“Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War” by Michael J. Neufeld is a broad, sweeping look at the life and work of one of the most iconic and ethi“Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War” by Michael J. Neufeld is a broad, sweeping look at the life and work of one of the most iconic and ethically conflicted engineers in history, Dr. Wernher Von Braun. A dreamer of space from a young age, Von Braun always held the manned exploration of space as his ultimate goal; however, to reach for this dream, the brilliant and charming engineer would, apparently rather non-chalantly, accept the support of Hitler’s Nazi regime for early rocket development in exchange for his expertise in turning these tools of exploration into weapons of death, weapons that would kill over 9,000 civilians in London and thousands more in Antwerp during the notorious V-2 rocket campaign.
Neufeld does not explicitly judge Von Braun one way or another, as easy as it would be to condemn him outright. One is almost affronted at the effort to which Neufeld goes to appear neutral, given that Von Braun is the quintessential 21st-century Faust, achieving greatness for science, Germany, and later (in a massive way) the United States, yet doing so through the knowing design of instruments of destruction built by concentration camp laborers. At the height of Dora’s labor contribution to the Reich’s rocket program, up to 20 prisoners per day died in appalling conditions for Von Braun’s dream.
Yet Von Braun’s case is compelling, as he represents the extreme of the ethical challenge that lurks behind every scientific advancement and in the back of every engineer’s mind at some point in his or her career. Every technology, no matter how benign it’s scientific purpose, has a dark side. Indeed, few significant engineering achievements have been realized without the help of the enormous resources and funding that weapons programs command. What is the individual scientist or engineer’s ethical responsibility for the technologies that he or she creates? Does the belief that individual good intentions make up for half-intentional blindness to context hold up to historical scrutiny?
Neufeld deviates from Von Braun’s personal history on several occasions, delving into the engineering programs in which the rocket man absorbed himself with an appropriate level of technical detail. Far from distracting from the history of the man, these windows into the breathtaking scope and complexity of the early years of rocket flight are a testament to the organizational genius and technical management brilliance of Von Braun. However, as I am an aerospace engineer myself, I would advise the rocket engineering layman to take my assessment of “appropriate level of technical detail” with a grain of salt.
I found it interesting to learn that several of the phrases and sayings common in modern NASA lingo originated with Von Braun, including NIH (“not invented here”) syndrome. This disease, apparently as common if not more so in Von Braun’s time is it is in the modern agency, manifests itself primarily in that the ten NASA centers (then six) by and large operate as ten separate, and often competing, organizations – repeated “One NASA” efforts by Headquarters notwithstanding. A technique or program “not invented here” at the home center might stand a greater chance of being received coolly or even with hostile tones. The roots of this issue are shown in this biography to be the formation of NASA as a rushed aggregation of disparate government and contractor entities, during a time of particularly heightened inter-service rivalry between the Army, Navy, and newly created Air Force for Cold War weapons development dollars. The significant cultural differences between the widely distributed centers certainly are a contributing factor.
In the end, we are left with burning questions. Von Braun played a central role in the formation and execution of the US space program. The US space program brought with it huge side benefits for our nation and the world: significant technological triumph over totalitarian forces, greatly expanded and improved machining and manufacturing processes (safer cars, lighter airplanes, computers, new materials, new medical possibilities, etc, etc), a host of spinoff technologies including the artificial heart, and the emergence of a modern outlet for the deeply-rooted American drive to explore and invent. Partial credit for these advancements must be, perhaps grudgingly, relinquished to Von Braun. Yet what then is the ultimate historical place for a former SS-Sturmbannfuerer (SS Major), one perhaps (not ever proven directly) complicit in Nazi war crimes, that hardly batted an eye when switching flags from Germany to the United States? Are the so many benefits garnered from a man, however brilliant, so blind to the human context of his actions to be taken with appreciation, or unease? And what does this say about a United States that was willing to overlook these past atrocities, even make this man a hero, in the face of a new Communist threat? Our condemnations of the past must be tempered by the realization that in hindsight, removed of the pressures of the situation, moral judgments are easy to make in the comfort of our modern lives; and we must not make Von Braun’s own mistake in neglecting the context of his later work for our country.
These issues, while (perhaps appropriately) not directly concluded by Neufeld’s book, are nonetheless thrown into glaring light by this biography; they are left to the reader to mull over in that post-read stupor that inevitably follows an extended immersion in the written word. And, like any truly good piece of historical work, Neufeld’s biography of this Faustian trailblazer creates more questions than it answers. I recommend it highly. And afterward, if you would be so kind as to meet me for a cup of coffee and a long philosophical exchange regarding its contents, I would be much obliged. ...more