13 February 2018

Around the Moon in 80 Hours (1958)

The Earth-Moon binary as imaged by the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker Discovery mission during its Earth gravity-assist flyby on 23 January 1998. Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/NASA
On 29 July 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created the civilian National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Eisenhower saw NASA as a way of separating the serious military business of nuclear missile and spy satellite development from "stunts" aimed at responding to Soviet prestige victories in space. In the old General's view, such stunts included launching a man into Earth orbit.

In a presentation to the American Astronautical Society at Stanford University the following month, Dandridge Cole and Donald Muir, engineers with The Martin Company in Denver, Colorado, detailed how NASA might launch humans around Earth's moon. First, however, they warned that the "Russians may have such a long lead. . .that they will have made landings on the [M]oon before. . .our first circumlunar flight." They predicted that the Soviet Union would be capable of a piloted circumlunar flight in 1963, four years before the United States. In a dig at President Eisenhower, Cole and Muir added that "on the technical side, at least, there seems to be no reason why this goal could not be accomplished [by the U.S.] by 1963."

They outlined a general plan of piloted spaceflight development. Within four years, Cole and Muir wrote, the first American would be launched into Earth orbit using a missile already under development. The same missile might then be used to launch components for a circumlunar flight into Earth orbit, components which would be joined to form a cislunar spacecraft. Alternately (and this was the method they preferred), missiles might be clustered to form a single large rocket capable of launching the circumlunar spacecraft from Earth's surface on a direct path around the Moon.

The four-stage "Missile B" rocket would launch the circumlunar astronaut around the Moon. Image credit: The Martin Company
The Martin engineers estimated that a 160,000-pound-thrust U.S. launch vehicle ("Missile A") could become available by 1963; to create their circumlunar launcher ("Missile B"), they proposed clustering four Missile A's to create a first stage capable of generating 610,000 pounds of thrust. Missile B's second stage would comprise a single Missile A, and its third and fourth stages a 40,000-pound-thrust rocket and a 10,000-pound-thrust rocket, respectively.

Though a two-week circumlunar trip would require the least energy (and thus the smallest launch vehicle), Cole and Muir opted for a trip lasting three or four days to protect the astronaut's psychological health. "For one man alone in a tiny sealed capsule on a journey of 250,000 miles from the [E]arth," they explained, "the difference between three or four days and two weeks might approach infinity."

Reduced trip time also would slash the quantity of life-support consumables the pilot would need. The amount of energy required to reduce the trip time from two weeks to three or four days would be modest, they estimated, though reducing it still further would demand a prohibitive amount of energy (and thus an undesirably large launch vehicle).

The bucket-shaped circumlunar capsule would weigh 9000 pounds. Cole and Muir may have based its shape on nuclear warhead delivery systems under development at the time they wrote their paper.

The capsule's circumlunar path would have three parts. The outbound leg would require 35.4 hours. It would be followed by a 9.3-hour "hyperbola" past the Moon. The capsule would pass just 10 miles over the unknown Farside, where the "synthesizing power of the human brain [would] permit collection of more accurate and more meaningful data than could be obtained by photographic techniques alone." The third leg of the mission, the 35.4-hour fall back to Earth, would mirror the outbound leg. The circumlunar voyager would be treated to a magnificent view of Earth rising over the lunar horizon as he began his journey home.

Cutaway of Cole and Muir's circumlunar capsule showing the water-filled "tub" for protecting the astronaut from high deceleration during Earth-atmosphere reentry. A variant of the circumlunar capsule would serve as the first lunar lander. Image credit: The Martin Company
The heat shield for high-speed Earth-atmosphere reentry would weigh just 500 pounds, Cole and Muir estimated. As Earth filled the capsule's view ports, the pilot's "bathtub-type" couch would fill with water to cushion him from reentry deceleration. A lid with a window would prevent the water from escaping in zero-G before deceleration commenced. Cole and Muir wrote that, because "the water would be needed only in the last phase of the trip, it could be reserve drinking or washing water." Despite the potential weight savings, they hesitated "to suggest that it might be water. . .already used for drinking or washing."

The capsule would enter Earth's atmosphere blunt nose first. As deceleration began, the bathtub couch would pivot so that the pilot faced the capsule's flat aft end. This would cause him to feel capsule deceleration through his back, enabling him to withstand greater sustained deceleration loads.

After a fiery atmosphere reentry, the capsule would deploy fins for steering. Landing would be by parachute at sea or on U.S. soil near a waiting recovery crew.

Cole and Muir expected that the piloted circumlunar journey would merely open the door to lunar exploration. A series of automated lunar landings would soon follow it. Some would deliver automated scientific instruments that would explore the lunar environment, while others would stockpile propellants and supplies on the surface.

Toward the end of the 1960s decade, the same multi-part "Missile B" rocket design that launched the circumlunar flight would launch a piloted lunar lander. The pre-landed supplies and propellants would, Cole and Muir wrote, enable use of a variant of the circumlunar spacecraft as a small, low-cost lunar lander. Landers would set down on the Moon with nearly empty propellant tanks, refuel using the pre-landed propellants, and draw on pre-landed supplies to enable ever-longer surface stays. A temporary lunar base would be established by 1970, and permanent bases permitting "extensive exploration of the major areas of the [M]oon's surface" would follow soon after.

Cole and Muir ended their paper with rousing words. "Time may well prove," they wrote, "that the man who climbs out of [the circumlunar] capsule to receive the cheers of the recovery crew. . .made a voyage of greater importance to the human race than that of Columbus."


"Around the Moon in 80 Hours," D. Cole and D. Muir, Advances in Astronautical Sciences, Volume 3, Proceedings of the Western Regional Meeting of the American Astronautical Society, 18-19 August 1958, pp. 27-1 through 27-30, 1958

More Information

"He Who Controls the Moon Controls the Earth" (1958)

Plush Bug, Economy Bug, Shoestring Bug, (1961)

Harold Urey and the Moon (1961)

Space Race: The Notorious 1962 Proposal to Launch an Astronaut on a One-Way Trip to the Moon (1962)


  1. This one kind of made me spit my coffee a bit. Really is sweet that the astronaut gets a nice bath before landing and avoids the recovery crew being greeted by that post-Apollo man-stank drifted out the door. Seriously though it's amazing how some things contribute to history in bits and pieces or come back to be realized many years later.

  2. Sorry to make you spit your coffee - hopefully no passers-by were inconvenienced. :-)

    There's this ominous bit - >>Despite the potential weight savings, they hesitated "to suggest that it might be water. . .already used for drinking or washing."<< So, Cole and Muir considered using wash water and urine in their bathtub. Ick. Doing that would make sense, but it might make the astronaut less than presentable when he emerged to the cheers of the recovery crew.


  3. On this Dandridge Cole and Donald Muir proposal,
    if astronaut Suit is watertight
    There is actually no problem, just rinse him off with water after recovery...

    The Gemini 7 Crew was not presentable either
    This was a almost 14 days record flight
    and rumor goes that Capsule and Spacesuits smell awful


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