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23 July 2019

German Rocket-Scientists Not Getting Their Due




Eugene Cagle, NASA's engineering manager for the Saturn rocket program, regarded the role of Wernher von Braun in the American space program as crucial:

“(Von Braun) was the main player in all the work that went on. We might have been successful (without him), but not in the '60s. He was a great leader.” (V. Whitman, Times Daily, 20 July 1999)

How strange it is, then, that on the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of Americans on the Moon, we have heard so much about the astronauts but very little about Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket-scientists from Germany – and that what we do hear about the German rocket-scientists today is largely negative.

Cagle's assessment is clearly correct. In the early 1950s the United States had two rocket programs, one run by the Army, which had the Germans, and one run by the Navy, which was plagued with failures. When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was formed, it was built mainly around the team of Germans brought to the United States after the Second World War. We can safely conclude, therefore, that without Wernher von Braun and his team, there would have been many more failed rockets, and perhaps there would never have been a NASA.

As with some other big ideas, the idea of traveling to the Moon was a German elaboration of a French inspiration. Jules Verne's novel of 1865, De la Terre à la Lune, contained insights like the fact that Florida would be a good location for launches, but it was Hermann Oberth in the early 20th century who made the physical calculations of how acceleration out of the Earth's gravitational pull and into outer space might be possible. Fritz Lang's movie about a voyage to the Moon, die Frau im Mond (1921), and Oberth's book die Rakete in den Planetenräumen (1923), inspired a schoolboy named Wernher von Braun to learn the mathematics and the physics involved so that he himself might one day travel into outer space.


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