Von Braun, Michael Newfeld’s masterful biography of Werner von Braun, brings to life one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th century. He portrays Von Braun as a modern Faust, whose single-minded focus on his dream of space exploration both drove him to one of the greatest achievements of the last century and blinded him to the moral abominations committed in its pursuit.
As a boy he explored the heavens with his small telescope – a present for his 13th birthday – and his imagination was fed by the writings of Jules Verne and Hermann Oberth. His scientific curiosity was nurtured by his mother who challenged him to pursue his dreams despite the expectations associated with being a son of an aristocratic German family. From that young age he devoted himself to the dream of space flight, a devotion that never wavered.
Von Braun joined the community of rocket engineers in 1932 at the age of 20. At that time, rocketry was more barnstorming than science. There was little understanding of rocket propulsion, no experience in liquid propellants, and no understanding or comprehension of the scale of challenges that they would face.
One thing that they did have was a blind spot in the Paris 1919 treaty which attracted military, then Nazi, interest and resources. As the decade progressed the Nazi dictatorship wanted vengeance weapons at any moral cost and resourced it appropriately. Without that support, von Braun’s ambitions would have floundered.
Von Braun’s ambitions were breathtaking. One almost imagines that as far back as the mid-1930s he saw in his mind’s eye the progression of technology and the scale and science needed to progress through the dozen or so generations of technology needed to evolve from his 1.4m A1 rocket in 1933 through to the Saturn V. His first experimental rocket weighed 150 kgs, was liquid-fueled and never flew. The Saturn V stood at 110 metres and weighed 3,000,000 kgs. The journey spanned 34 years.
What an imagination he must have had! What a determination to not be satisfied with the genius of simply imagining such a feat but actually working for a lifetime to achieve it. Every single component had to be invented. Each generation of rockets had to be designed to advance the science one painstaking step at a time. It must have been felt excruciatingly slow, but somehow he persisted.
How to inject liquid propellants at the scale needed. How to move beyond gravity fed systems to turbo-pumps. Stabilisation. Navigation. The sound barrier. Telemetry. Re-entry. Computers. Multi-staged rockets. Low gravity. Decreasing air pressure and vacuums. Engineering complexity beyond imagination for most. The coordination of programs so complex and enormous that they still stand among the largest in history. Each themselves a lifetime of work.
Somehow von Braun found solutions to each challenge. And some terrible crimes were committed in order for his progression to continue. Jews and PoWs were put to work as slaves in the assembly of the A4/V2 production lines in what can only be described as crimes of humanity. Von Braun’s knowledge of, and acquiesence to, these conditions has been disputed – he was, after all, an engineer and not in charge of the mass production of the rocket. He explained his commission in the SS as a pragmatic necessity of a man in his position. Nonetheless, one must reach the conclusion that he did in fact know the extent of the attrocities but decided that his vision for space was more important to him than any other consideration.
How to judge von Braun for this moral failure? Newfeld presents a man who would not be drawn to defend his actions, but rather a man who would instead argue that he had a higher calling and that he had to make any deal, sacrifice anything, to progress. I would like to think that in a similar situation I would have chosen a different path, but there is a faint acknowledgement that obsession can be all-consuming and that one is sometimes hostage to it. Perhaps, to my shame, I may have been as blinded as von Braun.
Of course, his life’s work continued in the United States after the war. For the better part of a decade he was sidelined by a military establishment that either did not trust his Nazi past, or was not prepared to accept a German as the figurehead of the American missile effort. There were times when he thought his goals were to be cruelly denied. As part of his desperate campaign he spoke directly to the public, the leader of the new popular fascination with space exploration and travel. By happy coincidence, just as the public was becoming engaged with the ideas news of Soviets advances created the perfect conditions for von Braun – the space race was born and a newly created, well-resourced NASA was tasked, ultimately, with putting man on the moon. Von Braun was finally released from exile.
His greatest achievement was the Saturn V, which still ranks as one of humankind’s greatest engineering feats. Of course von Braun cannot take credit alone, nor did he attempt to. Tens of thousands of engineers worked across the Apollo program which, at its height in 1966, consumed 4.4% of the entire US Federal budget. His great achievement was as the master leader, the genius rocket engineer who created the organisation that made such a complex program a success.
Newfeld’s von Braun is a giant of a man. A genius who devoted a lifetime to a dream that few saw, and who executed relentlessly in a way that few others could have achieved. He was prepared to make enormous sacrifices to pursue his obsession. In some ways, he was himself subjugated to his own obsession in a way that must have tormented him.
One is drawn to him despite his flaws and in spite of the real moral questions surrounding his life. He was amoral, and refused to acknowledge any responsibility for terrible crimes that were committed in the pursuit of his goals. He made no attempt to apologise for that.
As such, it is impossible to judge him a great man. He did, however, put his mark on the world and progressed humanity in ways that few have done.