14 April 2017

Geosynchronous Drift: Krafft Ehricke's Destination Mankind Apollo Mission (1972)

Apollo 17 launch, 7 December 1972. Image credit: NASA
In May 1972, Krafft Ehricke, Executive Advisor in the Space Division of North American Rockwell Corporation, proposed that the last piloted lunar landing mission, Apollo 17, scheduled for the end of 1972, be postponed until the U.S. Bicentennial in July 1976 and dispatched to a new destination: a geosynchronous orbit (GSO) 22,300 miles above the Earth. An object in a GSO requires one day to complete one revolution of the Earth. Since Earth revolves in one day, an object in equatorial GSO appears to hang over one spot on the equator.

"The mission into geosynchronous orbit," Ehricke declared, would provide "additional return on America's investment in Apollo" by dramatizing "the usefulness of manned orbital activities." He added that his proposal, which he dubbed Destination Mankind, "would inspire many, as did the lunar missions before it, but in a different, perhaps more direct manner, because of its greater relevance to some of the most pressing problems of our time."

Ehricke's emphasis on practical benefits over lunar exploration reflected a significant shift in the public perception of spaceflight - one which had gained momentum throughout the 1960s. President Richard Nixon had articulated this shift in his "Statement About the Future of the United States Space Program" on 7 March 1970. The 37th President stated that he believed that the U.S. space program should proceed at a measured pace (not on "a crash timetable") and should be devoted to scientific exploration (mainly using interplanetary robots, but with man on Mars as a "longer-range goal").

In addition, NASA should emphasize international cooperation, cost reduction, and, crucially, "practical application - turning the lessons we learned in space to the early benefit of life on Earth." Nixon declared that results of space research should be "used to the maximum advantage of the human community." He listed among the practical applications of spaceflight "surveying crops, locating mineral deposits, and measuring water resources."

Ehricke described a representative 12-day Destination Mankind mission. Reaching GSO would require about as much propulsive energy as reaching lunar orbit, he noted. The three-stage Destination Mankind Apollo Saturn V rocket would lift off from Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at about 8:30 p.m. local time. Following first and second stage operation, the S-IVB third stage would fire briefly to place itself, the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM), and a Payload Module (PM) into 100-nautical-mile parking orbit. Ehricke did not describe the PM design.

One orbital revolution (about 90 minutes) later, the S-IVB would ignite again to perform Transynchronous Injection (TSI). After S-IVB shutdown, the astronauts would separate their CSM and turn it 180° to dock with the PM, which would be attached to the top of the S-IVB in place of the Apollo Lunar Module (LM). They would then extract the PM, maneuver away from the S-IVB, and settle in for the 5.2-hour coast to GSO.

Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) image of Africa, the Middle East, India, Europe, and adjacent seas and oceans. Cairo, close to the northern limit of the Destination Mankind Afro-Eurasian Station, is located near the center of the image. DSCOVR images Earth every two hours from Sun-Earth L1, not from geosynchronous orbit. Image credit: NASA
The Destination Mankind CSM would ignite its Service Propulsion System (SPS) main engine to enter a GSO at 31° east longitude. This would place it over the equatorial nation of Uganda - if the CSM entered an equatorial GSO. The mission's GSO would, however, be inclined 28.5° relative to Earth's equator, so the CSM would oscillate between 28.5° south latitude (over South Africa's east coast) and 28.5° north latitude (southwest of Cairo) and back every 24 hours. The CSM would reach its southern limit at 10 a.m. local time and its northern limit at 10 p.m. local time. This 57°-long stretch of the 31° east longitude line would, Ehricke explained, constitute Destination Mankind's "Afro-Eurasian Station."

Destination Mankind mission objectives would fall into three general areas: science, technology, and public relations. Science objectives would draw upon an Apollo Geosynchronous Scientific Experiment Package (AGSEP) carried in the PM. The crew might assess the astronomical value of a GSO observatory, perform high-energy particle experiments, and observe and image the Earth. At the Afro-Eurasian Station, the astronauts could view Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and India. Earth imaging and observation might be conducted in collaboration with observers at "ground truth" sites on land and on ships at sea.

Ehricke emphasized the technology objectives of his Destination Mankind mission. He was particularly enamored of a solar illumination experiment that would see a circular reflector assembled by spacewalking astronauts. The experiment would provide reference data for design and operation of future space-based reflectors, he explained. He calculated that a 100-meter reflector in GSO could light Earth's surface one-tenth as brightly as a full moon in a selected area. This level of illumination, though "subvisual," would be useful for night meteorology and surveillance of border and coastal areas, Ehricke wrote.

The astronauts would also erect "Manstar," a 500-to-700-foot-diameter reflective balloon visible over a wide area of Earth's surface as a modestly bright star. Ehricke called Manstar "a visible manifestation for all mankind of the potential value of space."

Ehricke called public relations "Public Exposure." Destination Mankind astronauts would become television stars. They would describe their Earth observations - "especially aspects useful and of interest to regional populations" - via TV broadcasts from GSO. Their spacewalks would also make for good TV fare, Ehricke judged.

Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans retrieves film and data cassettes from the Scientific Instrument Module Bay built into the side of the Apollo 17 CSM America. Evans' 17 December 1972 spacewalk was the last performed beyond low-Earth orbit. Ehricke's Destination Mankind mission would have included several spacewalks in GSO, where none has yet occurred. Image credit: NASA
DSCOVR image of North America, South America, and Central America with adjacent oceans and seas. New Orleans, near the northern limit of the Destination Mankind Panamerican-Pacific Station, is located near the center of the image. Image credit: NASA
The Destination Mankind CSM and PM would remain at the Afro-Eurasian Station for an unspecified period (perhaps two days), then the astronauts would fire the CSM's SPS to climb to a slightly higher orbit and begin a two-day "drift" westward across the Atlantic to their Panamerican-Pacific Station. Upon reaching their new station, located at 90° west longitude, the crew would fire the SPS to lower their orbit and halt their drift.

The CSM and PM would oscillate between 28.5° south (over the Pacific off northern Chile) and 28.5° north (over the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans), again reaching the southern limit at 10 a.m. local time and the northern limit at 10 p.m. local time. Equatorial crossing would occur above the Galapagos Islands. The astronauts would spend their time much as they did at the Afro-Eurasian Station, then would fire the SPS again to drift westward across the Pacific.

DSCOVR image of Australia, east Asia, east Africa, the Middle East, India, and adjacent bodies of water. The Destination Mankind Australo-Asian Station's southern limit would occur over the Indian Ocean off the coast of Perth, Australia, in the lower half of the image, just right of center. Image credit: NASA
The last stop on the Destination Mankind crew's world tour would be the 98° east longitude line, which Ehricke dubbed the Australo-Asian Station. They would reach the north point in their south-north oscillation over southern China and the south point over the east Indian Ocean west of Perth. Near the end of their stay at the Australo-Asian Station, they would discard the PM.

The Destination Mankind crew would return to Earth from the Australo-Asian Station. Using the SPS, they would perform a Trans-Earth Injection burn as their CSM crossed the equator near Sumatra moving north at 4 p.m. local time. Fall to Earth would last 5.2 hours, and splashdown would occur in the Pacific west of Hawaii at just after 6 a.m. local time.


"Destination Mankind: Proposal for a Saturn V - Apollo Mission into Geosynchronous Orbit," K. Ehricke, North American Rockwell, 10 May 1972

The American Presidency Project, "Statement About the Future of the United States Space Program," Richard Nixon, 7 March 1970 - http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=2903&st=Future+of+the+United+States+Space+Program&st1= (Accessed 14 April 2017)

More Information

"A Continuing Aspect of Human Endeavor": Bellcomm's January 1968 Lunar Exploration Program

Apollo's End: NASA Cancels Apollo 15 & Apollo 19 to Save Station/Shuttle (1970)

A Bridge from Skylab to Station/Shuttle: Interim Space Station Program (1971)

Reviving & Reusing Skylab in the Shuttle Era: NASA Marshall's November 1977 Pitch to NASA Headquarters


  1. Ehricke proposal was linked to Barbara Marx Hubbard "committee for the future" (CFF)https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/barbara-marx-hubbard-and-origins-pro-space-movement-1970s

    Before the GEO proposal the CFF actually proposed to privately fun an Apollo landing that had been cancelled by Paine. They reasonned that 100% of the hardware had been build but what lacked was political support and most importantly, money.

    four decades before Golden Spike, that was the very atempt at a private manned lunar landing.

  2. "They convinced Representative Olin Teague, a longtime supporter of Apollo, to sponsor a resolution calling for a study of the feasibility of this lunar effort. When NASA, the aerospace industry, and the science community opposed the resolution, fearing that it might jeopardize other plans, it died a prompt death in Congress.

    CFF then rewrote the bill to propose a "citizens in space" mission in low-Earth orbit, called "Mankind One," but NASA opposed that as well and it met a similar fate. "

  3. Archibald:

    Ehricke had ties to Lyndon LaRouche, too, though I don't know that he was a supporter. I have one copy of LaRouche's magazine - it includes a rather horrible piece of fiction Ehricke wrote about a Mars expedition. I liken it to Von Braun's THE MARS PROJECT, but it's even worse! Still, it's an early indication of Ehricke's interplanetary expedition ideas, which tended toward massive redundancy and interchangeable modules. He worried an awful lot about meteoroids.

    Eugene Shoemaker was approached by CFF - as you probably know, he had been a PI for Surveyor and Apollo. I found Hubbard's letter to Shoemaker asking him to get involved in their efforts in Shoemaker's papers, but no evidence that he replied. Would we call him linked to CFF? I wouldn't.

    There's nothing in Ehricke's Destination Mankind proposal that indicates a link to CFF. CFF liked the kinds of things he was already writing when they formed. They might have contacted him the way they did Shoemaker. It seems odd that they would support a mission that would redirect an Apollo mission from the moon when they were trying to fund a private Apollo flight.

    Over the years we have seen quite a few half-cocked efforts to do space things. CFF strikes me as one of those. Generally NASA isn't very open to such schemes, for reasons you give and because it's pretty obvious they won't work. Sometimes they are proposals to do things that might work someday, but which underestimate the difficulty of the enterprise (a la O'Neill space colonies - "L5 in 1995" was their slogan for a while). Not infrequently they get press coverage - even before the Internet, newspapers needed to fill the spaces between the advertisements. :-)


  4. Dang, didn't know the connection with La Rouche.That's awfully bad (if you followed the French election, there was an obscure candidate, Jacques Cheminade, that is a La Rouche believer. And that idiot was the only candidate that spoke about the space program. He managed to get 0.2% of the vote.)

    It is interesting that the CFF tried to contact Shoemaker. Every bit of information I managed to gather on the CFF certainly show they were naive dreamers, somewhat space hippies. It is no surprise NASA didn't took the proposal seriously.

    By the way, what happened to Golden Spike ? (that was tongue in cheek)

    1. Archibald:

      You know, I forgot about Golden Spike.


  5. In a previous time, I would have thought this was a great idea. Today, I don't think so. The idea of astronauts as TV stars wouldn't work. Some of the stuff broadcast from the ISS is quite entertaining even to people who aren't big space fans, but I don't think it has resulted in widespread support for the program.

    The pictures of the Earth are beautiful, but I also don't think this proposal would have resulted in greater appreciation of the planet. One perspective on the Big Blue Marble picture:


    It is not my intention to be negative about a visionary proposal. (And I think that Dr. Musgrave focuses on the positive far more than the negative--otherwise he would not be as capable as he is.) I think Krafft Eriche's proposal is certainly interesting, but probably not the best one. That's all.

  6. Mr. Park:

    It think it's possible this would have seemed more impressive in the 1970s than it does today, especially if it was part of Bicentennial celebrations. That being said, it's really a stunt mission.

    One could argue that Apollo-Soyuz was the same way - though meant to demonstrate a space rescue capability, the US and USSR never kept neuter docking systems or Docking Modules around to permit rescues like it in the future, and anyway ASTP was the last flight for Apollo and Saturn IB. An attempt to negotiate a US Shuttle docking with a Soviet space station ran aground on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

    The Soviets improved their version of US-designed neuter system after ASTP for use with the Buran Shuttle, but we didn't have a Shuttle docking system at all until we bought the neuter docking units that would have been used on Buran from Russia. Crazy old world we live in.

    I like this proposal because it explains how one might maneuver between points in GSO. I think it brought home to me when I first read it that getting to GEO/GSO takes a lot of energy - as much as it takes to get to the moon. So, we've launched a whole lot of what might have been moon missions, but instead were satellites that relayed bad TV reruns. Argh.

    Just so you know - I don't necessarily advocate the studies I write about. Mostly I try to write about interesting stuff. So you can be as critical ("negative") as you want about the studies. You can be as critical as you want about how I write my posts. I don't mind at all. I try to learn from critical comments, and more often than I like a comment has led to corrections in my posts. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for corrections - I just wish I didn't make mistakes. To some degree, my readers are my editors, and that's OK!



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