The rich collections of space artifacts at the National Air and Space Museum provide a remarkable resource for scholars who wish to understand the special place that deep space exploration has held in the imagination of not just Americans but people around the world. They show the complex interplay between the dreams of spaceflight, the limits to our knowledge of engineering and science, and the clever ways human beings have achieved some—but not all—of those dreams while keeping at least one foot grounded in reality. Here are some examples of space artifacts currently on display, and what they tell us about our future in space.
Space historians have given a central place to the writings and work of Wernher von Braun, one of the developers of the German V-2 ballistic missile during World War II, who came to the United States after the War and played a significant role in the development of the Saturn rockets, which took human beings to the Moon between 1968 and 1972. Von Braun was both an engineer and a tireless popularizer and promoter of space travel, writing a science fiction novel, magazine articles, and collaborating with Walt Disney on a television series about humanity’s future in space. In these efforts, he sketched a roadmap that became known as the “von Braun Paradigm”—a set of incremental steps that he argued ought to be taken to gain access to the heavens. In its simplest form, he argued for:
The paradigm held a powerful grip on NASA (founded in 1958) and still lurks behind current plans to return to the Moon and mount a crewed expedition to Mars. The reality of space history shows that it has been modified, abandoned, rediscovered, and modified again over the decades. The first modification came with the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, which prompted a swift response from the United States. In the desire to get a human being in space quickly, the United States shelved a program to develop winged, piloted spacecraft, extending research being done with aircraft like the X-15. The result was a series of ballistic, wingless “capsules”: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, with only limited ability to maneuver using aerodynamic forces. But the winged, aerodynamic paradigm did not die: it was resurrected as the space shuttle, first flown in 1981 and piloted to a landing using controls that were an extension of the X-15’s. Current plans call for a return to a ballistic capsule, but there are also plans for commercial access to space with winged vehicles, including the Burt Rutan design for ships that will carry paying passengers at least to the edge of space.
NASA and private companies are now proposing spacecraft of a variety of designs to replace the shuttle, which will be retired soon. Some proposals called for winged, reusable craft, others for ballistic capsules. It will be interesting to see how the “von Braun Paradigm” plays out in the coming years.
Paul Ceruzzi is a curator specializing in aerospace computing and electronics in the Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum.