Rocketman Wernher von Braun and the morality of science

Tuesday, December 29, 1999 – The Times

The 1940s were the cruellest decade the world has ever seen. The Second World War killed an estimated 50 millionrocketman people. Yet like every conflict, it brought extraordinary advances in science and learning. The finest minds were turned to creating, and countering, new engines of destruction, and huge state resources were harnessed to forcing back the frontiers of physics and engineering.

Few men exemplify the evil of the times, the moral amnesia and the subsequent redirection of knowledge acquired for battle as Wernher von Braun, the German engineer who designed and built the deadly V2 rockets for Hitler. At 18 he began conducting experiments with liquid fuelled rockets. With a band of talented but impecunious enthusiasts he formed the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Spaceship Travel Club), which launched its early efforts from a disused arsenal near Berlin. By 1932 the German Army had begun to take a close interest, and the group was offered funds, equipment and skilled labour; Hitler’s ascension to power further enhanced the racketeers’ prospects. Operations moved to Peenemünde on the Baltic coast in 1937, and by 1938 von Braun had developed the A4 missile, the prototype of the V2 with a range of 11 miles. His work was curtailed in 1940 when Hitler diverted resources from missile research to the Luftwaffe. He was briefly arrested by Himmler, but in 1943 Hitler again gave priority to the Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Revenge Weapon 2). The first missiles were ready for action in 1944. The V2 came too late in the war to change its outcome. But it was a formidable weapon, years ahead of anything conceived by the Allies. Propelled by liquid oxygen and alcohol, it weighed nearly 12 tons at take-off and could carry a one-ton warhead 200 miles, ascending to heights of 70 miles and achieving a speed of 3,500 miles an hour. As Germany collapsed in spring 1945, von Braun had to choose which of her conquerors should benefit from his work. He and his team fled south to the Americans. The entire operation was transferred to Huntsville, Alabama; von Braun became an American citizen; afid his work led to the 1,500,000lb-thrust Saturn V rocket and, in 1969, to man’s first landing on the Moon. Honours and degrees were heaped on him by the very nations he tried to destroy – though London (bombarded by V2s) kept its distance.

But these successes hid the fact that like most Nazi advances, Braun’s scientific knowledge was poisoned fruit. The captured V2 technology was so vital in giving the West a head start over Moscow that the horrors of the underground slave labour workshops where the weapons were assembled were suppressed. No V2 scientists were ever prosecuted, and von Braun himself was never confronted with the knowledge that he had willingly used the atrocities of Nazism to advance his projects. In later years he occasionally spoke of the moral neutrality of science, arguing unconvincingly that scientists could not be held responsible for the misuse of their work. He died in 1977, having accurately forecast the future of manned space flight. He was lucky to live in such a turbulent decade, war gave him his chance, and the Cold War glossed over the consequences. More questions would have been asked today.


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