Biography • NASA and the Space Race
CONTINUED FROM PART 3 | SEE WEB LINKS FOR VON BRAUN BELOW.
Von Braun and other scientists in the US were well aware that their fellow scientists in the Soviet Union (many of them German as well) were also working on ballistic missiles and space technology. For the 18-month International Geophysical Year (IGY, July 1957 to December 1958) world scientists had proposed the launch of a small scientific satellite. Secretly, the super powers also viewed satellites as the ideal way to spy on each other, without the problems of spy planes such as the U2.
Von Braun felt that the Redstone rocket, basically a bigger, more refined V2, offered a simple, low-cost way to launch a US satellite and beat the Russians. With existing Loki solid-fuel boosters on each stage, the Redstone was capable of boosting a small 10-lb satellite into earth orbit. In a 1954 report he wrote: “It would be a blow to U.S. prestige if we did not do it first.” In January 1955 the army and navy submitted their proposal for Project Orbiter to the R&D section of the office of the Secretary of Defense. Von Braun also tried to push participation by the air force, but it was reluctant to participate because it had its own satellite program. Interservice rivalry and other factors delayed von Braun’s plans, but he continued to work on them.
On 4 October 1957 Wernher von Braun learned that the Russians had beat the US into orbit when a reporter called him to ask what he thought about Sputnik. He wasn’t surprised, but he was disappointed “and a little bitter that we hadn’t been allowed to do it before they did.”
The Space Race
Even after the Russian space victory the Eisenhower administration was slow to push for the US to catch up. Von Braun was again frustrated for a while. Later he would be known as the “prophet of the space age” (Life magazine) and be responsible for the launch of the first US satellite, but it was not until after the Soviets put a second, much heavier satellite into orbit on 3 November that the US got serious about orbiting its own satellite.
Sputnik 1 only weighed about 185 lb (84 kg), but Sputnik 2 was a half-ton capsule with a live dog aboard. (Laika was doomed to perish in space.) At one time the US had been discussing the launch of a five-pound satellite in order to be first. A satellite weighing 1,118 lb (508 kg) meant the Russians had some very powerful rockets that could also send a weapon towards the US. President Eisenhower and others were unhappy when von Braun pointed out in an interview that one reason the US was behind was that “the United States had no ballistic missile program worth mentioning between 1945 and 1951.”
After the spectacular failure of a navy Vanguard rocket in an attempt to launch a satellite on 6 December 1957 (the fiery explosion was broadcast live on TV), von Braun got his chance. On the first day of February 1958, a modified army Jupiter-C rocket (Juno I) developed by von Braun’s team blasted off from Cape Canaveral and put Explorer 1 (built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL) into earth orbit. America’s first satellite, including instrumentation, was barely over six feet in length and had a total weight of just 30.8 lb (14 kg), but von Braun and the Huntsville engineers were now heroes.
A second satellite launch on 5 March failed. On 26 March 1958, Explorer 3 was launched and was able to confirm the existence of the Van Allen Belt that Explorer 1 had discovered.
Following its satellite success, ABMA was now running several different rocket programs. Dr. von Braun reorganized the Huntsville teams, with project managers for Pershing, Redstone, and Jupiter. Huntsville was also developing a much more powerful liquid-fuel rocket in an effort to catch up to the much higher lift capabilities of the Soviets. This new rocket would be named Saturn and would eventually be the vehicle that would put men on the moon.
The Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC)
In 1960 von Braun ended his many years of working for the US Army when he was appointed the director of NASA’s new Marshall Space Flight Center (named for the former army general and Secretary of State George C. Marshall) in Huntsville. There he became the leader of the team that would develop the powerful Saturn V rocket that put six teams of American astronauts on the moon from 1969 to 1972. (Remarkably, not a single Saturn rocket ever failed to launch successfully.)
Von Braun only made the switch to NASA after he was assured that the MSFC mission would continue to be the development of the Saturn rocket for earth-orbit and space missions. He would remain the director of the Marshall Center for a decade, leaving Huntsville in February 1970 to take a job as NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Faced with severe budget cuts and unhappy with his new job, von Braun only stayed until 26 May 1972 when he retired from NASA to work for private industry. In the same year that the last lunar landing took place (Apollo 17), von Braun became Vice President for Engineering and Development at Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland.
“A Twentieth Century Faust”*
Although everyone knew about Wernher von Braun’s work for the Nazis, during most of his career in the US the details of his Nazi past were glossed over or kept hidden from the public. The US government needed him and the other German engineers, so the less that was known, the better. Von Braun himself never revealed much about his past and, despite several revealing reports, the more unpleasant details about his V2 work for the Nazis stayed out of the public spotlight.
Critics claim that, like Goethe’s Faust, von Braun sold his soul in order to get the resources and finances for his rockets and his dream of space travel. They also say that he constructed an evil weapon for the Nazis without any regard for human lives. But both the Russians and the Americans ignored the Nazi past of their “borrowed” German engineers out of patriotic fervor. And what would have happened to von Braun or anyone else who refused to work for the Nazis?
However one may judge von Braun, his genius lay in his superb management skills and his talent for running large projects. Although he was also an excellent rocket engineer, his strength was in dealing with people. His Russian counterpart, Sergei Korolev (1907-1966), may have exceeded von Braun in technical achievements (first satellite, first ICBM, first object to hit the moon, first man and woman in space — first in almost everything except man on the moon), but all of Korolev’s work was based on von Braun’s German V2. Without von Braun’s management skills, the US (NASA) probably would not have landed on the moon in July 1969. It was an amazing accomplishment that the Soviets were never able to match.
*Phrase from the book Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War by Michael J. Neufeld. Get this book and others. See below.
Wernher von Braun Biographies
Books about von Braun from Amazon.com
- Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (paperback) by Michael J. Neufeld
- Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (hardcover) by Michael J. Neufeld
- Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun (paperback) by Bob Ward
- Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race (hardcover) by Wayne Biddle
- Dark Side of the Moon: Wernher von Braun, the Third Reich, and the Space Race (Kindle e-book) by Wayne Biddle
Wernher von Braun on the Web
- Biography of Wernher von Braun - A short bio from the MSFC History Office and NASA
- Von Braun and Walt Disney - An interesting article from the MSFC History Office
- Wernher von Braun (Wikipedia, in English)
- Wernher von Braun (Wikipedia, auf Deutsch)
- VIDEO: Wernher von Braun: Rocket Man for War and Peace - An 8-minute documentary from Deutsche Welle (in English) - YouTube
- VIDEO: Disney: “Man in Space” - (no longer online) Dr. Wernher von Braun speaks about space flight in this 6-min. segment from the Disney TV show that first aired on 9 March 1955. (“Before man ventured into space, Walt Disney took the nation there.”) Note: The entire 51-minute “Man in Space” show (and others in the series) is part of the DVD listed below...
- DVD: Walt Disney Treasures - Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond - from Amazon.com
- Wernher von Braun Bio - Part 1
- Hanna Reitsch - Pioneering female test pilot for the Nazis
- Famous Germans, Austrians and Swiss
- Famous Graves - The graves and cemeteries of the famous
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