Wernher von Braun - The Nazi Behind NASA Documentary
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.