Thursday, January 15, 2015

History Spot: Wehrner von Braun

Wehrner von Braun looks over a mock up of Tranquility Base at a science fair in Atlanta, 1969

Over the holiday break I was channel surfing and came across a film/documentary called Space. It chronicled the space race between the USA and the USSR, and the competition to be the first to put a man on the moon and bring him home.

One of the interesting features of that race was the input of German rocket scientist Wehrner von Braun. Considered today to be one of the Fathers of Rocket Science, without Wehrner there would have been no Saturn V booster rocket; without the Saturn V booster rocket there would have been no Apollo 11 taking Neil Armstrong on his date with destiny.

Von Braun with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Centre

Wehrner had previously been engaged in rocket development for the Third Reich. Although he joined the Nazi party in 1937, von Braun later maintained that this was for convenience to enable him to pursue his scientific studies and not for ideology. Whatever the truth of that, he was the central figure in the Nazis' rocket development program, responsible for the design and realisation of the V-2 combat rocket during World War II. 

von Braun (in suit) with Nazi officers at Peenemunde, 1941

Hitler was so enthused by the military potential of von Braun’s solid fuel rockets, code named A-4, that he personally appointed him a professor and had him develop the rockets to target London. After 21 months the rockets were ready to fly. Renamed Vergeltungswaffe 2 or V-2, meaning “Retaliation/Vengeance Weapon 2”, the rockets rained dowen on London. Von Braun maintained that his interest lay in using rockets to transport people, not explosives. After hearing of the first rocket landing on London he stated "The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet." Satirist Mort Sahl commented "I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London".

V-2 rockets

As American and Russian forces swept into Germany, von Braun and his team elected to surrender to the Americans, having heard of the cruelty of the Russians. After the surrender von Braun declared to the press:

"We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

The Americans had no qualms about accepting von Braun and his team. Spirited to the US in an operation code named Operation Paperclip, their records were cleared of Nazi Party membership and affiliations and they were given false employment records. Thus bleached, they worked on development of military rockets whilst the USSR ploughed ahead on manned space craft. Realising the PR that the Soviets were getting out of their space capabilities, President Kennedy shifted focus. On 25 May 1961 he declared:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

 The rest, as they say, is history.

von Braun with President Kennedy 1961

Walt Disney and Wehrner von Braun, 1954

Tom Lehrer wrote a song about Wehrner with interesting lyrics.

Hear it and see Lehrer perform it at:

The lyrics:

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.

Don't say that he's hypocritical,
Say rather that he's apolitical.
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.

You too may be a big hero,
Once you've learned to count backwards to zero.
"In German or der English I know how to count down,
Und I'm learning Chinese," says Wernher von Braun.

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