At the Seventh International Astronautical Congress, held in Rome in September 1956, Italian aviation and rocketry pioneer Gaetano Crocco described a manned space mission in which a spacecraft would conduct a reconnaissance flyby of Mars, swing past Venus to bend its course toward Earth, and, one year to the day after departing Earth orbit, reenter Earth’s atmosphere. After Earth-orbit departure, the spacecraft would need no additional propulsion. Crocco told the assembled delegates that an opportunity to commence such a mission would next occur in June 1971.
A little less than six years later, in May 1962, the Future Projects Office (FPO) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, awarded manned Mars mission study contracts worth $250,000 each to General Dynamics, Lockheed, and the Aeronutronic Division of Ford Motor Company. General Dynamics was instructed to study Mars orbital missions, Lockheed to look at Mars flyby and orbital missions, and Aeronutronic to study dual-planet (Mars-Venus) flybys. The combined study effort was known as EMPIRE, an evocative (if somewhat tortured) acronym that stood for Early Manned Planetary-Interplanetary Roundtrip Expeditions.
EMPIRE took place against the backdrop of the Apollo lunar program. One year before its start, in a speech before a special joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy had put NASA on course for the moon. He had given the U.S. civilian space agency, which had been founded less three years earlier, until the end of the 1960s to achieve his goal. It was hoped, however, that an American could land on the moon as early as 1967, during Kennedy’s second term in office.
As EMPIRE began, NASA had nearly completed the contentious 14-month process of choosing the fastest, most reliable, and cheapest way of placing men on the moon. The Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mode, which would rely on MSFC’s Saturn C-5 rocket, was selected in July 1962, before EMPIRE reached its conclusion. C-5 was soon renamed Saturn V.
MSFC was fertile ground for NASA’s first major manned planetary mission study. The Huntsville Center’s director was Wernher von Braun (image at top of post), a famous advocate of manned flight to the moon and Mars. Von Braun’s efforts in the 1950s to popularize spaceflight had helped to prime the American public for the 1960s Space Race with the Soviet Union.
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