RSM Profile: Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun (public domain photo by NASA)

What marks the legacy of a man? Is it his achievements? His words? Or is it his history, his heritage, his associations? These questions get to the heart of the debate over the legacy of many a Southern man … including German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. The debate over von Braun rages to this day, some 34 years after his death.

The sticky part of von Braun’s legacy is not his work as the chief rocket scientist for the U.S. military and later the fledgling NASA. What raises the ire of his detractors is the fact that von Braun, a German man, had been the head of the “rocket team” developing the groundbreaking V-2 rocket for Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

Von Braun’s critics cite numerous facts of his war-time record as proof that he was unworthy of the freedoms given him in America: he was a member of the Nazi party; Heinrich Himmler gave him an honorary rank among the SS; he personally witnessed the use of slave labor from concentration camps at the Mittelwerk, a V-2 rocket production facility.

His supporters are quick to point out the complicated nature of life in Nazi Germany. Many scientists joined the party only because doing so meant easier access to grants and promotions. Von Braun considered rejecting the SS rank, but he and his scientists determined that doing so would be dangerous, given Himmler’s reputed cold lack of conscience. Though he was aware of the use of salve labor, he was not directly responsible for it.

In 1944, Himmler attempted to bring V-2 production under the control of the SS, seeking to broaden the reach of his own power. Von Braun resisted. Himmler arrested him, charging him with attempts at sabotaging the program. Von Braun’s own words were used against him: he had once uttered at a party that he was more interested in developing the V-2 for space travel after the war. Even amidst the realities of the world’s greatest conflict, von Braun’s sights were set not upon conquest, but exploration.

The Osenberg List, a list of crucial German scientists compiled to recall them from combat, was found in pieces by a Polish laborer. It has been stuffed into a toilet tank. The list found its way first to MI6, then to U.S. intelligence agencies. From it, a list of German scientists to be captured and interrogated was crafted. Target number one: Wernher von Braun.

When it became obvious that Germany would lose the war, and that the post-war world would be divided between the Soviet East and democratic West, von Braun negotiated for the surrender of himself and hundreds of his scientists to the United States.
Under a program called Operation Paperclip, von Braun was brought to a secret POW camp in Virginia and interrogated. Later, he and 126 other rocket scientists accepted initial one-year contracts with the U.S. Army’s rocket program. Working initially from Fort Bliss, Texas – with testing at White Sands, New Mexico – and later from Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal, von Braun evolved his German V-2 rocket into a number of military rockets for the Army, including the Jupiter ballistic missile and the Redstone rocket.

Together Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun fired the popular imagination with the Disneyland series "Man in Space." (public domain photo by NASA)

But as in Germany, von Braun was not interested in military applications of rocket science, but in exploring the stars. Fortunately, a Space Race was brewing and a brash, young president was determined to win it. In 1960, von Braun transferred from the Army to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Running to meet President Kennedy’s challenge to get a man on the moon in the 1960s, von Braun and his team at NASA lit the fuse on the dreams of millions of Americans. Suddenly, space travel was no longer the domain of comic books and science fiction movies. It was becoming science fact.

Today, von Braun is a revered figure in the north Alabama town he helped transform into a research and tech powerhouse. In many ways, Huntsville and von Braun were made for one another. Huntsville was the first capital of Alabama, the Alabama of slavery and the Old South. A cotton town, Huntsville was given new life, a chance to reinvent itself, first with the creation of the facilities that would become the Redstone Arsenal and later when NASA moved to town, creating the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Likewise, von Braun found in Huntsville a chance at new life. Forever leaving behind his troubled history as maker of war machines, von Braun could focus his gaze squarely on the depths of space … and envision ways of getting man there.

A man with a troubled past, haunted by the ghosts of his past allegiances, questioned forever by critics about the intents of his heart but determined to embrace the good, the right, the best of his humanity – he may have been born a German, but Wernher von Braun was without a doubt a Real Southern Man.


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