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Book Review: Von Braun

Reviewed by: Ted Spitzmiller
Title: Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War
Author: Michael Neufeld
Format: Hardbound
Pages: 608
Publisher: Knopf
Date: September 2007
Retail price: $35.00
ISBN: 0307262928

The accomplishments of Wernher von Braun are legendary within the space community and to those who recall the great race to the Moon almost a half century ago. Because von Braun’s life spanned cultural shifts and national boundaries, author Michael Neufeld begins by recreating the bygone era of the former Prussian Hohenzollern Empire of the 19th century. This allows the reader to glimpse a view of the entitled European aristocracy of that period as well as the peasantry. With these perspectives Neufeld lays the foundation for the social and political climate of the Imperial German Society into which Wernher von Braun was born—and which shaped much of his attitudes that directed critical decisions in his life.

The author relates the importance of Wernher’s early learning during the uncertain years of the First World War and those that immediately followed. He spent his formative years in relative middle class comfort amid the cosmopolitan environment of a technologically advanced society despite the turbulent peace and poverty in Germany that followed the end of the war.

Because of subsequent implications of von Braun’s Nazi affiliation, Neufeld carefully documents key events in his life that might have had an impact on his thought processes as well as the book that motivated his future engineering aspirations—The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space by Herman Oberth. Wernher ultimately mastered academic subjects that were particularly difficult for him, such as the math, to the point of actually teaching advanced classes. Neufeld notes this generated a degree of intellectual arrogance which would occasionally surface over his lifetime.

The author brings Wernher’s political naivety to light as well and the early association with the VfR (Society for Space Travel). He relates the conditions under which the VfR was operated and the initial interest shown by the German army by whom von Braun was soon employed. Some of the technical details of the early German rockets (A-1 through A-5) that are missing from earlier biographical works are included and enhance the value of Neufeld’s book.

Von Braun’s association with the SS and other elements of the Nazi party are softly ingrained throughout much of the period of late 1930s. The author occasionally asks rhetorical questions to probe the readers own thoughts on the subject. Neufeld beautifully recreates the campus-like atmosphere at Peenemünde and the long-term future that its workers envisioned before the war began on September of 1939. The von Braun revealed here is almost the quintessential visionary engineering manager, with the ability to get the most out of his staff.

The reader is taken through the development problems of creating the first large liquid-fueled rocket, the A-4, that was renamed the V-2 (vengeance weapon 2). The dilemma of war-time mass production of the rocket created a moral controversy for von Braun that would follow him for the rest of his life. Von Braun’s SS membership is presented as a simple political expediency, although again the author leaves the reader with remarks such as “his [von Braun’s] story is plausible.”

The obvious decision to surrender the V-2 team to the Americans again reveals von Braun the opportunist. The surrender, while tension filled, still placed von Braun in control as he and (his boss) General Dornberger sought to work a “package deal” for hundreds of the Peenemünde staff. Neufeld documents the controversial steps taken to move more then 100 of von Braun’s staff to the US in 1945.

The author patiently works the reader through von Braun’s involvement with Colliers magazine in the early 1950s and his growing network of influential friends and collaborators. The tie-ins of the various players in early attempts to influence government involvement in a space program is fascinating—among them is Fred Durant, a covert CIA operative.

Neufeld points out that the origins of Project Orbiter in 1954 seem to indicate a desire for von Braun to beat the Soviets—realizing they would opt to launch a satellite at their earliest opportunity. The author did a commendable job in fitting all of the many people and events into perspective in describing how Project Vanguard was chosen over von Braun’s Project Orbiter. Neufeld reconstructs the subsequent meetings of the Stewart Committee and the condescending attitude that von Braun displayed that destroyed what might have been a reversal of their decision had he used his legendary charm.

The shock of the Sputnik launch and the approval of the Army to launch what would become Explorer I flows well despite the many interacting political and media pressures and prejudices. It is almost impossible to find any factual error in Neufeld’s work, but he writes of “live national television” for the December 6, 1957, launch of Vanguard‘s first attempt. The first “live” nationally-televised launch is, more probably, the August 17th 1958 Moon shot.

The author continues to emphasize von Braun’s Nazi past bringing it to into prominence once more when describing the creation of the biographical film I Aim at the Stars. The movie, poorly scripted and historically inaccurate, was approved by von Braun and is best left unviewed. Neufeld states that it “marked the slow downward trend in his celebrity status.”

The author digresses slightly to describe the politics involved in the creation of NASA. These occasional side trips are important to understanding the complete picture of how von Braun fit into other historical events of the time. Neufeld’s in-depth research on issue after issue reveals a von Braun who is increasingly disdainful of NASA management outside his domain.

The Apollo 8 and 11 missions, while emotional for von Braun, slip by almost without the reader noticing as the post-Apollo planning that occupied von Braun at that time takes center stage. The author documents the demise of both public and political support for an extensive human space program—hastened by lack of competition from the Soviets. With the constant reminders of his Nazi past, jealousy, and the winding down of the space program, von Braun’s popularity was on the wane, and his move from NASA to Fairchild Industries a few years later was a quiet one. Neufeld poignantly states, “…leaving NASA also meant leaving behind the remnants of his dream.” The author handles von Braun’s death from cancer in 1977 with some of von Braun’s own introspective thoughts and does a commendable job closing out a vibrant and event-filled life.

It may be speculated as to who actually had the greatest role in bringing the world into the space age. Was it Sergei Korolev, who built on von Braun’s V-2 legacy and who, for almost 10 years, drove the direction and intensity of the space race? Or was it von Braun himself in fashioning not only the V-2, but also the ultimate rocket that took humans to the Moon? Neufeld does not address this aspect and perhaps it is best left for readers to make their own judgment.

© 2008 Ted Spitzmiller

See also John F. Kross' review of this book from Ad Astra

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