Wernher von Braun, Father of Modern Rocketry and Space Travel



Today I am going to take a substantial  departure from my usual discussions of things pertinent to the blog general title, to discuss one of the most important engineers and scientists of the 20th Century.  The man without whom the US would never have reached the moon, and likely would not even have much of a space program at all.

Lately I have begun to think about NASA and what has been happening to that government agency in recent years. A few months ago, I read an article that pointed out recent years have seen large cuts in budgets for NASA along with a wide area of so called “non-discretionary” spending in the Federal Budget.  In fact, a quick check of Wikipedia will illustrate to you that NASA funding, as a % of the budget, is at its lowest levels since the very first days of the founding of NASA in 1958.  W ithout question, in the post-shuttle era there has been stagnation on most fronts in terms of project proposals, due to lack of funding and general disinterest from both Congress and  Obama.  Considering the positive economic effects and scientific advancements (most frequently in the development/advancement of a wide variety of exotic technology for peaceful purposes)  that have been the main offshoots of NASA expenditures since the early days of the agency, it would seem this is a very short sighted way of thinking.
I think there are two factors behind this.  One is the slowly diminishing (it appears) interest in science among the general public, combined with the lack of a forceful advocate for space-related research and expenditures who can bridge the gap of understanding existing both in Congress and the body politic /electorate.  Or in other words, there is no Wernher von Braun.

I have done some degree of reading about von Braun lately, and the first purpose of this blog post is to point out some of the factual details about the father of modern rocketry and space travel that may be less known. The second to ruminate on some of his ideas espoused in his many talks and how they relate to observations we can make today.

Most are probably aware of WvB’s controversial start as the chief engineer behind the V-series rocket programs in Nazi Germany.  The Nazi leadership recognized his brilliance early on, as well as his interest in rocket engineering as being convertible to a highly valuable military weapon. Achieving a Ph.D. for theories of rocket development, his 1934 doctoral thesis, titled: Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket was kept classified by the German government until 1960.

Von Braun was a bit fortunate in this, as the German military interest meant he had the financing to pursue his dream of rocket development with the ultimate goal of putting man into space.  It was a luxury his only real contemporary, the American Robert Goddard, did not have.  Goddard, in fact, was mocked in American media for even suggesting that humans could travel on rockets to outer space, and the US military exhibited almost no interest at all in his experiments in the desert sands of the Southwest.

As is well known, Von Braun and his team’s work resulted in the V-1 and V-2 “Vengeance Weapon” rockets that were deployed on a somewhat limited basis late in the war, mainly targeting London, England and Antwerp, Belgium.  While they caused a lot of civilian casualties, their actual military effectiveness, as the collapse of Nazi Germany soon after the deployment showed, was negligible.

Von Braun was wise enough to see that fleeing to the US was a better bet for realizing his dreams of space travel than surrendering to the Russians, and this he duly did on May 2, 1945 along with his entire engineering team.  One part of Von Braun not well known, was that he had quite strong religious beliefs, in the Christian Deist mold of many of the Founding Fathers of the US. He in fact explicitly stated in relation to surrendering to the USA “I want the knowledge we have to be in the hands of a nation guided by [Christian principles]”.  I will return to this central theme of von Braun later.

For Von Braun, coming to the US was truly a second act in his life, one in which it is quite clear he was taking pains to absolve himself of the sins he perceived to have partaken in (generally unwillingly) during his service for Nazi Germany.  His entire efforts, for the remainder of his life, were dedicated to the peace-oriented advancement of space travel for scientific and educational purposes, as well as promotion of science education as a means of creating a more perfect society. Much of this work was outlined in speeches given to a wide variety of organizations, both private and public.  His first public US speech was about the V2, and ways it could be modified to put a man into space “Future Development of the Rocket”, 1/16/1947.   To the English, in 1951 he gave a talk about the technical aspects of travel to Mars “The Importance of Satellite Vehicles in Planetary Flight”, 8/27/1949.   He gave talks on putting manned space stations in outer space (note the identical nature of the design to 1950s cartoons and sci-fi programs, now you know where the cartoon images of a space station came from), and discussions of a lunar expedition to such widely variant audiences as Disneyland: Moon Presentation.  Another example of his visionary nature can be seen here in 1962, where he proposes to a Congressional committee a liquid hydrogen fueled reusable space vehicle, nearly 2 decades before it became a reality.  The nuclear powered moon base, we still await (and probably will do forever, as perhaps he was the only man who could actually make it happen)

One can imagine how radical all of these ideas must have seemed in the immediate postwar period.  It took awhile, but the Soviet launch of Sputnik was the seminal event that got him noticed by the masses, both in Washington and on the street.  From then on, when von Braun spoke, he found a willing ear, both in Congress and in American industry.

The adoption of basic standards of US science and mathematics education that took place in the late 1950s was due to the recommendations and influence of von Braun.  Increasing the level of science and math education in the young was of critical importance to him, and he took great effort to talk about his views in this area to anyone who would listen.

Many of the views he espoused are equally important for the country today if we give them some thought and consideration. Two paragraphs from “Youth Faces Tomorrow”, given to a Chicago School Principals meeting  in 1959 are worth recounting.

“The future of America in an age dominated by technology will depend on the quality and quantity of engineers and scientists able to take the nation forward.  Therefore we should face up to the situation and ensure adequate recognition and reward are provided to those individuals, and the teachers who prepare them.  Perhaps then the embryonic Salks and DeForests will get more encouragement from parents who come to realize there is more to college than [sports]…..I also believe that we should ponder the perspective we look upon these various career concerns.  Money has become too much the only measure of success and achievement, an attitude that echoes in those things that interest children.  Most great discoveries have come from researchers and inventors interested in knowledge only.”

In another speech von Braun stated: “we must prepare our students to cope adequately with the problems and contests that lie ahead.  We must disabuse ourselves of the idea schools are a place for youth to learn how to live together and nothing else.  They must have as complete an understanding of mathematics and physical sciences as possible, and they need more and better prepared teachers, who can only be attracted to the profession by competitive salaries and quality physical facilities”.

A wise set of observations, surely.  The first case, I have seen many times, personally.  I’ve run across many a high schooler that wants to do pre-med/pre-law, etc…I have not run across too many who want to become a physicist, chemist, or environmental engineer.  If there is interest in science, money is the driving force.  Therefore is it any wonder we elect individuals who seem to take limited interest in science, basic research funding, environmental research, and so on.  NASA’s historically low funding levels, and the decline of “non-discretionary” spending on science in general can only be seen as the outcome of this.

In the second observation of WvB, someone needs to give this speech to elected officials in North Carolina and other states.  Both political parties are at fault, attacking the fundamental underpinnings of education from both sides of the fence.  Diverting schools from their core purpose, to educate, converting them into a day care center/social experiment on the left.  On the right, turning the teaching profession into a temp job with pay and benefits to match.   And engaging in their own forms of social engineering in the schools.  The short sightedness and lack of logical thought processes behind the meddling in public schools taking place today nationwide, in the interest of political agendas, is clearly not in the best interest of students or society at large.  Moreover, it does not bode well for the competitiveness of the country from an educational perspective long term.

Let me further point out that von Braun was not only interested in the improvement of education nationally, but also internationally. I was fascinated by the fact he pushed NASA in the late 1960s into a collaborative arrangement with India to put up an educational satellite to broadcast lessons on reading, writing and math to thousands of remote Indian villages.  He was concerned with that country’s low literacy levels (at that time) combined with the very large population, and saw it as a critical test bed on how to spread basic education to mass numbers of people in places lacking in proper educational infrastructure.

I seek to close this look at the life of the 20th Century’s most notable space scientist with a few observations on his attitude toward religion. Wernher von Braun was an evangelical Christian (a flexible one in terms of philosophical approach though, not a fundamentalist).  It is not a way of thinking commonly found among those in his field of practice today, and his views contradict markedly with famous names in the fields of space science today (deGrasse-Tyson, Sagan, or Hawking, to name a few).

In a short essay titled “Immortality” he gives an interesting perspective on the forces that guide human ethics.  One of these he calls “the immortal soul”, using as proof the laws of conservation of mass and energy as evidence for human immortality. “Belief..in immortality gives us moral strength and ethical guidance we need for almost every action in our daily lives.”  “Science has found nothing disappears without a trace.  Nature does not know extinction, but only transformation.  If God applies this fundamental principle to the most minute particles…does it not make sense this applies also to the human soul?  All science has taught me—and continues to teach me–is the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.  Nothing disappears without a trace.”
He went further in his final piece of solo writing, while in the hospital submitting to treatment for the cancer that would ultimately claim him.  He listed “Spiritual Survival” as one of the 5 pillars of survival of mankind.  (He also listed “Scientific Survival” as one.  Here, he stated the risks of anti-science and lack of science knowledge in the US population as spelling the beginning of the end for America as a free and open society.)

On spiritual survival, he states that it is God’s will for humans to use their intelligence to extend our presence beyond Earth.  He works in a few paragraphs to debunk evolutionary theories, based on arguments of statistical probabilities.  He advocates for flexible, non-doctrinaire views on religion, and describes himself as Deist “God does not interfere in the free order of life and nature which he created…failure to accept this means freedom as a concept is faulty.”  He opposes genetic engineering without guidance from the various (Christian) churches.   Finally, von Braun ends with a reference “the power of  love as the most precious gift with which God has endowed his creations”,  and the beauty we can see around us as an outgrowth of that, in stark contrast to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, random mutation, and natural selection which are taught as the main guiding principles.  Perhaps there is some truth there.  I have my doubts.  But, at least one would hope.



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