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von Braun in office
Wernher von Braun in his MSFC office, with models of the rockets he helped develop in the background. (credit: NASA)

Remembering Wernher von Braun

June 16th passed with virtually no mention of one of the greatest names in the exploration of space. On that date in 1977, Dr. Wernher von Braun passed away. He was admired and loved by many he worked with during projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, yet vilified by others because of his wartime efforts developing the V-2 for the Third Reich. He profoundly influenced the course of history in Europe and America, and was instrumental in the United States achieving the greatest engineering, scientific and geopolitical accomplishment of the 20th century.

For many Americans, their memories of Wernher von Braun are and will remain profoundly positive. I am one of them. Like many other children of the 1950s, I first learned of Dr. von Braun on the Walt Disney TV series devoted to space exploration. The first of these was “Man In Space” first broadcast on March 9, 1955. This was followed later that year with “Man and the Moon.” The last of the three memorable programs was “Mars and Beyond” broadcast in 1957. It was estimated over 40 million viewers saw these shows. Von Braun was already familiar to the many readers of Collier’s magazine which published a fascinating series on space exploration several years before. With the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, von Braun stood on the real threshold of space exploration he had dreamed of pursuing since his youth.

He was admired and loved by many he worked with during projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, yet vilified by others because of his wartime efforts developing the V-2 for the Third Reich.

America suddenly found itself in a space race with Russia. Were it not for Wernher von Braun’s rational persuasion and quick actions to surrender his group to American forces in 1945 at the close of World War 2, there might have been no space race at all. The culturally illiterate can be forgiven if they believe the group of German engineers and scientists who came to America as part of Operation Paperclip comprised the entire braintrust behind the V-2 rocket. It did not. While over 120 Germans were eventually brought to the United States under that secret program, it is a little known fact that more than 270 members of that rocket team were taken, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to Russia. Had the entire German rocket team been captured by the Soviet Army, it would not have been the America flag planted on the Moon, but instead a red flag with the hammer and sickle.

While von Braun was still at Ft. Bliss, Texas with his team of engineers and scientists, he seriously considered the possibility of one day working in private American industry. However, rocket development was being driven by the US Army, and it was there he and his fellow Germans had the best chance of advancing rocket technology, not the commercial sector which was non-existent. He and the others on his team held out the hope that one day they could work on rocket development for peaceful purposes, including launching satellites and pursuing the dream of manned spaceflight. The German rocket team chose to stay together, although some did accept offers from US businesses. Eventually, all the German rocket team members became US citizens.

Sputnik, of course, changed the direction and speed of American rocket development. Once again, von Braun was in the right place at the right time. In October 1949, the Secretary of the Army approved the transfer of von Braun and his team from Ft. Bliss to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama the following year—a move welcomed by practically all the Germans. Von Braun and his family settled in Huntsville. He became technical director of the Guided Missile Development Group, then Chief of Guided Missile Development Division. Von Braun was encouraged by the formation of NASA in 1958. Two years later, von Braun and his team received another transfer, this time to the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Von Braun was appointed its first director.

The golden era of Apollo, and eclipse

The decision for the German rocket team to stick together was paying off. Their first big booster, the Saturn 1, built on the industry liaisons the team had established during development of the Redstone and Jupiter-C. With President Kennedy’s historic decision to send American astronauts to the Moon and return them safely, Huntsville became a boomtown. The decade of the 1960s was the golden era of rocket development and the thousands of government and contractor personnel working at Marshall knew they were in a pivotal moment in history. Von Braun’s responsibilities were immense but he was a superb NASA Center Director. Dr. Arthur Rudolph was director of the Saturn 5 Program Office at MSFC, and he handpicked the men responsible for the largest, most complex and powerful rocket ever conceived by man.

The first Saturn 5 launched was SA-501, Apollo 4, on November 9, 1967. This flight and the next, Apollo 6, were unmanned. In one of the boldest decisions of the Apollo program, Von Braun signed off on the NASA request to send the Apollo 8 crew of Frank Borman, William Anders, and Jim Lovell to the Moon. Apollo 8 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on December 21, 1968. The mission was a complete success. Von Braun remained director of MSFC until March 1970.

The ability of Earth to sustain intelligent life, which in turn was capable of creating machines designed to explore the Moon and the planets was clear evidence to von Braun that man and his universe were the creation of God.

In a surprising move, he chose to accept the newly created position of Deputy Associate Administrator of Planning at NASA Headquarters. It was an extremely difficult decision for von Braun to make, and it turned out to be the first big mistake of his career. His struggles and humiliation at NASA Headquarters have been recounted by Bob Ward in his recent book Dr. Space. Von Braun left the space agency in June 1972 to accept a position as vice president of Fairchild Industries. Several years later, the world’s most famous rocket scientist learned he had contracted cancer. His health began to decline in 1976 and was finally hospitalized later that year. He resigned from Fairchild Industries in January 1977 and was confined to his bed, growing weaker by the month. He died on June 16, 1977, only 65 years old. He was buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, Virgina.

Von Braun’s faith

Von Braun, a life-long Lutheran, was a believer in intelligent design in the Universe long before it became a catch phrase and a lightning rod of debate.

“For me, the idea of a creation is not conceivable without invoking the necessity of design,” he wrote in a letter to the California State Board of Education in September 1972. He added, “It is in scientific honesty that I endorse the presentation of alternative theories for the origin of the universe, life and man in the science classroom. It would be an error to overlook the possibility that the universe was planned rather than happening by chance.”

While von Braun was careful to use the word theory with regard to the creation of the universe, in his mind there was no conflict or debate. The ability of Earth to sustain intelligent life, which in turn was capable of creating machines designed to explore the Moon and the planets was clear evidence to von Braun that man and his universe were the creation of God.

It was for that reason von Braun chose, with his advancing terminal illness, a modest gravestone to cite one of his favorite passages of scripture. His gravestone reads: WERNHER VON BRAUN 1912-1977 Psalms 19:1. That scripture is: “The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”


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