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Von Braun 1948
Part of von Braun concept vehicle Family
Von Braun 1948
Von Braun 1948
Credit: © Mark Wade
German winged orbital launch vehicle. Von Braun's 1948 design for a reusable space launcher was remarkable in its tubby design. This was partly driven by the need for large parachute canisters in the base of the first and second stages, which took up one half of the diameter, with the engines arranged around the periphery.

AKA: A12. Status: Study 1948. Payload: 25,000 kg (55,000 lb). Thrust: 119,300.00 kN (26,819,700 lbf). Gross mass: 6,400,000 kg (14,100,000 lb). Height: 97.00 m (318.00 ft). Diameter: 20.00 m (65.00 ft). Apogee: 1,730 km (1,070 mi).

The Engines

Von Braun selected nitric acid/hydrazine propellants, perhaps as a result of the same Peenemuende research that influenced the French team. He very conservatively used a combustion chamber pressure of 15 atmospheres (as in the V-2 engine). Ideal engine performance for each stage was based on combustion chemistry and gas dynamics calculations. The nozzle expansion ratio differed for each stage, so 'based on experience' Von Braun allowed for expected efficiency losses of 5%, 7%, and 10% on the first, second, and third stages. Total nozzle exit area for each stage was calculated, but no particular detailed engine design was presented. However the height of the engine nozzles was indicated for vehicle sizing.

Specific impulse and thrust for the engines was not expressed in common modern terms, which causes some confusion in the literature. The figures given are the specific impulse at the condition of the ambient atmospheric pressure equaling the nozzle exit pressure. The figures adjusted to vacuum and sea-level specific impulse terms indicate the upper stage versions of the engines would have a specific impulse of 297 seconds, a very respectable value not achieved in flight for a storable propellant engine until 1962.

The nitric acid/hydrazine propellant combination used was found not to be practical without additives. These were developed during the course of the 1950's. But by 1962 nitric acids were replaced as a storable oxidizer by nitrogen tetroxide. Furthermore, in comparison with Von Braun's 15 atmosphere assumption, by 1962 chamber pressures of 40 atmospheres had routinely been achieved, allowing higher expansion ratios (and higher performances) for first-stage engines.

Von Braun used a constant thrust/weight value of 69:1 in calculating the engine mass for all stages. In fact this would be nearly met on the next US large engine design after the V-2, the Redstone. Von Braun's engine used a separate propellant (hydrogen peroxide) to drive the engine pumps. This was the practice used on the V-2, and in Russia was continued even in the R-7 ICBM (which still flies today as the Soyuz launch vehicle). But thereafter the US and Russia moved quickly to turbopumps driven by the same propellants used in the same engine.

The 1948 calculations assumed the exhaust nozzle was in the shape of a continuous annular ring around the central parachute container in the first and second stages. The nozzle completely occupied the base of the third stage. The concept almost presages the aerospike engine designs of the 1960's. It may have been a continuation of the V-2 philosophy of having many combustion chambers feed a single nozzle. It may have been that this was just a means for roughly sizing the base of the launch vehicle.

In the 1952 Collier's series the number of engines per stage were indicated, allowing their mass, diameter and thrust to be allocated. However it must be noted that these diameters cannot be reconciled with the geometry of either the 1948 or 1952 stage designs! Nevertheless it is interesting to compare the figures calculated by Von Braun for his engines with the actual figures achieved for the Titan 2 ICBM engines, the only US storable propellant engines of this size ever developed, first flown in 1962:

ParameterVon Braun, 1948Titan 2, 1962
Mass Engine-kg4098739
Chamber Pressure-bar1553
Area Ratio3.778.00
PropellantsNitric acid/HydrazineN2O4/Aero-50
Isp (sea level)-sec217259
Burn time-sec84155
EngineSecond StageLR-91-7
Mass Engine-kg706565
Chamber Pressure-bar15.056.2
Area Ratio50.249.2
PropellantsNitric acid/HydrazineN2O4/Aero-50
Burn time-sec124175

The Structure

When considering Von Braun's estimates for the structural weight of his rocket, he arrived at values near those achieved in the late 1960's for the Saturn and N1 vehicles in the US and Russia. His values look larger at first, but they include the mass of recovery equipment (parachutes and soft-landing retrorockets) that amounted to 18% and 11% of the empty weights of the first and second stages respectively. Deducting these amounts, and the hydrogen peroxide consumed during the ascent, and it is apparent that Von Braun calculated values for the structure of his launch vehicles essentially equivalent to those for the only vehicles of those size built in the US and Russian in the late 1960's:

StructureVon Braun 1962Saturn V 1968N1 1969
StageFirst StageS-ICN1 Block A
Total Propellants4,718,0002,150,9991,750,000
Stage Fraction5.15%4.34%5.15%
StageSecond StageS-IBN1 Block B
Total Propellants720,600407,054505,000
Stage Fraction6.86%8.97%8.90%

Third-Stage Re-entry Vehicle

The third stage itself made a long re-entry glide for 22,000 km from atmosphere entry interface at 80 km -- 55% of the earth's circumference! During this time the glider experienced a peak deceleration of 0.45 G and a peak airframe temperature of 1005 deg K. The airframe of the glider was seen as reaching a thermal equilibrium during the long glide, where it could re-radiate heat as quickly as it was absorbed. Based on this Von Braun concluded the glider could be built of existing steels (although he admitted that 'latest information' indicated the peak heating could be 300 deg K higher).

Research during the 1950's showed that the higher value was nearer the truth and that the temperatures at the leading edges of re-entry vehicles far exceeded the theoretical average values calculated in 1948. The Dynasoar design of the early 1960's, the closest analogue to Von Braun's design to reach an advanced stage of development, would have experienced peak nose temperatures of 2140 deg K, with the structure stabilizing at 1255 deg K during an equivalent long-glide re-entry. It was necessary to build the Dynasoar's external skin from coated molybdenum, and the internal structure from Rene-41 nickel alloy. Von Braun's plan to use conventional steel would not have worked. Furthermore, to cool the pilot and payload, it was necessary to encase the cockpit and payload bay in a heavy 'water wall' insulation/cooling system. The lightweight refrigeration system used in Von Braun's calculations would not have been adequate.

The conventional solution for re-entry design became the use of ablative or exotic heat-radiative skin materials, and to get the re-entry accomplished as quickly as possible to avoid heat-soaking the structure. The space shuttle, for example, experiences actual maximum external temperatures of 1800-1250 deg K, lands just 5450 km down-range from an altitude of 80 km, and pulls a maximum of 2 G's during re-entry. The internal structure is nearly completely protected from the heat of re-entry (as long as there is no breach, as on STS-107), and is primarily 2024-T81 aluminum alloy.

However a minority of the technical community continues to advocate Von Braun's long-glide, high-lift, re-radiative approach. These included Nonweiler waverider advocates, who proposed to actively cool the sharp, hot leading edge of their designs but claimed the rest of the spacecraft could be built from conventional metal structure. The following compares several designs to show the effect of wing loading on peak and minimum underbelly heating for gliding re-entry vehicles.

VehicleWing loading
kg/sq m
Peak heating deg KMin underbelly deg K
Von Braun 194873>14001100-1400
RASV 1968851793923
Black Horse 19961021640
DynaSoar 196215821601600
Shuttle 198058518131253

The Recovery Systems

Von Braun's glider was designed to deliver nominally 25 metric tons of cargo, plus 14.5 metric tons of 'excess propellant'. This would be used to assemble the enormous planned Mars expedition - 70 crew aboard ten spacecraft with a mass of 3720 metric tons each!

Since assembly of an expedition of this size would take 950 launches, Von Braun was very concerned to make sure all of the launch vehicle was recoverable and reusable. The first stage would return to earth under a 64.5 m diameter parachute weighing 85 metric tons! Just prior to splashdown 40 metric tons worth of solid rockets would ignite and allow the stage to splashdown at zero velocity 304 km downrange. It would be towed back to the Johnston Island launch site by a tug, refurbished, and reused. The total mass of the recovery provisions amounted to 18% of the stage empty mass. The second stage required a 20.4 diameter chute with a mass of 3.8 metric tons and 4 metric tons of braking rockets. It would be recovered 1459 km down-range and the recovery provisions were 11% of the stage empty mass.

If we delete the recovery provisions and the manned glider provisions from the design, we can calculate that the three stages Von Braun's design could deliver 60 metric tons, or one percent of its lift-off mass, into a 200 km polar orbit. By comparison, the three-stage Titan 3A (with transtage) could deliver 1.33% of its lift-off mass into the same orbit. This again emphasizes the modernity of the design.

LEO Payload: 25,000 kg (55,000 lb) to a 1,730 km orbit at 23.50 degrees.

Stage Data - Von Braun 1948

  • Stage 1. 1 x Von Braun 1948-1. Gross Mass: 5,500,000 kg (12,100,000 lb). Empty Mass: 700,000 kg (1,540,000 lb). Thrust (vac): 141,286.300 kN (31,762,424 lbf). Isp: 257 sec. Burn time: 84 sec. Isp(sl): 217 sec. Diameter: 20.00 m (65.00 ft). Span: 60.00 m (196.00 ft). Length: 29.00 m (95.00 ft). Propellants: Nitric acid/Hydrazine. No Engines: 70. Status: Study 1948.
  • Stage 2. 1 x Von Braun 1948-2. Gross Mass: 770,000 kg (1,690,000 lb). Empty Mass: 70,000 kg (154,000 lb). Thrust (vac): 16,271.100 kN (3,657,889 lbf). Isp: 298 sec. Burn time: 124 sec. Diameter: 20.00 m (65.00 ft). Span: 30.00 m (98.00 ft). Length: 14.00 m (45.00 ft). Propellants: Nitric acid/Hydrazine. No Engines: 8. Status: Study 1948.
  • Stage 3. 1 x Von Braun 1948-3. Gross Mass: 105,000 kg (231,000 lb). Empty Mass: 22,000 kg (48,000 lb). Thrust (vac): 2,033.800 kN (457,216 lbf). Isp: 296 sec. Burn time: 105 sec. Diameter: 9.80 m (32.10 ft). Span: 52.00 m (170.00 ft). Length: 15.00 m (49.00 ft). Propellants: Nitric acid/Hydrazine. No Engines: 1. Status: Study 1948.

Family: orbital launch vehicle, Winged. People: von Braun. Country: Germany. Stages: Von Braun 1948-1, Von Braun 1948-2, Von Braun 1948-3. Bibliography: 218.

Photo Gallery

Von Braun 1949Von Braun 1949
Von Braun Mars launcher, 1949 version (Marsprojekt)

1950 October 12 - . LV Family: von Braun concept vehicle. Launch Vehicle: Von Braun 1948.
  • First Symposium on Space Flight - . Nation: USA. Related Persons: Haber, Ley, von Braun.

    The First Symposium on Space Flight was held at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Participants included Wernher von Braun, Joseph Kaplan, Heinz Haber, Willy Ley, Oscar Schachter, and Fred L. Whipple. Among the topics discussed were an orbiting astronomical observatory, problems of survival in space, circumlunar flight, a manned orbiting space station, and the question of sovereignty in outer space.

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