Gumdrops on Mars (1966)

Exploring Mars in the happy days before Mariner IV. Image credit: Philco Aeronutronic.
The Mariner IV Mars flyby of 14-15 July 1965, marked a watershed in Mars exploration planning. Prior to Mariner IV, engineers and scientists could legitimately propose lifting-body and winged gliding Mars landers that could set down on the planet using almost no propellants. This was because the prevailing scientific opinion gave Mars an atmosphere roughly 10% as dense as Earth's. After data from doughty 261-kilogram Mariner IV finished trickling back to Earth – a process that lasted until 3 August 1965 – such designs were relegated to the dust-bin.

Mars, it turned out, has an atmosphere less than 1% as dense as Earth's. In such an atmosphere, gliders and lifting bodies might still be used – however, they would reach the martian surface traveling at supersonic speeds, not the easily managed subsonic speeds pre-Mariner IV mission planners had assumed. The Philco Aeronutronic Mars Excursion Module (MEM) pictured at the top of this post, for example, would slow only to Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) before it reached the surface of Mars.

At such a speed, parachute deployment would be problematic, forcing reliance on rockets to slow the MEM below the speed of sound. This would in turn demand substantial quantities of propellants, greatly increasing the MEM's mass, which would generate knock-on mass increases throughout the Mars expedition design.

Less than a year after Mariner IV, Gordon Woodcock, a young engineer in the Advanced Systems Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, proposed what would become the new standard design for MEMs. His four-man MEM was based on the squat conical Apollo Command Module (CM) shape. Two and a half years after Woodcock published his paper, the crew of the Apollo 9 mission (3-13 March 1969), which tested the Apollo Lunar Module in Earth orbit, would name their Command and Service Module spacecraft Gumdrop with good reason.

The Command Module Gumdrop is hoisted aboard the U.S.S. Guadalcanal after the 10-day Apollo 9 mission in Earth orbit, 13 March 1969. Image credit: NASA.
For his Mars atmosphere entry simulations, Woodcock assumed a surface air pressure of 5.69 millibars – that is, a little more than 0.5% of Earth sea-level pressure. He noted that his independently developed Mars atmosphere model compared well with two models the Jet Propulsion Laboratory published just before his paper went to print.

The "semi-ballistic" Apollo CM shape, the MSFC engineer wrote, would have several advantages over lifting-body and delta-winged glider designs. It would, for example, have a low center of gravity and a "wide footprint," making tipping unlikely. The squat shape would enable installation of propellant tanks and payloads with very little wasted internal space.

Furthermore, the Apollo CM-shaped MEM would descend through the martian atmosphere not nose-first, like lifting bodies and gliders, but rather tail-first. This meant that it would not need to accomplish a problematic 180° turn or "flip" at supersonic speeds to point its braking and landing engines toward the ground.

Perhaps best of all, the Apollo Program would generate a large body of experience with use of the CM shape in Earth's upper atmosphere. Much of this experience could be applied to development of the CM-shaped MEM.

Woodcock's 56.1-ton MEM would comprise a descent stage roughly 33 feet across (the diameter of a two-stage Saturn V rocket) and, hidden beneath a protective nose-cone ("separable cap"), a 27.3-ton ascent stage. The ascent stage mass, determined largely by the amount of energy needed to climb to Mars orbit, would size the descent stage, he explained. His MEM would separate from its mother ship in Mars orbit at an altitude of 1000 kilometers, then would fire a retrorocket package to slow down and begin its fall toward the martian atmosphere.

Gordon Woodcock's Mars Excursion Module (MEM) design. Image credit: NASA.
Woodcock advised against MEM separation from the mothership prior to Mars orbit capture. It would relieve the mothership of the MEM's mass, reducing the quantity of propellants it would need to slow itself so that the gravity of Mars could capture it into orbit – thus reducing the overall mass of the expedition – but it would also introduce unacceptable risk. He noted that 10,000 simulations run on an IBM 7094 computer had shown that the safe Mars atmosphere entry corridor for the MEM would be very narrow and thus hard to target during a high-speed entry from an interplanetary trajectory.

The crew would ride in a spherical capsule atop the ascent stage during descent and landing. MEM atmospheric deceleration would cease at a velocity of 0.5 kilometers per second. The MEM's bowl-shaped heat shield would then detach, landing legs would extend, and four landing engines would ignite. Woodcock's MEM design did not include parachutes.

As the landing engines ignited, solid-propellant rockets would blast the separable cap away from the MEM ascent stage. With the conical cover gone, the MEM pilot would see his prospective landing site for the first time.

He would then have 100 seconds of maneuvering time to steer the MEM to a safe touchdown. If rugged terrain made this too short a time to find a safe spot or if a malfunction occurred, the pilot could abort the landing by blasting the ascent stage free of the descent stage and returning to Mars orbit.

MEM mass at touchdown would total 40.9 tons. Following a safe touchdown, the crew would exit an airlock adjacent to the ascent stage cabin and transfer to a Mars surface crew quarters module in the descent stage. The latter would take the form of a segment of a torus with a rectangular cross section.

The MEM descent stage engines would burn non-cryogenic storable propellants drawn from tanks positioned within the MEM to offset its center of gravity, enabling the spacecraft to generate a modest amount of lift during descent. A similar approach would enhance Apollo CM lift characteristics during Earth atmosphere reentry.

By revolving around its offset center of gravity using small thrusters, the CM could halt its descent and climb before descending again. This technique was used during Apollo missions to reduce the deceleration felt by astronauts during reentry at lunar-return speed (39,000 kilometers per hour).

Following the successful completion of their surface mission, the MEM crew would return to the ascent stage cabin and blast off for Mars orbit. The performance advantages of cryogenic propellants led Woodcock to opt for liquid oxygen oxidizer and liquid methane fuel in his ascent stage.

He envisioned a common propellant tank lined with "superinsulation" with a barrier separating the methane and oxygen. Helium stored under pressure in spherical tanks would drive propellants into the three ascent stage engines, any two of which would be sufficient to launch the MEM to Mars orbit.

Logistics MEM. Image credit: NASA.

Shelter MEM. Image credit: NASA.
Much as Apollo engineers envisioned that the basic Lunar Module design would be modified to give it new capabilities (for example, unmanned delivery of cargo to the lunar surface) as the Apollo Program evolved from initial brief sorties to in-depth lunar exploration, Woodcock envisioned that his MEM would form the basis of a long-term, increasingly capable and complex Mars exploration program.

He proposed a design for a one-way logistics MEM in which cargo and a "camper-type" pressurized rover would replace the MEM ascent stage and the surface operations shelter. A crew would arrive separately in a conventional MEM to unpack the cargo and explore widely in the rover.

Woodcock also offered a design for a one-way nuclear-powered MEM that would provide electricity to a long-term Mars surface base built up from one-way shelter MEMs. The nuclear-power MEM would include a shielded reactor, a reactor control room, and a skin-mounted radiator for discarding reactor waste heat.

Each shelter MEM would house five or six astronauts on three levels: communications & control on top; living quarters in the middle; and a laboratory at the bottom. The lab would connect to a "sortie room/decontamination airlock" that would enable access to the surface.

Woodcock calculated that 10.6 tons of water, food, and oxygen with a four-ton reserve could sustain a five-man crew in the MEM on Mars for 500 days. Like the logistics MEM, the power and shelter MEMs would land on Mars unmanned.

The Apollo CM-shaped MEM design became closely identified with piloted Mars missions after NASA MSFC director Wernher von Braun, famous for his 1950s Mars glider lander designs, presented a variation on Woodcock's Apollo-shaped lander theme to President Richard Nixon's Space Task Group in early August 1969. Image credit: NASA.

"Summary Presentation: Study of a Manned Mars Excursion Module," F. Dixon, Aeronutronic Division, Philco Corporation; paper presented at the Symposium on Manned Planetary Missions, 1963/1964 Status, NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, 12 June 1964.

An Initial Concept for a Manned Mars Excursion Vehicle for a Tenuous Mars Atmosphere, NASA TM X-53475, G. Woodcock, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, 7 June 1966.

More Information

Dyna-Soar's Martian Cousin (1960)

A Forgotten Pioneer of Mars Resource Utilization (1962-1963)


  1. Amazing how just a little bit of correct information from about Mars changes the whole game between 1960 and 1966 to something that starts to resemble what could be reality someday. Even so until the issue of the actual travel time to Mars is really solved we are still dreaming and ignoring that the near future is really on the Moon just as it was in 1960.

  2. Excellent point. We still have a lot of problems to solve and there remain a lot of unknowns, glib statements by the likes of Zubrin and Musk notwithstanding. I won't count us ready to send humans to Mars until we've done research on a variable-gravity space station and retrieved Mars surface samples for analysis in Earth labs. I also think it's naive to assume that we can go straight to the surface of Mars without some relevant intermediate missions. (I'm fond of HERRO, which sees astronauts on board a Mars-orbiting spacecraft teleoperating rovers on Mars and also piloted flybys, which I see as space station missions that go somewhere.) It would also be helpful if we invested in some realistic propulsion improvements to reduce mission mass and provide more margins.


  3. > I won't count us ready to send humans to Mars until we've done research on a variable-gravity space station ...

    Yeah. We could have done that any time in the past twenty years or so -- nothing too fancy, and nothing permanent, just something temporary on a spinning tether to see how humans and animals respond to 1/6 or 3/8 g. But we didn't.

    > I also think it's naive to assume that we can go straight to the surface of Mars without some relevant intermediate missions.

    It sure would be nice if we could mine Phobos for water ...

    1. I'm for a sophisticated variable-G facility that could serve as a long-term lab and a prototype piloted spacecraft. I suspect we're going to either have to go that route or develop speedy propulsion and build up to long stays on any world we visit. That is, get to Mars in a month of micro-G, stay at a base on the surface to amass biomed data and explore, steadily stretch out the surface stays until they become unhealthy, get back to Earth in a month of micro-G.

      This is all hypothetical because our partial-G database is almost non-existent.


  4. There's probably a lot of alternate space history that could be written around the Martian atmosphere being a tad thicker...

    1. I think that's been done - didn't Niven do something like that? Of course, all the old SF set on a clement Mars could be treated as alternate history!


  5. I am wondering about who the artist is who drew these depictions for this Philco Aeronutronics. The artwork at the top of this entry is used all over the web for various Mars exploration topics, and I'd love to see the artist get credit. Any ideas? Google searches are drying up! Thanks!

  6. Paul:

    I just noticed your comment. I've had a black-and-white version of this image for a long time. I found a faded and dusty color version buried in a warehouse locker where I work. I scanned it and then spent several hours cleaning it up. It'd be nice if all those folks who've grabbed it from my blog would link back - I suspect I'd get a lot more traffic!

    But never mind that - you are right, the artist should get credit. Unfortunately, neither version of the image I have includes the artist's name. That's not uncommon - neither NASA nor many NASA contractors make it a regular practice to allow artists to sign their work. Even when they do, names can be trimmed off when images are cropped for various reasons.

    If you find out who painted this image, I'd be glad to know and to credit the artist.


  7. Thanks for that response. I figured that it was a NASA or contractor "rule." Today the image was used over on Gizmodo. I saw it on the same site attached to a different article back in February. Thanks for the great reading on your site, too!

  8. Presuming this was a slide shown during Franklin Dixon's "Summary Presentation: Study of a Manned Mars Excursion Module" talk at Marshall Spaceflight Center's Symposium on Manned Planetary Missions, June 1964, at which conference Harry Lange was presumably in attendance, and given the helmets' similarity to Lange's own for "2001," is it possible the artist WAS Lange?

    1. In terms of style it doesn't look like one of Lange's to me, but maybe. . .


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