Lost in Space

Reviewed by Guy Gugliotta
Sunday, September 16, 2007


Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War

By Michael J. Neufeld

Knopf. 587 pp. $35

Very early during his career in Hitler's Germany, Wernher von Braun understood the essential dilemma that confronted -- and in many ways still confronts -- almost anyone bewitched by the possibilities of rocketry and space: "I had no illusions whatsoever as to the tremendous amount of money necessary to convert the liquid-fuel rocket from [an] exciting toy . . . to a serious machine," he wrote. "To me, the Army's money was the only hope for big progress toward space travel." Von Braun from his youth dreamed of spaceships, but first he had to make a weapon, and he willingly built one, even knowing that he was using slave labor to do it.

This Faustian bargain lies at the heart of space historian Michael J. Neufeld's carefully researched biography of von Braun, the Third Reich wunderkind who built the V-2, the world's first ballistic missile, then emigrated to the United States to design weapons and eventually to develop the epic Saturn V rocket that sent six sets of Apollo astronauts to the moon. In between, he managed, through charm, wit and undeniable genius, to become the charismatic spokesman for space travel in America -- a role that earned him admiration from young baby boomers who saw him on Walt Disney's "Tomorrowland" TV show and ridicule from such counterculture icons as singer Tom Lehrer:

Don't say that he's hypocritical

Say rather that he's apolitical.

"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?

That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

Today, 35 years after his death from cancer at a relatively young 65, von Braun remains as difficult to pigeonhole as ever -- at once the most influential rocket engineer of the 20th century and an ambitious charmer whose detractors dismiss him as an opportunist and war criminal. Neufeld, chair of space history at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, navigates this minefield in an unusually measured fashion. Rather than picking a side and marshaling arguments, his journalistic approach lays out the evidence on both sides and invites readers to make their own judgments. Neufeld clearly is less than enamored of von Braun, yet gives due respect to his accomplishments. The reader who seeks closure will come away disappointed, but Neufeld intended it that way.

Von Braun loved engineering and space from childhood. Also, he came from Germany's landowning aristocracy and had little difficulty offering unquestioning loyalty to an authoritarian government, even the Third Reich. Neufeld concedes that the precocious von Braun -- he was effectively in charge of rocket development at the age of 25 -- probably thought little at first about the pitfalls of serving Hitler, but if he had, it would not have bothered him. At certain points, von Braun could have dragged his feet, "but that would have required strong, unspoken moral and political convictions and a willingness to damage his career," Neufeld says. "Those were manifestly lacking."

Neufeld writes with economy and dispatch, and the narrative moves quickly, particularly in the early going. Although von Braun's surviving German colleagues refused to grant interviews, Neufeld's mastery of available German material and memoirs, coupled with the records of post-World War II debriefings and the harrowing recollections of former French prisoners-of-war at the Nordhausen V-2 plant, give von Braun's German period a vivid immediacy.

The book, however, frequently glosses over the engineering challenges faced by early rocketeers and the techniques and hardware developed by von Braun and others to resolve them. Aficionados will immediately notice this shortcoming, and even the uninitiated will occasionally wonder how seemingly intractable problems are suddenly overcome 10 pages later. Also missing are details about von Braun's personal life. The family has never granted interviews, and readers will be curious about his 1947 marriage, almost sight unseen, to his 18-year-old first cousin and his born-again conversion to evangelical Protestantism around the same time.

The American half of von Braun's life will be more familiar to U.S. readers. Neufeld focuses considerable attention on von Braun's career as the U.S. space program's designated visionary, contrasting his public triumphs with continued but sporadic embarrassments about his Nazi past.

Yet despite his career as a space pitchman, von Braun was no charlatan, and Neufeld shows clearly that his achievements as a rocketman are unsurpassed. He was able to put the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, in orbit in the panicked aftermath of the Soviet Union's 1957 Sputnik launch, and he delivered the Saturn V in time to fulfill President John F. Kennedy's 1961 promise of putting a man on the Moon "before this decade is out." Von Braun may have been a flawed hero, as Neufeld elegantly shows, but he delivered the goods. *

Guy Gugliotta, a former Washington Post reporter, is a freelance writer living outside New York.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company