Heinz Hermann Koelle

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.

This interview 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 civilization.

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 developments.

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.

In this 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.

The Eisenhower 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 missions.

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 opportunities.

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.

Resonance: We 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 relations.

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 accomplished painter.

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.

Resonance: 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 civilization!

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 goals?

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 contribution.

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 working on?

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 assignments.

Resonance: What were some of your other interests?

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 scientists?

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?

Koelle: Most 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 States?

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?<./p>

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 pioneers.

Resonance: What thoughts and emotions went through you when Germany was reunified? Is the process succeeding almost a decade later?

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 patient.

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 questions be?

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.

Resonance: What 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, global social 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 process.

Resonance: Are you writing an autobiography?

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 Spaceflight-Professor”) ISBN 3-928943-08-1, W&T Verlag, Berlin, 1994, 360 pp.

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.