A & S Interview: Michael J. Neufeld
How much did Wernher von Braun know, and when did he know it?
- By Diane Tedeschi
- AirSpaceMag.com, January 01, 2008
(Page 3 of 4)
Neufeld: It was a combination of talents: One was obviously that he had the fundamental science and engineering background. That he understood what he was talking about. He wasn’t just a figurehead manager type. He really had the engineering and science background.
Number two was that he was enormously charming and charismatic. People just wanted to follow him. He inspired confidence. He was very diplomatic. When he needed to be, he was very pragmatic. When something didn’t work out, he’d try it a different way. He had a skill for dealing with people that was really uncommon.
A&S: The photographs from the book show that von Braun, especially in his younger days, was stunningly handsome.
Neufeld: After the war, a British correspondent described him: “As handsome as a film star—and he knows it.” He was kind of a ladies’ man during the Third Reich. He was extremely good-looking, and that didn’t hurt, obviously, with everything else he had going for him.
A&S: In terms of his contributions to the development of rocket technology, how do you place von Braun?
Neufeld: I never liked him very much as a person because I was repulsed by the moral compromises [he made during] the Third Reich, but in the end I had to conclude that he was the most important rocket engineer and space advocate of the 20th century. If there’s any argument to oppose my picking of von Braun as Number One, it would be an argument you could make for Sergei Korolev because Korolev had all these firsts: I mean he’s the guy who put the first satellite into space, the first animal into orbit, the first object to hit the moon, the first object to fly by the moon, the first object to photograph the far side of the moon, the first man, the first woman, etc. So Korolev, in terms of space firsts, really is Number One.
But von Braun was the most influential person of the 20th century because of the V-2, above all. Because the V-2 was so influential in the development of rocketry in the Soviet Union as well as the United States and also Britain and France and other places. And then after that great accomplishment (even though it was a bad weapon, it was a great breakthrough in rocketry), he came to the United States and he proceeded to sell [Americans], and by extension the whole western world, on the feasibility of going into space, through Collier’s and Disney. And he was key to launching the first American satellite. And he was a key participant in landing humans on the moon: [his] role in the Saturn program, the development of the launch vehicles for the lunar landings was very important. The combination of all these achievements, makes me rate him Number One for the space advocate and rocket engineer of the 20th century.
A&S: How well did von Braun go about rebuilding a new life in the United States?