American Space History:  The   O n e   -   W a y   S p a c e m a n

    by D A V I D   S.   F.   P O R T R E E   

When the seven Mercury astronauts were presented to the world on April 9, 1959, it was expected that, before any reached for Earth orbit, each would fly a suborbital “training” flight. These short flights, launched on modified Redstone missiles, would subject the astronauts to preflight preparations, liftoff and acceleration, a brief period of weightlessness, fiery reentry and deceleration, and splashdown and recovery – in short, all of the stresses of an orbital mission. This was judged to be a prudent approach to preparing America’s astronauts for the rigors of orbital spaceflight.

One-way Space Man lunar outpost. Image: Bell Aerosystems Company/NASA.

Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s launch into Earth orbit in the 10,420-pound Vostok 1 capsule three years later (April 12, 1961) consigned this plan to the dustbin. On May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard flew a 303-mile-long, 116-mile-high suborbital hop lasting 15 minutes, 22 seconds in the 4040-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 May 25, 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 (July 21, 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 Vostok 2 (August 6-7, 1961), adding to feelings of humiliation and desperation in the United States.

By the time John Glenn became the first American in orbit (February 20, 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 December 7, 1961, NASA announced plans for a two-man “Mercury Mark II” spacecraft that would surpass Vostok’s achievements beginning in 1963-1964. 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.


         START IN DEN WELTRAUM           (START INTO SPACE)     

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.

Saturn I rocket, first flown in October 1961. Similar rockets might have launched the One-Way Space Man and his cargo landers to the moon. Image: NASA.

Cord and Seale explained that, since neither propellants for departing the moon nor parachutes and an Earth-atmosphere-reentry heatshield would be required, their new approach would slash lunar spacecraft mass. This would enable a rocket with between 450,000 and 1.1 million pounds of thrust to launch a one-man moon lander on a Direct-Ascent path to the moon. Such a rocket would, they estimated, be ready in the U.S. in 1964 or early 1965.

Though they termed it “one-way,” Cord and Seale did not propose a suicide mission. They estimated that a rocket capable of launching a three-man Direct-Ascent Apollo mission to retrieve the One-Way Space Man – that is, a rocket with between 1.1 million and 3.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff – would become available in the U.S. in the 1965-1967 period, between 18 and 24 months after his arrival on the moon. Nevertheless, the mission would be “extremely hazardous.” This was due to the fact that, after its boost phase – the period between Earth liftoff and injection onto an Earth-moon path – the astronaut would be unable to abort if some technical malfunction or unknown environmental danger threatened his life. If, on the other hand, the mission were a success, it would be “significant both scientifically and politically.”

Cord and Seale viewed their mission as part of a series of increasingly capable lunar missions. First would come automated lunar flyby and orbiter missions to assess radiation hazards and photograph the moon for terrain assessment. Automated Ranger spacecraft would then photograph selected small areas up close as they plummeted toward destructive impact. A slightly different Ranger design would hard-land sturdy instruments, such as seismometers, on the moon.

Next, automated Surveyor soft landers would visit potential One-Way Space Man landing sites to return images and perform soil experiments so that 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 experience.

One-Way Space Man cargo lander. Image: Bell Aerosystems Company/NASA.

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 – perhaps one resembling the Saturn I, which generated 1.5 million pounds of thrust in its eight H-1 first-stage engines – 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.

Cord and Seale’s crew capsule would measure 10 feet across its base and about seven feet tall. It would provide 345 cubic feet of living volume for the One-Way Space Man. The capsule would have an empty mass of just 1735 pounds – less than half that of Mercury – and a fully loaded mass of only 2190 pounds. Its low mass was in large part attributable to its lack of an integral Earth-reentry heatshield – the heatshield would be discarded at the end of the boost phase along with other launch-abort systems. In addition to the 180-pound astronaut, the capsule would carry food and water for 12 days (90 pounds), breathing oxygen for 12 days plus an 18-day emergency supply (60 pounds), a space suit with rechargeable life-support backpack (90 pounds), tools and supplies (25 pounds), and health, first-aid, and safety gear (10 pounds).

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.

One-Way Space Man crew lander. Image: Bell Aerosystems Company/NASA.

Immediately upon landing, the One-Way Space Man would set to work establishing his base. His would be a race against time; in addition to the constant threat of a solar flare, his crew capsule’s fuel cells could provide electricity for no more than 9.5 days by the time he landed.

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 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.

Cord and Seale attempted to estimate how often the One-Way Space Man’s space suit would be penetrated by micrometeorites. These would, they reported, travel at an average velocity of 40 kilometers per second. They found that a pressure suit made of sewn three-ply nylon would experience on average 1.3 punctures every four hours. Adding a suit-sealant layer would reduce the decompression danger, but would do nothing to protect the One-Way Space Man’s body from the bullet-like impacts of the micrometeorites.

One-Way Space Man in flexible aluminum hard suit. Image: Bell Aerosystems Company/NASA.

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 2190-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.

If left unprotected, the One-Way Space Man’s shelter would suffer on average 1.4 micrometeorite punctures per year. Cord and Seale noted that burying the shelter under “lunar rubble” would provide protection from micrometeorites and reduce its interior radiation level. Moving enough surface material to adequately bury the 25-foot-long, 10-foot-tall shelter would, however, be beyond the capabilities of a lone astronaut, so they suggested instead that the One-Way Space Man ward off meteorites by installing on his shelter’s hull thin metal micrometeorite shields carried inside one of the cargo capsules. The shields, which would stand several inches off the hull, would break up and vaporize micrometeorites that struck them, blunting their impact on the shelter’s hull.

One-Way Space Man shelter with Earth-pointing high-gain antenna. Note buried radiation shelter (left) and disused nosecone and common-design landing stage in the background. Image: Bell Aerosystems Company/NASA.

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 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.

Cord and Seale estimated that 13 cargo landers per year would be required to deliver life support supplies. Three more cargo landers would deliver parts for a multi-purpose rover and construction equipment, and one would deliver the nuclear reactor and radio equipment, including a large dish-shaped high-gain antenna. Three more would deliver “utility” payloads; these would include scientific gear. Establishing the shelter would need two cargo landers. In all, the One-Way Space Man would need 22 cargo landers during his first year on the moon.

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 July 11, 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. 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 June 25, 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 July 30, 1962 issue of the magazine under the title “Morality and the Moon,” they called their proposal “inconsistent with our moral values.” 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. His book makes scant mention of Gemini, the program NASA used to develop rendezvous techniques, though Searls implies that more Mercury orbital flights took place than in our timeline.

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 shelter’s radio homing beacon 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 Pilgrim astronaut spots an object on the lunar surface near Chuckwagon‘s expected position, so he ejects his heatshield and Earth-landing systems to reduce his spacecraft’s mass for the retro maneuever. He lands successfully, exits the Mercury capsule, and moves cautiously over the stark alien surface toward the object he spotted from space. It turns out to be the Soviet lander, which has crashed in a crevasse, killing its occupants. One cosmonaut hangs out of the spacecraft hatch gripping a Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag; the Pilgrim astronaut places it with the Stars-and-Stripes in one of his suit pockets.

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 (September 12-15, 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.

Image: NASA.

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 (January 27, 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 (April 23-24, 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 dispatching middle-aged scientists 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 desperate to see humans on Mars.

The one-way mission concept surfaced again in 2009, when Lawrence M. 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 told the newspaper 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 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 & Leonard M. Seale; paper presented at the Institute of Aerospace Sciences National Summer Meeting held in Los Angeles, California, June 19-22, 1962.

“At IAS meeting. . .One-Man, One-Way Moon Trip Urged,” W. Wilks, Missiles and Rockets, June 25, 1962, pp. 16-17.

“Morality and the Moon,” John M. Cord & Leonard M. Seale, Letters, Missiles and Rockets, July 30, 1962, p. 8.

“The One-Way Manned Space Mission,” John M. Cord & 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, July 17-20, 1996.

“Science Observation,” Lawrence M. Krauss, Science News, October 20, 2009, p. 4.

“Feedback – One-way ticket to Mars,” Science News, November 21, 2009, p. 29.