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Book Review: Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

Book Review: Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

Taylor Dinerman

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January 26, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Michael J. Neufeld, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: Knopf, 2007), 608 pages, $35.00


April 2008 -- If Wernher von Braun had died in 1945 at the end of World War Two, he would have been remembered as the man who led the team that built the world’s first effective ballistic missile. If he had been born in Texas and been responsible for the rocket that landed the first men on the Moon, he would be famous for that. The fact that one man did both these things for two very different governments is an unending source of fascination and debate.

This new biography is by the highly respected historian Michael Neufeld, who authored the 1995 study The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. This book comes as close to being the definitive study of von Braun’s life as we are likely to get. Based on years of archival research in the U.S. and Germany, this work gives us a balanced picture of the man who, in the popular mind, was the very definition of a “Rocket Scientist.”

Von Braun was born into an aristocratic Prussian family. His father defied the stereotype of a hard, patriarchal, even brutal “man of wrath”; he was instead highly educated, well-connected, and, above all, in love with his wife. Wernher and his siblings were given the best and most liberal education that boys of his class could get. He unthinkingly absorbed his father’s conventional, German-nationalist politics, which had allowed the man to become the minister for agriculture in the last pre-Nazi Weimar government.

What made von Braun different from other young German aristocrats was the influence of a single book: Hermann Oberth’s Die Rakete zu dem Plantenräumen (“The Rocket into Interplanetary Space”). The short book made the case that the state of technology was such that within a few decades men could “reach orbit or even escape the Earth” using liquid-fueled rockets.

Oberth was one of the early space visionaries that included Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia and Robert Goddard in the U.S. In America, Goddard was publicly jeered at by the New York Times, but in Weimar Germany and in Communist Russia “there was more acceptance—the upheavals of the preceding decade had made these cultures unusually open to radical ideas.” Especially, they were open to ones with obvious military implications.

The belief that in 1932 the German Army turned to von Braun and his comrades in an amateur rocket society to get around the Versailles Treaty’s ban on long-range artillery is still subject to some debate. After all, by then most of the sanctions imposed by the Allies in 1919 had crumbled. But enough remained that this motivation is at least plausible. It was not until 1935 that Hitler unveiled his secret air force, the Luftwaffe.

General Karl Becker, the artillery officer who provided the initial high-level support for the rocket program, had been a member of the “Paris Gun” team in World War One. His goal was to give Germany a long-range bombardment weapon. As Neufeld pointed out in his previous book, “it would be imperative to develop the ballistic missile in absolute secrecy, even though it was not outlawed by Versailles.”

Von Braun became a vital part of the German Army’s rocket program at about the same time that the Nazis took power. As a German nationalist, he supported their goal of restoring his nation to a preeminent position in Europe. As an aristocrat, he found them vulgar and low-class, but that did not stop him from joining an SS horseback-riding school. Among a variety of reasons Neufeld gives for this “was the pressure being applied on non-Nazi university students in the fall of 1933 to join SA-affiliated organizations for paramilitary training.” Neufeld adds that von Braun quit shortly after he graduated.

Both the Nazis and the German Army were in full agreement on the need to develop rocket technology and on the need to keep their efforts secret. Indeed, von Braun’s doctoral thesis, “Design, Theoretical, and Experimental Contributions to the Problem of the Liquid Fuel Rocket,” was considered “too secret to be left in university custody.”

By December 1934, the rocket team was ready to test its first products, Max und Moritz,named for the Katzenjammer Kids. The success of those two rockets led directly to the decision to establish the Peenemünde Rocket Research Center on Germany’s Baltic coast, with von Braun as technical director.

From May 1937 until the winter of 1944–45, von Braun’s life revolved around this establishment and the development of operational military rockets. The Nazi government was willing to make a huge investment in this technology—not because they believed in the conquest of space or because they wanted a way to deliver nuclear weapons (Hitler dismissed atomic science as “Jewish Physics”),but because they wanted a terror weapon. “Becker (and  Dornberger) [Walter Dornberger, another leader in the rocket research effort] hoped for the desired effect from a new superweapon,” Neufeld explains. “Perhaps a radical new technology, combined with a chemical warhead, would spread fear and panic among an enemy population.”

As a senior civil servant, von Braun joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and was at that time, as Neufeld points out, “a loyal, perhaps even mildly enthusiastic subject of Hitler’s dictatorship.” This, in spite of his later admission that his father had warned him “it was all going to end in tragedy for Germany and many other people too. But I was too wrapped up in rockets to heed his warning.”

Indeed, his leadership of what was later known as “The Rocket Team” made him who he was. “Talented creative engineers and scientists are essential for any program that is attempting to make fundamental technological breakthroughs,” says Neufeld, “but those relatively rare skills are common in comparison to the few who have both superior technical talent and the ability to manage, lead and inspire large complex organizations.”

After numerous failures and a few near-successes, on October 3, 1942 , the A-4 (later renamed by Goebbels as the “V-2 Vengeance Weapon”) became the first man-made object to reach outer space. It was the culmination of von Braun’s efforts, and it happened at the high point of Nazi Germany’s military success. A few weeks later, Rommel was defeated at El Alamein, the Anglo-Americans landed in North Africa, and, above all, the German Sixth Army became trapped at Stalingrad.

Thirty months later Germany surrendered. During that time, the German people fought ferociously to stave off their inevitable defeat and in doing so inflicted massive horrors on the conquered inhabitants of Europe. The Nazi extermination program against the Jews and Gypsies had begun long before they had started to lose the war. One element that helped prolong the suffering was Germany’s technologically superior weapons. With few exceptions, Germans planes, tanks, and guns were better than those of the Allies.

In the summer of 1944, the Germans introduced several new weapons into combat: the first jet fighters, the first cruise missiles, and the first V-2 ballistic missiles, which were fired against London in September. Historians and military experts often deride the importance of the V-2s and V-1s. Lacking precision, they failed to hit any militarily significant targets, and, because the British people had stood up to the Blitz, there is a tendency to minimize the effect of these weapons on British morale.

By September 1944, however, England had been at war for five years and had suffered tens of thousands of military and civilian deaths. The British were rationed, conscripted, and generally impoverished. The robot bombs were in some ways the last straw. This had an evident but unmeasured impact on the morale of the British armies that were then approaching the borders of the Reich. So far, no historian has adequately analyzed the relationship between war weariness, the terror-weapons campaign, and the performance of British troops under Montgomery.

The V-2s that fell on London and Antwerp (which was an essential Allied supply port) were not built by German labor. They were manufactured by slaves in an underground concentration-camp factory called the Mittelwerk. All over Germany, slave labor from the occupied countries powered the war economy. Von Braun’s use of this labor—even if he had no direct role in the atrocities inflicted on the V-2 workforce—made him, according to Neufeld, a war criminal.

His membership in the SS, which was later carefully concealed from the American public, did not prevent him from being arrested by the Gestapo in the spring of 1944 on suspicion of defeatism. He was released, and for the rest of the war he walked a careful path between overt loyalty to the regime and plans for post-war rocket development. As Nazi Germany collapsed, he chose to surrender his team to the Americans who, like all the Allies, were seeking to grab as much German technological expertise as they could lay their hands on.

Previously, it had been believed that von Braun and his team chose to go to America because they imagined that only the U.S. government would be able to devote the resources needed for them to continue their work. Neufeld’s research shows that von Braun’s older brother had gone to college in Ohio. On his return in 1935, he told Wernher, “America is the place for you to build your Moon rockets.” Von Braun must have always known that there was an alternative.

The U.S. Army sent him, his team, and hundreds of tons of V-2 parts that had been recovered from the Mittelwerk, to Whites Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. They remained there until 1950, launching V-2s and modified V-2s while the U.S. government tried to decide what to do with them. In fact, the upper echelons of the Truman administration were hostile to military rocketry. Vannevar Bush, the administration’s chief science advisor, was opposed to any work on what he called “push-button warfare.” There could be no justification, he wrote, for the “astronomical” price of such weapons, compared with the costs of long-range bombers.

In 1950 the team was moved to Huntsville, Alabama, the site of the Army’s Redstone Arsenal. The Korean War, which broke out in June of that year, led directly to the development of the Redstone missile and to a series of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs ), including the ancestors of today’s Delta space launch vehicles. The small town in the deep South was transformed from “The Watercress Capital of the World” to a major center for missile development.

It was in the early years of the Eisenhower administration that von Braun became a public advocate for space exploration. He beat the drums during a conference at New York’s Hayden Planetarium in 1954, following up with articles in the popular magazine Collier’s and most memorably with a series of TV shows done with Walt Disney. Von Braun presented a vision of space exploration that has endured to this day. He foresaw first a large, reusable rocket ship to supply a large space station that would serve as the base for trips to the Moon and later to Mars.

A significant part of the U.S. public agreed with this vision. To them, it was a natural continuation of America’s pioneering tradition. What was never stated, though, was that this would be an almost wholly government-owned-and-operated program. Von Braun was never able to look beyond his traditional Prussian statist outlook. While he was happy to make a bit of money on the side from speeches, articles, and books, he always saw himself as a public servant.

Meanwhile, President Eisenhower had ordered the Air Force and the CIA to begin work on the first spy satellite, the WS 177L. In order to camouflage this program and to help establish the principle of “freedom of space,” the administration agreed to launch a civilian satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year. Von Braun’s proposal was rejected. Neufeld sheds new light on this, shooting down the long-held idea that Eisenhower himself had rejected the Huntsville proposal, either because he resented the Nazi past of the team or because he thought it was “too military.” The decision was made by a committee that was heavily weighted towards the Navy and its Vanguard, derived from a long series of successful research rockets.

On October 4, 1957, Soviet Russia launched Sputnik 1 and set off a series of political and technological shock waves that still are affecting the world’s space programs. Shortly afterwards, the first U.S. attempt to launch a satellite blew up on the pad. The “KAPUTNIK!” headline embarrassed the administration and they were forced to turn to von Braun and his Huntsville team. On January 31, 1958, they launched the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, atop a Jupiter C rocket.

The “Space Race” was on. NASA opened for business in October 1958, and soon thereafter the Huntsville team was transferred to the new space agency. For the first time in his career, von Braun was working for a civilian government organization.

It would take yet another shock before he was given the funds to fulfill his ambition to build a Moon rocket. While Eisenhower authorized the development of the giant F-1 engines that would power the first stage of the giant Saturn V launch vehicle, it was not until April 1961—after the Russians had once again beaten the U.S. by launching the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin—that President Kennedy agreed to go all out to “land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.”

Project Apollo would have been impossible without von Braun and his team. For years they had been preparing themselves for such a challenge. When the funds became available, they were ready.

Building the Saturn V on JFK’s schedule proved harder than it first seemed. The infrastructure that was built in the mid-1960s for the Apollo program is still in use by the Shuttle program and will probably still be in use when Americans return to the Moon in 2019, according to current government plans. In spite of all the difficulties the Apollo program was an American triumph. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the Moon and planted the American flag. The iconic photos from that day are now part of America’s national self-image.

Between then and December 1972, the United States flew five more missions that landed men on the Moon. The last Saturn V was used to launch the Skylab space station in 1973. The last Saturn mission was Skylab 4, flown in November 1973.

By then budget cuts had killed all of von Braun’s hopes for an ambitious post-Apollo space program. As long as space was a government-run enterprise, it would always be subject to the ups and downs of the political system. In some ways, Apollo was the last of the great New Deal projects, and like those projects it left behind a gigantic infrastructure and a culture of dependency and political clout that has, in many ways, crippled the U.S. space industry.

The story of Pandora’s Box may be an appropriate analogy for von Braun’s career. She opened the forbidden box and let out all the horrible things that inflict the human race, but the last thing to fly out was the spirit of hope. Von Braun’s Germanic statism led him to build devastating weapons and giant engines of exploration. But in his final years he also established the National Space Institute, which has become the National Space Society: a grassroots organization that is no longer simply dedicated to supporting NASA’s budget requests, but that is at the forefront of opening up the space frontier to private enterprise and to ordinary citizens.

Wernher von Braun’s greatest long term contribution to making the human race a multi-planet species may just be this last effort. He died in June 1977. His rockets had changed the nature of warfare and carried the first men to set foot on another world; but he never succeeded in convincing the U.S. government to implement his ultimate vision, and he never could escape the taint of his Nazi past.