Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Von Braun: Right Place, Right Time

Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster, produced this English-language documentary about Wernher von Braun.

I just finished reading Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun by former Huntsville Times reporter Bob Ward. Born into German aristocracy in 1912, Von Braun fell in love with rocketry as a youth, headed the team that developed the V-2 rocket Germany used to attack England in the last years of World War II, then came to America and led the effort to build the U.S. space program which culminated in crewed Moon missions from 1969 through 1972.

Today we no longer have the political will to spend the money for a robust government space program. According to Wikipedia, NASA spending peaked in the mid-1960s at the height of the Space Race with the Soviet Union. In 1966, NASA represented 4.41% of the federal budget. In 1964 through 1966, the annual budget (in 2007 dollars) was over $30 billion each year. In 2011, it will be about $19 billion, which is about 0.5% of the federal budget.

In reading Ward's book, I was struck by how von Braun happened to be in the right place several times in his career that allowed him to advance his vision for human space flight. In fact, if not for the Cold War, von Braun might have been no more than a footnote in World War II history books.

Before von Braun, there were three space visionaries — Russia's Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Germany's Hermann Oberth and American physicist Robert Goddard.

None were particularly well-known during their lifetimes. Tsiolkovsky became a belated hero of the Russian Revolution but never actually built a rocket; he was a theorist. Goddard was mocked in the mainstream press; The New York Times published an infamous editorial on January 13, 1920 which derided Goddard's assumption that thrust would work in a vacuum. Goddard eventually moved to Roswell, New Mexico (yes, that Roswell) to continue his research far away from the skeptical populace.

Of the three, only Oberth succeeded in starting a popular movement supporting rocket development, but that success was modest at best. He joined (but did not found) the German Society for Space Travel (a forerunner of today's National Space Society), and mentored a number of youthful rocket enthusiasts including a teen-age Wernher von Braun.

Society for Space Travel members in 1930. Wernher von Braun is the second from the right.

Von Braun and his rocketeers in 1930 used an abandoned storage depot on the outskirts of Berlin to begin a small rocket research company. They raised little money to support their efforts, until the German military took interest in 1932. This was the year before Adolf Hitler took power, so the military had no connection to the Nazi Party.

Military funding is the common theme that ran through the nascent years of the German, Soviet and American space programs. If not for war, or at least the threat of a potential conqueror, von Braun never may have advanced his work beyond the rocket club.

The World War I Armistice said nothing about rocketry, so the German military was quite interested in what they viewed as a potential new weapon. For von Braun, it was a reliable funding source. To quote from page 18 of Ward's book:

If advancing rocketry toward the ultimate goal of space flight meant joining forces for the present with the military, with those he knew were primarily interested in weapons development, then so be it. They had the funds and facilities, and he and his group needed them to continue. It was that simple.

Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933, but politics meant little to von Braun and his team. In late 1934, they launched two A-2 liquid-fueled rockets to altitudes of more than 1½ miles. These achievements drew the attention of the Luftwaffe, the German air force. They offered von Braun a lucrative contract to develop a rocket-powered fighter plane. The Army didn't want to lose von Braun, so they came up with a higher amount to support existing research.

Von Braun was apolitical, as were most of his group, but as Hitler consolidated power there was no escaping the reality that the Nazi regime would never fund space exploration. The only way von Braun could advance knowledge of rocketry was to continue working for the military.

What were his options? That fateful decision is still debated long after his passing. He could have chosen to cease his research, but other team members would have remained. Most likely he would have been imprisoned. Escape to another country was unlikely because he was guarded as a military asset; even if he did manage to escape, no other nation at that time was seriously funding rocket research.

Von Braun joined the Nazi Party on December 1, 1938. According to page 34 of Ward's book:

For several years after Hitler had come to power, von Braun still had not joined the Nazi party. The Peenemünde base, if not the A-4 [later known as the V-2], was in advanced development. Von Braun was in a high position, and the dictatorship looked unfavorably on officials who were not loyal, card-carrying members of the party.

Beginning in 1940, von Braun was pressed to join the Schutzstaffel (known to Westerners as the SS) as a power play by Heinrich Himmler to bring the rocket program under his control. From page 35 of Ward's book:

Thirty years later, von Braun told American associate Charles Hewitt that he "had to make a very difficult choice" in the SS commission matter. "And he said he felt his choice was to live or not to live, and he decided to live," recalled Hewitt, the mid-1970s executive director of the National Space Institute. Less melodramatically, others said the apolitical von Braun reasoned that an SS officer's status would help him deal more authoritatively with the storm troopers present at Peenemünde in growing numbers over the years.

Although many war atrocities were committed in relation to the V-2 program, the overwhelming evidence suggests von Braun was not personally responsible. Slave labor was provided by the military and the Schutzstaffel, and he had no authority to stop it. Had he objected, most likely he would have been imprisoned or even executed. Himmler jailed von Braun in March 1944 and accused him of sabotaging the war effort. It was probably another power play by Himmler to wrest control of the rocket program from the Army, but Armaments Minister Albert Speer obtained a release from Hitler about two weeks later, arguing the V-2 program would fail without von Braun's leadership.

This was certainly not an environment where dissent was tolerated.

Film footage of Wernher von Braun and A-4 (V-2) rocket launches in the 1940s.

As the Allied armies approached in the summer of 1945, von Braun and his team chose to decide their own fates. Most of them concluded their best opportunity for rocket research was with the United States. They set out to surrender to the U.S. Army, although the Soviets also captured their share of Peenemünde workers.

The Army sent the captured Germans to Fort Bliss, Texas near what is known today as the White Sands Test Center. Once again, von Braun found his work being used for military purposes. Bumper 5, a modified V-2 rocket, reached an altitude of 243 miles on February 24, 1949, the first man-made object to escape the Earth's atmosphere. But there was no government interest in peaceful exploration of space.

The von Braun team relocated in 1950 to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. It was a step up from the deserts of New Mexico, but they still saw no opportunity for space exploration.

Until the International Geophysical Year.

I chronicled those events in this January 1, 2011 article, so I won't retread familiar ground.

For von Braun, the IGY was an opportunity to finally send a satellite into space, but the Navy proposal won out over the Army's Project Orbiter. Von Braun and his team secretly continued development of a vehicle that could orbit a satellite payload.

When Sputnik I launched on October 4, 1957, von Braun saw his opportunity. Always a charismatic figure and easily accessible by the press, von Braun made it known both publicly and privately that he could have orbited a satellite much earlier if authorized. The White House gave permission for the Army team to prepare their own launch, no longer restricted by political concerns that a supposedly peaceful endeavour would ride on a military weapon.

A Navy test launch, called Vanguard TV-3, exploded live on national television on December 6, 1957. The Soviets had launched a second Sputnik on November 3, 1957, with a dog aboard; the two Russian launches coupled with the Vanguard failure on live TV placed von Braun in the right place at the right time. On January 31, 1958, his team launched Explorer 1 from Launch Complex 26 at Cape Canaveral.

Von Braun became a national hero, if not national asset, and his Nazi past was overlooked by most people. He became so popular that he even appeared in this Walt Disney space documentary:

You probably know the history from there. NASA was formed in 1958, von Braun's team was transferred to this nascent civilian space agency, and they developed the rockets that took men to orbit and the Moon.

Along the way, von Braun made plenty of enemies. His popularity and charisma made some colleagues jealous. Other NASA space centers, Houston in particular, fought Huntsville for primacy and funding. Some couldn't forgive his Nazi past, even though he had no reasonable alternative.

So once Apollo placed men on the Moon, the stars no longer aligned for von Braun. Major layoffs began at Huntsville, as the government no longer had an interest in sustained human space flight. As I wrote last May 6, President Kennedy's goal was never a permanent human presence in space. It was to show the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union, by placing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.

Mission accomplished.

And with the mission over, the government no longer had an interest in spending a significant part of the federal budget on space exploration.

Von Braun eventually accepted a position at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC, but found himself in a dead-end job surrounded by political rivals. With his health failing, in July 1972 he accepted a job in the private sector. Von Braun died from cancer on June 16, 1977.

For decades, space enthusiasts have argued what can be done to spark again the national political will to resume a robust human space flight program.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from von Braun's life is that if you expect the government to fund human space flight for the sake of science, you're going to have a very long wait. The only leaps forward in space flight came due to military needs, offensive or defensive.

Moon missions serve no military purpose, nor is there any commercial venture that would profit now from lunar flights. That day will come, but it's not in our near future.

Given the lack of national political will, our only other option is to support commercial access to low Earth orbit.

What would von Braun think?

We can't speak for him. But his goal was always a permanent human presence in space, with eventual trips to the Moon and Mars. He took funding whereever he could find it. I suspect that, if he lived today, he'd realize the government won't be spending much on human space flight any more, but he'd see all the new and exciting ventures in commercial space for peaceful purposes and jump right on board.

My next book is Sputnik: The Shock of the Century by Paul Dickson. I'm about 100 pages in, and it's a hoot. Order the book now if you want to read along.

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