Judicious biography of the Nazis’ chief rocket designer, who went on to lead the U.S. space program.
Son of a wealthy Prussian aristocrat, Werner Von Braun (1912–77) became fascinated with space travel during adolescence. His experiments with rockets while still an engineering student intrigued the German army, which hired him in 1932. Hitler’s 1933 accession opened the money floodgates, and Von Braun soon directed hundreds of workers in a top-secret complex. One result was the V-2, a dazzling achievement that killed thousands when launched against the Allies, in addition to the thousands of slave laborers who died while manufacturing the rocket under brutal conditions. Historian Neufeld (The Bombing of Auschwitz, 2000, etc.) agrees with critics who accuse Von Braun of complicity in Nazi crimes, noting that his obsession with space trumped any moral feelings. Brought to America with most of his team in 1945, the scientist energetically advocated space travel to a huge audience reached through books and a famous Colliers magazine series brought to television by Walt Disney. After the trauma of Sputnik’s launch in October 1957 and the embarrassing launch-pad explosion of the Vanguard TV-3 in December, Von Braun became a national hero and a media icon on January 31, 1958, when the first American satellite was successfully put into orbit. President Kennedy’s 1961 announcement of the Apollo program was the culmination of the scientist’s dreams. Despite receiving the lion’s share of publicity, his role was limited to designing the huge Saturn rocket, but this was the primary technological hurdle, and Saturn remains the only large booster that never failed. Neufeld stresses that Von Braun was less a brilliant innovator than a skilled leader of other brilliant men, much like the Manhattan Project’s J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Densely packed with political and technical detail, but nonetheless engrossing: the defining work on a still-controversial figure.