Space Uber Alles (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War By Michael Neufeld. Knopf 608 pages; $35 A new study of the German rocket genius behind the American space program reflects his complexity Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown "Ha, Nazi schmazi," says Wernher von Braun On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the moon in a defining moment of human achievement, the lion's share of the credit for their mission was a German rocket scientist's due. So much so, on a recent top-100 list of aviation pioneers, industry professionals ranked Wernher von Braun second only to the Wright Brothers in importance, ahead of Leonardo da Vinci, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, William Boeing and Charles Lindbergh. That's despite an awkward biographical detail: Von Braun was once a card-carrying Nazi, and an SS officer at that. His career, from wunderkind working for the Nazis' secret ballistic missile program to celebrated architect of NASA's space program, provides a classic case study of the moral ambiguities inherent in scientific progress and the often dubious character of its makers. His biography is a moralist's palimpsest in which differing interpretations of his actions can be neatly superimposed over one another. Was von Braun a dissembling evil genius? A politically misguided visionary? An amoral, calculating pragmatist? Was he all three? In Michael J. Neufeld's massive new biography, "Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War," the German rocketeer is a mixed bag of a man. At times, the lifelong spaceflight enthusiast comes across as a gifted and driven megalomaniac. He loves his ballistic gadgets which he's designing excitedly with spaceflight in mind, but cares little about their subversion as weapons of destruction. "It was immaterial to him," a British reporter wrote, following an interview with von Braun in 1945, "whether they were fired at the moon or on little homes in London so long as they worked efficiently." Or as satirist Tom Lehrer put in a song, whose opening stanza is quoted above: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down/ that's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun." At other times, von Braun is more like a penitent (somewhat still in denial) who, with the benefit of hindsight, rues the role he was once co-opted to play in Nazi crimes. "I never knew what was happening in the concentration camps," he told science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. "But I suspected it, and in my position I could have found out. I didn't and I despise myself for it." To his credit, Neufeld, director of the Space History Division of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., doesn't reduce von Braun's complex personality to comfortingly simple Manichean certainties. In his view, von Braun was no mad or evil scientist; he was a deeply flawed yet ultimately civilized man, whose privileged background, gilded existence and driving ambition blinded him to his complicity in heinous crimes. A scion of prominent Prussian aristocrats, von Braun was, by most accounts, a proud German nationalist but never a staunch Nazi. He was a political opportunist willing to sell his skills and services to Hitler in exchange for funding and support for his then-futuristic ballistic missile program at Peenemunde, on the Baltic Sea. The precocious engineer, still in his 20s, struck a "Faustian bargain," in Neufeld's words. He even became a token member of the SS in order to further his dream of flying one day to the moon. Yet his handlers were interested not in von Braun's flights of fancy but in his groundbreaking ballistic missile dubbed V-2, whose range was long enough to rain terror on Britain. Von Braun was OK with that, so long as he had government support for his work. And if, with Germany facing defeat, the stepped-up pace of production of the "miracle weapon" required slave labor by inmates from Buchenwald and elsewhere, so be it. "If he wished to have money for rocketry," Neufeld writes, "to have a career... [and] to keep himself out of danger, he had to participate in stoking the fires of hell. And he did." In a telling episode, von Braun approaches a French physics professor conscripted for slave labor, asking for his help in the fine-tuning of the V-2 (the first ballistic missile ever to reach suborbital flight). "I refused him bluntly," the Frenchman recalled shortly after the war. Nonetheless, he added, "[von Braun] tried several times to improve my lot." Some 20,000 other slave laborers were worked to death, however. And despite his later protestations of ignorance, von Braun must have been aware of the prisoners' inhuman treatment by SS guards. Then again, here was a man who, while finding refuge at war's end in a luxurious alpine redoubt, waxed lyrical about the "excellent" hotel service as the Red Army was wreaking havoc nearby. The V-2 debuted in September 1944 in German attacks on liberated Paris and on London. By then, an increasingly disillusioned von Braun was ready to jump ship and pursue his dreams elsewhere, reselling his allegiance. "The U.S. Army became his deus ex machina," Neufeld writes, "rescuing him from the potential consequences of his actions" - and from planned kidnapping by the Russians. From the start, the Cold War was as much a technological contest as an ideological one. Scientific advances were hailed by the opposing camps as justifications of political doctrine. In October 1957, the Soviet Union ushered in the "Space Age" by launching Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit earth, and sent the United States scrambling to do one better. In 1961, U.S. president John Kennedy pledged that before the decade was out his country would put the "first man on the moon." By 1969, thanks to von Braun, the stars and stripes had duly been planted in the lunar soil. In May 1945, the German engineer, recently appointed professor (the Reich's youngest) by Hitler, who'd also awarded him the Knight's Cross, approached a U.S. Army unit with the plea of "Take me to Ike." Treating GIs "with the affable condescension of a visiting congressman," as one recalled, the German offered his services to the Americans, not as an enemy captive but as an equal. Extract of an article in Issue 26, April 14, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.