Von Braun, the Nazi who built the space program, with US President John F. Kennedy. Photo from space.com.
On Thursday, September 20, 1945, Wernher von Braun arrived at Fort Strong. The small military site on the northern tip of Boston Harbour’s Long Island was the processing point for Project Paperclip, the government programme under which hundreds of German scientists were brought into America. Von Braun filled out his paperwork that day as the inventor of the Nazi V-2 rocket, a member of the Nazi party, and a member of the SS who could be linked to the deaths of thousands of concentration camp prisoners. Two and a half decades later on Wednesday, July 16, 1969, von Braun stood in the firing room at Kennedy Spaceflight Centre and watched another of his rockets, the Saturn V, take the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon.
That he was responsible for both the deadly Nazi V-2 and NASA’s majestic Saturn V makes Wernher von Braun a controversial historical figure. Some hold that his participation in the Nazi war effort necessitates classifying him as a villain. But while his actions during the Second World War were monstrous, he wasn’t motivated by some inherent evil or personal belief in Nazi ideology. Von Braun was motivated by his childhood obsession with spaceflight, a somewhat uncritical patriotism, and a naive grasp of the ramifications of his actions in creating one of the War’s deadliest weapons. How can we treat someone who brought technological triumph to two nations, in one case as a purveyor of death and destruction and in the other a bringer of wonder and inspiration?
Read Wernher von Braun: History’s most controversial figure? by Amy Shira Teitel.