Wernher von Braun - The Nazi Behind NASA Documentary

Wernher von Braun - The Nazi Behind NASA Documentary

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The man known to history as Wernher von Braun  was born on the 23rd of March 1912 in the small   town of Wirsitz in what is now northwest  Poland midway between Poznan and Gdansk,   but which in 1912 was a part of the eastern  regions of the Second German Reich in Prussia. His father was Magnus von Braun, a  German government official in Prussia,   the family belonged to the baronial rank in  eastern Germany and as such Wernher had the   noble cognomen Freiherr included in his name,  Magnus von Braun rose to a position of some   considerable power during Wernher’s youth and  he consequently served as the German Minister   for Food and Agriculture for a brief period  between the summer of 1932 and early 1933. His mother, Emmy von Quistorp, could trace her  lineage back to several European royal houses   and as such the von Brauns could lay  claim to a high social status in Germany,   however, the family’s claims to nobility were  scuppered just years after Wernher’s birth,   German involvement and defeat by Britain, France,  Italy and the United States in the First World   War between 1914 and 1918 saw an end to the German  Second Reich, when a new German Republic, known as   the Weimar Republic, was formed in late 1918 and  early 1919 the old German nobility had their legal   privileges removed, though the family continued  to use the Freiherr cognomen in their names. Though he was born in the Polish parts  of Germany the young Wernher was soon   living in the heartland of Germany, when he  was just three years old his family moved   to Berlin, the capital of wartime Germany, to  facilitate Magnus’s work as a government official,   as he grew older the young Wernher was transferred  to numerous private schools around Germany.

The wider context in which he  was growing up was critical   in the development of Wernher’s scientific  interests, in 1914 Europe had been thrown   into a continent-wide war which soon  expanded to other parts of the world,   the First World War would have its winner  and losers, Germany being one of the latter,   but what all sides benefited from was the burst  of technological development which walked hand in   hand with the conflict, by the end of the war in  1918 new technologies had been rapidly developed,   mostly associated with the battlefield  and the supply of the armed forces. Perhaps the most novel was the armoured tank,   a mechanised war machine which did not  exist in 1914, but the most significant   for von Braun’s later career were surely the  rapid advances in aviation and ballistics. When the war started air flight was only  recently invented, Orville and Wilbur Wright   having flown the first ever plane at Kitty  Hawk in North Carolina in December 1903,   but by the time the war ended ended aviation was  much more common, planes had been used from 1914   for reconnaissance, as fighter planes and  increasingly to drop bombs on the enemy,   individuals were consequently beginning  to imagine new ways of sending ships and   objects soaring into the sky using the more  powerful explosives and ballistics which had   been developed for use on the Western  Front in France between 1914 and 1918. These new innovations clearly caught the  young Wernher’s imagination early on,   when he was just twelve years old von Braun  was arrested in Berlin for having attached   half a dozen of the biggest fireworks he could  acquire to a small coaster wagon in an effort   to see how fast he could make it move, later  in his life von Braun reflected on his first   ballistics experiment, stating “It  performed beyond my wildest dreams,   the wagon careened crazily about,  trailing a trail of fire like a comet”.

His interests were fuelled further as  he entered his teenage years and there   was a growing societal fascination in Germany  with the idea of space travel, for instance,   in 1927 the Verein für Raumschiffahrt or Society  for Space Travel, an amateur rocket association,   was founded in Germany, in October 1929 the  German-Austrian film director, Fritz Lang’s   acclaimed movie Frau im Mond or Woman in the Moon,  a tale about taking a trip to the Moon, premiered   in Berlin, through it the basics of rocket travel  were presented on screen for the first time. As he entered his late teens von  Braun’s own fascination with rocketry,   space travel and engineering was gaining  momentum, at sometime in late 1929 or early 1930   he met and befriended Willie Ley, an influential  member of the German Society for Space Travel,   he also entered the Technical  University of Berlin in 1930. It was through Ley and the Society for Space  Travel that von Braun met the more significant   influence on his early career, Hermann Oberth,  Oberth was a Hungarian-born German physicist   and engineer, who was one of the most important  figures in the early development of the field   of rocketry, he had acted as a consultant to  Lang in his production of Woman in the Moon   and in 1929 had won the first Prix REP-Hirsch  awarded by the French Astronomical Society for   his work on astronautics, it was also in 1929 that  he began experiments with liquid-fuelled rockets   which he called Kegelduse, the concept of fuelling  modern rockets with innovative liquid fuels   and the advances von Braun would go on to make  in this field for both the Nazi regime in Germany   and later the United States would later constitute  his most significant scientific achievements,   it is consequently impossible to understate  the influence of Oberth on the young von Braun,   who in later life would refer to Oberth  as “the guiding-star of my life”. In the years that followed von Braun’s  academic achievement expanded rapidly,   he spent the autumn term at the Swiss  Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich   and then returned to Berlin to finish a diploma in  mechanical engineering at the Technical University   of Berlin, following this he very speedily  completed a PhD in physics at what was then   the Friedrich-Wilhelm University and is now  the Humboldt University in Berlin, this was   awarded for a study entitled Construction,  Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the   Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket in April  1934, throughout this time he maintained a keen   interest in the concept of space travel, but for  the present time this would remain a theoretical   interest, ultimately von Braun’s practical work  increasingly focused on rocketry and ballistics.

Even before von Braun had completed his PhD thesis  he had been employed by the German government,   his first posting was under the Weimar  Republic government working in the German   Ordnance Department from 1932 onwards as he  was also undertaking his doctoral research. Early in 1933 enormous changes, which would impact  on the trajectory of von Braun’s entire life,   swept through Germany, following a catastrophic  economic collapse in Germany in the aftermath of   the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great  Depression which followed it, a number of   extremist parties had gained larger followings in  the country, one of these, the National Socialist   German Workers’ Party had risen to become  the largest party in the country following   the Reichstag elections in 1932, now early in 1933  they entered government and soon afterwards used   a fire at the Reichstag building as an excuse to  pass an Enabling Act which allowed their leader,   Adolf Hitler, and his ministers to rule by  decree, the Nazi Party had come to power,   and in the months ahead began to tighten its  grip on the German government and German society. Von Braun’s associations with the Nazi Party  are unquestionably the most controversial   feature of his life and career, there is no  doubting that he was a member of the Nazi Party   and a top scientist for the administration,  however, von Braun was adamant after the   Second World War that was to follow from 1939  to 1945 that he had joined the party only when   the war broke out in Europe and purely  in the interests of career advancement. He also maintained that he had never been  inclined towards the ideology of the Nazis,   regarding his work in developing weapons  for the Nazis throughout the war,   he simply stated that his country was at  war and as a scientist in the employ of the   government at the time he felt it was his duty  as a German to conduct the work which he did. Controversy has raged around this ever since,  particularly around certain inconsistencies in   von Braun’s version of his associations with the  Nazi Party, later in life he claimed that he had   only joined the Nazi Party in 1939 after he was  effectively pressured into doing so, however,   official records show that von Braun had joined  the Nazi Party in November 1937, moreover he   had also joined the paramilitary wing of the  Nazi Party, the Schutzstaffel or SS, in 1940,   he gained promotion within that organisation  several times in the years that followed,   when questioned about this in the United  States years later, von Braun again argued   that his membership of the SS was solely  for the purposes of career advancement,   but many accounts have surfaced since from  eye-witnesses, some subsequent to von Braun’s   own death, which suggest von Braun was a more  enthusiastic member of the SS than he claimed.

The truth of all this is hard to determine,   many individuals were coerced into joining  various branches of the Nazi Party during their   twelve year rule in Germany and von Braun would  certainly not have been alone in this regard,   but there is enough ambiguity to suggest he may  have been a supporter of the Nazis, even if he   wasn’t his close associations with Hitler’s  regime do not reflect well on his character. By the time he completed his doctoral studies in  1934 von Braun had started working for the Nazi   government at a laboratory and rocket test site  at Kummersdorf about twenty-five kilometres south   of Berlin, it was here in December 1934 where  von Braun’s team of engineers and scientists   successfully launched two liquid-fuel rockets to  altitudes of between two and a half and three and   a half kilometres, named the A-2 rockets, for  Aggregate-2, they were the first in a series   of exponentially more effective rockets which  von Braun and his team would develop over the   next ten years, the technology here largely  centred around alcohol and liquid oxygen as   highly combustible fuels which were used to create  extremely high temperatures to propel the rockets. Into the mid-1930s Wernher and his team  at Kummersdorf continued experimenting   with various novel innovations  around liquid fuels and rockets,   all of this was occurring as the German army  was rearming and the Nazi state was attempting   to recover territory which it had lost at  the end of the First World War to Poland,   Czechoslovakia and other neighbouring states, as  part of this von Braun was involved in developing   prototype rocket-propelled aircraft for the German  Luftwaffe, or air-force, between 1936 and 1938,   however a very poor safety record and difficulty  controlling the direction of the planes powered   in this fashion made von Braun’s designs in  this regard impractical for the time being,   these years also saw gradual improvements  in the design of Wernher’s rockets,   the A-3 and A-4 rockets being launched higher  and faster than their predecessor, the A-2.

In 1937 von Braun was also relocated to the centre  where he would spend most of his remaining time in   Germany, that year the Nazi regime established  Peenemunde Army Research Centre on the Baltic   Sea coast of northern Germany, von Braun and his  research team were moved here from Kummersdorf   and his research would be carried out here for  most of the next eight years at a specially   equipped Liquid Rocket Fuel and Guided Missile  Centre, at its height over 10,000 people would   be employed here, such was the scale of the  operations von Braun would soon be in charge of,   he served as Technical Director at  Peenemunde from 1937 through to 1945. The innovations being developed at  the research centre at Peenemunde   would soon be needed for the war effort,  on the 7th of March 1936 the Nazi regime   had remilitarised the Rhineland which German  troops were forbidden from entering according   to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles  which had concluded the First World War,   two years later in March 1938 Hitler oversaw the  union of Germany and Austria and in the autumn of   that year the Nazis began applying international  pressure to have a large portion of Czechoslovakia   known as the Sudetenland which had a large  German population annexed to the German state. The process of bringing central Europe under  German control was largely completed in the   spring of 1939 when Czechoslovakia and Hungary  were formed into puppet regimes or annexed,   these acts finally forced Britain and France to  act, when Hitler and Nazi Germany invaded Poland   on the 1st of September 1939, the two western  powers declared war on Germany in response on   the 3rd of September, the Second World War  had commenced, it would last for six years   and in the course of it von Braun would oversee  the development of some spectacular innovations   in rocketry, ballistics and liquid-fuelled  aircraft from the research centre at Peenemunde. Von Braun was soon making advances to fit the war  effort, in the first twelve months of the war his   team developed the A-5 rocket, the latest in the  series of rockets he had been working on since the   early 1930s, the A-5 reached altitudes of upwards  of nearly twenty kilometres, an enormous increase   in propulsion on what von Braun’s rockets had  been capable of just five or six years earlier. By the early 1940s von Braun set out on the final  course to develop the weapon for which he would   become an infamous figure in international  scientific circles by the end of the war,   by 1941 it had been concluded that the A-4  rocket had the best potential for development as   a long-range guided ballistic missile, by that  time the necessary technologies were in place,   some derived from the other  Aggregate test rocket series,   principle here were liquid-fuelled rocket  engines, but the team at Peenemunde had also   developed advanced supersonic aerodynamics  and a gyroscopic guidance system which would   allow the missile to fly with some level  of control after its initial propulsion.

What became known as the V-2 rocket  was first launched on a trial basis   from Peenemunde in October 1942 and  reached a height of 84 kilometres,   the rocket was fourteen metres long and carried  a 1000kg warhead at the very front of it,   it was fuelled primarily using a mix of  ethanol and liquid oxygen with a water   mixture to reducing internal heating to prevent  the rocket exploding in flight, a turbo-pump   forced the liquid fuel into a combustion chamber  at a rate of thirty-three gallons per second   which were then ignited, the resulting combustion  gases then exited the combustion chamber at over   2,800 degrees Celsius and a speed of 6,500 feet  per second, it was this combustion process which   allowed for the V-2 to travel with the velocity  it did even carrying such a heavy warhead. The military potential of the new rockets being  designed at Peenemunde by von Braun were clear to   the Nazi regime, they were also much needed from  1942 onwards, Germany’s invasion of Russia in the   summer of 1941 had not worked out as expected, the  German army failed to capture Moscow and several   other key strategic cities before the harsh  Russian winter set in, without adequate winter   clothes German troops perished in large numbers  on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1941. Then the following autumn and winter the Nazis  failed to seize the city of Stalingrad in the   south of Russia after pumping huge resources and  troops into the region in an effort to secure   the vital oil fields of the region, when the  Russians went on the counter-offensive late in   1942 they would ultimately would not stop until  they reached Berlin two and a half years later. With the war effort having soured the Nazis  increasingly began to hope that a miracle   weapon could be developed in Germany that would  offset Germany’s losses on the battlefield,   although the rockets von Braun had developed  could not act as such a miracle weapon,   it could nevertheless prove extremely  beneficial in striking at Britain from Europe,   accordingly in 1943 enormous resources were  pumped into developing hundreds of A-4 rockets.   They were also renamed, as the Vengeance-2 or V-2  rocket. Eventually more than 3,000 V-2s would be   fired at London before the war ended, killing more  than 2,500 civilians and terrorising the city,   there was no effective way of stopping a V-2  rocket once it was fired and the level of damage   the city and its people suffered when one was  launched was purely dependent on how accurate its   flight trajectory was, admittedly the accuracy of  the rockets at this early stage was quite mixed.

Von Braun’s central role in developing this  weapon for the Nazi regime would have been   controversial enough, but the manner in which the  V-2 rockets were being manufactured between 1943   and 1945 was doubly so, as more and more German  men were conscripted into the German armed forces   in the final years of the war, the Nazi regime  increasingly turned to the hundreds of thousands   of men and women who were being confined in the  concentration camps which had been established   around Europe to detain Jews, gypsies, political  prisoners and POWs as a source of slave labour. When a labour shortage caused delays in the  production schedule of the V-2 rockets in   the spring of 1943, one of the chief engineers at  Peenemunde, Arthur Rudolph, proposed using inmates   from the nearby Mittlebau-Dora concentration  camp as slave labour to produce the rockets,   this plan was soon implemented and many of the V-2  rockets produced between 1943 and early 1945 were   built by concentration camp inmates under duress,  many being beaten and tortured if they did not   work sufficiently hard enough, in the end more  labourers were actually killed in the workshops   where the rockets were built than were killed in  London when the weapon was used against Britain. There is no denying that von Braun knew about  the conditions these slave labourers endured,   yet, as with his membership of the Nazi Party,  he later excused it as something which he could   not influence in any way, and described the  conditions at the factories as repulsive. But again there are conflicting arguments, several  witnesses came forward many years after the war   and claimed von Braun had been complicit in  the abuse of slave labourers from the camps   and hand-picked those who would work  in the factories producing the V-2s,   however, as with his sympathies or  lack thereof towards the Nazi Party,   we may never know how complicit von Braun  was in the use of slave labour to build   the thousands of V-2 rockets which  were produced between 1943 and 1945.

Von Braun and his team at the research  centre at Peenemunde knew their value to   the scientific community, as the winter of 1944  turned into the spring of 1945 and the Russians,   Americans and British barrelled into Germany  from the east and the west, he and his team   began considering what they would do, how would  they surrender to the victors and which ones? Ultimately they decided to  surrender to the Americans,   in the spring of 1945 blueprints were made of  much of the work and research which had been   carried out at Peenemunde since the late  1930s, these were hidden for future use,   they would have to wait for an opportunity to  make their surrender though, in February and   March they were being moved towards the Austrian  and Bavarian Alps by the German high command as   the research centre at Peenemunde was abandoned in  the wake of the Russian advance along the Baltic   coast, in April, while being moved in Bavaria,  von Braun and several of his team eloped,   crossed the border into Austria and surrendered to  the 44th US Infantry Division on the 2nd of May,   six days later Germany surrendered unconditionally  to the allies, the war was over in Europe. Von Braun would not face prosecution or  punishment for his involvement with the   Nazi regime and the German war effort,  he was considered to be too valuable,   months before the Americans, British and  Russians began streaming into Germany in 1945   the United States government had prepared  a Black List of top German scientists,   engineers and technicians which it wanted to  locate and interrogate in Germany, von Braun   and the senior members of his research team at  Peenemunde were at the very top of that list. In the weeks following the end of the war the  Black List evolved into what became known as   Operation Paperclip, a secret US intelligence  program through which 1,600 German scientists   and their families were taken from Germany to  the United States, the trade-off was clear, move   to the United States, provide information on the  research they had been involved in for the Nazis   and put it to use for the United States,  in return the individual scientists would   eventually be absolved of any crimes they had  committed in their service to the Nazi regime. Von Braun was quickly involved, in June 1945 he  was moved to the US occupied zone in Germany,   he was kept confined and interviewed  extensively in the weeks that followed,   curiously one of the interviewers was  L. S. Snell, a British rocket engineer   who would go on to play a critical role in the  development of the Concorde engine years later,   in June von Braun’s transfer to the United  States was approved and he arrived at Wilmington,   Delaware on the 20th of September 1945,  the second act of his life had begun. Yet for all that the United States’ government had  prioritised bringing von Braun to America in 1945,   his services were certainly not maximised  in the years that immediately followed   his relocation to America, von Braun  and his team were sent to Fort Bliss   on the state border between New Mexico  and Texas, over the next few years here   they were responsible for refurbishing some  V-2 rockets and outlining to the US military   the procedures for their manufacture and  launching, but they were otherwise not given   huge leeway to work on developing new rockets  and their lives were heavily restricted here,   for instance being unable to leave the admittedly  large grounds of Fort Bliss without permission.

On a personal level, von Braun underwent some  profound change at this time, though raised as   a Lutheran, his attitudes towards religion were  ambivalent until 1945, he had also remained a   bachelor into his thirties and had been something  of a lothario at Peenemunde, serially dating   female employees at the north German research  centre, this changed in the first few years of his   new American life, in 1946 he became an adherent  of Evangelical Christianity, his religious beliefs   seem to have been genuine, rather than some effort  to better his image in America, it has, though,   been speculated with some justification  that his religious conversion might have   been owing to an effort to absolve himself from  his associations with the Nazis and their crimes. His marital status also changed shortly after his  arrival in the United States, in the spring of   1947 he received permission from the US government  to briefly return to Germany in order to marry his   18 year old cousin, a not wholly unusual marital  arrangement by the standards of the 1940s,   he and Maria von Braun would have three children,  Iris, Margrit and Peter, in the years ahead, thus,   whatever the moral ambiguity of Wernher’s marriage  arrangements might be by contemporary standards,   his life had settled down by the late 1940s, he  had become a pious Christian and a family man. In 1950 von Braun and his associates were  moved to Huntsville in the state of Alabama   to work on developing the first large American  ballistic rocket, one which eventually could   carry a nuclear warhead and replace the  standard nuclear bomb, what became known   as the Redstone Rocket was the direct descendant  of the V-2 and was fuelled using a mix of alcohol,   liquid oxygen and hydrogen peroxide, the first  such rocket lifted off on the 20th of August 1953,   its operational range was up to 320 kilometres  and by the late 1950s they were being deployed   in Europe on one of the major fronts which had  developed in the new Cold War between the US   and Soviet Russia, back in von  Braun’s homeland of Germany.

Throughout the 1950s von Braun was also seeking  to popularise the idea of Space exploration   and travel, the German scientist’s earlier  interest in this area had never diminished,   at the height of his work in Germany he had been  responsible for sending the first man-made object   into Space, on the 20th of June 1944 a V-2  rocket, bearing the serial number MW18014,   was launched from Peenemunde, it  reached an apogee of 196 kilometres   and accordingly broke the Kármán Line, the  defined boundary between Earth’s atmosphere   and Outer Space, this is the first recorded  instance of a rocket being sent into Space orbit. During his hiatus at Fort Bliss von Braun  had returned to the issue and in 1948 he   had written a book on the subject which he  only published 1952, The Mars Project was a   non-fiction work outlining a technical blueprint  for how an expedition could be sent to Mars and   a colony established there, as he stated  himself in the Preface to a later edition:   “My basic objective during the preparation  of The Mars Project had been to demonstrate   that on the basis of the technologies and  the know-how then available (in 1948),   the launching of a large expedition to  Mars was a definite technical possibility.” Though he would never see anything approaching  a manned mission to Mars in his lifetime,   von Braun was soon to be involved in the  US’s efforts to begin exploring Space,   the country’s attempts were belated, in the  aftermath of the Second World War the Soviet   Union had begun pumping resources into rocket  development and tentative space exploration,   on the 4th of October 1957 the Soviets  succeeded in launching, Sputnik-1,   the first ever artificial Earth  satellite into low Earth orbit. A month later on the 3rd of November 1957 the  Soviets sent the first living organism into   space on Sputnik-2, a dog named Laika,  these events shocked the US government,   which now determined to invest heavily in its  own Space program, triggering what has come to   be known as the Space Race, a distinct  part of the wider US-Soviet Cold War. The inception of the Space Race gave von Braun  a second life, for twelve years in the United   States he had been marginalised in the country,  given little room to do anything other than   share and moderately develop the technology  which had been used in the Aggregate and V-2   rockets back in Germany, now he was set free  to begin experimenting again with his team. Within months his team had developed the  Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone Rocket which   on the 31st of January 1958 launched  the United States’ first satellite,   named Explorer-1, into low Earth orbit,  consequently it was using a more developed   version of von Braun’s V-2 rockets that  America launched its first satellite.

More was to follow, on the 29th of  July 1958 the United States’ government   established the National Aeronautics and Space  Administration, popularly known by its acronym,   NASA, from its inception von Braun was central  to NASA’s work, his pivotal role was formalised   in July 1960 when the George C. Marshall Space  Flight Centre was established at Huntsville in   Alabama as a successor to the Redstone research  centre, the Marshall Centre was to become the   single largest research centre at NASA, charged  primarily with developing the launch vehicles   and rocket propulsion systems for sending US  Spacecraft into orbit, von Braun was the Centre’s   first Director and the senior research team was  staffed almost entirely by nationalised Germans   who been brought to the United States in 1945,  he would serve in the role for nearly ten years,   throughout the period of NASA’s most ambitious and  concerted efforts to further Space exploration. Von Braun’s first years in charge of the  Marshall Centre focused on developing the   launch capabilities for the spacecraft for NASA’s  Project Mercury, the first spaceflight programme   undertaken by the agency, Mercury’s goal was to  put an American into Space and return him safely   to Earth afterwards, it was implicit that the  goal was to achieve this feat before the Soviets. To achieve this in the later 1950s and early  1960s von Braun and his team were working on   a new generation of rockets, one was the Atlas  class of rockets which had been under development   since the mid-1950s, the others were the Saturn  rockets, which were the direct successors of the   Jupiter rockets which had fired the first American  satellite into low Earth orbit in January 1958,   von Braun proposed the rename in October 1958,  over the next few years at Marshall von Braun and   his team were responsible for developing these two  rocket classes which would serve as the primary   launching vehicles for US spacecraft for the  duration of the Space Race throughout the 1960s,   without them NASA would not have been able to  achieve what it would achieve during that period.

These rockets and launch vehicles were becoming  particularly necessary in the early 1960s as   the Space Race intensified, the next major  milestone for both the Soviets and the US   was to put a man in Space, this was eventually  achieved on the 12th of April 1961 when the   Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, completed one  orbit of the Earth in the Vostok-1 capsule. In many ways von Braun seems to have been  responsible for the Soviets reaching this critical   milestone before the US, NASA had been ready to  send a manned mission into Space in early 1961   before Gagarin’s orbit, but von Braun had insisted  on further tests being carried out to ensure the   safety and efficacy of the Redstone launching  vehicle, thus, when Alan Shephard became the   first American in Space on the 5th of May 1961 he  only narrowly missed out on being the first human   being in Space to Gagarin, who had completed his  mission less than four weeks earlier, the delay,   while unfortunate from the perspective  of Project Mercury, is a testament to the   precision and safety standards which von Braun  was employing at Marshall in the early 1960s. The Soviet Union had comprehensively won the first  acts of the Space Race, but the US was catching up   as the 1960s progressed, in February 1962 John  Glenn became the first American to complete an   orbit of Earth, his spacecraft was jettisoned  into Space using an Atlas D Launch Vehicle,   one of the first functioning rockets of the  new classes being designed by von Braun and   his team at Marshall, standing at nearly thirty  metres in height, it was capable of jettisoning   Glenn’s Friendship-7 spacecraft, weighing nearly  3,000 pounds, into orbit before disengaging. The Space Race settled into this  pattern throughout the mid-1960s,   the United States was constantly close to  reaching milestones before the Soviets,   but was perennially pipped by them right at the  end, on the 12th of October 1964 the Soviets sent   the first multi-person spacecraft into Space, with  Vladimir Komarov, Konstantin Feoktistov and Boris   Yegorov on board, this outpaced the Americans  by five months, Virgil Grissom and John Young   were the first Americans to share a spaceflight  on board the Gemini 3 spacecraft in March 1965. More significantly, the Russians beat  the Americans to the first spacewalk,   on the 18th of March 1965 the Russian cosmonaut,  Aleksey Leonov, became the first human being to   exit a spacecraft and float around Space, Ed White  had to settle for being the first American to do   so when he conducted the same task on the 3rd  of June, two and a half months after Leonov. Finally though the US caught up and began  to reach milestones before the Russians,   in December 1965 the Americans were the first to  complete a rendezvous between two spacecraft in   orbit when the Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 rendezvoused  in Earth’s orbit, then in March 1966 two American   astronauts, Neil Armstrong and David Scott,  successfully completed the first docking in   space when they successfully attached their  Gemini 8 spacecraft to a pre-launched orbital.

However, the target was increasingly now  the Moon, on the 3rd of February 1966 the   Russians were the first to successfully land  a lunar module on the surface of the Moon,   the Luna 9 was an unmanned spacecraft which  took just over four days to reach the Moon   and then began transmitting back images from  its surface, the race was now on to see who   could send the first manned mission  to Earth’s only natural satellite. Von Braun would be critical in these  efforts, the issue was developing a   rocket launch vehicle which could propel  a spacecraft capable of carrying multiple   individuals and a lunar module to the Moon some  385,000 kilometres away, to undertake this action   the Apollo Program had been launched in 1961  by President John F. Kennedy, but it was some   years before it was even remotely practical  to speak of actually achieving this goal.

Central to the Apollo Program’s success were  the Saturn class rockets which von Braun and   his team had been developing at Huntsville since  the late 1950s, from late 1967 these were utilised   by the Apollo missions, these missions were  unmanned at first, but from Apollo 7 onwards   were crewed missions, in December 1968 Apollo  8 became the first manned spaceflight to orbit   the Moon, a feat which Apollo 10 replicated  in May 1969, with these milestones reached   the stage was set for Apollo 11 which would  eventually leave Earth on the 16th of July 1969. It is impossible to understate von Braun’s  role in the success of the Apollo 11 mission,   the spacecraft was launched using a  Saturn V super-heavy lift launch vehicle,   the culmination of von Braun and his team’s  work at Marshall throughout the 1960s,   this rocket was 110 metres in length and weighed  2.8 million kgs, the Saturn V rocket launched   through three phases using millions of litres of  kerosene fuel, liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen,   the combined effect of all this burn was immense,  for instance, the first burn utilised 770,000   litres of kerosene fuel and 1.2 million litres  of liquid oxygen, which then created 7.5   million pounds of thrust, by the time the rocket  went through all three stages the Saturn V   rocket had created enough thrust to effectively  jettison the spacecraft into Deep Space,   when it completed the three stages every  part of the enormous rocket had been used   and detached from the spacecraft, which  was the only portion of what started on   the ground on Earth that was left at the end of  the launch, it was this launch process which sent   the comparatively tiny Apollo 11 spacecraft  into Deep Space on the 16th of July 1969. This was the culmination of Wernher von Braun’s  experiments with liquid fuels and rocketry which   he had commenced forty years earlier in Germany,  to this day the Saturn V rocket is the only launch   vehicle which has ever carried human beings  outside of low Earth orbit into Deep Space,   a half a century after its first  launch it remains the tallest,   heaviest and most powerful rocket  to ever be used in spaceflight   and holds the record for the heaviest  payload launched from Earth’s surface.

When Apollo 11 touched down on the surface  of the Moon on the 20th of July 1969   it was the culmination of the years of endeavour  and innovation at NASA and the Marshall Centre,   but unbeknownst to the individuals involved,  it would also be the beginning of the end for   the Space Program, von Braun’s research had  been enormously costly, adjusted for inflation   the Saturn V had cost fifty billion dollars to  develop in today’s money and each launch cost   one and a quarter billion dollars, consequently,  with the Space Race effectively won by landing the   first human beings on the Moon, the US government  began to wind down the Apollo Program, five   further Apollo missions landed two men each on  the Moon between November 1969 and December 1972,   each one blasted into Deep Space using the Saturn  V rocket, then the Apollo Program was ended,   no one has ever returned to the Moon since and no  rocket has ever been built to eclipse von Braun’s. Von Braun’s life seems like  an anti-climax thereafter,   how could it not, only continued missions and  endeavours like the Apollo Program had been could   have continued the level of achievement which  had culminated in the Apollo 11 Moon landings,   looking ever outward von Braun had expressed a  desire following Armstrong and Aldrin’s maiden   Moonwalk that the Saturn V could be further  developed to begin developing a rocket capable of   sending a mission to Mars, his long held dream,  but, this was just not politically feasible in   the 1970s as the Cold War entered a period of  significant détente and the Space Race ended. In the end von Braun appears to have realised  that there was no possibility of this occurring   reasonably quickly, in March 1970 he  relocated with his family to Washington DC   to take up the position of  Deputy Associate Administrator   at NASA’s political headquarters in  the US capital, it did not suit him,   eventually after two years after bickering  over budget cuts he quit in May 1972.

Weeks later he had taken up a role  as vice-president for engineering   and development at Fairchild Industries, an  American aircraft and aerospace manufacturer,   however, within months his life took a darker  turn, in 1973 he was diagnosed with kidney cancer,   a kind which could not be effectively treated in  the 1970s, but which would be so today, despite   the terminal nature of his cancer he continued  to work, partly at Fairchild, and partly as an   independent public speaker, in the latter role von  Braun sought to keep American Space travel in the   public eye and to popularise the idea of launching  a mission to Mars, but with little success. Eventually Wernher retired  at the very end of 1976,   deteriorating health forcing him to on the  31st of December, he had been awarded a   National Medal of Science by the administration  of Gerald Ford in 1975 for his accomplishments   in the field of Engineering Sciences, and  the medal was finally bestowed in 1977,   owing to his illness he was unable to attend the  ceremony to receive the medal from the country   which had made him a citizen after his dubious  earlier life in Germany, he died just weeks later   on the 16th of June 1977, aged 65, the cancer  in his kidneys having spread to his pancreas. There is no denying that Wernher von Braun was a   brilliant scientist and the enormity of  his contributions to Space exploration,   Sam Phillips, who served as the Director of  the Apollo Program during its most critical   period between 1964 and 1969, stated after the  Moon landings that he did not believe it would   have been possible for the United States to  reach the Moon as quickly as it did had it   not been for von Braun’s contributions to the  Space Program, if it had ever got there at all. The Saturn V rocket which carried each of  the Apollo missions which went to the Moon   remains the only rocket to have taken  human beings beyond low Earth orbit   and is one of the great accomplishments  of modern engineering and rocketry,   it was the culmination of von Braun’s life work,  the end point for the man who as a child had   first attached fireworks to a coaster wagon  and sent it barrelling down a Berlin street. On the way to producing the Saturn V rocket  many other accomplishments added to his legacy,   some of these have greatly influenced the modern  world, it was a von Braun rocket which sent the   first US satellite into Space, today there are  over 2,500 active-duty satellites in low Earth   orbit, powering everything from Cable TV to the  Internet, the rocketry systems and engineering   feats which he and his various research teams  between the 1930s and the 1960s worked on have   shaped the modern world in many ways which even  they would not have foreseen when they developed   them in the middle of the twentieth century, it is  unsurprising that many streets, buildings and even   a crater on the Moon have been named after him. But his story is a complex one and in many ways   an uncomfortable one, as the author of  a popular account of the Moonlanders,   Andrew Smith, wrote several years ago, von  Braun’s “spirit haunts Apollo like a spectre”,   while historians may argue about how deeply  involved in the Nazi regime von Braun was   in the 1930s and 1940s, there is no denying  that he was one of their principal scientists,   that his factories employed slave labour in the  last years of the Second World War and that he put   his abilities to work producing weapons which  showered London with the first ever ballistic   rockets in the closing months of the war, no  account of von Braun can overlook this record.

We are left with a paradoxical  figure, his leading biographer,   Michael Neufeld, has perhaps best summarised his  life, stating that, in evolutionary terms leaving   Earth to explore Space constitutes one of the most  important endeavours of the twentieth century,   in those terms at least “Wernher von Braun  deserves to be remembered as one of the seminal   engineers and scientists of the twentieth  century. His life is, simultaneously,   a symbol of the temptations of engineers  and scientists in that century and beyond:   the temptation to work on weapons of mass  destruction in the name of duty to one’s nation,   the temptation to work with an evil regime  in return for the resources to carry out   the research closest to one’s heart. He  truly was a twentieth-century Faust.” What do you think of Wernher von Braun? Was  he a brilliant scientist whose political   affiliations can be viewed separately from  his scientific work, or was he an amoral   Nazi-sympathiser who should never have been  rehabilitated by the United States government?   Please let us know in the comment section, and in  the meantime, thank you very much for watching.

2021-05-28 11:01

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