405 a powerful fleet set off to impress the barbarians, and a succession of expeditions overawed half the known world, gathering treasure from as far away as Mecca and Africa. Had that naval policy persisted, this book would be written in Chinese. Officials and accountants persuaded the emperor after less than thirty years to put a stop to it, and eventually destroyed even the records of the voyages. It was bureaucracy’s most breathtaking accomplishment. …

The essence of the Chinese maritime technology of ship handling, navigation, and gunnery was known in Europe. The Portuguese flotillas that began groping along the African coast were ludicrously small and ill-found, but as events showed, the world could be snatched by diminutive carracks, without grand fleets of the Chinese sort. Like their horsemen ancestors coming off the steppes, Europeans made up in daring, avarice, and mutual rivalry for what they lacked in imperial wealth and sophistication. The breakout of the European navigators can best be dated from 1492, when a westbound Spanish flotilla stumbled upon the Americas, mistaking them for Asia. Portuguese seamen heading the other way reached India by sea in 1498 and China in 1514. The first circumnavigation of the planet was completed by a Spanish ship, Vittoria, in 1522.

So I can’t help wondering if our grandchildren will see an inversion of the events of the 15th Century, with China ruling the sky as Europeans once ruled the sea.


N. Calder, Spaceships of the Mind, BBC Publications,1978

N. Calder (ed): The World in 1984, Penguin, 1985

Lehrer’s full lyrics http://www.lyricsdownload.com/tom-lehrer-wernher-von-braun-lyrics.html

Rees quoted in The Guardian: see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jul/26/martin-rees-space

N. Calder, Timescale: An Atlas of the Fourth Dimension, Viking 1983


4 Responses to What Language on Mars?

  1. Bruce of Newcastle says:

    Coincidentally, also from 1964 is Arthur Clarke’s marvelous short story ‘Sunjammer’. It has taken a while, but at least now JAXA has a solar sail test rig in operation.

    • calderup says:

      Solar sailing is likely to be too slow for humans, Bruce, in my opinion.

      • Bruce of Newcastle says:

        Nigel – Yes I agree. I was struck by the parallels, but the applications for solar sails would be different, like Pegasus vs the shuttle. The nice thing about solar sails are the development trajectory is cheapish and not so dramatic as Orion, so there is a chance that some good practical progress can be made.

        Unfortunately I don’t see Orion being furthered for the reasons you mention, though you have given me an excuse to reread “Footfall”.

  2. Timothy H. Rigney says:

    Been reading “Spaceships of the Mind” lately. (It was listed in a great book on Science Fiction called “The Science in Science Fiction” edited by Peter Nicholls. What a MARVELOUS job you did with that! 🙂

    T. Howard Rigney.

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