Von Braun's Futurist Papers To Be Auctioned

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Well before rockets carried satellites and then humans into space, before NASA was created, even before large computer mainframes were assembled to process all the information needed to make space travel possible, master rocketeer Wernher von Braun was imagining and drawing with surprising accuracy what the parts of a space program would one day look like.

Some of the work was done for top-secret government programs, but some was produced for a groundbreaking series of articles written by von Braun for the then-prominent Collier's magazine. Called "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!," the series ran between March 1952 and April 1954, and helped set the stage for the space age that followed.

The staff-created illustrations that accompanied the article, based very closely on von Braun's designs and sketches, were a particular sensation. They helped people imagine what rockets and space vehicles might look like -- in real life, as opposed to in a Buck Rogers fantasy.

A cache of those drawings, as well as notes and letters explaining them further, was collected and sold, falling into unidentified private hands some time before Collier's stopped publication in 1957. Today, 35 of those items will be sold by Bonhams auction house in Los Angeles, with a simulcast in New York.

The collection includes sketches of a wall of computer mainframes, detailed schematics of what a working space rocket and space station might look like, as well as the drawing of a capsule with a handwritten notation that said "for trip around the moon." One of the designs up for sale is described by von Braun as a "baby satellite."

"Von Braun saw these articles as very serious events, and he wanted to make sure the illustrations were based on real science," said Catherine Williamson, director for books and manuscripts for Bonhams. "These drawings are famous in their own right, and are well-known by collectors interested in space."

They were also prescient, imagining designs that frequently resembled NASA creations built years later. Williamson says she expects von Braun's works to go for as much as $25,000 apiece.

A pioneer in the American space program, von Braun was almost as controversial as he was brilliant. The chief rocket designer for Hitler's Germany, von Braun was instrumental in development of the V-2 rockets that rained on England toward the end of World War II. The rockets were built by prisoners of war underground in the Harz mountain range; thousands of the POWs are believed to have died of disease and starvation.

Von Braun and much of his team defected to U.S. forces days before Germany's official surrender, and they became key architects of the early American space program.

While von Braun was clearly involved in the German rocket program, he often said his passionate interest was rocketry and space travel, not war. He lived in the United States until his death in 1977, and was head of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., from 1960 to 1970.

The idea for von Braun's Collier's series originated in 1951, when a magazine editor and von Braun both attended the first annual Symposium on Space Travel, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The Collier's editor chanced on von Braun at a hotel bar and the two got into a discussion about the science and complexities of rocketry.

The editor said he was frustrated by the symposium's presentations and wanted to find a way to translate the science for lay readers. Von Braun offered to do the translation, and the series ensued.

The magazine hired three commercial artists to illustrate the text. Concerned about the accuracy of the drawings, von Braun sent numerous technical sketches and diagrams of the spaceships and equipment, which were then reworked by the graphic artists. One of the more striking images is of the "3-Stage Satellite Vehicle," which became the basis for a dramatic March 22, 1952, magazine cover of the rocket speeding far above Earth.

While Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union played a central role in the origins of NASA and the ensuing space race, the von Braun articles and accompanying images are often credited with generating public enthusiasm about the possibility of space travel. The continuing series covered space travel, lunar landing and even travel to Mars, the last of which remains in the distant future even now.

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