Von Braun MR-BD

Custom artwork. All rights reserved.

by: Steven Kovachevich © February 2016

colorization by: Rene Camadeca

- Part I -

1. Preface

The Post World War II period was marked by a fierce competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. The conflict between communism and the free world was manifest along several fronts that included a 1949 standoff in Europe between the military alliance of the United States and NATO in the west and Warsaw Pact backed by the Soviet Union in the east; the Development of the thermonuclear bomb by the United States in 1951 followed by the Soviet Union in 1953, and the Korean War in Asia, 1950-53, where China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea against the South backed by the United States. The perceived threat of communism on the march to take over the world was preeminent and real. The McCarthy "Red Scare" Senate hearings in 1953-54 an example of the national state of mind.

Today it is hard to appreciate the bi-polar world that characterized the late 1940s into the 1980s, defined by the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. The threat of nuclear war, the constant maneuvering for superiority in military, economic, political and scientific arenas. The fear of a "domino effect" in which one country after another would fall to communist totalitarianism. This menace had to be confronted and defeated wherever it appeared in Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. However, the catastrophic nature of a potential east-west war brought on by the advent of nuclear weapons confined the bipolar conflict to the battlefield of "limited warfare", ideology and prestige; a "cold war". Make no mistake people took seriously Khrushchev's 1956 retort "we will bury you!" A zero sum game in which one side's victory was seen as the other side's loss.

It was in this context that the International Council of Scientific Unions proposed a project to promote international cooperation to expand understanding of earth sciences in 1952. The International Geophysical Year (IGY) as it was known ran 18 months from 1957 to 1958. The goal included worldwide research to advance areas of meteorology, geomagnetism, oceanography, and more. On July 29, 1955, the National Academy of Sciences and National Science Foundation along with President Eisenhower announced that the United States would launch an artificial earth satellite in the 1957 to 1958 period as part of the IGY.1 Not to be left out the Soviet Union announced their intent to orbit a satellite for the IGY the very next day.2

The United States had three candidates for the satellite mission.3 The Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), later Marshall Spaceflight Center, with Project Orbiter using Wernher von Braun's Jupiter C, a modified Redstone booster that was an off-shoot of the V-2 rocket developed by Von Braun and the Germans at Peenemuende in World War II.4 The Air Force with their Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile still under development, and the Navy's, Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), Vanguard another yet to be developed and tested missile intended for research purposes.5 The Stewart Committee, a group of scientists and engineers, assigned with making the selection recommended the NRL's Vanguard.6 The NRL got the job because their proposal was more grandiose than the Army's and because there was hesitation to use a military rocket to launch a scientific satellite for an international program.7 President Eisenhower wanted the endeavor to reflect the scientific rather than military nature of the effort.8 The "all-American" character of the NRL proposal was another likely reason.9

Von Braun who believed the NRL effort would fail had lobbied hard for the Jupiter C but lost the competition.10 Even when things were going bad for Vanguard the Eisenhower Administration seemed oblivious to the possibility of a Soviet first or the resulting fallout.11 Especially irksome was the fact that in 1956 General John B. Medaris, named head of the Army's Redstone Arsenal and the Army Balistic Missile Agency (ABMA) had supported von Braun in his failed efforts.12 The Von Braun team already a part of the ABMA was involved in the development of the Redstone and Jupiter series of rockets for the Army. The Jupiter C was being used to test the re-entry survivability of nose cone designs and materials.13 Equipped with a solid propellant fourth stage the Jupiter C was capable of orbiting a satellite.14 In fact in May of 1957 during a test flight of the Jupiter C the US could have orbited a satellite except the rocket was fitted with an inert dummy fourth stage.15 At the time the Army was forbidden from attempting to orbit a satellite as that mission was already assigned to the Vanguard Program.16 International Geophysical Year (IGY) Logo.

Instead of a United States first what followed was a national humiliation in which the Soviet Union successfully launched the world's first earth orbiting satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957. Followed by Sputnik II with a dog, Laika, on November 3, 1957 only a month after the first orbital flight. One month later on December 6, 1957, the United States watched their Vanguard rocket explode on the launch pad. "Kaputnik" as it was dubbed was a national embarrassment. The United States did finally place a satellite, Explorer 1, into earth orbit on January 31, 1958 using the Army's Jupiter-C as previously proposed by von Braun, but too late to salvage the loss of national prestige from a second place finish. While, the Russians extolled the virtues of Soviet science, the "beep, beep, beep" of the orbiting Sputnik was a reminder of the United States inadequacy and vulnerability. The loss of US pride and prestige was palpable.

The second place finish of the United States placed added emphasis on the next goal a man in orbit. In response the National Aeronautics and Space Act of July 1958 formed NASA the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The goal to keep space activities for peaceful purposes and the benefit of all mankind. The Space Task Group (STG) a separate organization within NASA was tasked with, Project Mercury, the manned satellite project, to fly a man in space at the earliest possible time. Robert R. Gilruth, was named STG's Director. The two pronged approach taken by the STG involved a series of manned suborbital flights using the Redstone rocket and later orbital flights using the Atlas. Thereafter followed a rapid succession of events involving development of the people, procedures and facilities necessary to carry out the goal such that by early 1960 test flights of the capsule and boosters were well under way.

The Soviet Union continued to pursue space exploration during this period as well. Additional shots at the moon with Luna 2 the first lunar impactor on September 14, 1959 and first pictures of the far side of the moon from Luna 3 on October 6, 1959. The United States launched lunar bound probes too but none of the Pioneer series of spacecraft were successful in the 1958 to 1960 period. Especially worrisome was a flight in August of 1960 in which the Soviets recovered two dogs from orbit in an apparent test of their manned spacecraft.17 Eisenhower downplayed any inadequacy but the inability to catch up to the Soviets continued to play badly for the United States on the national and international scene.18

MR-2 Liftoff from launch complex 5/6 at the Cape.

Source: NASA

MR-2 Liftoff from launch complex 5/6 at the Cape.

By early 1961 preparations for a manned flight by the Soviets or United States were nearly complete. On January 21, 1961, the United States launched MR-2, for Mercury-Redstone 2, carrying a Mercury Capsule and the chimp, Ham, on a successful suborbital flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida. However, Ham's flight was not without difficulties. A malfunction in the booster caused the fuel to burn out at a faster rate initiating an abort that activated the escape tower. The resulting over acceleration of the capsule imposed greater than anticipated g-forces on the chimp occupant and higher apogee of 157 miles instead of the planned 115 miles. The higher altitude caused a longer down range landing of point of 422 miles farther than the 290 miles intended. Unexpected vibrations also caused inaccuracies in the guidance system. Ham was not harmed and an astronaut could have survived such a flight and quite likely initiate procedures to prevent or ameliorate the effects. So, STG was ready for a manned flight.

Nevertheless, von Braun and Kurt Debus along with Eberhard Rees responsible for the Redstone were not happy with the booster's performance.19 Rees and Debus were with von Braun when they made their escape from Peenemuende in 1945 and among the few chosen by von Braun to be relocated to the United States at the end of World War II in Operation Paperclip. Debus supervised rocket testing for von Braun at Peenemunende and was an "old friend and colleague".20 Debus would go on to become director of the Kennedy Space Center. Rees was von Braun's permanent deputy since the days of Peenemuende and took over as Director of Marshall Spaceflight Center upon von Braun's move to D.C.21 In a sign of their unique bond members of von Braun's team spoke in German at times during tests at the Cape.22 As Christopher Craft, Flight Director and member of STG, observed during the ill fated MR-1 flight: "The damn Germans still haven't learned who they work for".23

Von Braun and Eberhard Rees.

Source: NASA

Von Braun and Eberhard Rees.

To address the abnormalities in MR-2 so called "quick fixes" were initiated to correct the deficiencies in the Redstone considered satisfactory by the STG group who were ready to approve the next flight, MR-3, as a manned flight.24 But von Braun and Debus continued to object and insist that one flight should be perfect before inserting a man into the equation.25 The only dissenter, Joachim Kuettner who did not advise calling a halt to the planned manned flight. (Kuettner was an expert on the Redstone - when they were testing a piloted V-2 at Peenemunde he rode the rocket and bailed out.26) Von Braun's hesitancy after MR-2 was in sharp contrast to his feelings prior to Sputnik in which he described the Redstone as a "booster that has been successfully flight tested [and] guidance system, all of whose components have been successfully fight tested."27 To accommodate von Braun's concern and demand NASA Headquarters went along with the request for an additional unmanned flight to test the modifications made to the Redstone scheduled for March 28, 1961.

STG's disagreement over the need for the additional flight was apparently "bitter".28 STG viewed problems with the Redstone, known as "old reliable" as "fixable".29 STG felt they still had a chance to beat the Soviets in achieving the first manned spaceflight, but they were overruled by top NASA leadership that sided with von Braun.30 It seems "NASA was more afraid of the consequences of an accident than those of coming in second."31 Apparently the Mercury team was "aware of but not dominated by the space race."32

The disagreement between STG and Marshall was memorialized in the flight designation, MR-BD. Rather than MR-2A a normal designation for a second try at an unfulfilled mission the flight was named Mercury-Redstone Booster Development, MR-BD.33 In addition Gilruth, limited STG's participation to providing the payload, a boiler-plate Mercury Capsule, wanting the flight left as a von Braun and Debus matter. So, on March 24, 1961, the MR-BD flight went off without significant difficulty confirming satisfactory performance of the modified Redstone that was thereafter deemed man rated, but alas it was too late.
Von Braun and Kurt Debus.

Source: NASA

Von Braun and Kurt Debus.

2. The Issue

On April 12 1961, Tass the official Soviet news agency announced that Major Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin orbited the earth in the world's first spacecraft Vostok 1. The consequences of the decision to delay a US manned flight now became painfully obvious. The "fateful" decision to postpone a manned flight for an added measure of safety allowed the Soviets to once again beat the United States in space. Von Braun was apparently unsurprised by Vostok 1 and may have had access to advance knowledge of the flight as he held Top Secret clearance and was in a select group with access to reconnaissance photographs.34 A presidential clearance from 1958 allowed von Braun to analyze photographs from U-2 spy planes, and he was particularly adept at interpreting aerial photographs and spotting Soviet missile facilities.35

Alan B. Shepard flew his suborbital flight in Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961 marking the US entrance into the realm of manned spaceflight. However, to recover national prestige lost from the series of second place space finishes President Kennedy inquired what the US could do to surpass the Soviets in the sphere of space exploration. The answer a manned lunar expedition. One of the voices pushing for a manned lunar expedition was Wernher von Braun, the German Rocket Scientist largely responsible for development of the V-2 Rocket in World War II. Von Braun, by now an American citizen, loomed large as the national expert on space. Raised to national consciousness through a series of Collier Magazine articles in the early 1950s, appearances on Walt Disney's TV show, a biographical movie "I aim at the Stars" and the successful launch of Explorer 1 on his Jupiter-C missile, von Braun was the recognized national expert on rockets and space exploration, and his opinion was an element in Kennedy's decision to pursue a moon landing goal. So, on May 25, 1961 JFK made his now famous speech to Congress where he declared the goal to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth before the decade was over. The next phase of the "space race" had begun.

Kennedy's lunar landing decision on the heals of the successful flights of Gagarin and Shepard was crafted to address the loss of pride and prestige suffered by the US as a result of another second place finish to the Soviet Union in space exploration. It appears, but for MR-BD the US would likely have beaten the Soviet Union into space with a manned suborbital flight before April 1961. Such a feat, a space first, may have quelled or reduced the negative political impact of another US loss in space to the Soviet Union and rendered moot the impetus to pursue greater US goals in space. The MR-BD flight of March 24, 1961 may have been the single event that changed the course of space history. "Had [the US] beaten the Russians into space and assured American preeminence from the first, many subsequent developments would surely have been vastly different. Perhaps the greatest difference would be in the magnitude and urgency of the space program . . . [and] . . . a competitive race of serious proportions might not have developed."36

Accordingly, the strong and "bitter" differences of opinion within the NASA structure between Gulruth's STG and von Braun's Marshall concerning the need for another arguably unnecessary unmanned test flight is "interesting".37 It suggests added scrutiny of the decision making process, the people and their motivations. A reexamination of the evidence suggests the real possibility that MR-BD reflected a conscience effort to manipulate the flow of events to provide needed impetus to pursue an expanded space program. Was STG shortsighted in their desire to "beat" the Soviets and von Braun keeping his eye on the long game?

Von Braun MR-BD

- Part II -

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3. Reliability & Safety

Following the MR-2 flight the Marshall team conducted a reliability study of the Mercury-Redstone booster for its readiness to support manned flight that was presented to NASA Headquarters.38 Three statistical studies were made to access booster reliability.39 The first study estimated a running average of flight success probability. The second study examined the flight record of all components weighing their failures according to the number of flights made by each component and assessing the probability of a failure. In the third study the effect of each malfunction was adjusted based on its possible contribution to a booster failure including the factor of human error. The somewhat convoluted and confusing results were displayed in a series of tables as follows for the first two tests:

Mercury-Redstone Reliability Prediction

It is unclear how "past firings" on the component study in the 90 to 96 percent probability range, with similar engineering estimates, translated into a total probability of booster success with a 75% confidence level of only 78 percent. However, in the absence of an analysis of the analysis we'll have to take their word for it. Another question is why the statistical studies were needed at all? Apparently von Braun over the objections of Bob Gilruth, head of STG, and Walt Williams, Operations Director for Project Mercury, who were satisfied with the MR-2 flight, ordered the study to support his position that an additional flight was necessary.40 In the end the statistical studies estimated the probability of booster success to be between 78 percent and 84 percent at a 75 percent confidence level.41

The von Braun, Marshall team observed that solutions for problems and weak areas discovered during the first three Mercury-Redstone flights were developed but not all had been tested in flight. While the original flight schedule called for the fourth flight to be manned, doubt continued to exist as to whether the "quick fixes" implemented to address the issues observed on MR-2 would work.42 Applying the three-pronged statistical approach von Braun decided and argued that one additional development flight was necessary.43

Statistical analysis of reliability or the "numbers game" was seen as a kind of mysticism and spaceage astrology rather than sound engineering.44 To many, including those at STG, the limited number of tests, or data points, were insufficient to support a statistical viewpoint.45 Rather they demanded reliability be defined as an ability.46 While, the Marshall Mercury-Redstone reliability studies included all 69 previous Redstone flights the earlier, less successful, ones probably watered down the statistical averages.47 In support it is noted that immediately prior to the first manned launch there were 11 consecutive successful Redstone flights and seven consecutive successful Jupiter-C flights.48

In concluding Marshall observed that reliability had to be a function of qualitative rather than quantitative confidence.49 As the cost of launch vehicles increased the ability to conduct many test flights would become uneconomical.50 Marshall was of the opinion that a launch vehicle is man rated when its developers have a high qualitative confidence that it will perform properly. In the case of the MR-BD flight Marshall acknowledged it delayed the manned flight until the fifth launch attempt so the launch vehicle could demonstrate all its required functions in an actual flight.51 According to Marshall, the MR-BD flight did not result in lengthy delay in the program and was justified on the basis of the qualitative increase in confidence achieved.

STG on the other hand saw the MR-2 flight as a success. Important operational items including the countdown, launch, flight control, range support and recovery all got high marks. STG was ready to put Alan B. Shepard into space.52 Any of the problems encountered were not considered mission critical, or issues that could have been dealt with by the astronaut.53 According to Christopher Kraft, Flight Director and member of STG, the US should have beaten the Soviets but the "German rocket scientist . . . got cold feet". "Gulruth's antagonism to von Braun was growing", Alan Shepard was "furious" and "I [Kraft] didn't like it worth a damn".54 (Gene Kranz, assistant flight director under Kraft, doesn't even mention the MR-BD flight in his book "Failure is Not an Option") It appears the need for another test flight that delayed the US entry into manned spaceflight was at least debatable and the von Braun team's stated reasoning open to question.

4. The "Fixes"

Changes made to the Redstone in light of the "hot" booster on MR-2 consisted primarily of parameter adjustments on various components for the MR-BD test flight. For example, the MR-2 booster had "burned hot" due to a hydrogen peroxide regulator over pressurization, and a mixture ratio servo control valve that failed in the full-open position leading to early depletion of liquid oxygen.55 The over pressurization caused the engine to deplete it's fuel sooner leading to a premature booster shutdown. Premature shutdown of the booster initiated the abort signal that fired the escape tower that added additional g-forces to the occupant, higher apogee and longer downrange landing. To prevent this series of events from repeating themselves the hydrogen peroxide regulator was reset to 570 psig outlet pressure, down from 590 to prevent over pressurization and thrust control servo adjusted from 0 to 25% open.56 Flight sequencer timing changes were also made to prevent the abort experienced on MR-2. On MR-2 the abort to depletion mode was set at 137.5 seconds but the booster shutdown early at 134.5 seconds initiating the abort sequence.57 To remedy this the signal was revised down to 135 seconds for the MR-BD flight.58

The Marshall team raised additional concern over "excessive vibrations" in the instrument compartment.59 The issue seemed to center around the possible impact vibrations would have on the "vibration sensitive components" located in the instrument compartment.60 However, this worry over the Redstone vibrations was not universal. STG had seen the "unexpected rocket vibrations" and "didn't think much of them".61 In STG's eyes the vibrations were of not part of the issue with MR-2's performance and not really relevant.62 Nevertheless, after MR-2 steps were taken to reduce vibrations caused by the acoustic environment and aerodynamic turbulence. Four stiffeners were added to the ballast section of the booster to provide vibration dampening.63 Another method used to reduce vibrations on MR-BD and subsequent flights was mass-dampening. A mixture of lead chips and epoxy polysulfide was applied to the booster inner skin in the recovery compartment and upper bulkhead of the instrument compartment. A total of 210 pounds of this material was applied to MR-BD.64 According to Marshall the fix lowered the amplitude of the vibration levels and shortened the time the critical flight components were subjected to substantial vibration levels.65

The "fixes" applied to MR-BD and subsequent manned flights, do not on their face appear of potentially catastrophic nature, but rather reflect a "tweaking" of the particulars to refine the overall operational characteristics of an already proven system. The Mercury-Redstone Reliability Program established to upgrade the Redstone and assure proper operation of the new components adds weight to this analysis.66 To ensure reliability a series of developmental testing was undertaken using a pyramidal philosophy in which components, subsystems and the entire booster were functionally checked-out to verify proper operation of all hardware in the rocket.67 Level one tested components under conditions expected prior to and during a flight. Level two stressed components to failure, including different temperatures, vibration, shock and acceleration.68 As probably understood by STG the results of these pre-flight tests did not suggest significant reliability issues with Redstone performance due to "excessive vibrations" in the instrument compartment. In the final analysis the vibration "fixes" did not eliminate vibrations in subsequent MR-3 and MR-4 flights but only reduced their intensity and duration. This result appears to support STG's opinion that another test flight to ensure Redstone reliability and safety was at least debatable.

Von Braun MR-BD

- Part III -

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5. The Motive

So what ulterior motives could have entered into von Braun's insistence that another test flight was necessary? Questions of this type have always been dealt with in a more circumscribed way. Evidence of extrinsic acts, crimes or wrongs are not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show they acted in conformity with these past acts in a particular circumstance.69 The concern is that a person's unsavory character might sway opinion despite the evidence. The idea being a person should be held accountable for what he does rather than what he is. The rule designed to prevent undue prejudice in a particular matter. The admissibility of such evidence dependent on whether the probative value outweighs the potential prejudice.

There are exceptions where character evidence of extrinsic acts is allowed to show motive, intent, preparation or plan.70 Character evidence is relevant to show an actor's commitment to a larger goal, a "modus operandi" where similar extrinsic acts are allowed to show intent, motive and plan. In this particular case the plan an attempt to alter the course of events to achieve a larger goal. The goal illustrated by Erik Bergaust, a friend and biographer of von Braun, founder and editor in chief of Missile & Rockets magazine. In October of 1955 Bergaust and von Braun were discussing the frustration experienced by Von Braun and General Medaris who had been advocating for the opportunity to launch a satellite before the Soviets "[b]ut to no avail".71 Bergaust said: "You know . . . it may not be such a dumb idea - after all - if the Russians were to beat us into space. All hell will break loose. Maybe this is what it will take to wake up the Eisenhower Administration." While, von Braun disagreed and observed that "it would be bad . . . America would loose its prestige . . . [that] would take decades to repair . . . and cost . . . billions" it showed the idea had merit.72 Many space flight proponents were even happy as every Soviet space first led to calls for greater American efforts.73 After Sputnik was launched Bergaust instructed his associate editors that "[w]e need to stir up American pride."74

Bergaust's actions were unnecessary as the impact of Sputnik on America was immediate and profound. As Ernst Stuhlinger and Frederick I. Ordway III said: " . . . few events in the history of spaceflight have met with such powerful emotional reactions by the public and the professionals as the launching of Sputnik".75 Sputnik came as a total surprise to the American public who were afraid a Soviet attack was next.76 In response President Eisenhower tried to downplay the significance of Sputnik.77 However, when the Soviets launched a second Sputnik carrying a dog one month later Eisenhower finally authorized Medaris and von Braun to proceed with the Jupiter C launch.78

Despite Eisenhower's attempt to minimize Soviet space achievements, Sputnik was seen as " . . . the nation's Pearl Harbor of space, a national call to action."79 Sputnik handed the Soviets an "astounding propaganda victory".80 There was an intense international reaction as well to the United States perceived technological inferiority.81 The Soviet success created a sense of national doubt about all aspects of American society including public education, industrial strength, defense capabilities, science and technology.82 The result was increased public pressure to catch up to the Soviets and demands from those in Congress for action.83 Space policy became a political issue in the upcoming presidential election and provided von Braun the opportunity and a forum to further advocate for a lunar expedition.84

If Sputnik was not enough Vostok I and Yuri Gagarin's first manned orbital flight sealed the deal on the moon landing goal. President Kennedy, in a state of "presidential panic" after the Gagarin flight and failed invasion of Cuba in the "Bay of Pigs" was looking for a way to beat the Soviets to recover lost pride and prestige.85 Kennedy requested options in which the United States could beat the Soviets in space.86 The moon expedition idea had been floundering around for a while and one that was already being considered as a response to another Soviet first, but without a definite line of support.87 Von Braun, now Director of the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was called by Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Chair of the National Space Council, to offer his opinion on the available options and their chance of success.88 Von Braun's recommendation: "We have an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon".89 Von Braun's analysis pointed out that larger boosters not yet available to either side had to be developed and the United States and Soviet Union would be starting from more or less the same place without relative advantage.90

The impact of von Braun's opinion on the Kennedy decision to go to the moon is debatable. Johnson sought the advice of people from the military, NASA, Congress and elsewhere. The final decision came from the President. Attributing an elevated significance to von Braun on the ultimate moon landing decision seems doubtful.91 Nevertheless, von Braun was the recognized national expert on space. After all it was von Braun that wrote about space travel in a series of early 1950s Colliers magazine articles, explained space exploration on Walt Disney's television program, and launched the United States first satellite. Von Braun was probably at or near the peak of his influence and popularity. Good communication skills at congressional appearances in support of an expanded space effort also increased his overall impact and appeal.

Von Braun's opinion mattered. Especially it seems to Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, who on April 20, 1961, three days after the Bay of Pigs, and eight days after the Gagarin flight, was tasked by Kennedy to come up with a US plan for space.92 It was Johnson, as head of the Space Council, that called von Braun and others to a meeting on April 24, 1961 where he sought advice on the space issue.93 At that meeting Johnson asked those present: "Shall we put a man on the moon?" Whereupon everyone said yes and this is the recommendation Johnson gave to Kennedy.94 However, James Webb, the NASA administrator and Jerome Wisener, Kennedy's science advisor, did not apparently join the consensus opinion as Johnson represented.95 Johnson wanting to take the initiative on space apparently followed von Braun's lead in recommending the lunar landing expedition to Kennedy; although, the decision had the support of NASA-HQ, and elements of the Air Force, Navy and others.96 So, on May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed Congress and made landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the decade was out a matter of national policy.97

The only way to encourage the decision for a lunar expedition was to create the environment that necessitated the outcome. Eisenhower was reluctant to spend the exorbitant amounts necessary to achieve larger space exploration goals and instead chose to de-emphasize the significance of Soviet space achievements.98 Kennedy was no less hesitant to spend huge sums for space at the start of his administration, but the loss of prestige and pride associated with Sputnik followed-up by Gagarin's orbital flight left few alternatives to restore the national and international image of the United States as the global leader of the free world. Von Braun's ulterior motives in manipulating events could not be more clear. But did he?

6. Character

It is hard to fathom (grasp) the totality of the person that was von Braun. His upbringing, education, and early experience in rocketry. The political, social and economic environments he passed through. The people he met, dealt with, exerted influence over and was influenced by. There are many biographies written by those who knew him describing the multiple dimensions, complexity and depth of von Braun. However, von Braun's professional life can be summed up simply, as a total commitment to rocketry and space exploration to the exclusion of all else. This life long obsession governed all his relationships and decisions. There was no higher moral purpose. The question presented here is whether his commitment to rocketry and space exploration was such that he was capable of manipulating events to achieve his goal of a larger space exploration effort? Von Braun's past extrinsic acts are a window to character that are evidence of intent, motive and plan with regard to the MR-BD flight. An analysis of von Braun's character and "modus operandi" can be broken down into three phases, pre-war, war and post-war as follows.

a. Pre-War

From an early age von Braun was obsessed with the notion of spaceflight. In 1925 at the age of 13 Von Braun received a telescope as a gift that started his interest in the Moon and planets.99 Later, Hermann Oberth's book "The Rocket into Interplanetary Space" raised the possibility of spaceflight through the use of liquid fueled rockets that motivated von Braun's later pursuit of mathematics, engineering and the sciences.100 The writings and rocket exploits of Max Valier and Fritz von Opel further solidified his interest in rocketry.101 In 1927 the Verein Fur Raumschiffahrt, or Vfr, the Society for Space Travel, was founded with von Braun becoming a member in 1928. Through the Vfr he met such notables as Willy Ley a leader in the Vfr and follower of Herman Oberth, an early rocket pioneer that influenced Von Braun.102 By 1929, at the age of 17, Von Braun's commitment to a career in rocketry and space exploration was set.103

In 1930 members of the Vfr obtained an abandoned munitions dump on the outskirts of Berlin to carry out their amateur rocket experiments.104 At the Raketenflugplatz (rocketport) as it was called von Braun, while still in university, got hands on experience with rockets.105 It was from the Raketenflugplatz that some of the first German liquid fueled rockets were launched with von Braun participating as his circumstances allowed. However, their rockets were not much more than toys and their efforts underfunded.

In 1932 the Army showed an interest in the possible military use of rockets which were not prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles (the "Diktat"). Von Braun undeterred by the possible military use of the new technology recognized the ultimate goal of progress toward space travel would require huge sums of money the Army could provide.106 However, von Braun's cohorts at the Raketenflugplatz among them Klaus Riedel and Rudolf Nebel, later hired for Peenemunde, objected to military involvement and did not follow him to Kummersdorf the Army base where rocket developments would take place.107 As a consequence, von Braun left his old associates behind.108 Willy Ley, observed of von Braun: "obsessed with space and indifferent to party politics . . . [with an] admitted streak of amoral opportunism was certainly one side of his character - one that emerged when it served his personal ambition to be the Columbus of space . . ."109

b. War

German rocket development moved to Peenemunde in April - May 1937.110 Between 1937 and 1944 Von Braun and team developed the A-4, later known as the V-2 the worlds first ballistic missile. The tests and failures were many as numerous technical details had to be worked out before a weapon could be fielded. During this period, Von Braun was apparently not shy about expressing his ultimate space flight goals. His enthusiasm was such that in March of 1939 during a visit of Hitler to Kummersdorf, where some rocket work continued, Army Colonel Walter Dornberger, a leader in the rocket program and von Braun's immediate superior and mentor, had to remind von Braun to "say nothing about spaceflight."111

Dornberger's warning went unheeded as later in March of 1944 von Braun and several associates were arrested by the Gestapo for "defeatism" and "undermining the will to fight", considered treasonous.112 An informant had overheard von Braun commenting "that the war will turn out badly" and the main task was to "create a spaceship".113 The charges were considered so serious that the men were likely to loose their lives.114 Von Braun and his cohorts were only saved by the persistent intervention of Dornberger who went to the highest levels to secure their release.115 Thereafter von Braun became more careful about expressing his spaceflight obsession.116 Although, his goals remained unaltered by these events.

A window into von Braun's motive and intent is presented in an event prior to his arrest. In July 1943 von Braun and Dornberger made another visit to Hitler to seek additional resources for their missile program. At this point Germany was on the defensive having lost the "battle of Britain, the offensive in the east against Russia and air superiority over Germany. To gain Hitler's support Dornberger and Von Braun presented movie footage of an early successful A-4 flight in an effort to make a positive impression; although, at this point the rocket development effort was still encountering many technical and war related difficulties.117 Nevertheless, this "piece of cinematic trickery" worked and Hitler decided to give the A-4 the highest national war priority.118
V-2 on display at Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH.

V-2 on display at Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH.

The result, as A-4 priority increased so did the pressure to quickly produce an operational weapon. Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda, coined the name V-2, Vengeance Weapon 2. At this point von Braun was involved in efforts to produce an operational V-2 in adequate numbers to have an impact on the deteriorating situation for Germany. After Peenemunde was bombed by the allies production was moved to an underground facility known as Mittelwerks, near Nordhausen. It is at Mittelwerks where thousands of prisoners from nearby Dora Concentration Camp were forced to work in V-2 production. Inhuman conditions at Dora and Mittelwerks were not von Braun's doing but he visited the location and was aware of the activities there.

By the beginning of 1945 near the war's end von Braun organized and led his entire rocket team to a location where they could be captured by the United States as he believed this was the only country that could help realize his space exploration dreams. To facilitate their relocation nearer allied US forces von Braun created "bogus" orders to move equipment and personnel.119 To complete the deception vehicles were marked with the lettering VzbV, a fictitious acronym that von Braun used to fool guards at various checkpoints along the way.120 When stopped von Braun, would tell suspicious guards their movement was part of a top-secret mission ordered by SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler.121 Later additional manipulation of SS guards ordered to watch over the rocket team completed the effort to surrender to US forces.122

Von Braun's war related behavior and goals seem clear, he accepted military use of his creation as a weapon and "exaggerated" it's performance to obtain needed funds. Later he tolerated the suffering imposed on those who built his device from the Dora concentration camp and at the Mittelwerks underground manufacturing facility. Eventually accepting use of his rocket to kill. It was after all war. The only thing that mattered was advancing rocketry for space travel. When it was obvious Germany had lost the war he relocated his rocket team so they could surrender to the US in the hopes of keeping his team and rocket work alive. As Walter Dornberger, von Braun's former "boss" in Germany commented: " . . . From his early days he wanted to go into space, and to explore the planets and the universe. His military work in Peenemunde was only a necessary step in this direction. The conquest of space by man was, and remains, his goal . . . "123

c. Post-War

Through Operation Paperclip von Braun again made a pact, but in this case with the US Army in order to further his rocket experiments in the US. Later he followed the political path from the Army to NASA, as Director of the Marshall Spaceflight Center, where he was responsible for development of the Saturn family of launch vehicles. Throughout this period von Braun dreamed, planned and wrote about missions to the Moon and Mars.

Starting in as early as 1949 von Braun made an effort to promote a journey to the Moon. He lobbied the public, congressional leaders and other government and top officials involved in national space policy through magazine articles, TV and other appearances.124 Obviously, this was not a person without conviction, purpose and plan. Von Braun observed that "[w]e are living in a democracy . . . where the will and the mood of the people count. If you want to accomplish something as big as travel into space, you must win the people for your idea . . . You have to be filled with a burning desire to bring your idea to life. You must have absolute faith into the righteousness of your cause, and into your final success. In short, you must be a kind of a crusader!"125

Von Braun Life Magazine. People forget the period of the late 1940s through the 1950s when very little was known about spaceflight and outer space. Mystery still surrounded the last frontier. No imagery of the far side of the Moon existed and it was still an open question of whether there was life on Mars or not. Into this void stepped Willy Ley, now a well known writer on rockets; Fred Whipple, chair of the Astronomy Department at Harvard University; Joseph Kaplan, physics professor at UCLA, and von Braun.126 They convinced Cornelius Ryan from Collier's Magazine to publish a series of articles on spaceflight. Those articles richly illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman and Rolf Klep ran eight issues from March 22, 1952 through April 30, 1954.127 Their focus, development of a space station as a stepping stone to manned exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond. Publicity for the articles included a "media blitz" by von Braun who appeared on seven TV interviews that increased his recognition and status as the American expert on space. At the time Colliers claimed a circulation of three million.128

Motivated in part by the Colliers Magazine articles and a need to fund his Disneyland theme park, Walt Disney created a series of TV programs dedicated to space exploration. The space exploration theme accompanied an area in the park identified as Tomorrowland. Disney with the assistance of Willy Ley, Heinz Haber and von Braun developed and presented such programs as: "Man in Space", "Man and the Moon" and "Mars and Beyond".129 ABC's first broadcast of "Man in Space" on March 9, 1955, is reported to have been viewed by 100 million people.130 The last chapter in the series "Mars and Beyond" was aired on December 7, 1957. In these programs von Braun presented his vision of space flight and exploration of the Moon and Mars. The impact and influence of these programs was widespread and even reached the White House and Soviet Union.131 Von Braun's crusade is clear in the Collier's Magazine articles and Disney TV productions which not only enhanced his status, visibility and influence but also furthered the quest to "win the people for [his] idea" and is further evidence of motive, intent and plan. Von Braun and Walt Disney at Marshall.

Source: NASA

Von Braun and Walt Disney at Marshall.

7. Conclusion

This admittedly over simplified and incomplete dissection of von Braun is not intended to enhance or detract from his reputation and contribution to rocketry and space exploration. Rather, merely to suggest the possibility that he used MR-BD as an excuse to delay America's entry into manned space flight allowing the Soviets to orbit a human first and thus create the necessary political environment for a larger US commitment to space exploration. A catalyst to catapult humanity into the void that he viewed as his destiny.

John Glenn learned a most interesting thing about von Braun on a visit to his home and library where he discovered Von Braun's interests were not limited to rocket science.132 Glenn found books covering a wide range of subjects including "religion, comparative religion, philosophy, history, and government."133 Glenn's observation is enlightening as to the complexity and capacity of von Braun to master a wide variety of subjects. Von Braun had "a profound understanding of human nature, particularly of individuals who occupy highly responsible positions . . . a keen sense of observing all the other players in the game . . . [and a practice] of letting others have his way".134 Von Braun came from a long line of ancestors prominent in public positions requiring a delicate diplomacy and skill in persuasion.135 His pre-war, war and post-war experiences and encounters confirm an extraordinary ability and determination to maneuver successfully through a range of challenging and often life threatening circumstances and individuals all while "having his way"; influencing the likes of Hitler, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

So, why did von Braun insist on another test flight of the Redstone when it is likely he knew the delay might cause the Soviets to put a man in space first? He was obviously aware of the consequences. Was it his conservative engineering philosophy or something else?136 Von Braun had successfully employed deception during the war to gain greater priority for the A-4 and again at the war's end to ensure capture by US forces where he believed his rocket work could continue. Once in America von Braun single mindedly pursued his crusade for space exploration through multiple means and media in an attempt to educate and rally public opinion, government and policy makers around his space exploration goals. At the time, the 1950s and early 1960s, von Braun was the recognized US rocket expert. A title he earned through his work on the V-2, US rocket boosters, orbiting the first US satellite, numerous articles, books, TV appearances, a movie, congressional hearings, speaking engagements and the like. He was Director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Through the disappointment of Sputnik he saw democracies can be made to act when their pride, prestige and sense of security are damaged, but a full commitment to a lunar expedition required that extra little push, the impetus to overcome the remaining obstacles. That extra push was MR-BD. The case is circumstantial and opinion on the ultimate issue a matter for the jury, but what would you have done?

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Bergaust, Erik. Wernher von Braun. National Space Institute, Washington DC, 1976.

Biddle, Wayne. Dark Side of the Moon, Wernher Von Braun the Third Reich, and the Space Race. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2009.

Dornberger, Walter. V-2. The Viking Press, New York, 1954.

Glenn, John with Nick Taylor. John Glenn, A Memoir. Bantam Books, 1999.

Huzel, Dieter K. Peenemunde to Canaveral. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962.

Kraft, Chris. Flight, My Life in Mission Control. Dutton, Published by Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York, 2001.

Kranz, Gene. Failure is Not an Option. Berkley Books, New York, 2001.

Logsdon, John M. The Decision to Go to the Moon, Project Apollo and the National Interest. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1970.

Medaris, Major General John B. Countdown for Decision. G.P. Putnam's Sons New York, 1960.

Miller, Robert L., Jr., US District Judge Northern District of Indiana. Indiana Practice, Courtroom Handbook on Indiana Evidence. West, Thomson-Reuters, 2010.

NASA, George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama. The Mercury-Redstone Project. N67-37935, TMX-53107, December 1964.

Neufeld, Michael J. Von Braun Dreamer of Space / Engineer of War. Alfred A. Knope, New York, 2007.

Piszkiewicz, Dennis. Wernher Von Braun, The Man Who Sold the Moon. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 1998.

Stuhlinger, Ernst & Ordway, Frederick I., III. Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space, A Biographical Memior. Malabar, Florida, 1994.

Swenson, Loyd S., Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander. This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. NASA SP-4201, 1966.

Van Dyke, Vernon. Pride and Power, The Rationale of the Space Program. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1964.

Ward, Bob. Dr. Space, The Life of Wernher von Braun. Naval Institute Press, 2005.


1 Piszkiewicz, Dennis. Wernher Von Braun, The Man Who Sold the Moon. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 1998, p.98 (hereinafter Sold)

2 Id.

3 Bergaust, Erik. Wernher von Braun. National Space Institute, Washington D.C., 1976, pp.240-241 (hereinafter Bergaust)

4 Id.

5 Id., at 241

6 Neufeld, Michael J. Von Braun Dreamer of Space / Engineer of War. Alfred A. Knope, New York, 2007, p.294 (hereinafter Neufeld)

7 Bergaust, p.241

8 Sold, p.98

9 Neufeld, p.296

10 Id., p.298

11 Id., p.304

12 Medaris, Major General John B. Countdown for Decision. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1960, p.74 (hereinafter Medaris)

13 Id., p.119

14 Id., p.120

15 Id., pp.119-120

16 Id., at 120

17 Neufeld, p.359

18 Id., p.313

19 Swenson, Loyd S., Jr., James M. Grimwood and Charles C. Alexander. This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury. NASA SP-4201, 1966, p.323 (hereinafter TNO)

20 Sold, p.141 & p.119

21 Bergaust, p.206 & Ward, Bob. Dr. Space, The Life of Wernher von Braun. Naval Institute Press, 2005, p.125 (hereinafter Dr.)

22 Kranz, Gene. Failure is Not an Option. Berkley Books, New York, 2001, p.30

23 Id., p.31

24 TNO, p.324

25 Id., p.323

26 Kraft, Chris. Flight, My Life in Mission Control. Dutton, Published by Penguin Putnam, Inc., New York, 2001, p. 119 (hereinafter Flight)

27 Stuhlinger, Ernst & Ordway, Frederick I., III. Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space, A Biographical Memior. Malabar, Florida, 1994, p.127 (hereinafter Crusader)

28 Neufeld, p.359

29 Id.

30 Id.

31 Id.

32 TNO, p.330

33 Id., at p.324

34 Neufeld, pp.359-360

35 Dr., p.120

36 Van Dyke, Vernon. Pride and Power, The Rationale of the Space Program. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1964, pp.183-184 (hereinafter Pride); see also: Logsdon, John M. The Decision to Go to the Moon, Project Apollo and the National Interest. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1970, p.81 (hereinafter Decision)

37 But mostly ignored by other authors in their descriptions of the event. Logsdon notes: "If the extra Redstone flight had not been added, the March [MR-3] mission could well have carried not only the first American, but indeed the first man, into space. Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight three weeks later would then have not been such a dramatic first, and its impact on the American space policy-making process not so strong. But there was no way that this could have been known in March." (Decision, p.81); Bergaust just blows by the MR-BD flight without even a mention in his description of events (Bergaust, p.398); similarly Stuhlinger & Ordway do not mention the MR-BD flight in their account either (Stuhlinger, pp.169-171); while, Piszkiewicz and Ward also fail to address MR-BD. (Sold, pp.135-136 and Dr., p.127); Neufeld presents a good deal of the fact surrounding the controversy between STG and Marshall over the need for the MR-BD flight and the "bitter" feelings it created. He hints that Von Braun was not surprised by Gagarin's flight and although, he states "it is unknown whether he had advance knowledge", he did have access to top secret CIA reconnaissance photos, but Neufeld does not analyze further. (Neufeld, pp.359-360); In a similar vein "This New Ocean" explores the issues surrounding MR-BD as one of "When is a vehicle man-rated?" (TNO, pp.322-324), and the decision making process concerning the final determination that an additional test flight was needed. It concludes " . . . MR-BD was highly successful . . . it demonstrated that all booster problems have been eliminated." (Id., at p.330).

38 TNO, p.323

39 NASA, George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama. The Mercury-Redstone Project. N67-37935, TMX-53107, December 1964, p.5-35 (hereinafter Project)

40 Flight, p.127

41 Project, p.5-35

42 Id., at p.8-13

43 Id., p.8-16

44 TNO, p.179

45 Id., at p.180

46 Id.

47 Project, p.5-35

48 Id., at p.2-2

49 Project, p.9-2

50 Id., p.9-1

51 Id., p.9-2

52 Flight, p.126

53 Id., at pp.126-127

54 Id., at p.132

55 Project, p.8-9

56 Id., p.8-16

57 Flight, p.125

58 Project, p.8-16

59 Id., p.1-6

60 Id., p.6-17

61 Flight, p.127

62 Id.

63 Project, p.8-16

64 Id.

65 Project, p.6-22

66 Id., at p.5-31

67 Id., p.6-1

68 Id., p.5-33

69 Miller, Robert L. Jr., US District Judge Northern District of Indiana. Indiana Practice, Courtroom Handbook on Indiana Evidence. West, Homopson-Reuters, 2010, p.66

70 Id., at p.76

71 Bergaust, pp.258-259

72 Bergaust, p.260

73 Id., at p.298

74 Id., p.261

75 Crusader, p.131

76 Bergaust, p.264

77 Neufeld, p.313 and Bergaust, at p.265

78 Neufeld, p.314

79 Dr., p.112

80 Id.

81 Bergaust, p.265

82 Pride, at p.143 and Crusader, at p.145

83 Pride, pp.140-142

84 Id.

85 Neufeld, p.360

86 Id.

87 Id.

88 Id., at p.361

89 Id., at p.362

90 Id.

91 Id.

92 Sold, p.135

93 Id., at 136

94 Id.

95 Id.

96 Decision, pp.112-115; Neufeld discounts Von Braun's contribution to the moon landing decision, but his opinion is not universal. Neufeld observes that no minutes of the April 24th meeting exist and that Willis Shapley, present at the meeting, said Von Braun was for the most part speechless. (Neufeld, p.361) He goes on to say that Von Braun's letter response to Johnson's request for comment dated April 29th came after Johnson had already sent a memo to Kennedy saying more or less the same thing [endorsing a lunar expedition]. (Id., at 362) Neufeld concludes . . . the similarity of Johnson's conclusion to those of von Braun proves little about the rocket engineer's influence, as von Braun's opinions were essentially those of NASA . . . Ultimately what von Braun contributed most to the Apollo decision was credibility on the question of Soviet and American booster capability." (Id.) Piszkiewicz is less critical of Von Braun's performance at the April 24th meeting with Johnson where: "Wernher von Braun gave NASA's case." (Sold, p.136) Piszkiewicz also points out that not all were in agreement at the meeting including Wiesner and Webb, which suggests Johnson was persuaded or supported by those endorsing the moon landing goal. (Id.) Suggestive of Von Braun's influence, Stuhlinger & Ordway report that: "Johnson lost no time answering President Kennedy's questions as soon as he had all the replies to his own inquiries in hand. On the day when he had received von Braun's answer, he wrote a memorandum to the president." (Crusader, p.170). Regardless of Von Braun's influence on the moon landing decision the delay caused by MR-BD allowed the Soviets to orbit Gagarin first setting the stage for a larger US space exploration effort.

97 Id., at p.137

98 Decision, p.35

99 Neufeld, p.21

100 Id., p.24

101 Id., p.30

102 Id., p.35

103 Id.

104 Id., p.42

105 Id., at p.43

106 Id., at p.54 and Crusader, p.23

107 Id., at pp.87-88 and p.55

108 Id., p.58 and p.76

109 Id., at p.55

110 Neufeld, p.88

111 Id., p.111

112 Id., p.171

113 Id., p.170

114 Id., p.171

115 Id., p.173

116 Id., p.174

117 Dr., p.33

118 Id., p.36

119 Dr., p.54

120 Neufeld, p.193

121 Dr., p.54

122 Id., p.55

123 Crusader, p.227

124 Id., p.162

125 Id., p.95

126 Sold, p.72

127 Id., pp.73-80

128 Id., p.73

129 Id., p.86

130 Id., pp.86-87

131 Id., p.88

132 Glenn, John with Nick Taylor. John Glenn, A Memoir. Bantam Books, 1999, p283

133 Id.

134 Crusader, p.164

135 Id., at p.94

136 Bergaust notes when it came time to test the Saturn V, George Muller, head of the Office of Manned Spaceflight, imposed "all-up" testing in which all components of the launch vehicle would be tested live. This went against Marshall's tradition of exhaustive testing. (Berguast, p.388). However, Von Braun chose to accept the all-up testing approach recognizing it served the interests of the program. (Id.) Later when the second Saturn V launch, Saturn 502, developed "poggo" and issues with the J-2 engine the un-flight tested "fixes" were accepted by Von Braun with the next flight, Saturn 503, designed a manned flight. (Id., at p.423). Bergaust observes: "Seven years previously von Braun's center had forced an extra Mercury-Redstone booster test under similar circumstances, much to the bitterness of Gilruth's group. Now after so many Saturn Successes, Marshall's technological conservatism did not undermine its confidence in the soundness of the program." (Id.) Or was it simply that a different set of circumstances were presented in each case; in the first, to motivate the pursuit of a Moon landing goal, in the second, a big step toward the fulfillment of that goal. From the perspective of motivation both positions are consistent without reference to "conservative" engineering philosophy.

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