Dreaming of Wernher von Braun

A fictional diary entry to celebrate the 100th Birthday of Wernher von Braun, the father of rocket science, on March 23.

It has been a long time since I last saw Wernher. We, a bunch of kids from the neighbourhood, were going to the Tiergarten in Berlin. We went past Wernher’s house to ask him if he wanted to join us to play some football but he was beginning to prefer studying to sports. His mother, Emmy was wondering why, and asked him about the sudden change of mind. He said that he was inspired by a publication of Herman Oberth and that he would not have time to play before he understood exactly what Oberth meant in his book. Until today, I have no idea who Herman Oberth is and what his book was about, but the next time I saw Wernher – now converted into one of the schools best students – he was shooting fireworks into Berlin’s night sky.

In April 1930, Wernher become one the best in science, he was allowed to finish school about a year earlier than us, his former classmates. I remember one evening just before Wernher earned his diploma in mechanics – we were sitting at a campfire in the Grunewald – when Wernher was staring into the sky, dreamily but still highly focused. He began to tell us about his vision of a future with man living on the moon and traveling through space.

Unlike other stories about rockets and space flights, Wernher’s dream sounded realistic and doable. He spoke in a charismatic way – his words, full of ideas, created strong pictures in our heads. Thus, we were not able to make fun out of his dream, not able to joke about his Jules Verne-like science fiction nonsense. This evening, full of stars and rockets, spacesuits and starships, is still in my head, when I think about Wernher.

Yes, he later became part of Nazi-Germany’s team to develop the V2 rocket. But his concepts were at least partly driven by scientific reasons. I saw his first drawings of the V2 rocket, known as the Aggregat 4 mission at that time. Wernher drew the rocket with a capsule for a human pilot. He wanted to sent scientists into space. He wanted to enrich our knowledge about planet Earth.

Wernher was arrested by US troops in 1945 and a year later he was sent to the mainland USA to teach US scientists all about rocket science. From 1950 on, he was head of a team of 100 aeronautic engineers in Huntsville, Alabama. Ten years later, he became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and was part of the coordination team of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

I saw Wernher years later once more. He had been mentioned in the news as one of the fathers of space flight. It has been a documentary about John Glenn and Juri Gagarin, the first men in space. Wernher’s dream had become reality. And it seemed possible, that there was a plan to send a man to the moon.

I have heard John Glenn’s simple but eloquent statement: “It was quite a day. I’m not sure what you can say about a day in which you see four beautiful sunsets in one day, but it’s pretty interesting.” He said this after his splash down into the Atlantic Ocean after three full orbits around our home planet. John and Juri have made the first steps for mankind to leave our planet. Made possible, because Wernher was inspired by Herman Oberth’s book about aeronautics, which had motivated him to do his math-homework.

Simon Schneider
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