Remembering Wernher von Braun 100 years after he was born

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Published on: March 25, 2012

This past Friday would have been Wernher von Braun’s 100th birthday. The famous German rocket scientist was born on March 23, 1912 and passed away in 1977 at the all-too-young age of 65.

While the heroic task of landing men on the Moon during Project Apollo was most certainly a team effort, involving literally hundreds of thousands of people, it is fair to say that von Braun’s contributions to the design and management of the construction of the Saturn 5 Moon rocket was paramount to the success this nation achieved with Apollo.

And as much as we rightfully remember how great von Braun and the Saturn 5 were, we must acknowledge the truth that both man and machine found their success during the 1960s because of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the horrors that were part of World War 2 a few decades earlier.

Some would suggest that is reason enough to vilify von Braun and erase any suggestion he did any good for this country. The man was a card-carrying Nazi who developed the V-2 rocket to use as a missile against the Allies and relied on slave labor to assemble the rockets. Thousands of people died because of Wernher von Braun.

Others would tell you that von Braun was only interested in using rockets for space exploration, a cause he had championed in Germany before becoming involved in the war effort. His affiliation with Hitler and the Nazi’s was the result of a “join us or die” reality that few of us living today could ever hope to truly understand.

I never met von Braun. I have only heard the stories, both good and bad. The von Braun I know, or at least the image of the man I grew up with in Minnesota, was that of a brilliant rocket scientist who held a vision of our future in space that inspired and excited me, and who could effectively tell that story to the public, especially in the trio of films he worked with Walt Disney on and which I must have watched dozens of times in school as a youngster.

The von Braun I knew was of the man who started the National Space Institute in 1975, which we now call the National Space Society, to help promote the space program following the conclusion of the Apollo program. Von Braun was concerned about the coming gap between Apollo and the first flights of the Space Shuttle. In a 1975 interview, von Braun was quoted as saying:

“I’m fully aware that public interest is a very fickle thing. One day, the word is ‘Moon or bust,’ and the next day it is ‘let’s clean up the rivers.’ People get so much information today that the priorities in [their] minds swing back and forth. The Apollo flights to the Moon were demonstrations of immense capabilities and potential, but in some respect they may be compared with Lindbergh’s flight across the ocean. I think space is now entering a maturing period where it will be less gee-whiz, less sensational, but it will become more a part of everyday life — just like the airlines.

…There were great men long before the first big rockets were built. And we are just building on their legacy. We want to make sure that this legacy can now be passed on to the next generation, the people who will really pick the fruits of the trees we have planted. I think the silliest part of the decay of the public interest in space is that … we planted the orchard, and we nourished it and fertilized it and watered it and gave it all our tender loving care. And now, the time comes when the fruits can be picked – and they don’t want to play the fruit pickers! That is where I think the young generation can make the greatest contribution – pick the fruits.”

Although I have long since lost it, I clearly remember getting a letter from von Braun, personally inviting me – and hundreds of my other close friends – to join the National Space Institute, and I did because I wanted to be one of the fruit pickers.

Long before I gained an adult understanding of politics and war, at a time when I laughed at the Nazi’s and saw them only as bumbling fools while watching “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV, the von Braun I knew was of a respected, great man who had escaped to America to help us launch our space program, who inspired me with his words and models of rockets and space stations we might build some day, and who looked as handsome and sure of himself as many of my German relatives.

Although I realize there is a darker side to the story, that doesn’t change the fact American’s walked on the Moon, nor does it bring back anyone who suffered or died because of the work led by Wernher von Braun. All we can do now, all we should do, is seek to learn from our history books and try to do better in the future.

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