Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

The German rocket engineer who became a celebrity of the “space race” has long been a divided figure in the eye of the American public. On the one hand, his role as a compelling pitchman for the U.S. space program in the 1950s, and his leadership of the Saturn rocket program in the astronaut-maddened 1960s put Wernher von Braun at the center of the efforts to land men on the moon. On the other, his legacy as the developer of the infamous Nazi V-2 rockets tarnishes his burnished reputation as a symbol of scientific progress: the musical satirist Tom Lehrer famously imagined him shrugging: “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?'” Michael J. Neufeld’s penetrating new biography tries to capture this complex, undoubtedly gifed man as a whole. Neufeld takes as his book’s touchstone Goethe’s Faust, and this emphasis brings to the fore the vital question: how much are von Braun’s accomplishments the fruit of a truly Faustian bargain? The answer, we learn here, seems to be “a great deal.” The great engineer’s childhood dreams of spaceflight ruled his entire career, and their allure may have enabled von Braun to ignore the manifest evil of the regime which helped him realize them. Neufeld gives an unsparing account of the slave labor camp that produced the V-2, and these appalling passages land on the reader with devastating effect. Ironically, Von Braun’s eagerness to re-invent himself seems particularly American. He was aided in the transformation by his temperament, which allowed him in later years to turn away from the nightmares of the past: Neufeld convincingly suggests that “looking to the future was a reflex that came naturally to him.” But our eyes are drawn to an atrocity so massive as to exert an inescapable gravity over the rocketeer’s vision of a purely scientific ascent. –