Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wernher's Dreams & Milestones in Space

Today, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first humanoid excursion into space, ending with a happy splash in the Caribbean of the coast of the United States. National Public Radio's Morning Edition, broadcast a segment on the event this morning.

On this notable day in 1959, the squirrel monkey Baker and the rhesus monkey Able, both female, were hurled into space on top of a Jupiter rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to return safely 15 minutes later. Able died a few days after the flight during a surgical procedure. Baker lived for another 25 years at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and is buried there.  A stone in her memory is placed in front of the museum's old entrance on the right.

The memorable flight constituted the beginning of U.S. manned space exploration. At the time, the U.S. felt they were losing the space race to the Soviet Union, because the Soviets had successfully launched the first satellite named Sputnik 1 in 1957 and had sent the dog Laika into orbit on board Sputnik 2 in the same year. Laika perished during on reentry. The first human to reach outer space, orbit the earth, and return safely was going to be the Russian Yuri Gagarin on Apr. 12, 1961.

The U.S. space effort was led by Wernher von Braun. After the collapse of Nazi Germany, the legendary rocket engineer of V2 notoriety and about 100 colleagues managed to surrender to American forces and were whisked to the United States, along with hundreds of rocket components. Von Braun would become the United States' lead expert in rocket design and space exploration. I remember him talking down to me from the TV set, when I was a science fiction-loving youngster, gawking open-mouthed at the great man presenting animations of incredulous space adventures.

Wernher von Braun epitomized the serious, well-tanned, impeccably dressed icon of German engineering ingenuity who was about to help Americans accomplish unprecedented feats. He made Germans feel good about themselves. As German romanticism expounded: “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen!”1 This was the theme Germans wanted Wernher von Braun and Germany remembered for, never mind that he had served as officer in the Waffen-SS and that his V1 and V2 rockets, built with slave labor, had laid waste to much of London. In his defense, it should be noted that he publicly deplored the abuse of the workers and almost fell victim to intrigue within the SS because of his attitude. Nobody liked to talk about these dark parts of German history when I grew up. Wernher von Braun was a German/American hero.

Of course, from the German side of the Atlantic we pictured the great explorer of space in Florida surrounded by palm trees or at the Control Center in Houston next to a lanky, jovial Texan U.S. President in front of banks of TV monitors. Little did we know! Many years later, my family and I stopped by the Huntsville U.S. Space & Rocket Center on a trip down Interstate 65, the home and resting place of Baker, the squirrel monkey. The shortened dummy of a Saturn V advertises the museum at a rest area nearby.

The museum is a truly interesting site to visit. In a comprehensive outdoor exhibit, the visitors can study generations of American rockets from the beginnings (Redstone) to the Apollo program (Saturn V), culminating in the landing on the moon. The rockets are life-size dummies built from left-over parts. I had never seen a more complete collection.

A whole Saturn V rocket is on display with capsule mounted on top. It is so colossal that it takes a minute to walk its full length. A Space Shuttle, much bigger than I imagined, has been added more recently to represent the latest epoch of manned American space flight.

The Marshall Space & Rocket Center at Huntsville used to be home of the Apollo program and builds parts for the  International Space Station, today. Compared with the Saturn V and the shuttle, the early models were tiny. The monkeys were essentially squeezed in the nose cone of a ballistic intercontinental missile. Two years later, and about a month after Gagarin's successful flight, Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American in orbit. He did not have much more room to move in his capsule either. The rocket was the size of small factory stack. The beginnings seem rough and simple in retrospect.

The first rocket on the left is a Jupiter missile. This type hurled Baker and Able into space. The example's payload is a satellite. The thin cylinder on top of the nose cone is a rotation device to stabilize the satellite. The monkey's capsule did not need it.  The second rocket from left is a Redstone equipped with a Mercury capsule; the same combination with which Alan Shepard blasted into space. The Redstone appears shorter than the Jupiter because it stands further back. In actuality, the height of both rockets is about equal. Realizing how tiny the capsules were, we quickly appreciate the brevity of the first traveler's voyage.

My greatest surprise, however, came when we entered the indoor museum. We stepped around a corner and found ourselves in front of a glass-walled office. On the desk was a sign that read "Wernher von Braun". The diorama was a replica of his office in Huntsville, where he spent perhaps the most consequential years of his career, as I was going to find out. Nobody told us about this in Germany. I doubt that many Germans would have been able to point out Alabama on the globe, before Mercedes Benz set up shop in Tuscaloosa. I am certain that Huntsville was never mentioned on German TV in the 1960s.

But, voilá, here was Wernher von Braun's legacy. They show you photographs of the Engineer in Chief and his whole original crew, wearing trench coats and broad-rimmed hats, upon arrival fresh out of Germany. On a bus tour through the Space Center we were shown the original test launch pad. Von Braun and his colleagues watched the launches through periscopes from a steel oil tank buried in the dirt fifty yards away. I could vividly imagine his voice ringing out hollow from the tank after yet one more failure, “Siegfried, Du Idiot hast das Zündkabel wieder falsch 'rum angeschlossen!”2 I cannot say for sure whether it happened exactly this way. But, there is no doubt in my mind that the teutonic presence left indelible marks on this part of the South.

Wernher von Braun adopted U.S. citizenship in 1955. As the architect of the Apollo program, he wrote to then Vice-President Johnson in a letter dated Apr. 29, 1961, “...we have an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon....I think we could accomplish this objective in 1967/68.” He fulfilled this promise only with one year delay. On July 20, 1969,  ten years after Baker and Able's first travel in space,  Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step on the moon.

Much has been achieved in human space exploration since then. Wernher von Braun's vision of a space station has become a reality. Only he had dreamed of a wheel design with hub and spokes. Stanley Kubrick used von Braun's vision in his epic movie "2001 - A Space Odyssey". However, von Braun could not have imagined that the present International Space Station would be the result of the joined effort of many nations, among them the greatest rivals of his time. Today, Russians help make the project work in instrumental ways. Moreover, just the other day astronauts spent long hours in space, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. This telescope is one of the most influential instruments of our time. The clarity of its pictures of distant galaxies and nebulae have altered our views of the universe and our understanding of its origin in fundamental ways. Each picture contains myriad questions and may deliver as many answers. See for yourself here or watch the movie:
Despite the tremendous accomplishments, Wernher von Braun's dream of a visit to Mars still remains for us just that: a dream. In spite of the contributions of Baker, Able and their countless comrades as well as the experience gathered from people spending many months in microgravity, we still do not know how well we shall fare out there in the long run. I have written more about this in my post dated May 15, 2008.

  1. It is often extremely hard to translate a saying well. The rhyme means roughly translated: “From German groove, the world shall improve!” It reflects a popular German point of view at the beginning of the last century and has lost quite a bit of its luster.
  2. This would translate as: “Siegfried, you idiot reversed the ignition cable again!”

  • Wernher von Braun's dreams are still alive and well as Kenneth Chang reports on a new generation of rockets for manned space missions in his post for The New York Times two days ago (06/19/09).
  • Buzz Aldrin just published a new book on his life experience entitled "Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon" and put forward a passionate plea supporting human Mars exploration in his commentary on CNN today (06/23/09).
  • Two days ago, we had the opportunity to visit the museum again. It has changed considerably since our first visit. A new exhibition hall has been added, housing the Saturn V lying on the ground. This time, it took me 2 min 15 secs to walk its length. An abbreviated history of rocketry is told in a wing of the new building. A second full-length version of the rocket is displayed upright out front.

    It takes a lot of fuel to get away from our planet! The old museum continues to tell Wernher von Brown's story in detail. His office is still on display. A large LCD display shows a documentary of the time in Germany. On some footage Himmler's chilling face is lurking in the crowd of visiting luminaries. I am grateful we never met. In a corner opposite von Braun's office is a display dedicated to Baker and Able. The visitor can see the contraptions they were sitting in and inspect the nose cone they were traveling in. All pictures in this post were taken on our second visit (06/27/09).
  • This Thursday forty years ago, the journey began that would make Neil Armstrong the first person to step on the moon. You may enjoy a captivating real-time replay of the event at (07/13/09).

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1 comment:

  1. Alan Shepherd was the first American in space, but John Glenn was the first American in orbit.