April 20, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Wernher von Braun Remembered

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) would have turned 100 on March 23.  His name is almost synonymous with “rocket scientist” to many.  Father of the American space program, including the first American satellite, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, the moon landings and Skylab, von Braun left an indelible mark on America and the world.

Several science sites posted photo memorials of his life.  Space.com gave a very favorable report of not only his intellect and achievements, but his character.  David Christensen, who worked with von Braun, spoke from his experience with the giant of rocketry:

  • He was very unique. I don’t know of another individual, frankly, that’s had those capabilities, either then or now, that could do the things he did.
  • He was a very warm personality.
  • He was very down to Earth and friendly, never talked down to anyone. But talking to him, working on a project, you learned very quickly he was a genius.
  • He was a very broad-based individual, very culturally capable; he played several musical instruments, wrote music, he was an astronomer and he was certainly a top notch engineer.

See also Space.com’s photo gallery.  The article, echoed on Live Science, did not overlook concerns about von Braun’s alleged involvement with the Nazi regime: “Scholars are still reassessing his role in these controversial activities,” the article said, implying lack of consensus on whether his connections were voluntary or coerced.  One thing is clear: once in America, he was admired for his intellect, character, leadership, and dedication to the peaceful exploration of space.

Late in the Apollo program, Wernher von Braun became a Christian and supporter of creation and academic freedom – the freedom of students to question Darwinian materialism.  He wrote popular articles on the relationship of science and faith (see samples).  “The better we understand the intricacies of the universe and all it harbors, the more reason we have found to marvel at the inherent design upon which it is based,” he said in 1972.  In a statement remarkably prescient of arguments used by the subsequent intelligent design movement, he added, “While the admission of a design for the universe ultimately raises the question of a Designer (a subject outside of science), the scientific method does not allow us to exclude data which lead to the conclusion that the universe, life and man are based on design.   To be forced to believe only one conclusion—that everything in the universe happened by chance—would violate the very objectivity of science itself.”

See our biography of Wernher von Braun here.  The positive coverage of von Braun’s 100th birthday is a hopeful sign that the misinformed guilt-by-association slurs of this great man are finally dying down, and that history will treat him favorably, as it should.  Consider that he made great effort at considerable risk to escape to the Americans as soon as it was possible.  Look at his record from the moment he arrived on American shores.  Is it believable his character suddenly switched from one pole to another overnight?

The weight of evidence is that his expertise, borne of childhood love of space and rocketry, had been temporarily co-opted during the German war effort by forces beyond his control, and put to uses that repulsed him.  As soon as it was possible for him to escape the clutches of his desperate situation, he sought out the Americans and surrendered his whole team to them. As an American, he explained his German situation when asked, without dwelling on it, but a few continued to tar him with guilt by association.  No other alleged “Nazi war criminal” led such a stellar, exemplary life afterward.  He quickly became an American citizen and dedicated himself to the peaceful exploration of space.  Von Braun was never charged with or convicted of any war crimes; on the contrary, he was showered with honors.  Even the British Interplanetary Society, in the London that felt the horror of the V2 rockets, honored him.  His achievements cannot and should not be smeared with baseless suppositions.  The man’s life speaks for itself.  Happy Birthday, Dr. von Braun– one of the world’s greatest creation scientists.


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