- Hardcover: 608 pages
- Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 25, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307262928
- ISBN-13: 978-0307262929
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 61 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #846,597 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 25, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Neufeld, chair of the Space History Division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, offers what is likely to be the definitive biography of Wernher von Braun (1912–1977), the man behind both Nazi Germany's V-1 and V-2 rockets and America's postwar rocket program. Spearheading America's first satellite launch in 1958, which brought the U.S. up to par with the Soviet Union in space, von Braun was celebrated on the covers of Time and Life. Neufeld has a deep understanding of the technical and human challenges von Braun faced in leading the U.S. space program and lucidly explains his role in navigating the personal and public politics, management challenges and engineering problems that had to be solved before landing men on the moon. Neufield doesn't discount von Braun's past as an SS member and Nazi scientist (which was downplayed by NASA), but concludes nonjudgmentally that von Braun's lifelong obsession with becoming the Columbus of space, not Nazi sympathies, led him to his Faustian bargain to accept resources to build rockets regardless of their source or purpose. A wide range of readers (not only science and space buffs) will find this illuminating and rewarding. 16 pages of photos. (Sept. 26)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* A historian of German rocket technology (The Rocket and the Reich, 1994), Neufeld enters the populated field of von Braun biographies with, it is safe to say, the most comprehensively researched one. Only von Braun's relatives, it seems, have denied their stories to the author, whose documentary synthesis covers the qualities that vaulted von Braun into technological leadership. Neufeld argues that von Braun's true distinction lay in organizational management. He could spot talent, motivate it with charisma, and persuade national leaders to fund his futuristic visions. That these leaders were initially those of Nazi Germany is the fulcrum of von Braun's life: Neufeld's account and assessment of von Braun's enmeshment in the Nazi system illustrates a progression arriving at party and SS membership, and involvement with forced labor. Letting readers mull the war-criminal question, Neufeld proceeds to the von Braun team's capture and transportation to the U.S. in 1945, von Braun's Christian conversion experience, and his fame in the 1950s and beyond as a space-flight proselytizer. Cautious in tone, Neufeld's judicious portrait of von Braun's outstanding qualities and his moral compromises promises to become a space-history mainstay. Taylor, Gilbert
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(1) Developing the world's first ballistic missile, the V-2, for Germany during World War II.
(2) Popularizing space exploration in the U.S. in the 1950s through a succession of articles, speeches, public appearances, and television broadcasts. The most important of these were the famed "Collier's" series of articles and the three Disney TV programs.
(3) Launching the first U.S. satellite to orbit the Earth, Explorer 1, in January 1958, a significant rejoinder to the Sputnik launches of the fall of 1957.
(4) Leading the technical development of the largest successful rocket ever built, the Saturn V launcher that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.
Neufeld's core thesis revolves around what he refers to as a "Faustian bargain" for von Braun; he was consumed with exploring space but to enable that goal he spent the majority of his career building sophisticated weapons of destruction. Not until 1960 did he work for NASA, an organization dedicated to the peaceful exploration of space. Previously, military organizations had employed von Braun to build missiles.
This thesis gets to the heart of a longstanding controversy over von Braun's motivations and a belief in his basic opportunism. Because he was willing to build a ballistic missile for Hitler's Germany, with all of connotations that implied in the devastation and terror of World War II, many of his ideals have been questioned and criticized. For some he was a visionary who foresaw the potential of human spaceflight, but for others he was little more than an arms merchant who developed brutal weapons of mass destruction. As Neufeld shows, in what will be viewed as a major benchmark in this historiographical debate, von Braun seems to have been something of both. The subtleties of this analysis are path breaking and will be significant for all interested in exploring seriously the history of spaceflight. This biography will be the starting point for all future investigation of the life and career of this fascinating, perplexing, and complex individual.
The book is certainly true to its title. This is the story of of Wernher von Braun, and Neufeld stays tightly focused on his subject. Wernher von Braun led a fascinating life. Born to aristocracy, he dreamed of going to space from an early age, and became an early pioneer of the rocket industry. During World War II he became head of one of Germany's most sophisticated weapons programs, eventually developing the V-2 rocket. At the end of World War II, von Braun and other German scientist were brought to the United States, where he became head of one of the United States' first space programs. Eventually he would play a leading role in launching the first US satellite, and in the Apollo lunar missions. Throughout, von Braun is a larger than life personality: appearing on TV and in movies; writing popular fiction and magazine articles; meeting with heads of state and celebrities; jetting to exotic locations; flying, big game hunting, and scuba diving.
The relentless focus on von Braun might be too much for some readers, and at times the book seems to be an endless parade of dates and facts. While well written, and easy to follow, it is inevitably tedious. While we are treated to a detailed account of von Braun's family tree there is little on the history of rocketry before von Braun. Even though von Braun's life was largely shaped by World War II and the Cold War, there is little background on these events. During his time in the US, mention of the Russian space program and other US programs is kept to an absolute minimum. Throughout the book, even knowledgeable readers will struggle to put event s into a meaningful context.
In previous biographies, many authors either didn't know of, or glossed over von Braun's Nazi ties during World War II. Neufeld makes it clear that he is out to redress this imbalance. While certainly not a hit job, at times the author seems obsessed, and overly critical. At two points in the book, when describing von Braun's plans for a "manned" mission to the Moon, Neufeld chastises von Braun for not considering women for these trips. A more balanced treatment, would have pointed out that "nobody", or "very few" would have considered women for this role at this time, but Neufeld singles out "von Braun" as if he was the only person on the planet standing between women and a place on the Apollo missions. Again, the book lacks context. Unfortunately this might lead some to call into question the much more serious allegations concerning von Braun's conduct during World War II. In the end, the book is well researched, and readers will have no problem drawing their own conclusions. Despite some minor flaws, for anybody interested in the life of Wernher von Braun, this is a must read.
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I would have given the book a 5 if there had been more on rocket technical challenges.