International Space Station 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS/NASA/Handout )
This article was first published by
Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.
Right now there are two Americans aboard the International Space Station, and
their only way home is to hitch a ride in the Russians’ Soyuz capsule, a
ramshackle remnant of the 1960s. There’s no space shuttle to bring them home
because the shuttle has been retired; also retired are plans for an American
return to the moon. The country seems to have lost its space
But the future wasn’t always so bleak.
President Kennedy asked the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal,
before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely
to the Earth.” The speech remains one of history’s great throwings-down of the
gauntlet. To humanity’s enduring and pleasant surprise, the nation made it: on
July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped from a lunar lander into soft, grey moon
dust and announced that he had taken one small step. The nation was justifiably
proud of itself. But it didn’t realize what a big part of its pride in
the moon landing was owed to an engineer named Abe Silverstein.
Silverstein was one of the nation’s foremost aerodynamics experts, and designed
its first supersonic wind tunnel. The grandson of a rabbi, he founded a
synagogue in Cleveland and organized a group to help Soviet Jews. He
turned down a reward-promotion to head the Johnson Space Center in Houston; when
asked what he wanted instead, he asked NASA to name its new Maryland space
center for his deceased colleague Robert Goddard. He was one of the most
respected men in the upper echelons of NASA, where he was renowned for being
brilliant and a nice guy, and for making the moon landing possible. But
today he’s completely forgotten.
Not forgotten is Wernher Von Braun. If
you haven’t heard of Von Braun, you’ve probably heard about ex- Nazis working
for NASA: Von Braun was their leader and these days many think of him as the man
who put America in space.
During the war, Von Braun led the Nazi rocket
program from the Baltic Sea-side town of Peenemünde; in Germany he and his
science cadre were known affectionately as the “Peenemünders.” In Britain they
were known (less affectionately) as the men blitzing London with V-2 rockets.
The Peenemünders were good at their job and for eight months starting in late
1944, they killed several thousand Londoners and maimed several thousand
As the Russian front approached Von Braun’s compound, he took his
team and surrendered to the US rather than risk capture and torture by the
Soviets. German scientists were the Second World War’s party favor and Von
Braun’s boys were brought home to the US and put to work bolstering America’s
own, fledgling rocket program.
Working for the army and bomb makers at
heart, the Peenemünder’s specialty was blowing things up. They made missiles for
the Army, which the Army used to blow things up. They made rockets for NASA, and
the rockets often blew up. They produced the Redstone, which was used by NASA to
put its Mercury astronauts in space – in 1960, NASA launched its first
Mercury-Redstone. The rocket lifted four inches off the pad before it fell
abruptly back down, on its end, and remained upright. To the great surprise of
everyone watching, it didn’t blow up. And that signaled
But not enough progress. By 1961 the Redstone was refined
enough to put Alan Shepard in space, but still too weak to put a anyone in
orbit; a month before Shepard’s flight the Russians had orbited Yuri Gagarin.
The nation was getting antsy. Twenty days after Shepard’s flight, Kennedy made
his “end of the decade” speech, and focus began to shift toward a rocket that
would be powerful enough to carry men to the moon.
Kennedy said, in his
speech, that he and NASA proposed to “develop alternate liquid and solid fuel
boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is
superior.” Von Braun thought liquid was too risky. Abe Silverstein thought he
was wrong. To the ex- Nazi’s chagrin, the soft-spoken Jew took the position that
since an engine fueled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen would be more powerful and
efficient than an engine fueled by the liquid oxygen-kerosene formula Von Braun
was pushing, it was worth inventing one. Von Braun dismissed Silverstein and his
team as a “colony of artists,” but Silverstein won and Von Braun was tasked with
building the new engine into a rocket.
There followed 18 months of
failure and a recommendation from Von Braun that the new engine be
abandoned. Silverstein interceded; he and his team at NASA’s Lewis
Research Center fixed the new “Centaur” booster engine and the “Atlas” rocket
that carried it, and a year later the first Atlas-Centaur launch took place. The
new design was used for the upper stage of Apollo’s rocket and became “America’s
workhorse in space.” Silverstein was then director of Space Flight Programs and
the Apollo journey to the moon was his baby, so to speak. “Apollo” was the name
he chose for it.
But you can argue that Silverstein’s greatest
contribution to manned space flight took place nine years before Apollo 11 and
four days before Kennedy asked the nation to put a man on the moon. Vice
President Johnson, worried about getting space funding through congress, asked
NASA administrator James Webb to come up with something big to get people
excited. Webb asked Silverstein.
“We can go to the moon,” said
Silverstein. Webb asked how long that would take. Silverstein took a minute to
do some calculations, and told him “we can do it by the end of the
decade.”Josh Gelernter. Much of this piece relies on research done by
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