A curious genius from childhood, Wernher von Braun was born into the landowning nobility in Eastern Germany on
March 23, 1912, just a month before the Titanic disaster. When as a child he was confirmed into the Lutheran Church, his mother gave him a telescope.
Michael J. Neufeld, author of the comprehensive biography “Von Braun,” doesn’t mention this incident, but he does provide a detailed and documented story of a remarkable man who reached the zenith of rocket science and technology both in the Third Reich and in post-World War II America. Von Braun’s crowning achievement was the Saturn V rocket that put an American on the moon, fulfilling JFK’s dream. Mr. Neufeld succeeds in demythologizing a complex and ambitious genius, an achievement worthy of the author’s association with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
During World War II, von Braun led Hitler’s hidden engineering program in the super-secret Peenemuende facility in East Germany. He built the V-2 rockets that rained down on London. But, as the author demonstrates, there is little evidence that von Braun ever participated in Nazi political activities, though with no Germans available he did hire foreign slave laborers in his facilities. Despite his willingness to bring his rocket team to America after the war, controversy surrounds him to this day.
Mr. Neufeld’s richly documented story (with 83 pages of endnotes) includes hundreds of stories that shed light on von Braun and his works, particularly his stellar contribution to the U.S. space program. One of the book’s most intriguing episodes deals with the dance, shall we say minuet, between von Braun and his rocket team on one side and U.S. military intelligence officers on the other.
After the German surrender to Eisenhower on May 7, 1945, von Braun was eager to meet with advancing U.S. forces in Bavaria to strike a deal with the Americans who were keenly interested in his rockets. Both sides were apprehensive about the advancing Soviet on their way to the border between the Soviet and U.S. occupation zones.
Von Braun was aware that the U.S. intelligence officers knew his rockets were superior to anything the Americans had. Apprehensive, he sent his younger brother on a bicycle to the nearby U.S. occupation forces shouting, “Take us to Ike!” Shortly thereafter, von Braun arrived. The Americans were stunned when the 33-year-old scientist claimed to be who he was. One soldier said, “If we haven’t caught the biggest scientist in the Third Reich we certainly have caught the biggest liar!”
The brash von Braun, who spoke fair English, repeated his brother’s request to see “Ike,” but he soon settled down. Shortly U.S. intelligence officers arrived, and he took them to the underground labs and “factories,” at Peenemuende facility.
Back at the U.S. base von Braun, with his characteristic self-confidence, explained his ideas to the Americans and elaborated them in an extensive paper. In it he emphasized the great military value of rockets and predicted they would make space travel feasible, including sending a man to the moon.
He spoke of long-range rocket passenger planes, rocket ships that could reach the moon with men in “divers suits.” Von Braun was reluctant to talk about politics, but during his final clearance procedure before going to the United States, von Braun told his American integrator: “I was always a German and still am.” He emphasized that Germany’s only hope was to cooperate with Western allies against the Eastern hordes, i.e., the Soviet Union.
In July 1945, after the final intelligence screening, 350 Germans from von Braun’s much-larger team of scientists and engineers were approved by Washington for the secret “Project Overcast” — the operation to transfer the Germans to the United States. Under tight secrecy they finally arrived in America, where eventually von Braun and his team made an enormous contribution to the U.S. space and military effort.
Under the cloak of secrecy they were dispersed to different rocket and related military facilities. They soon learned the strange ways of what for most of them became their adopted land. They called themselves “prisoners of peace” and by Christmas were permitted to shop in the nearest town to buy gifts for their families in Germany.
After the shock of Sputnik in 1957, America accelerated its program to win the space race, with a great boost from von Braun, who immediately assured his superiors that “We can put up a satellite in sixty days.” Under his inspired leadership, America soon surpassed Russia in the space race. This and all his spectacular achievements are carefully chronicled in the book.
For many Americans von Braun remained controversial because he had helped Hitler’s war machine and never fully apologized. His self-assurance and bravado didn’t help. After retiring from the U.S. government and leaving the Apollo program, he joined Boeing and undertook an arduous worldwide schedule of lectures despite his declining health. He died in 1975.
In his later years, von Braun freely discussed the relation of science to religion. Indeed, he may have rediscovered his childhood Lutheran roots. On a visit to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City he was invited to play its famous organ, he played “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” After the three Americans returned from the Apollo moon voyage, a reporter asked him how he felt. He replied, “I quietly said the Lord’s Prayer.”
Ernest W. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.