This weekend commemorates the historic trip to the moon by the heroic Apollo 11 astronauts 40 years ago. Let's also pause to remember the passion and drive of the men who designed and built the vehicles that put them there, in particular Dr. Wernher von Braun, designated rocket visionary.
Let's pause and also give thought to the victims of the German V-2 rocket program and to the slaves who died making those rockets under appalling conditions (The V in V-2 stands for Vergeltungswaffe = vengeance weapon). And spare a thought for cranky old Robert Goddard, our own homegrown rocket hero, who at least appeared on a stamp:
I am unconvinced by allegations that the Germans stole secrets from Goddard, having read the account of the V-2 program in Michael Neufeld's excellent The Rocket and the Reich. Neufeld, no fawning acolyte of von Braun, correctly points out that the Germans merely used Goddard's published ideas. In science and technology, success builds upon free and open communication.
The Smithsonian in DC has (or used to have) a collection of scale model rockets lined up side by side, showing the historical progression of rocket design. The models may have even been owned by von Braun himself (first photo above). I don't recall exactly where the collection begins and ends, however, a V-2 rocket stands in the lineup. What struck me then was that there were two V-2's next to each other in the collection: a German one and a V-2 that had been rebranded with American insignia.
Soviet advances in the spring of 1945 halted the V-2 program at Peenemünde. Von Braun and his team relocated to a safer location in the Bavarian Alps while the Third Reich collapsed. On May 2, 1945, with Hitler already dead and Berlin under Soviet control, von Braun surrendered to the Americans. He said later:
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.Von Braun and his team, criminally liable in some eyes for the V-2 rocket attacks on European capitals, were given a second chance. Goddard had died in August of 1945 and America needed rocket science. And did we ever get some. Von Braun first headed a secret team located outside of El Paso, TX, where under a sort of house arrest, he and his team reassembed captured V-2 rockets. In 1950, von Braun led the Army's rocket development program team that resulted in the Redstone, the rocket used for the first nuclear ballistic missile. Von Braun and his German wife became naturalized American citizens in 1955.
Von Braun's career really took off after the Soviets launched Sputnik. He was appointed director of the newly created George Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The ballistic missile team, still including many of the old school Peenemünder, all now worked for NASA. And they succeeded splendidly.
My own recollections of the Apollo heydays are still pretty clear. I recall as a boy visiting the Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 1968 on a family vacation to Florida. The giant Saturn V rocket used to launch Apollo 7 was then under construction inside the massive Vehicle Assembly Building . My dad took super 8 mm film of this which I
have to just dropped off to convert to digital format. I recall that hot and sweaty Wisconsin day a year later when the moon-landing happened. Relatives were visiting and we cousins had been playing tackle football in the backyard all day. The grown-ups called us inside to watch the historic landing on TV in the cool of the basement.
I also recall seeing von Braun on TV with Walter Cronkite. My memory is fuzzy exactly when that was, but surely it must have been between Apollo missions or perhaps during the long flight time of one of the historic moon missions; von Braun would have been too preoccupied during the take-off and landing phases of each mission to be chatting it up with the avuncular Walter. I do wish I could find that clip on Youtube. Maybe it will turn up as part of a Walter Cronkite retrospective.
Added: Hector at Kiarian Lunch wonders if we will ever go back.Added much later: Lou Minati linked some really cool old Apollo 11 footage Link