Monday, November 22, 2004

the ultimate rocket builder

Wernher von Braun with John Glenn, left (credit: NASA)

As part of the 35th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, NASA reprinted a small book titled Apollo: A Retrospective. It is a collection of documents relating to discussions and decisions made before and during the Apollo program, and serves as a reference to those who want more information about the thought processes of decision makers that led up to that day in July 1969. One document in particular, Wernher von Braun’s concluding remarks from an all-day meeting on June 7th, 1962, sheds light on an early, critical decision in the Apollo program: which method should America use to land humans on the Moon? The author captured the document in electronic format (the book version is typewritten with sections underlined by hand, and an Internet search did not reveal a copy on the Web. If there is one, don’t tell me), and it can be found here.

Imagine the scene: A smoke-filled room at Marshall Space Flight Center, with representatives of every specialty at Marshall present. Dr. Joseph Shea, the Deputy Director (Systems) of the Office of Manned Space Flight, has been hearing presentations for the last six hours. The American effort to reach the Moon has been scattered, with various centers pushing their own method of accomplishing President Kennedy’s goal, and the diffuse effort is hampering real progress towards that goal. Throughout the day, executives from Marshall present their ideas as to why Earth Orbit Rendezvous is the way to go to the Moon, despite a rising tide of opinion throughout NASA that there may be better, faster ways.

Wernher von Braun was a rocket builder. In many ways, he was the ultimate rocket builder.

Then, the time comes for Dr. von Braun to speak. Wernher von Braun, the German ex-patriot who ran the Nazi ballistic missile effort starting at 25 years of age. The man who, while always dreaming of building rockets and spacecraft for journeys to the Moon, put those dreams on hold while at the same time allowing them to come true as he worked to build the first large rocket, knowing that it would be used to rain terror on the people of London. After World War 2, seeing that exploration was not yet a priority, he stayed with military programs for the United States, building missiles to carry nuclear warheads for the next envisioned war in Europe. Once the US consolidated its peacetime space efforts under one agency, his goal came closer to reality.

Wernher von Braun was a rocket builder. In many ways, he was the ultimate rocket builder. When asked his opinion of how America should tackle the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, his plans involved building many rockets to assemble a craft in Earth orbit (a plan known as Earth Orbit Rendezvous, EOR) or to build a massive rocket and blast directly to the surface of the moon (Direct Ascent). it all: Decision point by Tom Hill, The Space Review

...But no mention in that glorifying account (nor in the 1962 meeting, pynchonoid bets) of von Braun's knowledge that slave labor - individual people who suffered and died - built the V2:
Pokler helped with his own blindness. He knew about Nordhausen, and the Dora camp: he could see--the starved bodies, the eyes of the foreign prisoners being marched to work at four in the morning in the freezing cold and darkness, the shuffling thousands in their striped uniforms. [Gravity's Rainbow, p. 428]