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Book Review: Von Braun
By: Robert Buchheim
September 12, 2009 8:07PM PDT
Views: 2457

Wernher von Braun had a remarkable life, overflowing with accomplishments and marked by stark contradictions ...

Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

by Michael J. Neufeld

Wernher von Braun had a remarkable life, overflowing with accomplishments and marked by stark contradictions. For a man whose passion was the dream of spaceflight, he was born at exactly the right time: he was a participant in the earliest days of European amateur rocketry, leader of the team that created the V2 (the world’s first long-range ballistic missile), one of the prime movers behind America’s first successful satellite, and arguably the father of both the Saturn rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon and the public enthusiasm that funded the space program. Many philosophers have wondered about the relationship between a man’s accomplishments and his personal flaws, and the author of this biography is forthright about acknowledging the flaws and contradictions in von Braun’s personality. He was a proud member of the pre-war German aristocracy, yet he happily learned the skills of a manufacturing laborer during his student years. He was remembered by many as a trustworthy and generous friend, yet he consciously turned a blind eye to brutality and slave labor at Peenemunde. He was a loyal and patriotic German, an officer in the Third Reich’s SS, yet he enthusiastically embraced American liberty. He shook hands with Hitler and Speer, was arrested (and freed) by the Gestapo, met with Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon, and was celebrated by Disney. He embraced Christianity and reached for the stars. He was, and did, all these things with passion, boundless energy, and a genius for managing projects and motivating people.

Michael Neufeld’ book presents a well-written, fast-paced, meticulously-researched biography of the man who is still an icon of the Space Age and who was the prototype of the term ”rocket-scientist” (although it is a term that he had misgivings about). It is well worth your while to read it! If you’re about my age, it will bring back old memories: the dreams of a “great wheel” space station and manned missions to Mars, the real-life crackling radio signals from outer space (“Apollo, you are ‘go’ for lunar injection...”), and – in my case – the static display of a V-2 at the Redstone Arsenal (home of Marshall Space Flight Center). If you’re younger, it’s a fascinating journey through the era and the motivations that created the modern world of space flight.

We are on the verge of a long hiatus in US manned space flight (probably a five year gap between the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and the maiden flight of Ares/Orion). The story of von Braun and the aftermath of Apollo is a reminder that we’ve bridged such a gap before, and it need not be an entirely negative situation. But we could sure use another person who combines the enthusiasm, salesmanship, and practical ability of Wernher von Braun!

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