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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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I have two complaints: first, the author tends to get opinionated in regards to politics in some places. I'd rather not provide specific examples, but suffice it to say that the author seems to have felt compelled to blame all of America's issues in the 1960s and 70s on certain political groups. There is no place for this in a balanced biography.
Second, I felt that this book could have been more readable. At times the text seemed stuffy and long-winded.
Otherwise, this is the first biography of von Braun I recommend to anyone.
I felt this book contained almost too much detail, and often found myself "speed reading" over certain details of his family life but never those concerning his controversial life. I believe this fine book was the result of a fairly unbiased point of view and find myself agreeing with the book's closing remarks.
I was also very saddened to read that great efforts were made by his influential friends to convince federal authorities to award his life's work with some grand gesture. It was further saddening to learn that several figures in government circles having the power to influence this decision refused to do so because of his early work in Germany. It is only clear to me now that von Braun was never completely forgiven for developing the V-2, and only permitted to use his talent for our side during the cold war. Perhaps he should have been greatful for that alone, but I believe he wished for much more.
When he was finally awarded a great civilian medal for his technical and managerial accomplishments (by President Carter), the man who received this hard won gesture was a fragment of his former self. He was described by friends as a "skelton wrapped in skin" while enduring relentless pain under the equivalent of hospice care. Of course, camp workers were denied anything like hospital care, but I really feel he paid the ultimate price we all must, and with what I believe was a heavy heart. He must have understood full well that he was never forgiven for his early work and probably never would be. He ultimately suffered a painful and protracted death of cancer.
As an individual inspired by von Braun's accomplishments I think he made as great an impact on the history of space and rocket research as one person could possibly accomplish. He had a grand vision of man's future in space, and shared that vision with all of us brilliantly. We were made a part of his dream and I believe the country remembers how special those days were as we closed in on the moon. The price he was willing to pay to accomplish his personal goals for that future supported war efforts in two countries and pushed the barriers of technology. That, in part, is the reason the author calls him the Faust of 20th century. He is acknowledged by everyone to have been a compelling public speaker, a talented engineer and an excellent manager, but I think he was also a very great American.
Nice overview of the development of rocketry in the military and NASA.. warts and all.
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I would have given the book a 5 if there had been more on rocket technical challenges.