Sunday, May 30, 2010
Rocket Man by Wayne Biddle
Wernher Von Braun was the son of the Prussian (Junker) aristocrat who was the Minister of Agriculture in the last government of the Weimar Republic. As such he proved to be a valuable asset to the small circle of Lumpen-proletariat rocket enthusiasts who, at the time, had managed to obtain free space in a German Army ammunition dump near Berlin to carry on their few unpromising experiments in jet propulsion. Although he had limited scientific qualifications for the task he lent an air of sophistication and class to the endeavor and turned out to be a very successful manager and public relations man, helping to sell the project to higher-ups in the German Armed forces and the Nazi hierarchy including Himmler and Hitler. He joined the Nazi Party in 1937 and later, when the conquest of Europe began to falter and such actions became necessary to survive the in-fighting at the top levels of the ruling elite, the S.S. He became “technical director” of the first large scale rocket testing facilities at Penemunde by the Baltic sea. He performed the same role at the Mittelbau-Dora slave labor factory where the Nazis started producing their V-2 (V-4) rockets which were rained down on London, killing several thousand people but proved, in the end, to have been a big waste of resources with virtually no strategic effect.
Of course the slaves at Dora died in their thousands from malnutrition, disease, beatings and executions. Eventually the factory built their own crematoria to handle the bodies. Just before the end of the war, as the allies approached, most survivors were shipped off to the gas chambers or burned alive on site. Some survived to tell of Wernher von Braun's direct personal involvement in these affairs. Never-the-less, by that time Von Braun and a select group of his scientists had fled and managed to surrender themselves to American forces. Again, Wernher Von Braun's salesmanship served him well. He managed to convince the Americans that he was a pure scientist primarily interested in space travel who had not been able to avoid helping the Nazis with their weapons programs. He was brought to the United States to work on the Americans post-war weapons and then their space program, never being asked to give any testimony at the War Crimes Trials held in connection with the Dora slave labor camp.
In America he played a role very similar to the one he had in Nazi Germany: a technical manager, gadfly, purveyor of “idea-bubbles” and public relations impresario. Since he didn't play much of a role in the science of rocketry itself - in terms of theory, mathematics or manufacture- (picking up the words of the author):
Having a lot of time on his hands, he wrote a science-fiction novel of nearly 500 manuscript pages. The novel, titled “Mars Project”- in which seventy passengers go to Mars in ten spaceships after the West defeats the East with atom bombs dropped from an orbiting space station- was an amateurish brick of 1920s space-travel fantasies and 1930s Nazi propaganda about the Bolshevik menace. It is safe to say that the many New York editors who turned it down could not appreciate how well it expressed a dream of what an unspoiled Peenemunde might have accomplished had Hitler fought the ultimate war of annihilation against the Asian hordes. Von Braun would eventually sell the rights to a German publisher, which had it rewritten by a Luftwaffe veteran and illustrated with Frau in Mond-style pictures.
In 1952, however, he began an enormously successful sideline as a popularizer of the American“space” program with a series of lavishly illustrated articles- pre-screened by the Defense Department, like all his writings- in Collier's magazine that let loose the same flights of imagination he had released among his American captors at Garmisch- Partenkirchen, now amplified by the power of American advertising. The vivid full-color pictures of manned spacecraft, lunar and planetary exploration, and giant wheel-shaped orbital stations, with breathless commentary, struck a nerve of pleasure in the American public similar to what a later generation would experience at Star Wars movies, propelling von Braun into the heavens of mass media promotion.
The Collier's phenomena led to similarly cathartic appearances in 1955 and 1957 on Walt Disney's popular television shows that promoted “Tomorrowland” at the Disney theme park. On November 30, 1956, he appeared on the comedian Steve Allen's popular television show. Fan mail inundated his office, much of it answered in colloquial English by a public affair assistant, though von Braun was a sponge for American slang. On March 13, 1958, he and his wife Maria dined with Washington socialite Perle Merta, the famous “ hostess with the mostess”. Had nothing else ever happened to von Braun in America, the Collier's and Disney exposure would have cemented him in the minds of the baby-boomers in the way that Luke Skywalker took hold of mass consciousness a generation later. The illustrations and animated images were pseudo- scientific, but they helped to sell and adventure to a gullible or skeptical audience. Von Braun had done it all before, of course.
When Russia but Sputnik into orbit, Wernher von Braun's Jupiter-C put Explorer I up there right along with it, vaulting him from a mere TV-star to a national hero. Some matters remained sensitive, however. In December of 1958, an assistant answered a query from a researchers at the University of Texas about whether von Braun had ever been a member of the Nazi Party with a curt denial: “In answer to your question, Dr. von Braun was not a Nazi.”
At any rate, the satellite contest convinced Ike that the nation should have a civilian space agency, which became von Braun's first non-military employer. Though the Soviets scored another goal when they launched the first man into space on April 12, 1962, it was von Braun's reliable Redstone that answered for the home team on May 5. The young President Kennedy then decided to go for broke. From these Olympian heights, von Braun would not descend until after the moon was covered with boot prints. The past was erased. Nothing else mattered. He was the prophet of the Space age.