Rocket man

M.G. Lord's latest book is "Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science."

At the height of the space race, German-born rocket engineer Wernher von Braun -- a model for the title character of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, “Dr. Strangelove” -- didn’t inspire ambivalence. Cold-warriors worshiped him. He was the patriarch of U.S. rocketry; his soaring brainchildren would crush the Soviets -- or “eastern hordes,” as he termed them. Others could not forget the V-2 missiles he designed for Hitler during World War II or the concentration-camp laborers who built those weapons. To critics, Von Braun embodied a shameful U.S. policy that valued technical knowledge over justice and protected Nazi scientists from punishment for their war crimes.

Yet today Von Braun is mostly unknown, especially to those under 40. Or so says Smithsonian Institution historian Michael J. Neufeld, whose biography of the controversial rocketeer, aptly subtitled “Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War,” aims to set the record straight. “Von Braun” is an exhaustively researched and scrupulously balanced examination of both the German and U.S. chapters of his life. Yet precisely because of its evenhandedness, the book may be more damning than any one-note anti-Nazi screed could ever be.

Neufeld does not portray Von Braun as evil but, rather, as a man like Goethe’s Faust, who “uses his infernal powers to build great engineering works for what he believes to be the betterment of mankind.” Faust mistreats his workers and inadvertently kills people in his way, but he feels no guilt, because “he cannot accept personal responsibility.”

Popular mythology casts Von Braun as a genius engineer, yet his strongest achievements were as a manager and a salesman. At the Nazi rocket complex on the Baltic Sea, he was the hands-on director of hundreds of people, a vast technical team. And at the hollowed-out mountain where the Nazis fled after Allied raids, he became judiciously hands-off -- a policy that permitted him to claim distance from the brutalized inmates assembling his V-2s. To bankroll his research, he had to excel at sales -- first pitching Hitler on the idea of rockets as a weapon, then selling himself, his fellow scientists and their expertise when he surrendered to U.S. forces at the end of the war.

In the mid-1960s, the apogee of his U.S. career, Von Braun managed an even greater number of employees -- 6,700 -- at the Alabama center where the Saturn V, a gigantic multistage booster that launched the Apollo astronauts, was built. From the moment he left Germany, he began peddling space -- first to the Army, which funded his initial projects, then to the U.S. public, whose tax dollars financed NASA. He gained celebrity through articles in Collier’s magazine and a collaboration with Walt Disney. Congress adored him. Neufeld quotes cynical columnist Mary McGrory: “The hardest thing the German-born scientist has to do is to say ‘down, boy’ as eager congressmen press additional millions on him and beg him to tell them if he isn’t treated right.”


Von Braun inherited his self-confidence. He was a baron, handsome and aristocratic, the son of Magnus von Braun, a landowner and official who epitomized Prussian masculinity at the time of Kaiser Wilhelm I. Remarkably, Magnus’ belief in the superiority of his bloodline survived the fall of the Nazis and his own immigration to the United States. “This democracy thing is just a passing fad,” he told a grandson in the 1960s. Yet despite his fine genes, Magnus was not the sharpest spike on a helmet, and he never understood how Wernher, unlike his other two sons, could exhibit such technical brilliance. The obvious answer was Von Braun’s mother, a keenly intelligent woman from a scientific family who in a less misogynistic world might have been a scientist herself.

Neufeld’s writing is graceful, logical and clear -- a significant feat when explaining intricate technology to lay readers. Whenever he uses a technical term, he clarifies it. Although the meaning of “static-test” might be evident from its context, he explains that it is “to run a live engine firing while the vehicle was held in place.”

With the same precision and detachment he applies to rocket engines, Neufeld spells out Von Braun’s Nazi history -- from the SS-sponsored equestrian school he attended as a college student to the Knight’s Cross, one of Hitler’s highest honors, that he wore on his SS major’s uniform late in the war. He also discusses other German engineers, including Arthur Rudolph, head of the U.S. Saturn V program, who joined the Nazi Party in 1931, two years before Hitler took power. In 1984, Rudolph gave up his U.S. citizenship rather than face a denaturalization hearing about his war crimes. Most disturbing, he documents Von Braun’s direct involvement with slave labor, a fact the rocket engineer had denied.

As Von Braun’s fame grew, so did his fear of exposure. Prominence brings enemies, and few places are safe. One day, when Von Braun, his Collier’s editor and Heinz Haber, a space medicine expert, rode the elevator to the magazine’s Manhattan office, a Collier’s “staff member felt Haber’s leather coat, saying: ‘Human skin, of course?’ ” During the Apollo years, when the head of NASA’s Houston spaceflight center was annoyed with Von Braun, he would get drunk and complain about “that damned Nazi.” On the other hand, perhaps because of a desire not to repeat past mistakes, Von Braun, during the civil rights era, championed an African American mathematician who had been excluded from classes at an Alabama university.

“Von Braun” is a serious, important book that does justice to its subject’s moral complexity and place in history. It details what happened and why during the race to the moon. Yet my own taste in biography is, alas, cheesier. I like gossip, and I wanted to know more about Von Braun’s alleged womanizing and how he got along with his kids. I wanted “Nazi Dearest,” along the lines of presidential daughter Patti Davis’ revelations about Ronald and Nancy Reagan in her 1992 autobiography.

Still, for all his respectfulness, Neufeld includes a few icky personal details, such as the callous way Von Braun ignored letters from a French woman punished because of her wartime affair with him, and the casual sexism with which he surrounded himself. When Von Braun flew in to work on Disney’s space-themed TV show in 1955, “a beautiful young woman” was hired to amuse him 12 hours a day by making fresh coffee, cutting fancy cakes and playing recordings of classical guitar music.

Von Braun’s widow and children are notoriously circumspect; they have refused to speak with Neufeld or any reporter. This is unfortunate. I’d love to know what, for instance, his daughter Margrit thought when, after years of working to become an engineer, all he could say about her achievement was: “Girls do the darndest things these days.”

Von Braun was a cunning self-promoter, but he made one big mistake -- allowing Hollywood to dramatize his life. Titled “I Aim at the Stars,” the 1960 biopic is rarely mentioned today without comedian Mort Sahl’s suggested subtitle: “But sometimes I hit London.”

Of necessity, the movie was mostly fiction. But one section rang true. When Von Braun tells his mother about the deal he cut with Hitler to fund his research, she says, “Long ago, they said witches made a pact with the devil, so they could fly on broomsticks.” He replies: “My broomsticks fly without the devil’s help. But if they didn’t -- I guess I’d be willing to sign with him.”