From the V2 to Apollo 11: Wernher Von Braun’s conflicted legacy

secret engineerWernher Von Braun, the engineer behind the Saturn V rocket, was notably absent from many of the recent Apollo 11 retrospectives and yet his role was critical. Our secret engineer considers how he should be remembered. 

I was born into a world teetering on the cusp of taking its first steps on the Moon. As I grew older we turned away from our neighbour and left political ideologies behind to shake hands in space via the Apollo-Soyuz mission, carried out experiments in Skylab and Mir then glimpsed the dream of everyday space travel with the Shuttle. It was an age defined by a drive to fulfil the goals set earlier, of always pushing onwards; yet the very first Moon landing remained uneclipsed as a high point. Possibly because, despite it being an American endeavour initiated as a cold war weapon, it grew beyond that. If only for a moment it gave a shared pride in what we as a species could achieve. The USA might have planted the flag on the Moon but humanity as a whole claimed the prize.

Wernher von Braun walking with President Kennedy at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal (Alabama) in 1963. Image: NASA

You can imagine then that I avidly watched a number of the programmes centred on the 50th anniversary of this event. All looked back with pride and amazement on what was accomplished by a huge number of people, backed by an equally huge budget, with the remit to pursue a single goal. Of course the three pioneers – Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins – are always at the centre but even so various other contributors, some familiar and some not, get their time in the spotlight. Well, except for one person who is especially notable by their absence.

Buzz Aldrin’s reflections on Apollo 11

My memories of Wernher von Braun, formed through interviews in the media and references in books, are of the avuncular figure who masterminded America’s space programme. Ironically, given his apparent Stalin-esque removal, the Russians kept the existence of their own rocketry genius (Korolev) a matter of extreme secrecy until only a few years ago. Von Braun by comparison was the ubiquitous calm and friendly face that exhorted us all to reach out from planet Earth. He was seen as the architect of our greatest achievement with the Saturn V as his masterpiece, something that is still an object of awe and which has been showered in superlatives in all of the recent coverage.

The Apollo 11 Saturn V space vehicle lifts off on July 16, 1969 from the Kennedy Space Center. Image NASA

So what happened then? We always knew he was the brains behind Hitler’s V2 and we always knew that slave labour was used in its construction and deployment. A perceived necessity during the Cold War may have helped us ignore this but it did not erase it. My own understanding has always been that his aim from the start was to reach the Moon and, leaving things like the twisted national loyalty of Nazi Germany to one side, he saw military funding as a way of advancing towards that dream. Its difficult though to imagine he did not know of the human cost, an industrial level of disinterested and disconnected destruction of lives, for me something that is impossible to forgive.

Personally he remains a shade at least of a hero despite all this through his later achievements, but very much a corrupted one. Someone whose vision reached out to the stars yet whose feet remained firmly and irrevocably planted in clay and blood.

How we should view him now is undeniably a tricky subject. How much did he care about  the slave labour and its consequences? Did he lose his moral compass in a moment of opportunity and come to regret it later? Its difficult to separate fact from either opinion or the continued distortion caused by the US propaganda required to make the post-war use of German scientists palatable.

Even more difficult, did he at least partially redeem himself with a career that led to Apollo 11? Whatever you think, simply writing him out of the history of the Moon landings is a shameful act of cowardice. Within engineering we have a professional obligation regarding ethics and, if no-one else, then it is we who must lead the discussion on difficult engineering related issues. Issues that include the Nazi backed roots of arguably mankind’s greatest achievement to date. We owe at least that much to the 20,000 sacrificed on the altar of V2 mass production.