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The Proposed 50-Man Lunar Expedition of 1950s Collier's Magazine

By Wesley Fenlon

First, space. Then, the moon. Then, Mars! All by the end of the 1960s.

A year ago, I wrote about the art and propaganda that influenced the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the United States, artist Chesley Bonestell and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun collaborated on an issue of Collier's Magazine that laid out how the United States could have satellites in space by the early 60s, with a manned trip to the moon soon after.

That was just the beginning of art pushing grand visions of space--magazines like Popular Mechanics would do the same thing for years--but it's a pivotal moment that made space flight seem possible. Even matter-of-fact.

Chesley Bonestell art, via Collider

io9 published a story on Wednesday that goes much deeper into the history of Collier's spaceflight articles and the symposium on space flight they spawned. There's a ton of art that goes with it, showing off a ton of Bonestell's art. It's at once forward-thinking and endearingly old fashioned. His rockets look more like chubby toy missiles than the Saturn V rockets we eventually sent into space. But his lunar landers? Those look surprisingly close to the real thing.

Some of the facts of the story are even more entertaining than the art. The proposed space plans would only cost about $4 million to get to the moon and would involve an expedition of 50 men. A trip to Mars was supposed to take place shortly after the lunar mission. Daily, or near-daily, rocket launches were also proposed to ferry supplies and personnel to space to build a space station in orbit around Earth.

Fred Freeman concept, via Collider

The scale of the proposed launches is insane, but probably made sense in the post-World War II industrial boom. Remarkably, von Braun also made a point to stick to what seemed possible at the time:

"While the [Collier’s] designs may be a far cry from what Mars ships some thirty or forty years from now will actually look like, this approach will serve a worthwhile purpose. If we can show how a Mars ship could conceivably be built on the basis of what we know now, we can safely deduce that actual designs of the future can only be superior. Only by stubborn adherence to the engineering solutions based exclusively on scientific knowledge available today, and by strict avoidance of any speculations concerning future discoveries, can we bring proof that this fabulous venture is fundamentally feasible."

Looking back, all the proposed technology seems incredibly speculative. Amazing that, at the time, they were doing their best to adhere to technologies that were possible and realistic given what they knew of space travel.