The latest presentation in the series, “1969: The Moon Landing in Context,” covered the life of Wernher von Braun and his conflicted past March 28 in the McCarthy Center Forum.
Michael J. Neufeld, who led the presentation, is a senior curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and has written several books on air and space flight as well as Wernher von Braun.
“Wernher von Braun was seized from an early age by an extraordinary and even blinding ambition to become the Columbus of space, to even land on the moon itself. This dream was central to the Faustian bargain he got into with the Nazis who offered all that he asked for – money, power, resources – but only if he did it their way, and for their purposes for weapons and ultimately, slave labor,” he said.
Through this lens, Neufeld talked about von Braun’s early life as the son of a wealthy aristocrat, and the culture of “space nerds” during the 1920s.
The trend was encouraged by Robert Goddard, who launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts in 1926, said Neufeld.
Von Braun was enamored immediately by the prospect of going into space. He rejected a classical education of Greek and Latin, and instead embraced the ideas of physics, chemistry, and astronomy after receiving a book about the theoretical possibilities of space rocketry, Neufeld said.
Having earned a doctorate degree in physics at only 22, von Braun was quickly recruited to work for the German military to oversee rocket programs, where in a few short years, he was directing teams of over 5,000 workers.
However, the German army at the time was under the control of the Nazi party, and in order to advance politically, von Braun was compelled to join.
Although he was largely indifferent to Nazi ideology, he eventually joined the SS, the paramilitary branch of the Nazi party, where he was promoted yearly and rose to the rank of Sturmbannführer, equivalent to a major.
There is at least one photograph of von Braun wearing the SS uniform during the war, said Neufeld. However, after the war, von Braun distanced himself from his role in the SS.
Further, in 1942, von Braun was placed in charge of the V2 rocket program. These were known as some of the most terrifying weapons to fall on London and resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, Neufeld said.
Extensive slave labor from the Dora concentration camp was used in the design and construction of the V2 rockets, and while von Braun was aware of the horrid treatment of those in the camps, he claimed to feel unable to change it in his position.
After the war ended, Neufeld said the United States conducted Operation Paperclip, a mission to recruit prior Nazi scientists to the United States, and to use their research to gain a scientific edge.
The decision to recruit von Braun was based on his own accounts of being against party ideals, including an arrest by the Gestapo after he made comments that were considered defeatist and unpatriotic to the party, Neufeld said.
After moving to America, von Braun was set to work at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, on military rocketry projects, rather than being allowed to work on space related projects, Neufeld said.
He was moved shortly after to Huntsville, Alabama where he, along with his cadre of German scientists, designed one of the first nuclear missiles, the Redstone Rocket, which was based, almost wholly, on the V2 rocket.
During the years he worked for the military, Neufeld said von Braun made it his primary goal to sell spaceflight to the people of the United States.
However, it would take several years before Americans would warm up to the idea of taking to the stars, and von Braun would be scrutinized by the American public.
Neufeld played a song by Tom Lehnard, a songwriting satirist during the time von Braun was in the public eye, that references von Braun’s prominent role in the V2 project.
Lehnard sings, “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”
However, in 1960, von Braun was appointed as the first director of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), and he kept the position until 1970, said Neufeld.
Naturally, as director, von Braun was instrumental in the development of the Apollo 11 mission that brought the first humans to the moon in 1969.
His greatest disappointment in life, however, is that he was unable to lead a mission into space. The closest he ever was able to get was in a KC-135 stratotanker, which simulates a zero-gravity environment through its flight pattern, said Neufeld.
Von Braun was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1973 and continued to work until his death in 1977, he said.
After the presentation a Q&A was held and Neufeld was asked if von Braun was an opportunist who jumped on board with the Nazi regime to further his research, simply seeing it as a means to an end.
Neufeld replied, “The traditional view of von Braun, as heard in the song earlier, is that he was an opportunist.”
He added, “I don’t believe that is totally correct. While he is an opportunist in some ways, he was joining a Faustian bargain, and believed that if it was for the good of the country, and if he could build something to protect the country, and the country could be proud of, then it was worth it.”