Von Braun by Michael J. Neufeld

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Learning from Wernher von Braun

“Von Braun has often been depicted as a saint or a devil, as a hero of spaceflight or as a Nazi war criminal.”

Born into an aristocratic Prussian family in 1912, Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun demonstrated an interest in science at a very young age. After reading The Rocket into Interplanetary Space by Hermann Oberth, Wernher began a series of experiments with homemade rockets, much to the chagrin of his boarding school’s staff. His passion for rocketry and space travel would affect his decisions the rest of his life.

Testing liquid fueled rockets for the German Army, von Braun didn’t care for politics, nor did he realize the direction the army would eventually take. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, von Braun was assigned to work on the A-2 rocket. During Germany’s rearmament, his work on ballistic rockets became a priority. By the time he developed the A-4, von Braun was overseeing 350 workers.

Though von Braun did not support anti-Semitism or other primitive Nazis tactics, he joined the party in 1939, after its members “officially demanded” his membership. Further pressure forced the scientist to become a lieutenant and a major in the SS.

Hitler wished for von Braun to mass manufacture A-4s, also known as V-2s, though such demands were extremely impractical. When the A-4 continued to fail weapons tests, Himmler, the head of the SS, had the Gestapo arrest von Braun for allegedly making “defeatist remarks.” Later, the charges were dropped and von Braun developed a successful design for the V-2.

When the end of the war approached in 1945, von Braun and his team of engineers wishing to avoid serving the Russian government, surrendered to the American army. After signing a U.S. War Department contract, von Braun began testing a missile called “Comet,” but Congress quickly killed the project. Although the US government investigated the scientist’s background, they couldn’t find evidence to suggest that he was a security threat. By 1958, von Braun had a staff of 4,000 people.

When one of von Braun’s rockets put the Explorer I satellite in orbit, he earned a spot on Time magazine’s cover. As one of 10 senior executive directors in charge of the Apollo Program, von Braun’s Saturn launch vehicles made the moon landing possible.

Before dying of colon cancer on June 16, 1977, von Braun received a Medal of Science Award. The rocket man had become a celebrity in America, despite his past.

There is much we can learn from Wernher von Braun. He focused on science when the world around him became embroiled in conflict. He realized when it was absolutely necessary to adapt to change. Most importantly, he never looked to the past for inspiration, but rather to the potential of the future.

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