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von Braun in office
Wernher von Braun was one of the key figures in the history of spaceflight by convincing governments to support his visions of space exploration. (credit: NASA)

The strange contagion of a dream

How space visionaries hijack governments to change the world

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In the midst of the most destructive war in history, Wernher von Braun was tasked with making it even worse by developing a ballistic missile to rain down on London: the V-2 rocket. Unfortunately for his masters, Von Braun’s personal ambitions for the V-2 were somewhat different. He saw the rocket’s potential to achieve orbit and carry the first artificial satellite in human history. But every time he proposed this idea, his SS commanders made clear (in increasingly menacing tones) that the Fuhrer wanted a weapon, not a science fiction toy.

Von Braun’s dream formed a virulent spore that would survive to infect both of the superpower heirs to his technology.

Von Braun’s clever insubordinations—siphoning resources off from the main weapons program to pursue spaceflight research while making enough progress on the V-2 to remain credible with his superiors—was an act of high-altitude tightrope-walking at its best. He risked his life with every passing day this went on, and it became clear that his superiors eventually intended to kill the V-2 scientists to prevent the Americans or Russians from acquiring their expertise. Only by sensing the right moment and fleeing with fake documents were he and a number of his people able to escape to the American side.

Under a banner of destruction, with the strictest orders to focus only on military applications, one man somehow built, in a few brief years, the foundations for decades of peaceful space exploration, and survived to explain himself to history. Von Braun’s dream never made a dent in the madness of the Third Reich, but it formed a virulent spore that would survive to infect both of the superpower heirs to his technology.

From the moment the US and Soviet Union possessed V-2 hardware, both states saw only the strategic weapons the Nazis had intended, and missed or ignored the deeper potential for more than a decade. Seeing the power to leave Earth, the banal thinking of soldiers and bureaucrats could only bookend it with an explosive return on the heads of their enemies.

Von Braun, now working for the United States, no longer had to hide his loftier ambitions, but was careful to avoid alienating his new military hosts by seeming over-enthusiastic for ideas they still didn’t understand. They saw him as a strange nerd with odd fixations who might, if handled properly, give them a strategic advantage over Soviet weaponry; and he, in turn, saw them as parochial bumpkins who had to be handheld toward realizing the obvious about the technology now in their hands. The German’s dreams were given short shrift, but they were tolerated as personal quirks.

Meanwhile, the Soviets had to comb their vast, secretive empire for anyone with the expertise to understand and replicate Von Braun’s captured work, and the best they could find was Sergei Korolev—a man who had spent the last several years toiling in the Siberian gulag under false political accusations. Korolev’s experiences and dispositions were strangely symmetric with Von Braun’s in the late history of the V-2 program. His government demanded intercontinental missiles, threatened the severest personal consequences if he were to fail, and misunderstood, ignored, or were actively suspicious of, unorthodox ideas like spaceflight.

Korolev kept his head down until he could begin showing results, built up credibility and influence within the government, and sought dual-use synergies between what the Soviet army demanded and the space rockets he wanted to build. His role in the Soviet rocket program became so central, and his talents so valued, that his very identity became a top-level state secret, and he would be known until his death simply as “Chief Designer.”

Only from this high position was he able to, just barely, whisper subtle suggestions into the ears of the Soviet high command about the possibility for using their weapons for spaceflight. A historical moment for the Soviets was just a push of a button away, he told them, if the Politburo would allow it—a moment that would invoke the envy and emulation of the entire world, without the guilt of doing anything unjust or warlike. At the risk of mere embarrassment if they failed, if they succeeded the world would stand in awe.

The strange symmetry between von Braun and Korolev repeated yet again, as von Braun, with newfound credibility, convinced US leaders that it wouldn’t be enough to merely match the Soviet Union’s achievements measure for measure.

Ultimately he won them over, through a combination of rational arguments and what might now be called “Jedi mind tricks,” insinuating that the Americans were on the verge of launching (we weren’t), and convincing his superiors that space launch had been their brilliant idea all along that Korolev was merely implementing. His detractors in the rocket bureau who wanted to focus on military weapons were slowly painted into a corner as dissenters from The Program, rather than defenders of the program against Korolev’s radical agenda. And suddenly a continent-spanning totalitarian superpower was committed to spaceflight, where before only a handful of individual dreamers had been.

Von Braun had far less access to decision-makers than Korolev, so his views were treated as self-interested opinions rather than urgent, expert advice. Moreover, the prevailing view of the Soviet Union in the United States was as a technologically backward state. The idea that Buck Rogers would be wearing a Red Star just didn’t compute in the American imagination, so the launch of Sputnik was even more shocking than we can realize today. With that, spaceflight went from a vaguely interesting backburner concept to an urgent national necessity, and von Braun from a dissident to a sage.

The strange symmetry between von Braun and Korolev repeated yet again, as von Braun, with newfound credibility, convinced US leaders that it wouldn’t be enough to merely match the Soviet Union’s achievements measure for measure. Rather, he argued it was urgent for the United States to drastically exceed them, and do so as quickly as possible. Stone-cold pragmatic minds questioned the necessity of going to space at all, just as they do today, but they were ignored in the infectious enthusiasm of the times. Milder people thought it would be enough to just keep up, launch our own satellite, and then be done with the whole thing.

Von Braun, however, didn’t care about the geopolitical tumult du jour; didn’t care who matched what, or what immediate advantages could be had; he simply wanted to push spaceflight, and as Korolev played the minds of the Politburo like musical instruments, so he exploited every political fulcrum and lever at his disposal to make it happen. The day before Sputnik, his arguments in favor of a US satellite were treated as impatient and unrealistic; the day after Sputnik, his arguments for landing men on the Moon were considered credible and weighty.

From that sudden frisson in the US, Korolev could claim vindication for his own positions, and pushed the Soviets toward even greater commitments. Von Braun and Korolev played the world and each other’s governments against their shared dream, without ever having met or spoken a single word to each other. Thus the Space Race was born, not by the natural inclinations of the two superpowers that might have preferred being timid and pragmatic, but by visionary engineers who knew how to hijack bureaucracies and brainwash their own superiors.

While this was going on, the navel-gazing “better things to do down here” solipsism—that makes most of history featureless and unimportant for being the dominant theme—was drowned out and ignored, a pitiful background buzz that failed to significantly obstruct the Space Race in any major way. People who were against it, although numerous, were not seen as reasonable and persuasive: They sounded pusillanimous and self-absorbed, if not resentful of anything important enough to make their concerns look transient and petty. And those who thought well of it could see, for the first time ever, a unifying and positive vision of mankind in the peaceful pursuit of a high frontier by mortal enemies.

The simple, innocent dreams of a child looking up at the stars had overtaken the march toward nuclear Armageddon at the height of global danger. It’s at least a reasonable question whether the Space Race may very well be the decisive reason World War III failed to happen. From that unprecedented high plateau, von Braun and Korolev’s vision spread throughout the foundations of both nations’ space programs, and decades of low budgets and trivial achievements since then have not managed to put the genie back in the bottle.

Neither the end of the Apollo program, nor the lack of any worthy follow-up in the ensuing decades, nor even the total collapse of the Soviet Union itself, could bring either the US or Russian spaceflight programs down, or remove the general belief that such pursuits are part of a great nation’s fundamental character. In the case of the Soviet Union, the space program was literally more durable than the nation that created it, and showing itself to be rooted in something far deeper than politics or nationalism.

In the United States, despite the budget cuts and unaccomplished pork-barrel travesties that fill the vacuum left by visionary leaders like von Braun, the spirit of the Space Race remains carved into this country’s very DNA. We can see this illustrated even more starkly when we imagine how history would have played without von Braun and Korolev.

We’ve seen the stagnation that followed the loss of von Braun and Korolev from the world after Apollo: bold, extremely dangerous spearheads into unexplored frontiers gave way to the timid designs of bureaucrats.

Suppose the V-2 had been strictly a rocket weapon, with none of the work on it having being directed toward space launch? Suppose that rather than Korolev, the Soviets chose a more conventional engineer to digest the V-2 and build up the Soviet ICBM force, one for whom spaceflight was never even an afterthought. No Sputnik, no Gagarin, no Mercury 7, no Gemini, no Apollo, no fleets of unmanned space probes pioneering the solar system over decades. No satellite communications either, and no derivatives thereof into the present day. At best, we could suppose there would just be some high-altitude spy planes and balloons, and vast silos of ICBMs on hair trigger. And all the money that went into the Space Race instead went directly into the military.

It’s a dark, depressing scenario, not likely to provide a better present than what we experience—if there even were a present, rather than a smoking radioactive ruin. That is what von Braun and Korolev’s dream may have saved us from, or at least brought us a more interesting existence than the incremental improvement on the 1940s that would otherwise have been likely.

But leaving speculation aside, we’ve seen the stagnation that followed the loss of von Braun and Korolev from the world after Apollo: bold, extremely dangerous spearheads into unexplored frontiers gave way to the timid designs of bureaucrats. On the US side, a flashy new orbiter designed by politicians to feed Congressional districts rather than the needs of spaceflight led nowhere; on the Soviet side, a series of space stations in low Earth orbit racked up time-in-space records and little else. The inspiration and adventure of space were devoured by scientific beancounters, who wanted it to be a series of piddling controlled experiments to quantify rather than a frontier to boldly penetrate and experience.

However, the “contagion” of the space dream was not lost despite its institutional dormancy. Rather, it was sown into the fabric of national space programs, and planted deeply in the hearts of millions around the world by what they witnessed —including one particular South African child and eventual US immigrant, Elon Musk.

As a dotcom multimillionaire at the turn of the century, no one denied the brilliance of the entrepreneur; but his stated goal in 2002 (upon starting SpaceX) of Mars colonization was indulgently humored rather than given any credit. He was no helmsman of a superpower’s technological spearhead like Korolev and Von Braun, just some guy with some money—not even ranked among the richest of his Silicon Valley peers.

So when the idea for NASA’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program was being mooted in the halls of Congress in the first half of the previous decade, it’s unlikely that the names SpaceX or Elon Musk would have been mentioned. In fact, beyond a few notable champions, Congress was more or less indifferent to the idea, and subscribed mainly because they liked the optics of the “free market” rhetoric attached to it that, at the time it was being considered, showed no danger of threatening anyone’s sacred cows.

Regardless of what NASA envisioned for COTS—indeed, regardless of what it had ever envisioned or accomplished under any program—the sum total of Congressional interest in NASA was always just ensuring a maximum of federal money goes into their district or state (and thereby, into their own campaign funds). So to their ears, COTS was simply another revenue stream that could go to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or other established players under a slightly different operating scheme.

But a program that meant barely anything to Congress was taken up with enthusiasm by NASA as a way to modestly reduce the costs of one aspect of its program, and then “hijacked” by Elon Musk to radically and fundamentally alter the economics and pace of spaceflight. Every synergy he could find between NASA’s modest objectives and his own radical ones was exploited, driving the evolution of SpaceX technology and the rapid buildup of its infrastructure. No one saw him coming.

SpaceX’s conspicuous achievements only fed energy back into the system, driving NASA to become more ambitious, and the Congressional advocates of COTS to push forward with the commercial crew program. Only now were establishment forces in Congress beginning to raise eyebrows at SpaceX, but still did not yet see it as a threat. After all, transporting cargo was one thing, but surely crew flight was still over their weight class. This program, they assured themselves, would be a gimme for Boeing and/or Lockheed, and SpaceX would perhaps rise to a junior partner role in the system.

That confidence, however, quickly bled away as SpaceX continued to march forward with ever more drastic advances, offering prices far below a merely competitive advantage, and steadily developed hardware not even on the drawing board among the big prime contractors. Before these politicians knew it, and with the large-scale financial and technical assistance of NASA, a company they had barely heard of a few years ago was beginning to threaten the viability of long-established, multi-billion-dollar corporations with rock-solid Congressional relationships.

In a panic, the more powerful among them have repeatedly tried to scale back funding for commercial programs that would feed SpaceX, and sought to convince government agencies to throw roadblocks in its way in seeking additional contracts. But SpaceX’s popularity and political weight have grown even more quickly than its technical capabilities, and appears to be within a few years (at most) of transitioning from being an upstart to becoming simply the Program of Record.

Just as von Braun had originally hijacked a cruel, cynical weapon to pursue a dream of wonder and peace; as Korolev redirected the same dumb, unimaginative weapons program for his own people into achievements that will live in memory long after the name of the Soviet Union is long forgotten; and just as von Braun awakened a timid and pragmatic power to shoot for the Moon “because it is hard”; so it seems that soon—knock on wood—Elon Musk may have grown an afterthought commercial cargo-delivery program, one that sought merely to deliver junk to a space station at a slightly lower cost than before, into a revolution with no end, opening up the cosmos to humankind.

All of the most radical advances in space have come not from the arbitrary dictates of a bold politician, or the diligent incrementalism of a bureaucrat, or even the blind profit-seeking of a businessman, but instead in the irresistible power of a visionary to utilize any tool at their disposal, redirect any large mission or institution to their cause, and convert any mind not completely darkened with bigotry and myopia to their way of thinking. This suggests something amazing and hopeful about the future: That regardless of what the program is, people who share the dream of space can harness it to achieve brilliant things.

If von Braun can turn a terror weapon into the hope of humanity, even with a gun to his head; if Korolev can convince military thugs and paranoid Politburo apparatchiks that orbiting the Earth would be better than blowing it up, with the gulag always waiting for him should he fail; if Musk can nearly bankrupt himself turning a small NASA program into a seed of ultra-low-cost commercial spaceflight, and end up swimming in dough anyway; then maybe there are other “useless,” or “destructive,” or otherwise dismissed programs the could be turned amazing if the right mindset guides them.

Von Braun, Korolev, and Musk offer us a simple, common sense lesson that is ironically rare to see in practice: Start from where you are, and use the tools at your disposal to move forward.

Consider the International Space Station, originally little more than a diplomatic gesture at staggering expense that most space critics at the time savaged as worthless. What is it becoming now, as the focus shifts farther outward, and commercial industry is becoming involved? What will it become over time, as companies like Bigelow Aerospace, for instance, start operating their own facilities? What can it become as in-space research and manufacturing ramps up? What will extend from it in all directions, both literally and figuratively, as it grows beyond its cynical origins as merely an excuse to keep flying the Space Shuttle? Maybe it won’t do any of that, and will simply be superseded and de-oribted, but the potential is there.

In fact, the potential is always there to take whatever you have and make something more out of it—much, much more. Von Braun, Korolev, and Musk offer us a simple, common sense lesson that is ironically rare to see in practice: Start from where you are, and use the tools at your disposal to move forward. Waiting for some deus ex machina to deliver the perfect program—for leadership that cares about and understands your hopes, for the money to fall into your lap—leads nowhere.

The Nazis, Soviets, and American military were building weapon delivery systems, not space vehicles, but they were transformed into space vehicles by the diligence and vision of von Braun and Korolev. ISS was just a rationalization to keep launching the Space Shuttle after it had already become obsolete, but the station is steadily becoming the seed of in-space manufacturing and commerce. COTS was just supposed to slightly reduce the cost of delivering cargo to ISS through small, specialty contractors, but has been used as the springboard of a general revolution in the economics of spaceflight. So what is the next benevolent, stealth revolution creeping around the corner?