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?
Neufeld: He and about 120 of his associates were brought over as a group from Peenemunde. And they were working for the U.S. Army, so in that sense, he didn’t have to find his way or find a new job. The Army brought him over; the Army gave him a job. What was frustrating [for him] in the early years was that after World War II, the public wanted to demobilize. The Cold War started after only a couple years, but the U.S. was very reluctant to invest in a new arms race, and there just wasn’t much money being invested in rocketry.
[Von Braun’s group] had this small project in Fort Bliss; they were in El Paso, Texas, for four to five years. That’s when he decided to start writing a novel called Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon joke. Although the novel didn’t work out, in the end, it resulted in the Collier’s magazine articles starting in 1952, and that’s when he made his breakthrough.
It is kind of amazing—he could have spent the rest of his life as an Army rocket guy. Although he had that foundation in which to live, he constructed his own career as a great public figure in the 1950s. He was the one responsible for making himself into a household name. Ward Kimball at Disney suggested to Walt Disney that [they] ought to do something about space, because [Kimball] had been reading the Collier’s articles. So that led to von Braun appearing in the Disney TV program—in three major space shows, 1955 and 1957 they were broadcast.
A&S: So he assimilated fairly easily into American culture?
Neufeld: Yeah, he assimilated fairly quickly. His English was a little rough for a few years. One of the funny stories to tell about him is when he went to the Pentagon in the late ’40s, people would be embarrassed when he spoke because he spoke this combination of GI slang with a lot of swear words. That’s how he learned his English.
A&S: In the epilogue from your book you write that President Jimmy Carter released a statement after von Braun’s death that included the following: “Not just the people of our nation, but all the people of the world have profited from his work.”