Defending America’s Apollo Rocket Scientist
Revisionist historians who weren’t with this man keep trying to disparage his past. We set the record straight.
The 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing takes place this month, and numerous celebrations are taking place around the country. The mission control center at Johnson Space Center in Houston has been refurbished like new, space museums are hosting week-long special events, and a new CNN documentary features long-lost Apollo memorabilia. Unfortunately, in spite of the spirit of happiness for one of the country’s finest moments, certain journalists who feel obsessed to cast America in a bad light are digging for dirt. A particularly heinous rumor has arisen again.
PBS is issuing a new documentary called Chasing the Moon. In the series, space historian John Logsdon resurrects the myth that Wernher von Braun was a nasty, hard-to-work with individual, and worse, was a Nazi, or at least was complicit with Hitler’s Nazi war machine. Elizabeth Howell was quick to leap onto that narrative and perpetuate it in a whole article for Space.com, headlining her article, “‘Chasing the Moon’ Shows Nazi Past of Engineer Wernher Von Braun in Early Space Program (Video).” The video clip in the article shows various silent historical clips of von Braun, but the voice-over narration by Logsdon trashes von Braun’s reputation with name-calling, saying von Braun was “first of all, a pain in the ass” and was “difficult to deal with, a prima donna.” Worse, he alleges that “the government was well aware of his background under [Nazi leader Adolf] Hitler and his possible engagement with the S.S. [Nazi police] and being a registered Nazi.” Possible? Apparently even Logsdon is unsure about his facts. Then, the video clip seamlessly cuts to a fictional movie made in 1960 that shows an actor pretending to be von Braun cooperating with a Nazi official on the development of rockets to be used as weapons. But is this true?
The video clip and Howell’s text balances the negative picture a tiny bit by quoting Freeman Dyson, who ameliorates the innuendos somewhat by pointing to von Braun’s peaceful motivations for his rocket program. “‘He advanced the whole field,’ Dyson said, adding that he shared von Braun’s belief that humanity wouldn’t be confined to Earth.” But then she links to a fictional 2018 play that makes up a fictional von Braun as (1) a man complicit with Nazi goals, and (2) a morally-careless individual, unconcerned with the damage his rockets caused during the war. As an added insult to America, the promoters of this narrative often disparage the whole United States government and its armed forces as secretly hiring a bunch of “German Nazis” in order to beat the Russians to the moon, as if the end justified the means.
The disgraced president Richard Nixon is sometimes dragged into the picture by the naysayers, committing the association fallacy. Actually, it was Democrat president John F. Kennedy who launched the moon race and hired von Braun to lead the rocket development. Historical photos show von Braun giving Kennedy tours of the space facilities and sharing the progress of Kennedy’s charge to “land a man on the moon, and return him safely to earth” by the end of the decade of the 1960s. Von Braun is largely responsible for the success of that daring charge, commemorated even today by the phrase “moon shot” as an expensive, all-out commitment to a hard task. Unfortunately, Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 during the Mercury program, well before the Gemini and Apollo missions. He was followed by one-term Democrat president Lyndon Johnson (who named the Johnson Space Center in Houston after himself). As fate would have it, on the Apollo 11 landing date (July 20, 1969), newly-elected Richard Nixon got the photo ops for the first telephone call to the moon, basking in the limelight of a program he had little to do with. The Watergate scandal came years later.
Such characterizations of von Braun are not only misleading, but contrary to the facts. Just being in Nazi Germany, and having his rockets conscripted by evil men, does not make von Braun himself an accomplice with them. John Logsdon, who perpetuates the negative stereotype of von Braun, appears to have done most of his research and writing after the Apollo missions, much of it after von Braun’s passing. Logsdon was later president of the Planetary Society, a special interest group saturated with Carl Sagan’s atheistic, evolutionary philosophy. Even so, Elizabeth Howell and Space.com committed egregious lapses of journalistic ethics by not giving alternative points of view to Logsdon’s. She could have consulted the writings of Ordway, Stuhlinger and others who had worked directly with von Braun during the entire manned space program. Sadly, because of decades of elapsed time after von Braun’s untimely death from cancer in 1977, he cannot speak in his own defense, and few of his co-workers remain alive to speak up for him.
Our biography of von Braun (our Creation Scientist of the Month) is worth reading as a defense against the misleading narrative. Here, let us repeat one section that defends him against the allegations he was a heartless Nazi collaborator:
- Von Braun was arrested and jailed by the Gestapo.
- He was charged with resisting the military use of his rockets, and trying to escape.
- Himmler’s awarding von Braun an honorary rank in the SS no more made him a Nazi than awarding Martin Luther King an honorary membership in the KKK would make him a white supremacist.
- The evil uses of his rockets occupied only a few months at the end of the war.
- During his release from jail, when the military used von Braun for his advice, he was escorted under military guard at all times and under strict orders what he could say or do.
- He used his influence to argue for more time (delaying tactics) and better conditions for the prisoners.
- When he tried to argue for better treatment of the prisoners, he was threatened that it was none of his business, and that he had better shut up or he would be wearing the same prison stripes.
- His lifelong dream was the peaceful exploration of space. He was devastated when he heard the news that his rockets had been used against Allied cities.
- After the war, he sought out the Americans, and willingly surrendered not only himself but his whole team. He knew this meant abandoning his fatherland (and who, in spite of evil leaders, does not have some heart for his own country?). He became a patriotic, energetic American citizen.
- As soon as he reached America, he was eager to help the American space program.
- He repeatedly gave a full accounting of all his activities during the war, when interrogated by the government and by suspicious critics.
- His record since the war speaks for itself. A leopard does not change its spots. If von Braun were anything less than a man of integrity, bad signs would have surfaced in the subsequent 32 years in America.
- The British Interplanetary Society awarded him an honorary membership right after the war. Surely if anyone had doubts about his motives and allegiances, it would be those who were victimized by V-2 rockets raining down on their city.
As far as von Braun being a “prima donna” who was hard to get along with, the testimony of many who worked with him flatly contradicts that picture. In fact, he was a model of leadership, teamwork, and motivation. His engaging and winsome manner attracted Walt Disney who used him for TV specials to explain space science to a generation of young people. It was clear throughout his life in America that his primary interest was in the peaceful exploration of space, as it had been in Germany. Von Braun should be remembered not just for Apollo, but for the historic Apollo-Soyuz docking with Russian cosmonauts, Skylab, the development of the Space Shuttle, and the entire rocketry program that culminated in the exploration of all the planets in our solar system. America’s first satellite had been launched aboard one of von Braun’s rockets on January 31, 1958.
Our biography also quotes sources showing that von Braun became a born-again Christian during the Apollo program, when an engineer gave him a Gideon Bible and led him in the sinner’s prayer. After that, von Braun wrote passionately about the evidence for a Creator, and defended the right of school children to hear evidence that opposes evolution. The biography ends with quotes from his own writings that reveal the heart of this great rocket scientist. See also Bill Federer’s favorable biography of von Braun on WND that includes many of von Braun’s writings and expressions of his Christian faith.
(Is it possible Federer used our biography as one of his sources?)
A tree is known by its fruits, Jesus said. All of von Braun’s personal efforts (not actions taken by Nazis who conscripted his knowledge for their evil purposes) show good fruit. He ought to be highly esteemed this month as the Apollo program—his crowning achievement—is commemorated. Watch out for the naysayers. Read our biography of Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) and be prepared with the facts in advance to defend him.
Another biography worth reading this month is the story of Henry Richter, last surviving manager of Explorer 1, America’s first satellite. Explorer 1 was launched aboard one of von Braun’s Jupiter-C rockets, as shown in the Space.com video clip. Dr Richter, manager of the instruments aboard the rocket and developer of its space-to-ground communication system that led to the Deep Space Network (which he planned), turned 92 on June 14.
Bonus: Listen to a new musical composition, the “Apollo March,” written by CEH editor David Coppedge to commemorate the moon landings. The 3-minute work, written to recapture the spirit of American awe at the crowning moments of the Apollo program, was premiered June 13-15 by the US Air Force Band of the Golden West. Hear it on Vimeo here or click the photo.