On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. For the first time, man had set foot on another part of the solar system.
The Saturn V rocket which launched Armstrong and his fellow astronauts into space was largely the work of outstanding rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. For von Braun, this mission was the culmination of a life-long dream—the exploration of space.
The ‘impossible’ dream
Wernher von Braun was born on March 23, 1912 in the town of Wirsitz in Germany (now Wyrzysk in Poland). He was one of three sons born to Baron Magnus von Braun, a successful banker and politician.
His mother was a keen amateur astronomer. When young Wernher underwent confirmation in the Lutheran Church, his mother gave him a telescope as a gift. He began to share his mother’s love of astronomy and to dream about the possibility of space travel.
In 1920, the von Braun family moved to Berlin. At the age of 13, he was inspired by a book on the possibility of interplanetary space travel, written by Romanian rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth.
Rocket research in Germany
In 1930, von Braun began attending the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology in Berlin. Here he joined the Society for Space Travel, consisting of a group of Germans who, like himself, were keenly interested in developing rockets for space exploration. The society invited Oberth to come to Berlin, and he did so. Von Braun became Oberth’s student assistant, and they successfully developed a small rocket engine.
When funds for the project became short, Oberth returned to Romania. Von Braun and other enthusiastic members of the society continued their rocket experiments.
In 1934, von Braun completed his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Berlin. In that same year, his work was absorbed by the Army Ordnance Office as a result of new rules preventing rocket research by anyone other than the armed services. Von Braun’s goal was the exploration of space; the army’s goal was the production of weapons. However, the technology necessary for both purposes was the same.
Von Braun now had 80 scientists and technicians working under him at a rocket testing site at Peenemünde in the north-west of Germany. Over the next 10 years, he and his team significantly extended the existing technology relating to rocket propulsion, aerodynamics, and rocket guidance systems. These technological advances soon gave rise to anti-aircraft missiles and a long-range ballistic missile known as the V-2.
Secret police take over
Now the German secret police, led by infamous Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler, tried to take over the rocket program. The gap between the aims of von Braun and those of his political masters widened even more.
Beginning in September 1944, thousands of V-2 rockets were launched—against the civilian populations of cities, including London and Paris. Von Braun refused to cooperate with Himmler and was jailed, along with two of his top aides, in 1944.
Von Braun was released only when Hitler realized later that year that the development of rockets would come to a standstill without von Braun.
As World War II was ending, Von Braun evacuated his entire rocket team and their families (some 5,000 people) from Peenemünde before it was taken over by the advancing Russians. He surrendered to the Americans, reasoning that the United States ‘was the nation most likely to use its resources for space exploration’.1
New rocket research in United States
A few months later, von Braun and about 100 of his rocket team were taken to the United States, where they recommenced their research using captured V-2 rockets.
Unfortunately, von Braun again found himself working for a government more interested in weapons research than in space exploration. However, the American Government’s apparent lack of interest in space exploration (despite von Braun’s promotion of the idea) was dramatically reversed in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik I spacecraft.
Suddenly, von Braun was given the go-ahead to use a Jupiter rocket developed for the weapons program to launch a satellite developed during an earlier discontinued project. The satellite ‘Explorer I’ was launched by von Braun on January 31, 1958, only four months after Sputnik I. The space race was on.
When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in October 1958, von Braun was made director of the space flight centre. His entire team of scientists and technologists was transferred from the army to NASA.
To the moon
In 1961, America’s first astronaut, Alan B. Shepard Jr., was launched into space by a Redstone rocket, another of the rockets developed by von Braun and his team during the weapons program. Von Braun and his team then developed a series of rockets specifically for the manned space program. These were the Saturn 1, Saturn 1B, and Saturn V rockets. Also, von Braun was heavily involved in the planning of all three manned space programs—Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.
Late in 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft was launched by a Saturn V rocket. For the first time, a manned spacecraft left earth’s orbit, flew around the moon, and then returned to earth. The moon landing by Armstrong and his companion, Buzz Aldrin, followed seven months later.
It was von Braun who masterminded the idea that was used in the moon landing missions—a spacecraft in three sections. Only one section actually landed on the moon; the other two orbited the moon. One of these two sections contained life-support systems, power, and fuel, while the other was used to transport the astronauts to lunar orbit and back. Only this last section returned to earth.
Despite the outstanding success of the moon landings, NASA’s funding was drastically cut because of increasingly difficult economic times. Von Braun left NASA in 1972 to become president of a private aerospace company. He died on June 16, 1977 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Von Braun was criticized for providing the technology used in the development of weapons of war. However, he believed that: ‘The drug which cures when taken in small doses may kill when taken in excess. The knife in the hands of a skillful surgeon may save a life but it will kill when thrust just a few inches deeper … Thus it does not make sense to ask a scientist whether his drug or knife … is “good” or “bad” for mankind’.2
Von Braun believed that the user of the technology, not its developer, was responsible for the morality of the use of that technology. Others believe that the scientist should not proceed to develop technology which can be misused, and this remains one of the unresolved moral dilemmas in science.
Space research in general has been criticized as a waste of resources when there is so much poverty and suffering in the world. Von Braun defended his position by pointing out that quite apart from the new understanding of nature obtainable from space research, satellites increasingly will be necessary tools in the management of world resources.3 As von Braun predicted, satellites have indeed become an essential part of the modern world, being used for communications, scientific research, and weather prediction.
As well as being one of the world’s most outstanding space scientists, ‘von Braun was also a practising Lutheran, active in church and Christian life’.4 He had full confidence in the truth of the Bible, describing it as ‘the revelation of God’s nature and love’. 5 He acknowledged his dependence on God in prayer, not only in times of crisis such as during his escape from Nazi Germany, but also in his work—such as praying for the safety of the manned space flights.
Von Braun opposed the evolutionary thinking which is so popular in modern times. ‘There are those who argue that the universe evolved out of a random process, but what random process could produce the brain of man or the system of the human eye?’6 Von Braun believed that scientific advances increasingly provided evidence of intelligent design. He wrote that: ‘I find it … difficult to understand a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior rationality behind the existence of the universe’.7
Von Braun was a strong critic of the modern tendency to teach science from an evolutionary standpoint only.Von Braun was a strong critic of the modern tendency to teach science from an evolutionary standpoint only, without examining the creationist alternative as well. He believed that such an approach was totally unscientific. ‘To be forced to believe only one conclusion—that everything in the universe happened by chance—would violate the very objectivity of science itself.’8
He believed that the reason ‘for the amazing string of successes we had with our Apollo flights to the moon … was that we tried to never overlook anything. It is in that same sense of scientific honesty that I endorse the presentation of alternative theories for the origin of the universe, life and man in the science classroom. It would be an error to overlook the possibility that the universe was planned rather than happening by chance’.9
Like many great scientists before him, von Braun did not see his work as glorifying man’s achievements. Rather, like Kepler and Newton centuries earlier, von Braun investigated the heavens and stood in awe of the great Creator God. He said: ‘Manned space flight is an amazing achievement, but it has opened for mankind thus far only a tiny door for viewing the awesome reaches of space. An outlook through this peep-hole at the vast mysteries of the universe should only confirm our belief in the certainty of its Creator’.10
- The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Biography, Vol. 11, McGraw-Hill,
1973, p. 186.
- Von Braun, quoted in: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Vol. 2, 1985, p. 485.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Vol. 2, 1985, p. 485.
- Henry M. Morris, Men of Science, Men of God, Master Books, El Cajon, California, 1988, p. 85.
- Von Braun, quoted in: E. Bergaust, Wernher von Braun, National Space Institute, Washington D.C., 1976, pp. 115–116.
- Von Braun, in a letter read by Dr John Ford to the California State Board of Education on Thursday September 14, 1972.
- Von Braun, quoted in Ref. 4, p. 85.
- Same as Ref. 6.
- Von Braun quoted in Ref. 4, p. 85.