Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Biddle (A Field Guide to the Invisible, 1998, etc.) recounts the early years of the quintessential “rocket scientist” and hero of America’s 1960s race to the moon.
Von Braun (1912–1977) led the team that designed the Saturn V, still the world’s most powerful rocket, and the only one that never failed. Even before America’s moon landing, he was a prominent media figure, narrating a Disney TV special on space flight and writing and speaking incessantly on interplanetary travel. Before World War II, von Braun directed Germany’s rocket program, which developed the V2, a military weapon capable of killing thousands. Anxious to exploit German technology, the United States discouraged investigations into von Braun’s activities under Hitler, and the scientist denied Nazi sympathies, maintaining that space travel was his obsession. Biddle disagrees. With a jaundiced eye, the author examines von Braun’s spectacular rise from a 20-year-old engineering student to, within five years, chief of a massive secret rocket-development project. Biddle makes a convincing case that von Braun had no objection to Hitler and regularly visited the squalid Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp where thousands died working to assemble the V2. Like Michael Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (2007), Biddle asserts that the rocket scientist made a Faustian bargain with evil to further his ambitions. Unlike Neufeld, and less convincingly, he suggests that von Braun was a self-promoting charlatan, neither as preoccupied with space as he claimed nor as skilled an engineer.
Neufeld’s is the definitive biography, but Biddle offers a solid, moderately damning investigation of von Braun’s relation to the Third Reich.