Heinz-Hermann Koelle was born in 1925 in Danzig (former
Freestate), and was a pilot in WW II. After the war, he received his formal
education in mechanical engineering at the University Stuttgart (Dipl.-Ing. in
1954), and the degree of Dr.-Ing., Technical University Berlin in 1963. He
organized the 3rd International Astronautical Congress at Stuttgart in 1952.
From 1955-1960 he was Head, Preliminary Design Branch, U.S. Army Ballistic
Missile Agency, Huntsville, Alabama and a member of the launch crew of EXPLORER
I (the first US Satellite) in 1958. He became Director, Future Projects Office,
Marshall Space Flight Center, NASA in 1960. In this position he was responsible
for the preliminary design of the SATURN launch vehicles and the planning of
the Marshall Space Flight Center part of the APOLLO lunar landing project. He
was the Editor-in-Chief of the "Handbook of Astronautical Engineering"
(McGraw-Hill, 1961). In 1965, he accepted the Chair of Space Technology at the
Technical University Berlin. He retired in 1991; his last position was Dean of
the Transportation Department. Since 1985, he is Co-Chairman of the Moon-Mars
Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics.
took place between March and June 1999.
Resonance: Your career is one of major support of this
nation's space program. How would you answer the statement by some that there
are enough problems left for us to solve on Earth before we go out into Space
and expend precious resources?
Koelle: Most of the
current problems are of local nature and of concern for a limited period of
time, but they occupy the daily thinking of the people concerned. This is good
and should remain so as long as there are a few people on this planet who are
willing and capable to project the global developments on this planet over a
century or even longer, and are looking for chances of survival of our
Resonance: You were a member of Werner
von Braun's team at Huntsville, Alabama between 1955 and 1965. How did you come
to be a part of that team? Please tell us what your responsibilities were?
Returning as a pilot from the WW II, I continued to get an education as an
engineer interested in space flight. In 1948 I revived the German Society for
Space Research (GfW = Gesellschaft fuer Weltraumforschung e.V.). During this
process, in my function as the GfW executive secretary, I got into contact with
Dr. von Braun and many other former Peenemunders.
In 1951/52, I
helped him to publish his Mars Project in Germany because I could find a
publisher, also a former pilot, who was willing to do so. Dr. von Braun and I
discussed many details of the Mars project leading to new ideas. When I
finished my masters degree in mechanical engineering (with emphasis on rocket
propulsion) in 1954, Dr. von Braun invited me to join his team. He needed
competent reinforcements of his staff for the forthcoming satellite
I arrived in the United States in April 1955, three
months before President Eisenhower announced the launch of a satellite during
the IGY (International Geophysical Year-1957). This was perfect timing. I was
entrusted to build up the Preliminary Design Section of the Structures and
Mechanics Laboratory in Dr. von Braun's team, at that time an element of the
U.S. Army. The high priority REDSTONE and JUPITER rocket developments gave us a
chance to convert these rockets into satellite launchers.
function, I also became a member of the EXPLORER I launch crew. In 1958 we
already conducted design studies for big boosters, beginning 6 months before
Sputnik 1, because it was clear that more thrust would be needed in the years
to come when competing with the Russians. This was the birth of JUNO V, later
renamed SATURN I. In this process the 4 person preliminary design section grew
to a 70 person Preliminary Design Branch. My last job for the Army was a
feasibility study of a lunar base. This was done in 1959 by a 30 person task
force of the technical branches of the U.S. Army.
After the transfer
of our team to NASA in 1960, I became Director of the Future Projects Office,
directly reporting to Dr. von Braun. In this position I had the responsibility
to coordinate all NASA Marshall Space Flight Center activities during the
preparation of the APOLLO Program, then in the planning stage. This included
the preliminary design of the Moon rocket SATURN V and contributing to the
final selection of the mission mode. After the APOLLO Program was finally
approved and went to the hardware shops, I began to look for advanced launch
vehicles as well as advanced missions for the SATURN IB and SATURN V, including
Mars expeditions. At this time we also studied reusable orbital carriers in
depth which ten years later became the SPACE SHUTTLE program.
Resonance: Could you describe for our readers some of the
conclusions of the lunar base study? What kinds of structures were considered
and what were some of the plans?
Koelle: The three
services at that time were in strong competition with respect to roles and
missions. The Army figured that the Moon did not have water or air, which did
not give the Navy or Air Force a chance to offer something similar. Thus the
Secretary of the Army ordered the technical services to perform a lunar base
study. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) was assigned the leading role
in this effort. The final report comprised four volumes, the last volume
covered the military aspects of such a project.
At that time we used
a SATURN II vehicle concept for the logistics of a lunar base. Due to its
payload limitation, only a small capsule for two people in the space of a
JUPITER nose cone was designed to transport the people to and from the Moon
employing an Earth orbital rendezvous mission mode. A crew of 12 people was
considered to be sufficient for a small lunar outpost, because that was all we
dared to propose for a credible project.
Administration was very reserved with respect to new developments in space.
Under these circumstances we could not be more ambitious at that time. The
lunar facility concept was developed by the Corps of Engineers; it was modest
in size and resembled the construction experiences in the Arctic and Antarctic.
The primary conclusion was that a small lunar outpost is feasible from the
technical point of view. The US Army felt it could do this outpost, considering
its capabilities and experience. The Army was also in charge of the JUNO V
Booster development, the biggest launch vehicle under development, provided
that there would be a political or military need. However, the transfer of the
von Braun team to NASA made all these visions and plans of the Army obsolete. A
short version of the final Army report was turned over to NASA.
Resonance: What sorts of Mars expeditions were planned? Was
the Moon to be the first basing platform, and then Mars? Also, what were the
various scenarios considered for a manned mission to the Moon?
Koelle: Based on the capabilities of the SATURN V, we analyzed
Mars and Venus manned flyby's, as well as a single expedition to Mars, which
would require 6 to 7 SATURN V flights per launch window, with the assembly of
the Mars ship in Earth orbit. That was the reason that our team was in favor of
developing Earth orbital facilities and operations for lunar and planetary
flights. At that time lunar activities were not used to support human planetary
As far as the Moon is concerned, an APOLLO application
program was planned for the seventies with longer stays of a lunar crew (4-6
people) gradually increasing its mission duration. The use of hydrogen
propellants for the lunar lander and a direct mission mode was the preferred
mode of operation. The Vietnam War stopped this planning effort. President
Nixon was not a space fan either.
Resonance: What was
the mood in Huntsville? Was it as exciting as one would think?
Koelle: It was a boomtown, having 25,000 inhabitants in 1955
when I arrived, growing to about 125,000 ten years later when I left. Our team
grew from 1,200 to 8,000 people within one decade. The mood was all go! If
things develop at a rapid pace, most people are happy because this created
Resonance: At the beginning of the
Apollo program, where did you think we would be by the year 2000, perhaps lunar
cities? Martian cities?
Koelle: In 1962/64 we thought
there would be a good chance to have a permanent facility on the Moon and a
first attempt to reach Mars in the mid eighties. But as the Vietnam War picked
up and required 100 billion dollars a year, the NASA budget went down and all
dreams came to an end in 1965/66.
Resonance: Is this
when you went back to Germany, to your faculty position?
Koelle: Yes!, being a long range planner, I could see that due
to the lead times involved there would be a big dip after APOLLO in the space
program, so that I could give teaching a chance. However, I was prepared to
return if things would pick up again.
are now 30 years past the Armstrong-Aldrin moonwalks of 1969. What feelings do
you have when you view the films of the Apollo astronauts walking on the Moon?
Koelle: I was proud that I had an opportunity to
contribute to this historic event, but I also realized and was disappointed
that there would be no immediate follow-on program. That was the other side of
success. However, I was - and still am - convinced we will be back one day,
being aware that this will take a lot of doing, particularly in public
Resonance: Can you understand why some of
the men who walked on the Moon chose very different occupations after their
return to Earth? The most famous of these is Alan Bean who is now an
Koelle: Yes, as a former
pilot, I can understand this, because most of the Astronauts were primarily
experimental pilots doing their duty, taking their chances to become famous.
For them it was an adventure and a job to be done. Many of them were not space
cadets in the original meaning. These Astronauts are/were professional people
who accept challenges as they develop.
What is it about space that it attracts visionaries?
Koelle: The unknown, the challenge and the potential. Dr. von
Braun used to say: 'What is the purpose of a new born baby?' We simply do not
know, but we would like to know what is out there! In the long run, we suspect
that the resources of space will be essential for the survival of our
Resonance: Are you optimistic about
manned space exploration in the next century? As Chairman of the International
Academy of Astronautics' Committee on Lunar Development, what are your
Koelle: I am not overly optimistic, but space
exploration will continue with ups and downs as usual. The "downs" came with
the Vietnam War and the end of the cold war. I hope for a new "up" and prepare
for that. I feel that there must be a few individuals, - I am one of them - who
make sure that there are options on the table when opportunities arise.
Sometimes these come overnight and then it is too late to make feasible and
attractive plans. Only people in the know who have the experience and the
vision of what could be done, can develop the alternatives for the
decision-makers. The responsible politicians will have to pick one of the
options when the opportunity comes, but also must take the blame if they do not
make provisions for the survival of future generations. It is in this area
where the International Academy of Astronautics can make a real
Resonance: You initiated a Manifesto
for the Human Exploration of Space. A copy will be placed at the end of this
interview when it is completed. Would you summarize it for us and explain your
vision for its success?
Koelle: The manifesto is an
attempt to alert responsible politicians, that after the International Space
Station is in operation, a decision is due on how to continue human exploration
of space. The manifesto wants to point out the benefits and consequences of
human space flight in the centuries to come. The election of a new President in
the United States of America in year 2000 is an opportunity to bring this issue
to the front. America has always been the leader to extend the frontier in
space and will remain so in the future. Without public support there will be no
follow-on lunar or Martian exploration program considered essential for the
long term survival of our civilization. Without making use of the resources of
space, life on this planet will become difficult in the long run. We might not
succeed to transmit this message to the public, but we have to try.
Resonance: Can you tell us what project(s) you are currently
Koelle: My main interest is developing
concepts of cost-effective space transportation systems for cargo and people
for various destinations in space. They are the keys to future large scale
space programs and essential for commercial applications. The Space Shuttle is
a beginning in the direction of reusability, but it is still too expensive. The
production of propellants on the Moon will be an important factor in future
scenarios to get the cost down. I am also developing methods for estimating the
cost and benefits of large scale technical and social developments. This
includes risk analysis. This is a general problem but of particular importance
when justifying future space projects other than commercial enterprises.
Resonance: Is the cost-to-orbit the primary hindrance to
an expanded human presence in space?
Koelle: Yes, it
is. 10,000 dollars per kilogram is simply too much. If we cannot come down to
500 $/kg, we will not see prolonged human space flight. NASA has recognized
this and is pushing hard in the direction of reusable space transportation
systems. Several concepts are competing for this job; the next few years will
probably show which way is best. We need a small reusable shuttle and a heavy
lift vehicle, all completely reusable, to meet the expected demands of the
first half of the 21st century.
Resonance: What are
some of your skills that permitted you to succeed as a scientist?
Koelle: I consider myself to be a systems-engineer rather than
a scientist. I started as a propulsion engineer, but have avoided to become a
narrow specialist in a specific field. We need these too, but they are easier
to find than good generalists. I had to realize early in my career that to
solve technical problems is primarily a matter of know-how, resources and
patience, but it is more difficult to sell technical solutions to the customer
or to the public. Therefore I had to pick up rather early in my professional
life the art of marketing and 'political engineering' to be effective in my
Resonance: What were some of your other
Koelle: I used to be a pilot starting with
gliders. I was a co-owner of a Piper Cup in the U.S. but I could not continue
this hobby in postwar Berlin, where private flying was not permitted. For quite
a number of years I was interested in family history. I managed to find more
than 2,000 people whom I could identify as my ancestors, the oldest being born
in year 1199 near Bremen. I am an all out space enthusiast and that leaves
little room for other hobbies!
Resonance: Who were
some of your more "interesting" ancestors? Were there any engineers or
Koelle: If you go back several centuries,
you will find that most of them were farmers and craftsmen. I found quite a
number of merchants at Bremen and Danzig participating in the HANSE operations
during the Middle Ages. I found four professors teaching law and old languages
at the University of Marburg during the 16th and 17th centuries, two of them
were students of Martin Luther in 1525. There was also a count, who as a
colonel under Wellington, beat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
Resonance: In the United States, key leadership positions are
generally held by people with law and business degrees. One finds lawyers in
charge of government and MBAs in charge of companies, even companies that have
a high tech product. While there are exceptions, this is representative. What
is it about engineers, or their education, that prevents them from assuming
more prominent roles in policy-making?
engineers are very good in a limited field, often too narrow. They are also not
very skilled or interested in effective communication. They are mostly
interested in solving the next problem. In such an
environment, they lack a
touch of politics and have an underdeveloped capability in economics and
applied psychology. If they manage to gather competence in the systems approach
and become generalists, and moreover are lucky, then they can end up in top
management. There are quite a few such cases I know of. Several of my former
students have done this.
Resonance: You have been
affiliated with the Technical University of Berlin. Can you make any
comparisons of advanced technical training in Germany and the United
Koelle: This is not easy! I occupied the
first Chair of Space Technology in Europe for 30 years as the successor of
Eugen Saenger, who died in 1963. During my last active years I was Dean of the
Transportation Department of the Technical University Berlin. In general,
Professors teaching engineering at German Universities are coming to the
Universities from leading positions in industry. The practical side of
engineering plays a greater role than theory. Problem solving is at the
forefront of teaching. Students of engineering must have several months of
practical experience in shops and design offices before they can get a degree.
Students in Germany are free to attend classes or not, it is their
responsibility to acquire the necessary skills and to pass the exams. Advanced
degrees after 5 years is what the students of technical universities want, but
those getting advanced degrees are several years older than in the U.S. About
25% of those getting an MS degree will also get their Doctorate degree.
Resonance: Germany has undergone huge transformations
since before World War II. Is there an international role that you see Germany
uniquely qualified to lead?
Koelle: No, I cannot
identify one. Pioneering spirits are gone as well as strong national
aspirations and feelings. The integration and expansion of Europe will demand
all available talents and resources. There is little interest in space flight
development at this time in a country that produced quite a number of its
Resonance: What thoughts and emotions went
through you when Germany was reunified? Is the process succeeding almost a
Koelle: It was an unnatural situation
to split a nation as it has happened after the war. It could not last for ever.
But to most it came as a surprise, when it came. My emotions were rather cool.
Looking at it from outer space this was not very important to me as an American
living in Europe, teaching space technology and long range planning. It will
take another generation to integrate the experiences and aspirations of people
who have lived for several decades on different sides of the iron curtain in
two different social systems. This will take time and we have to be
Resonance: It is interesting to see that you
call yourself an American in the last response. Do you consider yourself an
American, a German, perhaps a German-American?
Koelle: Yes, I became an American Citizen in 1960. I was born
in the former Free State of Danzig. I consider myself to be a German-American,
or better a German born American. I would even prefer to be called an
"Atlanter", in the sense of J.F. Kennedy's philosophy.
Resonance: Speaking to a young person of about 13-14 years
old, just entering High School, what advice would you offer?
Koelle: Learn a lot, follow your talents and interests, try to
understand the world around you, and don't get lost in the details before you
are sure you have to do so. Learn to organize yourself and do a good job, so
that other people would hate to loose your talents. Learn to recognize
opportunities and have the courage to grab them, but don't forget that you are
a human being, one of several billions with all the weaknesses our species has
to live with.
Resonance: If you were having a
discussion with any living person, who would it be and what might some of your
Koelle: I would prefer to discuss the
question of the future of humankind with outstanding philosophers of our time.
Give me the best you can find.
specific questions regarding the future of humankind are you referring to?
Koelle: Definition of "Quality-of-life" today and in the
next millennium, reform of educational systems to be better prepared for the
next century, population growth, global resources and their distribution,
developments, change of value systems, religion, north-south
conflicts, evolution of capitalism in democracies, management structure of
global political systems, etc.
Resonance: What do
you do in your free time? Have you become interested in the Internet?
Koelle: At my age (74), I am trying to document those facts
and experiences of my life that I feel may be important to the generations
following me. In this context the computer is a very valuable tool; without it,
I would be nearly helpless and lost. The Internet is a welcome opportunity to
communicate with other people and find information considered important in this
Resonance: Are you writing an
Koelle: I have done that already, but
it is in German entitled: "Werden und Wirken eines Deutsch-Amerikanischen
Raumfahrt-Professors" ("Growth and Work of a German-American
ISBN 3-928943-08-1, W&T Verlag, Berlin, 1994,
Resonance: If you could solve just one of
this nation's/world's problems, which one would it be?
Koelle: Get rid of all dictators and make sure that valuable
resources no longer wasted in wars.