Friday, May 24, 2013

Reflections on Wernher von Braun

This isn't a particular anniversary of much of anything, but an article article by Charlie Petit posted on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker commented on an article from, of all sources, Al Jazeera.  And it was a good one, written by Amy Shira Teitel. 
She asks if German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun was the most controversial man in history.  He doesn't rate "in history," but he was controversial - and, I think, always will be.  The river of time tracing  space exploration runs through Pennemunde - and, unavoidably, its hellish offspring, the Mittelwerk, where prisoners of all types, including POWs (who could not, according to the Geneva Conventions, be put to making war material at all) were worked to death in thousands to build V-2s. 
When Erika Lishock and I did our book The First Space Race, we talked to associates of von Braun including James Van Allen and Ernst Stuhlinger, and I corresponded with Michael Neufeld, who later wrote the definitive biography. Stulhlinger had earlier written a biography laying out the von Braun story as he remembered living it with him.  Von Braun lied even to his close American friend General Bruce Medaris about not knowing the manufacturing conditions: he had nothing to do with the decision to employ slave labor, but he did learn about it, and there are at least a couple of pieces of correspondence with his signature.  Stulinger argued that von Bran and his Army superior, Walter Dornberger, tried to get better conditions but could not persuade the SS, which ran the production plant, to make any changes.
Our judgment call after weighing the various sources was that he probably did argue to the SS commander that the prisoners would produce better work if treated better, but when he was brushed off, he didn't pursue it, and he made no formal protest (nothing in writing). What he could have done, of course, remains forever in doubt. Most likely, he could have done nothing, but that doesn't absolve him of not trying harder.
We would have reached space without von Braun, eventually.  As events unfolded, though, he was pivotal.  His Jupiter-C launched the first American satellite, and his Saturn V took us to the Moon.  By "his," I don't mean he was the sole designer by any means, but he had a way of grasping an overall design and how things would work together - or could be made to work - that engineers deep in a particular technology like propulsion could have missed.  He felt an enginer has to "keep his hands dirty" - keep a hand in the work, and visit the shop floors.  He was also a leader who could rally men (and they were, of course, men in those days) to difficult challenges. Russia's Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer of the Soviet space program, had the same strengths. Each man expressed with wish he could have worked with the other, but in the Cold War, that was not going to happen. 
Von Braun's enthusiasm for space was always genuine, as was his Christian faith, but both were compromised.

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