Biographies are a fascinating means through which to learn about history, and I usually find when I read one that I pick it up almost as much for that historical insight as I do for insight into the individual being therein explicated. It’s one of the prime reasons that I enjoy biographies, and yet I find that I read them only occasionally, mostly because I find it difficult to choose sufficiently high quality treatments of the individuals of most interest to me. Chernow’s biographies are consistently fantastic (he wrote the one that inspired the Broadway play Hamilton, and another one on Washington, both of which I read and found excellent), but most other biographies I’ve read have been lackluster. Not bad, but not remarkable.
Although I’d long desired to find a biography of Werner Von Braun, one of the more complex and mysterious figures of early rocketry, most of the treatments I found seemed unlikely to provide the kind of detail and depth of analysis that I was seeking, so when I came upon a biography of him that was consistently billed as the best study yet done of him and his history, I was optimistic enough to add it to my reading list, and excited enough by its possibilities to read it within a year of its addition.
I’m getting ahead of myself, however; I really should explain what makes Von Braun such an interesting figure, since despite his former celebrity, his name now goes largely unrecognized outside of the astronautical engineering circles in which I roam. Werner Von Braun was one of the pioneers of modern rocketry, and built what was arguably the world’s first, practical, liquid-fueled rocket: the German V2. That is just a small part of what makes him such an intriguing character; he is frequently depicted as an apolitical and amoral opportunist obsessed only with rocketry, and caring little for the means by which that goal is attained, or the uses to which his inventions are put. The truth is far more complicated, as it always is, but it is a convenient shortcut to explain away his time developing military rockets for the Nazis before coming to the US to build nuclear ballistic missiles, and eventually the rocket that landed astronauts on the Moon.
The glaring question of Von Braun’s potential complicity in the atrocities committed under Hitler’s regime looms large in Neufeld’s treatment of the engineer, but Neufeld seems determined to reduce the question to a simple, pithy answer. He denies that the question can be answered simply while in the same sentence attempting to distil just such a straightforward determination, and he gives pride of place to the argument as both his opening thesis and his dominant conclusion. It is the flaw in an otherwise insightful and detailed biography, and Neufeld’s preoccupation with revisiting the question sometimes interferes with the overall text.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the question is not a significant one, or that it is one not worth considerable contemplation. What I am saying is that humans are complicated. Attempting to reduce as dynamic and varied a persona as Von Braun to strictly the concept of a Faustian bargain undersells him, the tangled skein of humanity, and the richly textured tapestry of history. While we have today reduced the Nazi regime to a pure embodiment of all that is evil in humanity, the reality is much more complex, and while that may be true of the atrocities of the Holocaust, other aspects of the regime, and those with which Von Braun would have been familiar, had a more nuanced character: still authoritarian, still at odds with modern, Western morality, but not truly evil or horrific in the way that the Holocaust was. While those perhaps cannot be truly separated, they can be in terms of what an individual may have been aware of, especially keeping in mind that this was not the period of ubiquitous and easily accessed information on everything that we enjoy (endure?) today. My point, if I have one, is that for all that Neufeld dwelt on this matter, he did not really dig into its complexities, content to point to evidence that supports his thesis of the Faustian bargain.
With that, I will stop belaboring the point that I was complaining about being too belabored, and instead talk about the rest of the biography, which was otherwise excellent. Neufeld was able to learn an immense amount of detail about Von Braun’s childhood and time in Germany, periods of his life that are usually shrouded in mystery from a combination of secrecy and loss of documents in his removal from Germany at the end of World War II in what became known as Operation Paperclip. His early participation in rocket experiments, how he became enamored with rocketry and space travel, and his relationship with other early rocket pioneers was new information to me, and provides a solid foundation upon which the rest of the text proceeds.
Perhaps the greatest insight contained in Neufeld’s treatment was Von Braun’s genius as an engineering manager, rather than an inventor. Like other rocketry pioneers ala Goddard, Von Braun is frequently depicted as the solitary, visionary genius, inventing key technologies and single-handedly propelling humanity to spacefaring capability. The truth is that Von Braun personally invented few technologies, was conservative in his innovations, and his visions for the future, while grand in scale, were largely derived from his reading of other visionaries, like Oberth. His genius, and key contribution by which he can be rightfully given credit for rocketry advancements from the V2 to the Saturn V, was his ability to gather, organize, direct, and inspire massive teams of engineers, manufacturers, laborers, and others towards space goals.
Second to his skill as an engineering manager was apparently his skill, or perhaps more his relentless enthusiasm, for promoting space travel to the public. Rocketry in general, and space travel especially, was little more than the stuff of outlandish science fiction when Von Braun was starting in the field, but especially after he reached the United States he began passionately, vocally, and incessantly promoting space travel, its possibility, its imminence, its importance, and its utility to anyone and everyone who would listen. Although it is difficult to pin down a single factor, it would not be an understatement to claim that Von Braun helped pave the way for the public’s acceptance of a Moon landing as even a possibility.
Unfortunately, Von Braun’s career followed much the trajectory of NASA, peaking with the Apollo program and declining rapidly afterwards, until his eventual death. He was a complicated man, who lived through some of the pivotal events of the last century, and Neufeld captures him vividly. When chronicling the death of Von Braun’s father, Neufeld observes that the man had lived to see two World Wars, and his son land a man on the Moon. It is an observation I have made in a general sense, rendered much more personal. Von Braun himself lived from cars being a rare luxury to seeing his dream come true, although he himself never left Earth, as he had longed dreamt of doing. It was perhaps the one dream that he did not realize before his death.
While the biography stands well on its own, I will make one more observation; it references a great deal of other history and events of the time periods involved that could easily be the topic of entire books in and of themselves. The ballistic missile race, for instance, is thoroughly covered in A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, and the Apollo 8 decision is detailed in Rocket Men. Both of those books would be excellent supplements to this biography, but whether you have a certain fascination with the Space Age like I do, or are interested in the specific story of one of the most dynamic players of the twentieth century, I would definitely recommend reading Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.