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Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War [Hardcover]

Michael Neufeld
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Sep 2007
The first authoritative biography of Wernher von Braun, chief rocket engineer of the Third Reich—creator of the infamous V-2 rocket—who became one of the fathers of the U.S. space program. In this meticulously researched and vividly written life, Michael J. Neufeld gives us a man of profound moral complexities, glorified as a visionary and vilified as a war criminal, a man whose brilliance and charisma were coupled with an enormous and, some would say, blinding ambition.

As one of the leading developers of rocket technology for the German army, von Braun yielded to pressure to join the Nazi Party in 1937 and reluctantly became an SS officer in 1940. During the war, he supervised work on the V-2s, which were assembled by starving slave laborers in a secret underground plant and then fired against London and Antwerp. Thousands of prisoners died—a fact he well knew and kept silent about for as long as possible.

When the Allies overran Germany, von Braun and his team surrendered to the Americans. The U.S. Army immediately recognized his skills and brought him and his colleagues to America to work on the development of guided missiles, in a covert operation that became known as Project Paperclip. He helped launch the first American satellite in 1958 and headed NASA’s launch-vehicle development for the Apollo Moon landing.

Handsome and likable, von Braun dedicated himself to selling the American public on interplanetary travel and became a household name in the 1950s, appearing on Disney TV shows and writing for popular magazines. But he never fully escaped his past, and in later years he faced increasing questions as his wartime actions slowly came to light.

Based on new sources, Von Braun is a brilliantly nuanced portrait of a man caught between morality and progress, between his dreams of the heavens and the earthbound realities of his life.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 587 pages
  • Publisher: Clarkson Potter; 1 edition (1 Sep 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307262928
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307262929
  • Product Dimensions: 4.6 x 16.6 x 23.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,185,015 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars
3.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Warts-and-all biography of Wernher von Braun 8 Feb 2010
By Rolf Dobelli TOP 500 REVIEWER
When German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun came to the U.S. after World War II to build rockets for the Americans, he became famous as a brilliant visionary engineer, as a manager of complex technology projects and as a charismatic, handsome genius in his field. Walt Disney made memorable TV shows about von Braun's contribution to science, and Collier's magazine spotlighted him and his plans for manned spaceflights. Neither Disney nor Collier's included details of von Braun's past - and his Faustian bargain with the Nazis - but aeronautics historian Michael J. Neufeld's biography covers it all. He captures von Braun's entire story, from child prodigy obsessed with rockets to SS major developing deadly V-2 rockets for Germany to science celebrity living large in America. getAbstract recommends this book to anyone who wants to learn about von Braun's remarkable intellectual gifts, his singular accomplishments, his Nazi past, his contributions to the U.S. space program and, due to his televised teaching, the country's overall acceptance of the wonder of science.
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5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Plodding biography of a fascinating man 27 April 2008
Wernher Von Braun (pronounced Vairn-er fon Brown) invented rockets for Germany during World War Two; was a high ranking member of the SS; used slave labour; met Hitler four times; was awarded the title Professor by Hitler himself; surrendered to the Americans at the end of the war; was shipped over to America where he worked on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles; managed a work force of three or so thousand people on an overall budget of forty billion dollars to land men on the moon. So as I said, fascinating man.

The book is not a thrilling read and it will disappoint if you expect the book to cover anything more than the endless rocket testing that he did. Be aware that he invented and designed rockets. Nothing else. He had nothing to do with the astronauts so the moon landing itself is dealt with in one page. If you want to read things from the astronauts point of view then I instead recommend a so-so book called Moondust by Andrew Smith.

I suggest buying the DVD of the four part BBC docu-drama Space Race. It has a wider, large scope to it (it deals equally with the Soviet space programme) and it is very enjoyable, intelligent big budget TV. This book on the other hand is a dull plodding read that some might find hard going. I struggled with it and I'm not sure if it was worth the effort.
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8 of 17 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars a disgraceful self-serving effort 24 Jan 2008
Dr. Wernher von Braun was one of the great engineering and organizational geniuses of the 20th century and deserves an objective biography. Here this author paints a distorted and very subjective picture of a great man. Whenever he, grudgingly, repeats anything praiseworthy of Dr. Von Braun, especially during the war years, he says "but this can't be proven" yet Neufeld cites circumstantial evidence and rumor as fact if it helps him paint a picture of Dr. von Braun as a willing Nazi stooge. He uses many citations of "he must have known" or "he should have known." What nonsense! Certainly, Dr. von Braun was an opportunist but that doesn't make him a dark figure of evil, which Neufeld would have us believe. It amazes me how the Smithsonian can have such a "historian" on their stuff or countenance such drivvel. Ignore this one and wait for one by a mediocrity who doesn't have an ax to grind against genius.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  40 reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Truly Outstanding Biography of a Truly Outstanding Rocketeer 19 Jan 2008
By Roger D. Launius - Published on
The career of Wernher von Braun has been a subject of investigation, and not a little controversy, almost from the time that the German rocketeer came to the United States after World War II. There is no question in my mind that "Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War" will be recognized as a seminal addition to the literature of space history and biography. In this book Michael J. Neufeld, the chair of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and a longtime friend and colleague of mine (so I confess that I am not totally unbiased in my assessment), traces the career of one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration during the period between the 1930s and the 1970s. He went on to a stellar career (pun intended) in rocketry and spaceflight. Neufeld argues that von Braun should be remembered for four major accomplishments:
(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.
49 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive book about Von Braun 2 Oct 2007
By Tal Inbar - Published on
When I first learn about this book I thought to myself:"What else can be written about Von Braun that I don't know"? After reading everything that was published during the years on the topic, it must be an immense undertaking, to create yet another Von Braun book, but, as I got the book, I saw immediately that this is by no means "another Von Braun book".

There are many revelations, new stories and new interpretations on the deeds of Von Braun, especially in his NASA career. The amount of work and details is just stager ring, and the result is breathtaking. You can almost feel that you are in the meeting rooms at Marshal space flight center at the height of discussions on various Apollo and Saturn alternatives.

This book is with no doubt the best book ever to be published on the life and work of Wherner Von Braun, and will serve the space historians community as the definitive source for years to come.

The author does not make Von Braun any discounts, and when he has criticism on him or on his decisions at NASA (and of course on the WW2 period) we get to see a balanced account of the events.

A must have book and important addition to the history of spaceflight, on this jubilee year of the Sputnik launch.

Tal Inbar
Space Research Center
Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Faustian Bargain 7 Dec 2007
By Joel M. Kauffman - Published on
A mob followed Dr. Wernher von Braun into the armored test chamber of the M. I. T. Rocket Research Society some time in 1962. We shook hands, and he picked up a static test rocket motor we had made for liquid propellants with an innovative plug nozzle. He said, having missed the words "static test": "You got to get some of ze meat off here, here and here!", pointing. He was one of those rare people with an aura that just radiated -- highly charismatic in manner. Then I understood how engineers and others could work for him in the foul conditions at Peenemünde that prevailed after the bombing of 17 Aug 43 (p153). And at Nordhausen.

Anyhow, the RRS visit was followed by a talk on Saturn booster development in M. I. T.'s Kresge Auditorium, which would have impressed any U. S. congresspeople who saw it. But neither author Neufeld nor I have any illusions about the V-2 program. As was quoted several times from Mort Sahl imitating von Braun: "Ve shoot for ze moon, but zometimes ve hit London." So Neufeld does not indulge in hero worship.

Neufeld's exhaustive research, backed up by 120 pages of notes, uses letters sent by von Braun, other letters, interviews with relatives, and any other imaginable sources, has helped produce what must be the definitive biography of von Braun. Good index. Two groups of black & white photos are provided. And it is a biography, contrary to another Amazon reviewer, who called this book a history of rocketry, which it certainly is not. The author stated he was able to read German, which surely helped.

So von Braun's ancestors, schooling, early work in the German Society for Space Travel, movement to work for the Wehrmacht before Hitler was in power, and remaining afterwards is all there. Coerced membership in the Nazi Party and the SS was duly noted. Von Braun's brilliant escape to the US Army is given in great detail, then his debriefing, slow years near White Sands, NM, then productive years at what became the Marshall Space Flight Center, Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, AL, which I have toured, then 2 years with NASA HQ near DC, and finally some years with Fairchild Aircraft are all there.

Von Braun was a major contributor to the US Army's IRBM Redstone, the version called the Jupiter C which orbited the first US satellite, the Saturn series of boosters, including the V, without which there would not have been an Apollo program and men landing on the moon. Von Braun also helped with the Space Shuttle, and then with some of the first communication satellites. Neufeld is careful to write, many times, that von Braun was not an especially inventive engineer, but had one of the greatest talents ever to manage complex engineering programs, while also being great at public relations. And sticking with government work almost all of his career to carry out his dream of manned space travel.

My only disappointments were some vague technical details of certain rockets, and little effort to explain how fast fuel pumps or how the guidance systems worked.

Very highly recommended.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Authoritative, academic, maybe too critical 1 Jan 2008
By Michael Miller - Published on
This is likely to be the authoritative book on the life of Wernher von Braun. Neufeld has clearly done his homework. At the same time, some readers might be disappointed at the scope of the book, and his handling of von Braun's Nazi past is certain to be controversial.

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.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Satisfying if not Easy Read 22 Oct 2007
By J. L. Rufener - Published on
Von Braun inspired me as a teenager to go into to engineering and even to become fluent in German; so I have read everything about him, and by him I could find. This is by far the most detailed accounting of his life I have seen. Dr. Neufeld is objective to a fault from my point of view in this book in reporting the facts and making few judgements. This book is sparse in terms of technical details; something that will probably be missed by few except engineers like me. It however also lacks any empathy for von Braun or the context of the times, or the subsequent uses to which the victors put von Braun's technology.

I recommend the book for anyone who is interested in an extensive examination of von Braun but not someone who wants to understand the times.
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