There was nothing out of the ordinary about Margrit von Braun’s father when he came home from work in the evenings, set his briefcase to one side and asked how her day had been. At least, not to her. A loving and attentive parent, he would sit for dinner at their home in Huntsville, Alabama, chat to Margrit and her sister and brother about their homework, plan weekend getaways to a local lake to swim, or play the piano and cello.
It was only later, after dinner as the household settled down for the night, that Dr Wernher von Braun, a German-born engineer known as the “father of rocket science” and a linchpin of the American space programme, would set to the contents of his briefcase — and the business of getting men to the moon.
“It’s embarrassing to admit that, at the time, the significance of what he was working on passed me by,” says his daughter, 67. “When he was home, he wanted to know all about what we were doing; he didn’t come home and talk about his work. Researching it as an adult now, I’m thinking, ‘Why didn’t I keep a diary? Why wasn’t I paying attention?’”
As Nasa celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Apollo 11 mission that put humans on the moon and returned them safely to Earth, fulfilling a mandate set by the US president John F Kennedy and settling America’s space race with the Soviet Union, von Braun’s critical role as the designer of the Saturn V rocket that got them there is a story remarkable and controversial.
While a key player in the celebrated rocket age, he had been not only a member of the Nazi party before transferring from Germany after the Second World War, but also of the SS, Hitler’s paramilitary.
The V-2 rockets that he developed for Hitler and which rained down on London during the Blitz were manufactured at an underground assembly plant that drew on slave labour from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Workers were forced to live in conditions that were beyond grim — no daylight, scarce food and sleep, and no proper sanitation. More than 20,000 people are said by historians to have died in the V-2 programme, some executed for attempted sabotage and reportedly hanged from cranes in the assembly plant. However, in 1944 Von Braun was also arrested by the Gestapo for careless remarks regarding the war.
The question of what von Braun knew and when he knew it has long been debated by historians, some of whom suggest that he was less than open about his involvement.
Michael Neufeld, a former chairman of the space history division at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and the author of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, once stated in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine: “After the war, like so many others, von Braun said, ‘I didn’t know about the Holocaust.’ He also came to the realisation that Hitler was an evil person. So he certainly distanced himself from that. And late in his life, in the 1960s and 1970s, he did express some remorse in letters about the concentration camp prisoners. To me, it’s better than nothing, but it’s not very good. There’s no great sense of guilt there. There always seemed to be, more than anything else, a kind of distancing . . . He went out of his way to conceal this.”
Von Braun, whose childhood interest in space exploration was born from the books of HG Wells and Jules Verne, would later reason in an affidavit to the US army that his role in Hitler’s war apparatus was more a question of forced circumstance than willing complicity and that he rejected Nazism’s ideology. “My refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life,” he stated.
Under Operation Paperclip he negotiated a surrender to American forces and defection to the US in 1945, along with hundreds of fellow scientists and engineers. He was with the US army ballistic missile programme until being chosen to head rocket development at Nasa’s newly opened Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1960.
“I can’t really begin to unravel the circumstances and the choices that people made and re-examine what happened during the war,” his daughter says when I mention this, “but I do know that he very, very much felt that coming to America was the best thing that ever happened, that Americans afforded his team the opportunity to do what they wanted to do, which under dictatorship they didn’t have the choice in.
“I only knew him as my father, and what I remember are just his very clear expressions of the great opportunities that this country allowed him, an opportunity to fulfil that dream.”
Von Braun put the rocket in Rocket City, the name given to Huntsville as its population swelled with the space-flight industry. “It’s really an amazing story when you think about this little town in Alabama with cotton mills, nothing high-tech, and the army with its arsenal here, then this group of German rocket scientists shows up and they got together and flew rockets to the moon. It really was a testament to the community for embracing that opportunity,” Margrit says.
She remembers the Mercury Seven — Nasa’s first astronauts, selected in 1959 — being regular visitors to the family home and the date of her ninth birthday party being shuffled to avoid a clash with the flight in 1961 of Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, aboard the Freedom 7 capsule.
“In the early days a lot of them came to our house and had dinner and as a kid it was just, like, ‘OK, you’ve got to behave, someone really important is coming,’” she recalls. On a trip as an 11-year-old to Cape Canaveral in Florida, home of Kennedy Space Center, she marvelled at being in the hotel swimming pool and finding two astronauts — Gordo Cooper and Gus Grissom — also taking a dip.
She remembers too that while her dad was pivotal to the US space programme — making possible America’s first satellite launch in 1958 and breaking the bounds of innovation by sending astronauts to the moon on a rocket taller than the Statue of Liberty — he found simple DIY beyond him. “My mother could tell you some stories about how unhandy he was at the things that really weren’t rocket science.”
So cool-headed was her father as July 16, 1969 drew closer, that she perceived Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’s Apollo 11 mission as just another fixture on the calendar. “I remember as a child thinking, ‘OK, that’s the day we’re going to the moon’ — just very matter-of-fact, like it was nothing unexpected.”
The launch of the trio’s Saturn V rocket from Cape Canaveral was “breathtaking and incredibly noisy”, she recalls. She watched on a black and white television in the basement of the family home in Huntsville four days later as Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon. “It hit a lot of people when we then walked outside and looked at the moon and thought, ‘Wow, there’s people walking around up there.’ It was my dad’s personal dream.”
Von Braun envisaged transport to the moon becoming commonplace with crewed Mars missions following. However, a lack of political will forced an end to Nasa’s immediate Martian ambitions in the early 1970s; ever since crewed flights have failed to venture beyond low Earth orbit, though robotic missions to outer planets and Earth-observing satellites have stepped up our scientific knowledge.
Von Braun died of pancreatic cancer in 1977. The agency’s present vision is to send humans to the moon again in 2024 and orbit Mars by the mid-2030s. “He would be completely shocked and appalled, in my opinion, that we’re still not there,” Margrit says. “I think my father became incredibly disillusioned and disappointed at the inability to keep the space programme going after Apollo . . . He would just be beside himself that we haven’t continued to explore space and that it’s taken us this long for us to re-engage that.”
An environmental engineer herself, Margrit is a director of a non-profit group — Terragraphics International Foundation — that works on environmental projects in developing countries. “Apollo 8, the year before the moon landing, was when we looked back and saw our own planet and its vulnerability. What we have learnt is not only is this a fragile planet, but that it’s in trouble. Even in the Seventies I think my father was beginning to recognise that,” she says.
“People were also saying, ‘Why did we spend all this money on the moon?’ and one of his answers was that we didn’t spend any money on the moon, we spent all of that money on Earth.” She believes this principle still holds: “Now one of the space benefits that continues today is all the things we’re learning about climate change from space, for example. Space exploration reminds us that we’re all riding along on this rock, and now we can see its vulnerability we have a duty to take on the challenges.”