It is said that mankind would have led a much better life if it wasn’t for the wars between the nations. But on the contrary, it was the war that brought out the pace that we see in today’s technological world and especially when it comes to space explorations, it would have taken much more time without one nation trying to outrun the other for their own defense. A country lagging in technology meant that the country is moving far from victory. The instruments that we developed like telescopes, satellites, rovers, etc., would have never reached the space without something started by the German’s effort in WW2 and we owe this achievement to an important one named, Wernher von Braun, who worked in making it possible.
Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun was born on March 23, 1912, in present Poland, but at that time, being under the German empire he was regarded as a German national.
Being a student he initially failed in maths and science but his exposure to astronomy through Hermann Oberth’s Rakete zu den Planetenrumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) made him drawn towards learning maths and science in detail, leading to a doctorate in Physics from the University of Berlin at the very age of 22. In 1934, he and his team launched 2 rockets propelled by liquid fuel, which rose to about 2.2 km and 3.5 km.
After his doctorate he joined SS, a paramilitary part of Germany since the research on rockets came under their military fundings and projects. He claimed that in 1939, the people from the Nazi party wanted him to join it as a part of promoting the research. In the 1940s he started working at the Peenmünde facility where they were developing the world’s first ballistic missile ‘A-4’ which later became known as the ‘V2’, meaning Vengeance 2 which they named it in order to portray it as a give back to the allied nations bombing on Germany.
During the testing held on October 3, 1942, V2 became the first man-made object to reach the space crossing an altitude of 80 km. In 1944, for the first time, Germany used V2 to bomb the parts of Paris followed by Britain. Over the course of the war, a total of 5200 V2 missiles were built using forced labor from the Mittelwerk concentration camp and the process involved the death of about 12,000 laborers. The allies were trying all the way possible to intercept this missile on its trajectory but in vain. The uniqueness of V2 was that it would make its way up to more than 70 km from the ground and then drops itself at a max. speed of 5700 kmph on to the target with the help of the radio-guided system.
On the success of V2’s London explosion, his words to his team were, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet”.
He was imprisoned for a short term for the act of promoting dreams over flying around the moon and mars instead of focusing on missile projects. After the defeat of Germany in WW2, the US and Soviets were racing to get either the V2 missiles or their developers in their hands. Von Braun and his team of about 120 scientists have planned to surrender, but they had to decide between the US and Soviets. As there is a saying, “If you have to choose among two evils, choose the one which is least harmful” and after a voting session, they surrendered to the US. This operation was known as “The Operation Paperclip” (the papers which contained the details of surrendered scientists would be plugged with a paperclip, only if the US want any of them to work in their projects) which involved moving tons of scientists to the US for benefiting their nation with German’s knowledge.
Von Braun and his team helped the US with building V2 and other missiles. It is said that the first 12 years there were bitter for Von Braun and his colleagues since their team wasn’t provided with enough materials needed to carry out the research. Even after developing the Jupiter-C rocket which launched America’s first satellite Explorer 1 in 1958, the Americans were never satisfied with the work of Von Braun as the Soviets had already put Sputnik into the orbit in 1957.
Later the establishment of NASA, Wernher von Braun was made as to the first director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1960, under the condition that he would work only if the development of Saturn V was allowed. The rockets they used by then were unreliable and hence Von Braun insisted on testing and improvising them further. This nature of him had grabbed some hostility in the workspace as it was keeping America away from progression in the space race. Unlike others, Von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, who was directing the Saturn V mission had various teams working under the same project.
In the beginning, it may seem like a waste of time and resources, but this tactic had several advantages like analyzing the mistakes made by one team with the another and the competition among them, making the best out of whatever they can. It is said that he was a charismatic personality even in the workspace. He encouraged his co-workers, treated everyone as equal and made them rejuvenated just with the way of his approach.
On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 crew consisting of 3 members was launched by the first successful Saturn V rocket. This giant leap of mankind proved the worth of Von Braun and his team among Americans, fulfilling the dream he had for the moon and so the mankind. So far 6 crews had been sent to the moon by the Saturn V. Till date there were 13 Saturn V launches held and among them 12 were of great success. Even after 40 years of its first launch, Saturn V remains as the most powerful rocket we have ever produced with a thrust of around 34.5 million newtons. This helped America win the space race and thus making it the only country in the world to put its astronauts on the moon.
Saturn V comes under the category of Super heavy-lift launch vehicle. It was capable of launching 143 tons to LEO(Low Earth Orbit) and 50 tons to the moon. Among the Apollo missions carried out using Saturn V, Apollo 17 bags the place for heaviest payload launched into space with a weight of 140 tons. The final launch of Saturn V carried America’s first space station, Skylab(77 tons), in a single launch into its orbit.
After one of the launches at Kennedy Space Center, while reporting to press, he recalled some words of Jules Verne: “Anything one man can imagine,” said Verne, who more than a century before imagined men flying to the moon, “other men can make real.”
The dream for the establishment of a Mars and moon civilization had already begun during that period. Von Braun had written many articles to magazines about his idea for setting up a space station which unlike the ISS that we have today was expected to do many more things like assembling the equipment needed for an exoplanetary expedition. Being an American in the latter half of his life, he also wrote about how a space station like that would give an upper hand to the nation so that attacks during the war would be much easier. He spoke this with all the cautious words he could use because, despite his scientific temperament, he wasn’t a man who loved violence. It is, in fact, he joined the German SS because he had no other choice to do his research in his country. His career in Germany involved some disagreement with the military officials over there regarding the usage of his research.
His book, “Project MARS: A Technical tale” was published only in 2006, long after his death. His book spoke about a martian society and the way in which it thrives. By the way, a portion of the book uses the name ‘Elon’ for the title given to their martian leader and soon after the publication, this became the topic of debate as the people started comparing the book with SpaceX’s present CEO Elon Musk.
During 1966- 1967, Von Braun and some NASA officials visited Antarctica camps. Their objective was to look at whether the knowledge gained from those inhabitable lands could be used for training astronauts and many other exoplanetary missions, like the one he dreamt for Mars. He worked with Walt Disney in some space-related projects. He always had this spirit for promoting science, especially aerospace engineering and to accomplish the feat that none in humanity has ever achieved. He retired from NASA in 1972 owing to restrictions in the budget after Apollo programs.
After leaving NASA he joined Fairchild industries, an aerospace company, as the Vice president for Engineering and development team. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1973 but even after that, he was doing his best to give lectures and speeches to students. He died at the age of 65 in Virginia.
Here was a lot of criticism held before him about his responsibility for killing imprisoned laborers and people for his V2. But if that was a man who loved those murders, then his future in America would have been much different than doing something with moon missions. He was a man of science and to him, he stands with those who support him. Science always has its pros and cons which even the one who discovered it wouldn’t have thought of. After all, it is mankind’s choice to make either smile or fear out of it.
This article is written by Vivek Karunakaran.