Review: the voice of von Braun
by Jeff Foust
|von Braun often justified spaceflight in the most general of rationales: the advancement of science and society. “Because man can go into space, he must,” he said in one speech.|
The speeches featured in this book are, in many cases, a study in contrasts. Clearly von Braun had a passion for spaceflight, which is evident in many of his speeches. Yet, many of his speeches included in the book consist principally of rote recitations of facts about the launch vehicles and spacecraft developed or on the drawing boards by his engineers, hardly the most spellbinding material. In a 1959 speech at the dedication of a museum devoted to Robert Goddard in New Mexico, von Braun is critical of those “practical men” who gauge proposals “in terms of concrete, measurable, immediate results”. However, in many of his speeches at the dawn of the Space Age he described some very practical, concrete applications of spaceflight, including communications, weather forecasting, and navigation.
One flaw in The Voice of Dr. Wernher von Braun is that, in many cases, the book doesn’t provide enough background information about the speeches to put them into the proper context. While there is some introductory material about some speeches, for others there is no information other than the location of the speech, not even the date of the speech. That makes it difficult to understand why he was talking about specific topics to specific audiences—why, for example, was he addressing a meeting of Mississippi dentists? An undated speech, apparently from the early 1960s, given at Alabama A&M University (AAMU) is prefaced only by the statement that the university is “an historically traditional land-grant school,” a statement that makes little sense. AAMU, though, is in fact a historically black university, something that, given the era, puts a very different spin on some of von Braun’s comments at the end of his speech: “Human beings often resist change, clinging tenaciously to entrenched habits—especially adults. Sometimes we seem confused, frustrated, and even angered by an advance that upsets our normal routine or outlook.”
Few would argue that von Braun was not one of the most influential engineers and visionaries of the Space Age, at least in the United States, and more than a few people wish that there was someone similar, with that combination of technical expertise and rhetorical skills, promoting spaceflight today. What is interesting, though, about reading the speeches contained in The Voice of Dr. Wernher von Braun, is that von Braun often justified spaceflight in the most general of rationales: the advancement of science and society. “Because man can go into space, he must,” he said in his AAMU speech. Or, as he told the El Paso Rotarians in 1947, “Interplanetary travel—No man can say exactly what it will bring.” A half-century after the dawn of the Space Age, anyone who wants to step into the shoes of von Braun will have to do a better job articulating why we should explore space if such programs are to have a stable, if not vibrant, long-term future.