Friday, February 24, 2012

Even the Nazis had a Death Star, Almost...

The Nazi Death Star may never have made it off the drawing board but some of the design elements still made it into space.
Lookin for love in Alderaan places.
Earlier this week, economic students at Lehigh University postulated the theoretical costs that the design and construction of George Lucas' ULTIMATE WEAPON would incur.  First appearing in the original 1977 Star Wars movie, the giant space station has gone on to stick in the pop culture vernacular as a hyperbole of human endeavors to place weapons beyond Earth's atmosphere.
In any event, the final price tag for building 140km wide killing ball in space works out to 13,000 times the GDP of our own little Earth (and more than 800,000 years of nonstop construction).


This is the Death Star, I run it!

So at that scale, we don't have to loose sleep over the likelihood of some despot secretly constructing an armored space station on our watch.  Only an Evil Empire with vast resources and absolutest designs of conquest would even conceive of such a fantastical machine.  Which naturally means that Nazi Germany, the classic standard of sinister technocratic super powers,  gave the matter serious thought.


Das ist kein Mond...es ist eine Raumstation!
The genesis of the idea goes all the way back to the ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes who is said to have arranged a number of copper shields in such a manner as to reflect a concentrated beam of sunlight onto attacking Roman ships, engulfing them in a death ray.


Fast forward to the 1930's when physicists and engineers started gettin' ideas about punchin' through the atmosphere with rockets.


A German physicist named Hermann Oberth put forth the idea of capturing the suns energy with some kind of orbiting dish and focusing the energy back on the earth.  It's one of those "sounds so crazy, it might actual work" ideas that usually never see the light of day without a Richard Branson or John Hammond to piss millions away on your little wet dream.


But then Hitler invaded Poland, and even Oscar Schindler will tell you, there ain't nothin' better for business than war.  Especially after a few years when the tide had turned against the Nazis and every scientist was encouraged to toss out ideas they had left on the shelf.  Hence the sudden proliferation of jet engines and rocket powered "Wonder Weapons."

Although the scale of the Nazi Sun Gun or Sonnengewehr was comparable to the artillery turret platform of a battleship than a small moon, the idea was more or less the same as later depicted in Star Wars.  The iron sphere would be stationed in orbit, though connected by an umbilical to the Fatherland and serve as the platform for an Archimedes-esque death ray.  A large mirror would focus sunlight down onto the surface of the Earth, boiling oceans and razing entire countrysides. 

Fear will keep the local systems in line...
fear of this battle station
. - Tarkin & Goebbels
Always thought they looked a little too similar...

The undertaking would still have put an enormous strain on material resources, let alone financial, logistics and manpower (never mind getting the whole launching a man into space and bringing him back alive process down first).  But Nazi engineers and physicists believed they could get the thing done in a few decades, if Germany won the war first of course.

Thus the idea remained on the drawing board while other advances in areas of rocketry that would prove vital for the eventual conquest of the upper atmosphere took priority.  Mind you men like Hermann Oberth and rocket pioneer Werner von Braun were busy using this technology to set England on fire with the V2 rockets and "Buzzbombs."

"You want me to WHAT?!" Only way to kill the Buzzbomb
was to get close & nudge it with your wing, causing it to nose dive.

Once the war was over, the Allies snatched up Nazi scientists left and right to work on all sorts of other interesting ways of blowing stuff up. It was finally, during the height of the cold war that the Sonnengewehr dream was partially realized: 

"The rocket originally slated to carry the Sun Gun segments into space– Von Braun’s A11– eventually became the foundation for the Saturn V, the engine which carried the Apollo astronauts into orbit for the moon missions of 1969-1972"
                                                                                                       -Alan Bellows, Feb 2008
Kennedy: "To da moon, and don't try to blow it up."
Von Braun: "Only if you promise not to fuck it, mein fuhrer."


Unlike Princess Leia's home planet, our Death Star tale has a happier ending, especially since human beings are doing their best to take a more "Trek" as opposed to "Wars" approach to the stars.  The only space station in the night sky is the one built through the cooperation of more than a dozen nations and all in the purpose of peaceful, scientific exploration.

That doesn't prevent the occasional asshole from making noise about sticking missiles on satellites (and then of course there was Reagan's fantasy of death beams in space to scare off the Russians). But, for the most part the Carl Sagans and Gene Roddenberrys continue to prevail over Emperor Palpatine, at least in this galaxy...

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