|Mercury suborbital flights were considered a prudent first step in U.S. piloted spaceflight. The Soviet Vostok missions upstaged suborbital Mercury, leading NASA to accept more risk by moving on to Mercury orbital missions. Image credit: NASA|
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's launch into Earth orbit in the 10,420-pound Vostok 1 capsule three years later (12 April 1961) consigned this plan to the dustbin. On 5 May 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard flew a 303-mile-long, 116-mile-high suborbital hop lasting 15 minutes, 22 seconds in the 4,040-pound Mercury-Redstone 3/Freedom 7 spacecraft. The flight was widely compared with Gagarin's 108-minute single orbit and derided as proof that the Soviet Union remained far ahead of the United States in space – and that it was, perhaps, superior in other ways.
Before a joint session of Congress on 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy called on NASA to land an American on the moon and return him safely to Earth before 1970. NASA tapped Apollo, previously planned as an Earth-orbital program with circumlunar potential, as its new lunar landing program. As for suborbital Mercury training flights, prudence went out the window. NASA flew only one more suborbital mission – Gus Grissom's Mercury-Redstone 4 flight (21 July 1961), which ended with the loss of the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft during recovery – before terminating Mercury-Redstone to concentrate on Mercury-Atlas orbital flights. Two weeks after Grissom's 15-minute, 37-second flight, Gherman Titov orbited the Earth 17.5 times in 25 hours on board (6-7 August 1961), adding to feelings of humiliation and desperation in the United States.
By the time John Glenn became the first American in orbit (20 February 1962), NASA and several advisory committees were debating how the U.S. should reach for the moon. At the same time, the U.S. civilian space agency began planning a program to bridge the gap between Mercury and Apollo. On 7 December 1961, NASA announced plans for a two-man "Mercury Mark II" spacecraft that would surpass Vostok's achievements beginning in 1963 and 1964. In January 1962, Mercury Mark II was renamed Gemini. The Gemini missions would expose astronauts to space conditions for up to two weeks (roughly the duration of a lunar mission) and give them spacewalk and orbital maneuvering practice.
Many feared, however, that Gemini, like Mercury, would be upstaged. Though the Soviets remained cagey about their space plans, it was widely assumed that their apparent lead in powerful booster rockets would permit them to launch a man to the moon and return him to Earth in about 1965.
Against this backdrop, John M. Cord, a Project Engineer in the Advanced Design Division at Bell Aerosystems Company, and Leonard M. Seale, a psychologist in charge of Bell's Human Factors Division, developed a plan for a desperate mission to put a man on the moon ahead of the Soviets. They unveiled their "One-Way Manned Space Mission" proposal in Los Angeles at the Institute of Aerospace Sciences (IAS) meeting in July 1962.
|The Saturn I rocket was mainly a test vehicle for Saturn IB and Saturn V systems. Rockets only a little more powerful might have launched the One-Way Space Man cargo capsules and crew capsule during 1964. Image credit: NASA|
Next, automated Surveyor soft landers would visit potential One-Way Space Man landing sites to return images and perform soil experiments so scientists could determine whether the One-Way Space Man would be able to land safely. Automated rovers would follow to gather detailed data on the One-Way Space Man landing site. A rover would also place a radio homing beacon at the site to guide the One-Way Space Man's crew lander and cargo landers to safe landings.
The One-Way Space Man mission would come next, then round-trip Apollo missions would begin. The first Apollo would, of course, set down near the One-Way Space Man's lunar base; one of the One-Way Space Man's tasks would be to select a safe site for the three-man Direct-Ascent Apollo lander that would take him home. The Apollo Program might then lead to a permanent lunar base – a goal made more attainable, Cord and Seale argued, by the One-Way Space Man's experiences on the moon.
While the flybys, orbiters, hard and soft landers, and rovers explored the moon, engineers would develop One-Way Space Man hardware. In addition to a suitable man-rated booster rocket, they would develop a "minimum" crew capsule, a cargo capsule, a retro stage with extendible "alighting gear" for soft-landing both capsule types, and a layout for the One-Way Space Man's lunar base.
Testing would then begin. This would include Earth-orbital crew capsule tests bearing primates, much like those conducted ahead of the Mercury-Redstone and Mercury-Atlas manned flights. A boilerplate cargo lander fitted out with engineering sensors and telemetry transmitters would land on the moon, then four cargo landers would home in on the rover-emplaced homing beacon at the One-Way Space Man landing site. The four cargo flights would test systems common to the crew lander and would pre-land supplies and equipment the One-Way Space Man would use to build his base. Finally, the One-Way Space Man would depart Earth for the moon.
|The One-Way Space Man crew capsule. Image credit: Bell Aerosystems|
The thin-skinned crew capsule would not provide adequate radiation protection during the One-Way Space Man's 2.5-day Earth-moon journey nor while he lived in it while setting up his lunar base. This was because providing adequate shielding would add so much mass to the capsule that it would scuttle the entire One-Way Space Man plan. Cord and Seale noted that the next period of high solar flare activity would not begin until 1967, by which time, if all went well, the One-Way Space Man would have returned to Earth; they admitted, however, that more than 25 flares had occurred during the three years prior to their Los Angeles talk.
The One-Way Space Man would exit his crew capsule through one of two hatches. The capsule would include no airlock; to exit or enter, the astronaut would need to depressurize or repressurize the entire capsule. The capsule atmosphere would consist of pure oxygen at a pressure of seven pounds per square inch.
The environment into which the One-Way Space Man would step would be extremely hazardous, Cord and Seale warned. In fact, they forecast lunar surface conditions far more harsh than actually exist. They expected that the One-Way Space Man would find few level places and many sharp rocks. The irregular surface and knife-like rock shards would be especially hazardous during the One-Way Space Man's clumsy first days on the moon, when he would be unaccustomed to the low gravity (17% of Earth’s), harsh sunlight (almost twice as bright as on Earth), and deep shadows of the lunar surface.
Micrometeorite dust would cover portions of the surface to a depth of about a yard, Cord and Seale reported. The One-Way Space Man would stir up the dust with his feet as he moved. They told their audience that each disturbed dust grain would ricochet off the surface and stir up additional grains. Combined with dust kicked up by micrometeorite impacts, the astronaut would walk in a veritable dust storm that would at times obscure vision. Inevitably he would carry dust into his shelter; Cord and Seale anticipated that this would place strain on the air filtering system and might damage other systems.
|One-Way Space Man space suit. Cord and Seale envisioned a harsh, dusty lunar surface covered with sharp rocks, but this image displays a benign surface. Image credit: Bell Aerosystems|
Adding a one-tenth-centimeter-thick woven aluminum layer would slash the average number of punctures to 0.007 per four-hour moonwalk and would attenuate impacts. It would, however, hamper movement. Cord and Seale recommended that the One-Way Space Man be fitted instead with a rigid aluminum suit with the joint flexibility of a nylon soft suit that would permit only 0.002 penetrations per four-hour moonwalk.
During his first 9.5 days on the moon, the One-Way Space Man would unload the four cargo capsules, each of which would measure 10 feet wide and about 13 feet long. Each 2,190-pound cargo capsule would carry 910 pounds of supplies and equipment. Two capsules, equipped with a floor, pre-installed life support systems, and start-up supplies, would become his shelter. He would tip each onto its side, placing its floor parallel with the lunar surface, and remove its conical nosecone. He would then winch the two capsules together, forming a living space about 25 feet long.
|One-Way Space Man cargo capsule.|
Image credit: Bell Aerosystems
For radiation protection, Cord and Seale proposed a separate small radiation shelter that could be easily buried or moved to a “void” in a crater wall. They assumed that six feet of lunar rubble would be sufficient to protect the One-Way Space Man from solar flares. When detectors registered a sharp increase in radiation at the base site, the One-Way Space Man would hurry to the radiation shelter to wait out the flare. As his range of operations increased, he would establish other small shelters at strategic locations around his base site.
The One-Way Space Man would bring along his own potentially hazardous radiation source: a nuclear reactor for generating electrical power. Unlike solar cells, the reactor could make electricity during the frigid two-week lunar night and, unlike fuel cells, it would not require expendables. The astronaut would move the reactor from one of the cargo landers to a small crater and, after running overhead cables back to the shelter and activating it, bury it to protect himself from its ionizing radiation.
|One-Way Space Man shelter (foreground); in the background, the buried radiation shelter (left) and an abandoned cargo capsule descent stage and nosecone are visible. Image credit: Bell Aerosystems|
In addition, he might occasionally need emergency supplies, such as medicines, at short notice. Cord and Seale suggested that a small booster with a special rough-landing cargo lander – perhaps derived from Ranger – be kept on standby.
On 11 July 1962, a few weeks after Cord and Seale presented their paper, NASA announced that it had selected the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) mode for Apollo lunar missions, not Direct-Ascent. LOR would see an Apollo mothership with a lone astronaut on board remain in lunar orbit while two astronauts descended to the surface in a minimal "bug" lander. The bug became known first as the Lunar Excursion Module and later as the Lunar Module (LM). As already noted, Cord and Seale based the One-Way Space Man plan on the Direct-Ascent mode. They conceded that it could also include Earth-Orbit Rendezvous, another Apollo mode contender. They argued, however, that any form of rendezvous would complicate their mission plan unnecessarily.
Although never seriously considered, Cord and Seale's proposal excited considerable interest. For example, it led off a 25 June 1962 news story on the Los Angeles IAS meeting in the pages of Missiles and Rockets magazine. Its headline read, "One-Man, One-Way Moon Trip Urged." Cord and Seale, perhaps feeling the heat for proposing such a risky mission, took exception to the word "urged" - in a letter printed in the 30 July 1962 issue of the magazine under the title "Morality and the Moon," they called their proposal "inconsistent with our moral values" as a nation. That did not stop them, however, from publishing a summary of their proposal in the publication Aerospace Engineering in December 1962. After that, technical discussion of the One-Way Space Man concept ended.
The concept remained intriguing to many, however. In 1964, novelist Hank Searls published a thriller called The Pilgrim Project based on Cord and Seale's plan. The novel had the flavor of alternate history even as it saw print.
In Searls' novel, the U.S. has fallen far behind the Soviet Union in the race to the moon. The Soviets have built an Earth-orbiting shipyard and have begun manned circumlunar flights while the U.S. struggles in Earth orbit to perfect rendezvous and docking using Apollo spacecraft. Searls implies that more Mercury orbital flights took place than in our timeline. but his book makes scant mention of Gemini, the program NASA used to develop rendezvous techniques.
The lone Project Pilgrim astronaut leaves for the moon in a modified Mercury capsule soon after the Soviets have launched a three-man one-way mission. His target is a pre-landed shelter called Chuckwagon. The radio homing beacon on the shelter fails, forcing the Pilgrim astronaut to rely on visual sighting to find it on the lunar surface. Unlike Cord and Seale's One-Way Space Man, Searl's Pilgrim astronaut could swing around the moon and return to Earth if Chuckwagon or his capsule suffered a malfunction.
|The cover art for this edition of The Pilgrim Project is mostly stylized, but the Mercury-derived piloted lunar spacecraft is discernible (lower right). Image credit: McGraw Hill Book Company|
The modified Mercury is not designed to serve as a temporary shelter and the Pilgrim astronaut has only a limited supply of oxygen in his suit backpack. Having no idea where Chuckwagon is, he sets out at random after laying out the Soviet and American flags side by side. His unexpected exertions as he moves over the rugged surface soon cause him to overheat. Then, just as he is about to accept his fate, he notices a slowly blinking star on the horizon; it is the flashing locator beacon on top of Chuckwagon. The novel ends as the Pilgrim astronaut sets out toward his refuge.
Searls' novel became the basis for the 1968 Robert Altman film Countdown. In the film, a Gemini capsule on an Apollo LM descent stage replaces the modified Mercury. The story is simplified, but closely follows the novel. According to space historian and NASA biomedical researcher John B. Charles, Altman filmed the launch of Gemini 11 (12-15 September 1966), the penultimate Gemini mission, so that it could represent the launch of the Pilgrim astronaut. A Gemini-Titan rocket was, of course, not powerful enough to put a Gemini and LM descent stage on a Direct-Ascent path to the moon. The Gemini 11 scenes do, however, constitute rare cinema-quality footage of a Gemini launch.
By the end of the Gemini program in November 1966, the U.S. was well ahead of the Soviet Union in the race to the moon. For a time it appeared that the Apollo 1 fire (27 January 1967) might set back the U.S. space program and reignite the moon race; however, the Soviet space program suffered the Soyuz 1 disaster three months later (23-24 April 1967). The closest NASA came to a desperation mission in the moon race was Apollo 8, which orbited the moon 10 times on Christmas Eve 1968. The mission, intended originally to test the LM in high Earth orbit, was dispatched to the moon without an LM to head off the threat to hard-won U.S. prestige of a possible Soviet manned circumlunar flight.
At the end of their IAS paper and their Aerospace Engineering article, Cord and Seale explained that the One-Way Space Man concept could be applied throughout the Solar System. When next the concept of a one-way manned space mission was proposed, it was aimed at Mars, and it was envisioned as a truly one-way mission.
At the Case for Mars VI conference in July 1996, George William Herbert of Retro Aerospace proposed that middle-aged scientists be dispatched on a one-way journey to the Red Planet to cut costs and increase scientific payback. His scenario had the scientists living out their natural lives while exploring the planet to which they had dedicated their careers. Herbert's was a new kind of desperation mission. He and his fellow Mars enthusiasts were not desperate to beat another country to Mars; rather, they were impatient to see humans on Mars.
The one-way Mars concept remains of interest to some, though it has not earned widespread acceptance. In 2009, Lawrence Krauss, Director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, told The New York Times that "To boldly go where no one has gone before does not require coming home again." He explained that a one-way approach would reduce the cost of piloted Mars exploration and compared the journey to that of the Pilgrims. Science News picked up Krauss's statement, and the magazine's readers quickly reacted. One noted that the Pilgrims traveled to a place where they knew that they could survive. One-way Mars explorers would have no such assurance. Another complained that Krauss's proposal illustrated "the decline of moral reasoning."
"The One-Way Manned Space Mission," IAS Paper No. 62-131, John M. Cord and Leonard M. Seale; paper presented at the Institute of Aerospace Sciences National Summer Meeting held in Los Angeles, California, 19-22 June 1962
"At IAS meeting. . .One-Man, One-Way Moon Trip Urged," W. Wilks, Missiles and Rockets, 25 June 1962, pp. 16-17
"Morality and the Moon," John M. Cord and Leonard M. Seale, Letters, Missiles and Rockets, 30 July 1962, p. 8
"The One-Way Manned Space Mission," John M. Cord and Leonard M. Seale, Aerospace Engineering, December 1962, pp. 60-61, 94-102
The Pilgrim Project, Hank Searles, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964
Countdown, directed by Robert Altman, screenplay by Loring Mandel, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1968
"One-Way to Mars," George William Herbert, AAS-96-322, The Case for Mars VI: Making Mars an Affordable Destination, Kelly R. McMillen, editor; proceedings of the sixth Case for Mars Conference held at the University of Colorado at Boulder, 17-20 July 1996
"Science Observation," Lawrence M. Krauss, Science News, 20 October 2009, p. 4
"Feedback – One-way ticket to Mars," Science News, 21 November 2009, p. 29