Episode 510: Rocket Man

Episode 510: Rocket Man

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Ep 510 Dolby

First of all, yes, since von Braun learned English largely in the company of Texans, his speech was flavored with little bits of Texanisms delivered in a German accent that were, I have no doubt, entirely beguiling.

Second of all, for those wondering what equation von Braun is sporting there, it's the constant term in a gyroscope equation - if you'd like to see the lovely four pages that get you there, pick up a copy of William Tyrrell Thompson's Introduction to Space Dynamics and flip to section 6.3!

When I was a kid, I pasted my wall with pictures of my heroes, and the first two to go up were Richard Feynman and Wernher von Braun. Even before Frederick the Great. My mother liked to tell me of the few times she had gotten to speak with von Braun on the phone when he called her then father-in-law's house. (She was also responsible for my love of Feynman - I remember her showing me the red-cover of the first volume of the Feynman lectures with the picture of this man who didn't look at all like a scientist playing a drum in the photo on the front page. So, yeah, parents out there - you actually matter.)

Is von Braun a problematic figure? Sure. I tend to think, though, that his popular portrayal has been rather mono-dimensional. The song by Tom Lehrer (whom I otherwise adore) - the recent depiction of him in the lamentable Manhattan Projects comic series - they go for some easy cheap shots and move on their way, and that doesn't strike me as entirely fair. So, let's talk about it all some.

Did von Braun develop the V-2 rocket which was used to bomb London? Yes, and in the little less than a year that they were used around two thousand, seven hundred people were killed in those attacks, or in other words about 10% of those killed in TWO DAYS during the Dresden Fire Bombing alone. Does designing a weapon that killed fewer people make you necessarily good? Of course not, but just as we tend to forgive Feynman for working on the atomic bomb because he was motivated by a desire to save the world from Hitler's march, so am I rather ready to forgive von Braun the work that he did in the midst of the massive bombing campaigns that were raining down on the cities where his family and friends lived. I think we reconcile ourselves to the bombing eradication of German and Japanese cities by the thought that, since They started it, we were justified in doing pretty well whatever we wanted, but I think it would be hard for the most moral person in the world to stand equitably in the midst of it all and just let it happen.

More difficult to reconcile is the claim that von Braun knew about the use of slave labor in the production of the V-2 rockets. On the side of von Braun, I'd say that production wasn't what he was in charge of - he was the lead scientist, devoted to solving the technical problems of getting rockets into the atmosphere. Production was handled elsewhere and organized by other people. His apologists take this to the extent that he then didn't know about the source of the labor. I think he did know, but at the same time I'm not sure what he would have done with that knowledge.

So, there was that year of his life - I have never had to make anything like the sorts of moral decisions that von Braun found himself wading through on a daily basis, and so I think it would be presumptuous and childish of me to pronounce judgment on it from my relatively pampered Worst Thing That Ever Happened To Me Was When Firefly Got Cancelled perspective. So, instead I'll look to the von Braun that I grew up with - the man in the Disney short films, encouraging us to be interested in space, showing us fantastic visions of what we might find when we got there. Under his watch, we pushed to the moon, and when he was no longer at the helm, combining technical knowledge with organizational ability with an ability to inspire the public, we stopped. We sat on our hands and we said amongst ourselves that we had better things to do. For those two decades, for the time before, when he and his friends got together to build makeshift rockets in abandoned fields out of pure love of the challenge, he's still on my wall.

- Count Dolby von Luckner

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