Wernher von Braun Christian, “Father of Rocket Science”
Wernher von Braun 1912 - 1977
“It’s not exactly rocket science, you know.” The cliche implies that rocket science is the epitome of something that is difficult, obscure, and abstruse; something comprehensible only by the brainiest of the smart.
Names that qualify for the title “father of rocket science” include Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and von Braun. But Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was mostly a visionary and chalkboard theorist, and Robert Goddard only targeted the upper atmosphere for his projects; he was also secretive and suspicious of others to a fault.
Of the three, and any others that could be listed, Wernher von Braun has the prestige of actually taking mankind from the simple beginnings of rocketry all the way to the moon and the planets. His name is almost synonymous with rocket science. He is an icon of the space age. As we will see, he should be remembered for much more than that.
Von Braun (pronounced fon BROWN – and roll the R) is important in this series because he was recent enough to be in the living memory of many, and we have a great deal of documentation, photographs and motion pictures of him.
Even young people (that is, anyone under 40) who did not live through the glory days of Apollo are all familiar with three of von Braun’s last great projects he took from vision to reality: the Space Shuttle, orbiting space stations and interplanetary travel. Unquestionably, he had a great deal of help. One does not do rocket science alone!
At the height of the Apollo program, some 600,000 employees were involved in tasks from machining parts to managing large flight operations centers. Yet by wide consensus and by results achieved, Wernher von Braun was a giant among giants: highly regarded by his peers, respected by all who worked with him, a celebrity to the public, showered with honors, and unquestionably responsible for much of the success of the space program.
Few have ever personally taken a dream of epic proportions to reality. The peaceful exploration of space! It was the stuff of dreams — dreams by Kepler, Jules Verne, science fiction novels and countless childhood imaginations, yet today it is almost too commonplace. Von Braun dreamed, but made it happen. He was the right man with the right stuff at the right time.
What kind of person was he? Many great scientists are quirkish or aloof in their personal lives, but we’re going to reveal a lesser-known side of von Braun, a spiritual side that kept him humble, grateful, unselfish, and strong.
We’ll see a remarkably well-rounded individual, a family man who loved swimming and travel and popularizing science for children; a man who loved life, had charisma and energy and dignity and integrity, handled huge projects yet kept a winning smile and a sense of humor even in the most stressful of project deadlines.
We’ll see a model of leadership that success-bound corporate heads would do well to emulate. Maybe you didn’t know (incidentally) that he was also a Christian and creationist. But first, a review of his record.
Von Braun was the “can do” mover and shaker that rescued America’s prestige from the embarrassment of Sputnik (1957) and drove the moon mission against a host of naysayers, leading to that unforgettable moment when the whole world held its breath: “Houston: Tranquillity Base here — the Eagle has landed!”
In hindsight, many feel that Russia beat the U.S. to orbit and put the first man in space largely because the top brass had snubbed von Braun, whose team was eager and ready, and gave the job to the Navy. Those first awful images of exploding and stray rockets, broadcast to America’s horror on international TV, are now folklore for captions to illustrate Murphy’s Law.
But once President Eisenhower put von Braun in the driver’s seat, his string of spectacular successes left the Russians in the dust. On January 31, 1958, von Braun’s Jupiter-C rocket successfully lifted America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit. The historic photo of Pickering, Van Allen and von Braun holding a model of Explorer 1 overhead in a victory salute at a Washington D.C. press conference symbolized the turning of the tide. When Kennedy became President, Von Braun was already of thinking bigger goals.
He told Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, “We have an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon.” Largely because of von Braun’s confidence, President Kennedy in 1961 challenged the country to make it to the moon before the decade was out. And it did, on time!
A year later, with the launch of Mariner 2 to Venus in 1962 and Mariner 4 to Mars in 1964, his childhood dream of interplanetary exploration became reality. Von Braun saw the progress of flight from crossing the Atlantic to crossing the ocean of space. In the year he died, Voyagers 1 and 2, launched on rockets built by his technology, began their epic voyages to the outer solar system.
The prestige America gained through the space program, and its political advantage in a dangerous world dominated by communism, to say nothing of all the spinoff benefits to science and technology, are benefits we all gained largely to von Braun’s vision of space flight.
His impact on science, the economy and politics are symbolized by the two final missions launched on his Saturn rockets: Skylab (1973), the first orbiting space station, that took science and technology to new heights and unfamiliar environments, and Apollo-Soyuz (1975), in which American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts joined hands in earth orbit.
His work even transformed mankind’s own view of itself. Who could ever forget the first image of our planet from the moon, when Apollo 8, a risky mission launched on a brand new rocket called Saturn V (the most complex machine ever built, yet launched flawlessly every time) enabled a world at war to see home as just a pale blue gem in the blackness of space, devoid of political boundaries, fragile and beautiful and alone?
Yes, there were many giants in the space program, but Frederick C. Durant summarized von Braun’s special place in history by saying, “Future historians may well note this century (or millennium) as significant in that mankind took its first tentative steps into space. In accomplishing these steps to the moon and beyond, Wernher von Braun was an eminent leader. He not only had a dream, but he made his dream come true for all of us.”
That dream began in childhood, when Wernher was given an astronomical telescope by his mother at the festive occasion of his confirmation into the Lutheran church at age thirteen. This lit a spark that exploded into his lifelong fascination with the moon, Mars and space travel.
Wernher was full of boundless energy as a child, so much so that his father considered him unstoppable. He had “a mind like a dry sponge, soaking up every bit of knowledge as eagerly as he could,” his father said. His mother stimulated the children’s interest in science and the arts; Wernher even took piano lessons with the great German composer Paul Hindemith, and carried this skill through life.
(Many years later in Salt Lake City on a visit, he was invited to try out the great organ in the Mormon Tabernacle; he promptly sat down and played A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.) Astronomy was the most unstoppable interest of the young teenager. By age sixteen he was writing on the history of astronomy, speculating about life on Mars, and building telescopes. By this time also, “his almost magical ability to form and lead a team,” became evident, as Ordway describes it (p. 13); “the end product of most of his projects would be complete success.”
At 14, he had organized an astronomy club that made telescopes and built rockets. They even put together old car parts and tried to create a rocket-propelled automobile. He became so engrossed in these experiments, that he flunked mathematics and physics! His parents sent him to boarding school – without the rockets.
Not disheartened, young Werner read Hermann Oberth’s visionary book The Rocket into Interplanetary Space and studied Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, which for him were like racetracks to the planets. He resolved to master mathematics and become a space pioneer.
His life goal was “to turn the wheel of progress” – a pretty visionary goal for a 14-year old. Those who enjoyed the movie October Sky can appreciate the adult von Braun’s interest in the young student rocket-makers, having played that role himself. By age 15 he had written, in an essay about a journey to the moon, “An age-old dream of mankind—to travel to the stars—appears to approach fulfillment.”
The young student wrote to Oberth showing him a paper on rockets he had written, and received an encouraging letter, “Keep going, young man!” His teachers were impressed, and told his mother he was a genius. Few young man had the energy of dreams so strong, and knew so confidently what they wanted to accomplish in life, as Wernher von Braun. Unfortunately for him, political currents in Germany would lead to a crisis between the dream and the ugliness of war and dictatorship.
Von Braun studied mechanical engineering at the University of Berlin. Throughout his college career, he required no prodding; once, he showed his professor a letter he had received from Albert Einstein in answer to his questions, and while a student, he received a grant to experiment on liquid fueled rockets. In 1932, he graduated with a PhD in physics. Always fascinated with flight of any kind, he learned to fly gliders, and in 1933, received his pilot's license for motorized aircraft.
While the rise of Hitler was occurring during the 1930s, it must be stressed that von Braun was focused on rockets, not politics. One must remember that rocketry was “weird science” in those days, with no commercial or strategic appeal. Von Braun knew that his small amateur team, severely short on money and materials, could never advance his dream of space travel without the help of a large organization. He made a sober, consequential decision to approach the army.
In the winter of 1931-32, Von Braun gained the interest of the German army, which had a small rocket development program under Walter Dornberger. Their collaboration at the army’s Peenemünde Rocket Center is legendary; it launched Wernher von Braun into the forefront of the world’s foremost rocketry program.
(Although Robert Goddard was testing liquid-fueled rockets in America, he was so secretive that von Braun had not even heard of him till after the war). From the first, the Peenemünde engineers were developing rockets for peaceful purposes. Though Hitler was in the news, von Braun at the time considered him a “pompous fool” and none of the engineers imagined their work being used as instruments of horror in the hands of a Nazi regime.
Stuhlinger explains the army connection: “The situation of the young rocketeers was similar to that of the aviation pioneers when the airplane could only be developed because of military support” (Ordway, p. 24). Rocketry demanded facilities that the former amateur team lacked. Until rather late in the war, von Braun’s rocket team was largely ignored by the growing Nazi regime, which did not see rockets has having weapons potential and considered rocket research heretical.
For most of the 1930s, therefore, rocket R&D was removed from the thought of war; it was von Braun fulfilling his childhood dream. The team moved to Peenemünde in 1935, and as late as 3 October 1942, after a successful launch of their baby the A-4 (53 miles elevation, 118 miles downrange), von Braun was still idealistic: “Do you realize what we accomplished today? Today the spaceship has been born!” and Dornberger chimed in innocently, “This 3 October 1943 [sic] is the first day of a new era of travel, the era of space travel!”
Up till now, growing Nazi intrusions had been a nuisance and irritant to the decidedly non-political team, but the successful launch suddenly switched Hitler’s attention to it. He organized a committee of overseers; von Braun and Dornberger eluded some of the intrusions with claims that the work demanded absolute secrecy, but by the end of 1943, after the British had inflicted severe damage at the test center, Hitler ordered the production underground.
This become the notorious Mittelwerk production center, in which A-4 rockets (renamed V-2s by the Nazis for “vengeance weapon #2”) were built by slave labor in a last-ditch effort to safe Germany from defeat. In February 1944, Himmler, who had visited the Peenemünde center the previous summer, tried to lure von Braun’s support; when it was rebuffed, the Gestapo arrested him in the middle of the night.
Von Braun was kept in jail two weeks without any explanation as to why he had been arrested. Finally, he was hauled into before a mock trial, where the accusation was, “he did not intend the A-4 to be a weapon of war, that he had only space travel in mind ... and that he regretted its military use” (Ordway, 32).
He was also accused of spying and trying to escape. In the nick of time, Dornberger entered the courtroom with a document. When the official read it, von Braun was released. What happened? Dornberger had been working since the arrest to effect his release, and after many unsuccessful attempts, persuaded the head of the Gestapo that von Braun’s was “absolutely essential” to the success of the A-4 program.
Also, Albert Speer had persuaded Hitler, who grudgingly agreed, that the “secret weapon” Germany had been boasting about publicly could not proceed without its premiere rocket scientist. For six months, until the assassination attempt on Hitler (when the von Braun affair was forgotten), von Braun was in a very precarious position.
He had two choices: refuse to cooperate and be shot, or steer the circumstances he was placed in for good, with what influence he had. Who could fault his decision? He had no authority, and no power other than advice, which he used to mitigate the evils around him.
For instance, when he was made aware of the “hellish” circumstances under which prisoners were forced to build rockets in underground tunnels at Mittelwerk, he realized quickly that humane arguments with the morally-bankrupt SS leaders were futile. He persuaded them with shrewd pragmatic arguments that the project could not be completed on time unless the workers were fed and given rest. Similar shrewdness is found with Hushai’s counsel to Absalom in the Bible (II Samuel 16).
Because of this, some of the suffering was alleviated. Yet von Braun had no authority over the project that the Nazis had wrested from his team’s hands; he was only asked his opinion on very specific problems, and was escorted under guard at all times. On September 8, 1944, V-2s were launched against Paris and London. Von Braun later described hearing the news as the darkest day of his life. To his chagrin, the rockets worked perfectly; they just hit the wrong planet.
From time to time, revisionists criticize von Braun for not defying the Nazi regime, which would surely have meant his death. Rumors surface that he was a secret Nazi collaborator, or a member of the Nazi party, etc. Those tempted to believe this should read the detailed account of the period in the book by Frederick Ordway (American long-time co-worker) and Ernst Stuhlinger (part of the Peenemünde team), Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space (Krieger Publishing, Florida, 1996).
These men both knew von Braun personally over many years and participated in the events. Von Braun was no Nazi. Since 1940, Himmler had tried to woo him with gifts and a rank in the SS, which von Braun confided with friends made him deeply upset. But with their advice, he avoided making an issue to prevent Himmler from flying into a rage. When sweet talk did not work, force was applied, and von Braun’s options were none: do as you are told, or die.
For the crusader for the peaceful exploration of space from his youth to his death, the years 1943-1944 turned his dream into a nightmare. His plowshares were stolen and turned into swords. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Finding himself powerless to stop Hitler and the war, what little influence he had, he used, and as soon as the war was over, he quickly and willingly surrendered to the American liberators.
Consider these points in response to critics:
1. Von Braun was arrested and jailed by the Gestapo.
2. He was charged with resisting the military use of his rockets, and trying to escape.
3. Himmler’s awarding von Braun an honorary rank in the SS no more made him a Nazi than awarding Martin Luther King an honorary membership in the KKK would make him a white supremacist.
4. The evil uses of his rockets occupied only a few months at the end of the war.
5. During his release from jail, when the military used von Braun for his advice, he was escorted under military guard at all times and under strict orders what he could say or do.
6. He used his influence to argue for more time (delaying tactics) and better conditions for the prisoners.
7. When he tried to argue for better treatment of the prisoners, he was threatened that it was none of his business, and that he had better shut up or he would be wearing the same prison stripes.
8. His lifelong dream was the peaceful exploration of space. He was devastated when he heard the news that his rockets had been used against Allied cities.
9. After the war, he sought out the Americans, and willingly surrendered not only himself but his whole team. He knew this meant abandoning his fatherland (and who, in spite of evil leaders, does not have some heart for his own country?). He became a patriotic, energetic American citizen.
10. As soon as he reached America, he was eager to help the American space program.
11. He repeatedly gave a full accounting of all his activities during the war, when interrogated by the government and by suspicious critics.
12. His record since the war speaks for itself. A leopard does not change its spots. If von Braun were anything less than a man of integrity, bad signs would have surfaced in the subsequent 32 years in America.
13. The British Interplanetary Society awarded him an honorary membership right after the war. Surely if anyone had doubts about his motives and allegiances, it would be those who were victimized by V-2 rockets raining down on their city.
It is only fair for war victims, especially the Jews, to investigate the motives and actions of anyone connected to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. We hope this brief review helps to dispense with rumors that von Braun was ever personally at fault.
He was a victim as well. Read the book by Ordway and Stuhlinger, probably the most authoritative biography by those close to von Braun, for further information. It contains many details and quotations by contemporaries, and gives a spellbinding account of events that are still within the memory of some alive today.
The story of the surrender is one of those remarkable turning points in history, that is haunting to think about in retrospect. 100 members of the Peenemünde Rocket Center waited in hiding after the German surrender as Allies and Russians combed the land. They had recently escaped the fear that the SS would destroy them and everything they had done in one last desperate blow.
Marshall Space Flight Center’s biography says, “After stealing a train with forged papers, von Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. The SS were issued orders to kill the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while searching for the Americans.”
Von Braun had convinced some SS officers they needed to retreat to a place safe from attack. Secured in an alpine village, news reached them April 30, 1945, that Hitler had committed suicide. The guards left. On May 2, Wernher’s youngest brother, Magnus von Braun, rode his bicycle with a white handkerchief down the hill to look for the Americans; upon finding them, he told them that the German rocket scientists were waiting to surrender.
A Wisconsin-born private first class who spoke German, Frederick Schneikert, came to the compound and ordered, “Come forward with your hands up!” – as if they needed any convincing. Von Braun was given free choice along with all the others whether they wanted to immigrate to America. The historic photo shows von Braun accepting the terms, his arm in a cast due to a fracture he had suffered during the traumatic events.
Along with the German rocket scientists, their priceless research documents were recovered from the mine where they had been hidden. This required hurriedly digging a new tunnel, because they had blasted the entrance closed to secure it. Also, parts for about 100 V-2 rockets were spirited to Allied safety in Austria by May 22, with monumental effort, just days before the Russians gained control of the territory according to the Yalta agreement.
Had the Russians captured the German rocket scientists and their work, history would likely had been very different. Knowing the aftermath of the cold war and the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing nuclear weapons, one wonders whether there would be an America today.
The German scientists were brought to America under top-secret Operation Paperclip. When Americans became aware of their presence, there was understandable alarm, and it took some convincing by the military and the government that they were now willing allies in strategic work. Von Braun was raring to go forward with his research.
This attitude was shared by the entire team, and von Braun was restless at the seemingly interminable delays and interrogations. Slow progress was made, as freedom was granted by degrees, until full citizenship; the days of Truman and Eisenhower, the post-war boom, the threat of communism, none of these deterred von Braun from his dream. By the fifties, the Air Force, Navy and Army had their own rocket development programs, often with strong rivalries between them, but von Braun gained national stature as America’s leading rocket scientist.
He became an icon of space to millions of children at their black and white TV sets on March 9, 1955, with the first of several Walt Disney shows about manned space travel – at the time, still the subject of science fiction. But not for long. Von Braun’s strategic importance to the nation gained a huge and unexpected boost on October 4, 1957, when historic bleeps were heard beaming down from space, heralding both hopes and fears. The Russians’ Sputnik 1 was in orbit.
Reactions were swift and disorderly.
Von Braun was not surprised; he had foreseen this two years earlier, and had warned that the Russians might beat us into space. His reaction was a politely but sternly worded I-told-you-so, but more than that, an optimistic appeal about the promise of space flight. But his German team, which was ready with its Redstone (Jupiter-C) rocket at Huntsville, Alabama (where his team resided from 1950 to 1970), was snubbed by the top brass in favor of the Vanguard.
In the rush to catch up just two months after Sputnik 1, and a month after Sputnik 2 carrying the first animal (the dog Laika), the Vanguard launch button was pushed. To the shocked eyes of already embarrassed Americans, it exploded in a cataclysm of fire and smoke. The Army Redstone project was given the next shot. On January 31, carrying a small scientific payload named Explorer 1 developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Von Braun’s Jupiter-C launched the satellite flawlessly into orbit.
The mood in the country was electric. Newspapers trumpeted the news, featuring the victory picture showing William Pickering (JPL Director), James Van Allen (whose instruments on this flight detected the radiation belts bearing his name), and Wernher von Braun holding a replica of Explorer 1 high overhead. Of this picture, which symbolizes one of America’s defining moments, Van Allen said, “Wernher, as usual, carries the brunt of the load.”
The 1961 Kennedy speech committing America to put a man on the moon, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs – all these are oft-told adventure epics. The subjects of countless documentaries, they need not be repeated in detail here, though they bear retelling, especially among a rising generation with no first hand knowledge of those heady days of the space race.
Readers are encouraged to relive the adventure with the well-done HBO documentary series From the Earth to the Moon, and better yet, to visit the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Take the all-day bus tour where you can walk where Von Braun walked, see the hangar that served as his office, look at the launch buttons he pushed in bunkhouses just yards from the early rockets, stand in awe of the Apollo launch pad 39A (now used for the Space Shuttle), and stare upward at the indescribable hugeness of the Vehicle Assembly Building where Saturn V rockets rolled out a mile on huge crawlers to the pad.
Then end your day at the superb Apollo Saturn V Theater, where a series of presentations let you relive the tension of countdown, as you watch the original flight operations computers come to life with dramatic music and sound effects and images on a giant screen, to the dramatic touchdown on the moon with a lifesize Lunar Module descending to a cratered surface. In between is the most awesome sight of all: a full-scale Saturn V rocket, in Smithsonian-mint condition, horizontally mounted above you in a hangar a quarter mile long.
This is a sight that must be seen to be believed; it is a monument that should be visited by every American. It will make you proud, and humble. That something this large, heavy and complicated, could ever have been built, on time, on schedule, and launched with 100% success every time, is a tribute to thousands of talented and committed people, and to their leader, their inspiration: Wernher von Braun.
Speaking of leadership, von Braun is a case study par excellence. His remarkable ability to build, lead, and inspire a team is legendary. The size and importance of the projects he led to success have few equals, but even small business managers or scout leaders would do well to learn from his leadership style.
A large and imposing man, von Braun brought a commanding presence merely by walking into the room, yet was an inspirer, not a dictator. Ernst Stuhlinger said, “...he possessed ... an irresistible charm, coupled with almost magic powers of persuasion, which helped him conquer many hesitant or doubtful minds” (Ordway, p. 330). His leadership ability combined tremendous drive, humor, grace under pressure, dignity, humility, the power to encourage and inspire, and single-minded vision.
“What is the most important thing a man needs,“ he was once asked, “when he wants to build a spaceship and travel to the moon?” “The will to do it!” was his instant reply. “We have a job to do!” was his positive appeal, in a tone that conveyed excitement and teamwork, and the need to put aside lesser things.
He could be ruthlessly direct, as when he chided JPL and Army teams for their petty rivalries during the push to launch Explorer, “Are you grown men, or young schoolboys? Is your precious little ego more important to you than a satellite in orbit? Now, you go back and work out your differences.
If you can’t, I will replace you on this project!” But even in this they knew he was calling them up to a higher standard, not talking them down; and he subtly complimented their maturity by implying they could solve their problems without his micromanagement. He led by example, Stuhlinger says:
He had the rare and precious gift of instilling in his many co-workers his own enthusiasm for hard work and high quality. But he was not only a tough and demanding task master, he was a path finder and problem solver, and he always overflowed with an exuberant joy of life that lighted up many dark chasms on the road to the stars. (Ibid.)
Most of the time, even under stress, von Braun was upbeat and positive with his team. Michael Collins (Apollo 11 astronaut) said, “he realized that rockets could only be as successful as the people who built them, and he assembled an extraordinarily talented team, people who worked well with each other, and who were totally devoted to Wernher” (Ordway, p. 330).
He had a warm smile and firm handshake that would make even a janitor feel important, part of something big. And he rarely took credit for the successes. He was quick to honor his co-workers above himself. But the record of his leadership speaks loud and clear: Collins lists just some of the later accomplishments of those who worked under the leadership of this “warm and friendly man, interested in everyone around him”:
Thirty-three Saturn flights, all successful, all without loss of life, all without weapons ... Saturns sent twenty-seven Americans to the Moon, twelve of them to walk on it. Saturns sent nine astronauts up to Skylab, which itself was a converted Saturn upper stage. And, finally, the last Saturn sent an American crew up to join a Russian spacecraft in earth orbit.
In response, his adopted country showered honors on him, such that he surpassed Lord Kelvin’s record (21) for honorary doctorates: von Braun received 25, along with numerous other medals, awards, and honors from around the world. In the waning days of his illness, almost too weak to receive it, he accepted the National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford, responding to a friend humbly, “Isn't this a great country! Here I have come in from another country and they give me this wonderful honor. Isn’t this a wonderful country!”
Today, von Braun’s bust is prominently on display at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville where he made his greatest contributions. The Von Braun Center hosts the city’s fine arts, and the Von Braun Astronomical Society that he helped found continues its telescope events. The Von Braun Memorial Lectures continue at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Tour guides at the Kennedy Space Center hold him in high esteem.
Elderly NASA employees who can, brag about having met Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Though nominally Lutheran from his childhood, Wernher von Braun appears to have gotten serious about his faith only later in life. Ordway says, “Throughout his younger years, von Braun did not show signs of religious devotion, or even an interest in things related to the church or to biblical teachings.
In fact, he was known to his friends as a ‘merry heathen’” (p. 270). In the days of Apollo, however, through the 1960s and 70s, “a new element began to surface in his conversations, and also in his speeches and his writings: a growing interest in religious thought.”
He was not overt or invasive about it, but it showed, and his scientific colleagues and the press appear somewhat baffled by it, treating it like some kind of personal quirk, something they did not expect from a leading rocket scientist pushing the limits of human achievement.
After the Apollo 11 success, for instance, a reporter asked him what he was thinking when he gave the final ‘yes’ for launch. The reporter must have been surprised at his unabashed answer, “I quietly said the Lord’s prayer.” Ordway comments that he could have been thinking of a dozen matters at that hectic moment, but his thought was, Thy will be done.
Having known von Braun so well, Ordway elaborates the prayer for him:
It would have been true to his nature if he had added, “You gave me this love for exploration and adventure and spaceflight, and also this gift to transform the dreams into reality. I have lived and worked as one little part of Your boundless creation. If we succeed with this journey to the Moon, it will be to Your glory. If we don’t, it is Your will.
As far as I am concerned, I have used all the talents You have put into me, and I have done my very best.” Whether these thoughts actually came to his mind at that moment, nobody will ever know. (Ordway, pp. 269-270.)
Von Braun was not pushy about religion, but neither was he embarrassed or annoyed by people asking if he believed in God: “Yes, absolutely!” would be his cheerful answer, “And then, he would begin to talk in his characteristic von Braun style, with perfect grammar and syntax, letting his carefully chosen words flow like a sparkling mountain stream, while he described his religious convictions with an almost disarming simplicity“ (Ordway, p. 270).
Especially around 1975 when illness was advancing, “His desire to see the world of science and technology in full harmony with the world of religion, particularly as it is manifested in Christian faith, grew even stronger,” Ordway says (p. 272). Whether a direct quote or a paraphrase is not clear, but Ordway has von Braun saying,
“Finite man cannot begin to comprehend an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and infinite God ... I find it best to accept God through faith, as an intelligent will, perfect in goodness and wisdom, revealing Himself through His creation ... ” It was surprising to some of von Braun’s associates that in spiritual matters, he would reach so deeply into the realm of the irrational.
Here Ordway seems to misunderstand his good friend. Faith is not irrational; it is the rational step beyond the limits of evidence. Von Braun understood that science can never answer ultimate questions of origins and destiny, not even of purpose for why things are the way they are.
Of course von Braun’s “entire work for space was solidly based on the exact laws of natural sciences” (p. 273), Ordway knows, but there are limits to science. When von Braun might say, “It is best not to think, but just to believe,” his belief was not irrational belief in something or anything; it had an object: the revelation of God in the Bible. As a devoted Christian believer, von Braun had confidence in the word of God.
Once a person has the settled conviction that the Bible is God’s revelation, yes— it is best just to believe it, especially since its message is not applicable to scientific inquiry. A message like For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16) is not an outworking of natural laws and mathematics. It is a communication from infinite intelligence (and love) to finite intelligence. Responding to that communication is surely the most rational thing a scientist can do.
Von Braun often stressed that “science and religion are not antagonists. On the contrary, they are sisters” (Hill, intro.). He had no problem with “knowing” and “believing” living side by side; in fact, he thought it most irrational to deny the obvious: “It is as difficult for me to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science” (American Weekly, Jan. 10, 1960).
Science can observe rationality and order and design, but the details of the Who behind “the grandeur of the cosmos” requires revelation. That von Braun believed in the revelation of Scripture, including Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins, will be apparent from an essay we will quote in its entirety from an Introduction he wrote for a book on creation.
In regards to creation vs. evolution, von Braun opposed the one-sided teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools. In 1972, he wrote a letter to the California School Board, which was considering a controversial bill on the teaching of evolution. He used his influence as a scientist and well-known public figure to argue that students need to hear the case for creation:
To be forced to believe only one conclusion—that everything in the universe happened by chance-would violate the very objectivity of science itself. Certainly there are those who argue that the universe evolved out of a random process, but what random process could produce the brain of a man or the system of the human eye?
Some people say that science has been unable to prove the existence of a Designer... They challenge science to prove the existence of God. But, must we really light a candle to see the sun?
We plan to reproduce the entire letter separately, along with other selected writings, since it is always best to read comments in context, and Dr. Von Braun’s own eloquence could only be tarnished by our embellishment.
For largely political reasons, the mood of the NASA top brass was changing after the euphoria of Apollo; by the time of Skylab, von Braun’s influence was waning in favor of younger minds and untested ideas. Noting the change, von Braun thought it best to graciously retire rather than to fight (though superiors later acknowledged the wisdom of his advice: he advocated a scaled-down shuttle, rather than an expensive supermodel, and James Webb later admitted this saved the shuttle program from the budget axe). An effusive outpouring of affection from his Huntsville colleagues characterized his retirement party in 1975.
Von Braun went to work for a very dear friend, Dr. Henry Ulm, at Fairchild Industries in Virginia. Unfortunately, the career change was short. That year, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in spite of a few promising remissions, it became clear at age 64 his days were numbered. He looked on the bright side. It gave him quality time with his wife and two daughters and son, time he had long missed because of his heavy work load.
Reflecting on his years of building the space program, he asked colleagues whether he had done the right thing, considering all the needs of the suffering around the world. Friends reinforced his own belief that it was worth it. As it did with Morse’s telegraph, new technology brings in its coattails many benefits: jobs, infrastructure, whole towns of supporting processes, including highways, restaurants, churches, schools, and charities. Because of the space program, thousands of people have access to better education and higher-paying jobs, and the spin-off technologies have improved the lives of millions.
The cost of the space program, a tiny fraction of what the country spends on entitlements and foreign aid, is more than compensated for by the many benefits that sprang from it, and continue to spring from it, because the legacy of von Braun lives on in the continued exploration of space. At this writing, over 100 space shuttle launches have gathered valuable scientific data about our world from above, and additional spacecraft are exploring Mars and Jupiter and Saturn in ways that would make von Braun thrilled. And what value could anyone put on inspiring a whole generation with the dreams of exploring space?
Or taking the world on a great adventure, fulfilling a monumental goal on schedule, in spite of enormous obstacles, during a wartime era when a world was in crisis? For a magical moment, the world stopped its riots and bombings and stared in fixed silence at the image of Neil Armstrong stepping of the ladder onto the surface of the moon. Humanity looked back on the blue gem of earth in its stark contrast to the blackness of space. Yes, Dr. von Braun, it was worth it.
Wernher von Braun wrote two more things in his last year. One was a book co-authored with Frederick Ordway called New Worlds, Discoveries From the Solar System (published posthumously, 1979). It being a secular science book, von Braun did not discuss religion or faith. His attitudes about creation were clearly coincident with today’s Intelligent Design Movement, but beyond that, it is not clear how he felt about Genesis. The book assumes long ages, but interestingly, there are points here and there where he casts a little doubt about what the standard evolutionary theories claim.
The other writing was a short introduction to a little paperback book on creation, probably as a favor to the author, Harold Hill, a friend he apparently met at Fairchild. Though the body of the book is eminently forgettable, von Braun’s introduction is not. It comprises one of his clearest statements about science, creation, the Bible, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. It will also be included in its entirety on another page as part of our series.
Von Braun was visited by many dignitaries and friends as his health declined, and his funeral was like that of a head of state, attended by Presidents, astronauts, NASA administrators, personal friends and other German rocket scientists. The accolades Ordway has reproduced in his biography are impressive. The NASA Administrator said he continued in the tradition of Newton and Einstein. President Carter said all the people of the world had profited from his work.
Major General John Medaris said, “His imagination strolled easily among the stars, yet the farther out into the unknown and unknowable vastness of Creation his thoughts went, the more he was certain that the universe, and this small garden spot within it, came from no cosmic accident, but from the thought and purpose of an all-knowing God.” Von Braun died as he had hoped, with a clear mind able to experience the transition to the afterlife. According to Ordway, his last credo was, “Thy will be done.”
... yes, in earth as it is in heaven.
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