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[13.0] Lift-Off

v1.1.1 / chapter 13 of 26 / 01 apr 13 / greg goebel / public domain

* The race between the US and the USSR to put a man into space was a very near thing, with the Soviet Union edging ahead by sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961. The Americans were playing catch-up when they shot Alan Shepard into space on a suborbital flight in May, but US President John Kennedy then raised the ante in the game enormously by committing America to putting men on the Moon.

Yuri Gagarin & Gherman Titov


[13.1] VOSTOK 1 (GAGARIN)
[13.2] JFK REACTS TO VOSTOK
[13.3] FREEDOM 7 (SHEPARD)
[13.4] KENNEDY COMMITS TO THE MOON
[13.5] VON BRAUN TRIUMPHANT

[13.1] VOSTOK 1 (GAGARIN)

* Although the Korabl Sputnik test flights had finally got on track, the Soviet manned space program continued to have deadly problems back on Earth. On 23 March 1961, 24-year-old cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko had completed ten days in the isolation chamber, which was filled with a pure oxygen atmosphere.

Bondarenko prepared meals in the chamber on a electric hotplate. He had been wired with medical sensors, and as he removed them so he could get out of the pressure chamber, he swabbed his skin with cotton swabs soaked with alcohol. He was careless with one of the swabs and tossed it on the hotplate. It burst into flame and started a flash fire inside the oxygen-filled chamber. By the time help got to him, he had been hideously burned over his entire body. He remained conscious and in pain, and all anyone could do was dope him up until he died, eight hours after the accident. Bondarenko's widow and son were provided for as best the state could manage. The incident was of course kept secret; Bondarenko would remain one of the "Missing Eight" for some time.

Bondarenko's death was a tragedy for the Soviet cosmonaut corps, but the experiment that took his life had effectively nothing to do with the preparations for the first manned Vostok launch, and they went ahead as scheduled. That might seem callous now, and in fact at the time there was a perception in the West that the Soviet space program was based on a Stalinist ruthlessness. Cosmonauts were simply another expendable item to be used and then thrown away when they outlived their usefulness.

Red Army soldiers had been regarded as expendable by Stalin and many of his generals during the fight against the Fascists, so much so that even German soldiers were appalled at the indifferent way Soviet troops were sacrificed, but Stalin was dead. Despite his best efforts, even he had not managed to turn his citizens into the mindlessly obedient robots that Western propaganda, with some encouragement from the USSR's own absurdist propaganda machine, sometimes made them out to be. Korolyev was a paternalistic leader who worried very much about the safety of the "little swallows", the men who would ride his rockets into space. While there are still many rumors of cosmonauts killed in space with their deaths subsequently covered up, these rumors proved to have little basis in fact. However, both sides were in a hurry, both were cutting corners, and both would suffer accidents that were all too real.

* On 12 April 1961, Yuri Gagarin rode a bus out to the launchpad where the Vostok capsule was waiting for him. He needed to relieve himself, so he did so against the tires of the bus through the suit's urine tube, establishing a "good luck" custom for all those who followed him. At the launch pad, cosmonaut Grigory Nelyubov embraced him, only to bump his head on the visor of Gagarin's helmet. Gagarin was strapped in and all systems were checked until everything was in place. As the Vostok booster lifted off the pad, Gagarin said: "Poyekahli (off we go)!"

Korolyev felt chest pains until the cosmonaut was safely into orbit. Gagarin found the view on arrival in space glorious, reporting his first sights from space: "I see Earth! I see the clouds, it's beautiful, what beauty!" He chatted with his ground controllers and Korolyev, who was probably more excited than the cosmonaut ever thought of being. Gagarin drank in the spectacular view through the small viewport in the Vostok and enjoyed the experience of weightlessness. He was also the first to learn about what might be termed "Murphy's Law of Free-Fall": any unsecured item will instinctively and swiftly migrate to the most inaccessible and inconvenient place.

Gagarin was a passive passenger, "spam in a can", Soviet engineers having as many misgivings about letting a human tinker with their spacecraft as did their American counterparts. The Vostok was controlled by an autopilot. It did have a manual override, but it was disabled by a combination lock. The cosmonauts, demonstrating that they were by no means obedient robots, had complained loudly, since they understood from experience, just as much as their American counterparts did, that machinery didn't always work quite as well as the engineers claimed it would. As a concession, Gagarin had been given the combination to the lock in an envelope he could open in an emergency. The cosmonauts and some of their management found the whole exercise a silly farce.

He was monitored by TV, as the dogs had been -- Big Brother was watching him, too. American signals intelligence outposts picked up the video transmission as he passed overhead, providing solid confirmation that the Soviet Union had actually put a man into orbit. The Soviet ground communications system had no stations outside the USSR, and so he passed out of communications as he flew around the far side of the Earth. Korolyev had been caught up in the excitement as he talked with the cosmonaut orbiting the planet, but when the radio fell silent, the stress began to tell again.

Gagarin completed one orbit of the Earth, and then the re-entry sequence was initiated by firing the Vostok's retrorockets. The mission had gone flawlessly to this time, but now it danced with disaster, since the spherical sharik remained tethered to the discarded spacecraft bus though an umbilical cable that refused to separate, causing the sphere to tumble as it arced back into the atmosphere.

Gagarin was in real danger of incineration, but after a dreadful few minutes the umbilical finally burned through and the sharik adopted its proper orientation, performing its reentry. It deployed its parachute, and at an altitude of about 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) Gagarin ejected, to drop gently into a soft plowed field near Saratov on the Volga -- where by coincidence he had learned to fly as a teenager. The whole flight had taken 108 minutes. The local farmpeople were frightened of him at first, thinking he was another American spy like Francis Gary Powers, but he opened his helmet, smiled, reassured them in Russian, and asked to borrow a telephone so he could report in. They asked him if he was the man who the radio had just announced had flown in space around the Earth; he confirmed that he was, it was all true.

Soviet media played up the mission for all it was worth, though they misleadingly announced that Gagarin had landed in the capsule instead of ejecting. International aeronautical rules stipulated that a pilot had to stay with an aircraft from takeoff to landing to claim a record, and in this case it is easy to sympathize with the Soviets for not wanting to disqualify their magnificent achievement over a technicality. The Soviets would not reveal this part of the truth until the 1970s.

Vostok on upper stage

* There may have also been concerns that if the ejection was announced, the West might think that the whole thing was a fraud, with an empty capsule launched into orbit and Gagarin shot out of an aircraft when the capsule returned. If so, there was no reason to worry, since the intercepted videos told the Americans the Soviets weren't lying. The US had been trumped again. A newsman called up Shorty Powers at 4 AM and asked him about the Soviet flight; Powers, groggy, caught off guard, possibly sleeping off a drunk, and short-fuzed even under better circumstances, answered: "We're still asleep down here!" -- and slammed down the phone. It was a very unfortunate response, and the news media played it up.

JFK and Wernher von Braun, conceding defeat, offered their public congratulations. JFK's campaign prophecy had been only slightly off the mark: the first man in space was named "Yuri", not "Ivan". Edward Teller, who rarely conceded much of anything, blasted the "unimaginative, materialistic thinking" of Americans for such a humiliating disaster. Alan Shepard was bitter that he hadn't been allowed to ride the 24 March Mercury-Redstone shot and beat Gagarin into space, muttering over and over again: "We had them by the short hairs, and we gave it away." John Glenn said: "They just beat the pants off of us, that's all."

Gagarin became an international hero, and the Soviet propaganda machine made him into a demi-god. Soon Soviet daily TV programs would begin a long tradition of starting off with the announcement: "Poyekahli!" -- and in 1962, 12 April would be designated as a holiday, "Cosmonautics Day". Gagarin had misgivings over becoming a Soviet media superstar, saying, no doubt partly in an effort to keep his ego in balance while it was being buffeted by hurricanes of praise:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Everyone is writing about me, it makes me uncomfortable to read such things. I was far from alone in this achievement; there were tens of thousands of scientists, specialists, and workers who participated in preparing for this flight. I feel awkward because I am being made out to be some sort of super-ideal person. In fact, like everybody else I've made lots of mistakes and have my weaknesses too. It's embarrassing to be made out to seem like such a good, sweet little boy. It's enough to make one sick.

END QUOTE

Although Gagarin was about as decent and likeable young man as anybody might reasonably hope to find, the shiny image was also certainly not the complete truth. One picture taken of Gagarin in late 1961 showed him decked out in his medals, but also sporting a gash over his left eye. A spokesman said blandly that Gagarin had fallen while he was playing with his daughter, projecting the image of a good family man. In reality, as his commandant General Kamanin wrote later, Gagarin had been chasing after a nurse when his wife Valentina rapped on the door. He jumped out a balcony and got tangled in vines that slammed him face-first into the concrete below, putting him in the hospital for three weeks.

The cosmonauts were no more good little Komsomol (Soviet youth organization) members than their American astronaut counterparts were Boy Scouts. Gherman Titov was also noted to be rowdy, once "borrowing" a motorcycle from a motorcade and taking it for a wild joy ride. Three cosmonauts -- Ivan Anikeyev, Valentin Filatyev, and Grigory Nelyubov -- lost their chance at glory when they were sacked after getting into a scuffle, apparently caused by too much alcohol, at a train station with a security patrol in late 1961. Nelyubov was very competent, ranked only below Gagarin and Titov, but he was an egotist even by the standards of fighter pilots. It seems the officers of the security patrol that arrested them were willing to ignore the whole incident if the cosmonauts apologized, but Nelyubov refused, and the matter was reported to the authorities.

Nelyubov's dismissal from the cosmonaut cadre sent him on a decline. He fell to drinking and died in 1966 when he was struck by a train. He was very drunk at the time and there is no saying what was going through his mind in the last moments of his life, but there was still much suspicion that he had deliberately thrown himself in front of the train.

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[13.2] JFK REACTS TO VOSTOK

* The launch of Sputnik 1 had set off the first act of the Space Race, but up to this time the non-military space efforts of both sides had been relatively modest, and generally subordinate to the less public and often secret race to develop ICBMs and spy satellites.

Up to this time, the new administration's directions in space had been fuzzy. Keith Glennan had left his post as NASA administrator in mid-January. He was not getting much direction from the White House, he was the focus of criticisms he thought unfair, and he was after all an appointee from a Republican administration reporting to a Democratic president. He returned to the Case Institute of Technology, where he later engineered a merger with the Western Reserve University to create Case Western University, and retired later in the 1960s. He had plenty of opportunity to watch the evolution of the agency he had helped create, observing its changes until his death from a stroke in 1995.

Kennedy had made his vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the presidential space adviser, since Johnson had been a "space politics" pioneer in the Senate. Johnson was supposed to have lined up a successor to Glennan, but a new NASA administrator wasn't selected for another month. The delay did not suggest decisiveness on space issues. The new appointee was James Webb, who had been a career government bureaucrat, reaching the post of director of the Bureau of the Budget in the Truman Administration, to then take a job as an oil-industry executive. Hugh Dryden remained deputy administrator, where he would remain as voice of conscience in NASA until his death on 2 December 1965.

For the moment, Kennedy was still waffling on what he wanted to do in space, giving Webb little clear direction. In testimony to Congress the day after the Gagarin flight, Webb followed the same line that had been issued by the previous administration: there was no space race. The US would pursue space projects that seemed in the country's interests, not to match whatever stunt the Russians pulled off. That was certainly the sensible answer, but it ignored the fact that the JFK was being publicly hammered for letting the US be humiliated by the USSR.

On 14 April, JFK had an informal brainstorming session with a few aides and confidants, trying to figure out ways to "catch up" with the Soviets. Kennedy said: "There's nothing more important." The conclusion of the meeting was that sending men to the Moon seemed like the best option. However, JFK was president, not dictator, and he couldn't make a decision like that without developing an argument to back it up and obtaining a consensus.

A few days later, another event occurred that pushed Kennedy farther towards a major acceleration of the Space Race. On 17 April 1961, CIA-organized Cuban counter-revolutionary forces invaded Cuba, landing at the Bay of Pigs with the goal of overthrowing Fidel Castro's new Communist regime. The whole exercise was a bungle and Castro crushed the invaders. The result was a personal humiliation for Kennedy. The Kennedys were hypercompetitive; humiliations were simply unacceptable. Space seemed like a "new frontier" where the US could reassert itself, a way that the US could demonstrate strength and resolve to the Soviets without pointing a gun at their heads and raising tensions.

On 20 April, JFK asked Lyndon Johnson: "Is there any ... space program that promises dramatic results which we could win? ... Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or a trip around the Moon, or by a rocket to land on the Moon, or by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man?" Johnson was a loud Texas tornado of energy, and he immediately organized a two-week assessment of the options. Of course, von Braun was an important contributor to the debate. In a memorandum dated 29 April 1961, von Braun told Johnson that "we do not have a good chance of beating the Soviets to a manned laboratory in space," but "we have a sporting chance of sending a three-man crew around the moon ahead of the Soviets," and "we have an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the Moon."

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara had inputs on the document, and interestingly had initially pushed for a manned Mars landing, stating that he didn't feel that the US had a good chance of beating the Soviets to the Moon. McNamara had a reputation for convoluted deviousness and some believed that he had another agenda in proposing a Mars flight: it would have been a long-term effort, not a crash program, funded at a relatively modest level, and the likelihood of it fizzling out and being canceled down the road would have been very high. It would not have seriously competed with the Department of Defense for funding.

However, von Braun believed that a lunar landing was the best option for trumping the Soviets because "a performance jump by a factor 10 over their present rockets is necessary to accomplish this feat. While today we do not have such a rocket, it is unlikely that the Soviets have it." He suggested that "with an all-out crash effort, I think we could accomplish this objective in 1967/1968." Von Braun's point of view carried the day.

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[13.3] FREEDOM 7 (SHEPARD)

* In the meantime, the US was getting ready to make their own first manned space shot. On the morning of 5 May 1961, Alan Shepard walked up to the launchpad of his Mercury Redstone, a high-tech Cold War gladiator in his silver space suit. He climbed in the Mercury capsule, patriotically named FREEDOM 7, perched on top of a Redstone booster on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The "7" was not, as it was publicly assumed, a reference to the Mercury 7 astronauts; it was just that it was the seventh Mercury capsule built. However, the number "7" would be carried by later Mercury flights as sort of a good-luck charm.

Glenn was there in white coveralls to pack Shepard in. It was a tight fit: the joke was that astronauts didn't ride in the Mercury capsule, they wore it. It was all the more cramped because Shepard was carrying a personal parachute, somebody having figured out some "corner cases" where it could be useful. The situations were very unlikely and the parachute would be dropped from following Mercury shots.

When Shepard got settled he saw a girlie pinup and a placard reading NO HANDBALL PLAYING IN THIS AREA on the control panel. Glenn pulled down the pinup and placard and was grinning as he locked up the capsule; Shepard was surprised, having never suspected that the straight-arrow Glenn could be a prankster. In any case, von Braun's Project Adam, contemptuously described by Hugh Dryden as a "circus stunt", was now about to become reality, and the prestige of the United States rode on the mission.

* Shepard waited, and waited, and waited. Everyone on the ground was nervous and wanted to make sure that things went right. The minutes stretched into hours. The long wait led to an unexpected bit of farce in the countdown. Shepard, who had expected a reasonably prompt launch, began to feel uncomfortable as his bladder filled up. Nobody had really taken such a "human factor" into consideration for the launch. Shepard asked von Braun, who was supervising the launch of his Redstone, to be let out so he could relieve himself. Von Braun, his Prussian background coming to the surface, flatly refused, his response rendered, possibly in jest, as: "Ze astronaut shall stay in ze nosecone."

Shepard was then forced to reply that he would have to urinate in his space suit. It might have been a ploy to pressure the ground controllers into letting him out, but they took him seriously, replying in a panic that he couldn't do that, he would short-circuit everything. He told them to shut off the power for a few minutes. They discussed it, shut down the power, and Shepard relieved himself. It shouldn't have been so unexpected, since other astronauts had done the same thing during flight simulations that had dragged out for too long. Possibly they simply hadn't wanted to make an issue of it.

The incident was silliness, and certainly was not publicized at the time that Alan Shepard had pissed his pants, but in reality sanitation would be a major problem for early spacefarers. Urination would be troublesome but more or less manageable; defecation in a cramped space capsule was extremely difficult, demanding adhesive "blue baggies" that didn't work all that effectively, and so astronauts were put on a "low residue" diet to minimize such difficulties. The sanitation issue wouldn't be reasonably addressed until the 1970s.

Shepard's underwear dried out fairly quickly in the pure oxygen atmosphere of his suit, though the stink remained. The ground controllers turned the power back on and there were no problems. However, the minutes dragged on, with one launch hold after another, until Shepard finally lost patience, famously snapping at the ground controllers: "I'm cooler than you are. Why don't you fix your little problem and light this candle?"

Von Braun gave the nod. The countdown went to zero, the Redstone lit up, and FREEDOM 7 began to rise into the sky. Shepard's main contact in Mission Control was the "capsule communicator" or "CAPCOM", a position that would always be staffed by a fellow astronaut. In this case, it was Deke Slayton, who told him: "Liftoff! You're on your way, Jose!"

Shepard lifts off

Shepard recited the steady stream of verbal "telemetry" needed to keep the ground controllers happy: "Ahhh ... Roger. Lift-off and the clock is started ... Yessir, reading you loud and clear. This is FREEDOM 7. The fuel is go. Cabin at 14 PSI. Oxygen is go ... FREEDOM 7 is still go."

Shepard pulled six gees as the booster accelerated. The Redstone burned out 141 seconds after liftoff and separated from the Mercury capsule 38 seconds later. The spacecraft turned itself around so that it was flying bottom first to the top of an arc 187.6 kilometers (116.5 miles) high. Shepard performed his assigned tasks, which included testing the manual thruster system, and claimed he was admiring the view through the capsule's periscope, though in fact it wasn't working very well.

FREEDOM 7 reached the top of its arc and reentered the atmosphere, inflicting twelve gees on its passenger. The capsule deployed its parachute and splashed down into the Atlantic, 490 kilometers (304 miles) downrange from the launch site. Shepard was plucked out of the ocean by a Marine Corps helicopter, and FREEDOM 7 was recovered as well. Shorty Powers announced to the public that everything had been "A-OK". Shepard himself had never actually used that particular phrase, but it would become, somewhat to his annoyance, a popular buzzword of the early years of the space race.

* Other than the sanitation problem, the 15-minute flight had gone flawlessly. America had finally put a man into space. JFK called Shepard, now on board the carrier LAKE CHAMPLAIN and presumably in cleaner clothes, to congratulate him.

A short space joyride was not the equal of shooting a cosmonaut around the Earth, but NASA had, courageously, pulled off their stunt live on TV and in front of the world's media, while the Soviets lifted their cloak of secrecy no more than they felt they had to. Wernher von Braun was world-famous; Korolyev was a faceless nonentity, the mysterious "Chief Rocket Designer", his true name kept secret for fear that the Americans might try to assassinate him. That might seem like an absurd worry now, but later revelations about the mad schemes the Kennedy Administration put into motion to discredit or assassinate Fidel Castro suggest it wasn't outside the bounds of belief.

Krushchev apparently fumed that the Americans were getting much more publicity out of a short hop into space than the Soviets had got out of a full orbital flight, but he couldn't have it both ways -- keeping things under wraps and then complaining about being ignored. Even Krushchev was a prisoner of the system.

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[13.4] KENNEDY COMMITS TO THE MOON

* The Mercury shot was encouraging, but US Vice President Johnson and his committee were considering much bigger things. Johnson presented the results of his two-week assessment of American options in space to JFK on 8 May 1961, in a memorandum signed by NASA Administrator Webb and Defense Secretary McNamara. The document recommended that the US set a goal of landing men on the Moon "before the end of this decade."

That same day, Alan Shepard, the other Mercury 7 astronauts, and their wives arrived in Washington to participate in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, where Kennedy pinned the NASA Distinguished Service Medal on Shepard. The astronaut then rode an open car down Pennsylvania Avenue, sitting next to Vice President Johnson, cheered by an enthusiastic crowd that lined the streets. Johnson told him: "Where did all these people come from? You're a famous man, Shepard." Indeed he was. The astronaut was lionized in the media, and the FREEDOM 7 capsule was carted off to be displayed at the Paris Air Show.

The stage was set for taking the next major step. On 10 May, JFK discussed the prospects for a Moon shot with his senior advisers. Some of them argued against it, but by that time Kennedy's mind was made up: America was going to the Moon. Kennedy addressed a joint session of the US Congress on 25 May 1961 with what the president called a "second State of the Union address". JFK outlined military and political measures that were to be implemented to counter the threat of Communism, leading up to a dramatic conclusion: "I believe we should go to the Moon ... no single space project in this period will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind ... while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will find us last." Kennedy vowed that Americans would set foot on the Moon "before the decade is out."

JFK in Congress, 25 May 1961

Although the response of the audience tended more towards the polite than the enthusiastic, the proposal received solid backing. The Eisenhower Administration had been mild, comfortable, dull. Kennedy had calculated that a grand gesture like a Moon shot would appeal to the public.

He was right. Americans would now become outright "space happy", though in hindsight it is hard to determine where real public enthusiasm left off and passively going along with the media hype began. There were critics even at the time who questioned that a Moon shot was a good use of the taxpayer's money. Certainly there was no scientific purpose behind the mission whose value was proportional to the cost. To be sure, there were factions in the defense establishment who thought that the big booster that would be developed to put men on the Moon would have valuable military applications, though they weren't highly specific about exactly what. Americans had a sort of "Cadillac" or "big is beautiful" mentality at the time, and a big booster was obviously a nice thing to have.

JFK never believed that the Moon shot was a practical or even a scientific measure. It was simply an assertion of American power to galvanize the country, and he specified that it be done before the end of the decade because he shrewdly didn't think a longer effort would be politically sustainable. He based his decision not on any infatuation with spaceflight, but on political considerations. The Moon shot was the only action that seemed to fit the bill for what he wanted to do.

Von Braun commented that the goal was appealingly simple, that "everyone knows what the Moon is, everyone knows what this decade is, and everybody can tell a live astronaut who returned from the Moon from one who didn't." Kennedy's science adviser, Jerome Weisner, put it bluntly:

BEGIN QUOTE:

He [JFK] said to me: "Well, it's your fault. If you had a scientific spectacular on this Earth that would be more useful -- say desalting the ocean -- or something that is just as dramatic and convincing as space, then we would do it."

... If Kennedy could have opted out of the big space program without hurting the country in his judgement, he would have. Maybe a different kind of man could have said to the country: "Look, we are going at our own pace. We are going to let the Russians be first. We don't care." I think he became convinced that space was the symbol of the twentieth century. It was a decision he made cold-bloodedly. He thought it was right for the country.

END QUOTE

JFK understood that space competition was expensive, not necessarily the best buy for the money, and he tried to hedge his bet. In June JFK met with Soviet Premier Krushchev at their first summit meeting, and sounded out Krushchev for a joint US-USSR Moon program. Krushchev seemed to like the idea at first, then rejected it. Such cooperation would show the West the full extent of the troubles and limitations of the Soviet missile and space effort. The USSR literally had nothing to hide: if they didn't hide it, everyone would know they had nothing.

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[13.5] VON BRAUN TRIUMPHANT

* The fact that Kennedy had committed the US to an expensive Moon program of little obvious practical usefulness, instead of finding the cure for the common cold or implementing some big public works project, as a "grand gesture" for America said something for how effective the "rocket scientists" had been in promoting their agenda. They had pushed space spectaculars, first in a race to put satellites in orbit, then in a race to send a rocket to the Moon, leading to putting men into orbit. The idea of sending men to the Moon was just the next logical step, though it was a very big one. Although the politicians were calling the shots, the rocket scientists were managing to tell them what shots to call.

Of course, by far the most influential of them was the brilliant, energetic, arrogant, charismatic, celebrity-status, born-salesman Wernher von Braun, whose star was reaching the peak of its arc. He had spent most of his life building bigger and better rockets for anyone who would foot the bill, pushing his dreams through COLLIER'S and Walt Disney and in smoke-filled rooms, and now he was poised to achieve a dream that decades earlier seemed absurd and unbelievable.

For the time being, von Braun was something like an American national hero, a household name. A villain in a contemporary cartoon show was in hot pursuit of a little green alien with antennas that raced around in a tiny flying saucer and talked in rebus puzzles; the villain muttered: "Nya-ah-ah! If I catch him I'll be as famous as Doctor Wiener von Bun!" -- and every kid got the joke.

Most reporters interviewing von Braun treated him with kid gloves. One exception was the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who a few years later interviewed von Braun while she was researching the US space program. She had a good Italian lack of reverence for authority and judged von Braun curt, domineering -- the conversation bringing back unpleasant memories of the German officers she had encountered during her childhood in Nazi-occupied Florence, when she ran errands for the Italian partisan movement.

Worse, in 1965 the influential French magazine PARIS MATCH would publish a set of articles on von Braun. The articles themselves were flattering, but they provoked a flurry of outraged letters from Dora survivors, some of them claiming they had seen von Braun on inspection tours in his SS uniform, complete with peaked cap and death's head emblem; if hadn't really been a Nazi, he had apparently been doing a really good job of impersonating one. The editors of PARIS MATCH did the sensible thing and asked von Braun if he would like to respond. He did, claiming he had no involvement with the mistreatment of prisoners at Dora and condemning Nazi crimes there and elsewhere. There being not much more to say under the circumstances, PARIS MATCH then moved on.

Even back in the States, von Braun's Nazi past was an open secret. Movie director Stanley Kubrick skewered von Braun in the classic, savage 1965 Cold War satire DR STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED HOW TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. The title character, Dr. Strangelove, played by British actor Peter Sellers, was a crippled genius, a strategic adviser to the US president, also played by Sellers. Strangelove was generally seen as a parody of Edward Teller since he sported Teller's trademark bushy eyebrows and shared Teller's enthusiasm for nuclear weapons; Teller would be shadowed by the jab, and smolder over it, to the end of his life.

However, Teller was Jewish and had about as much liking for Nazis as he did Reds, while Strangelove had an inclination to address the president as "Mein Fuehrer!" -- and had to chew on his artificial hand, since it had a mind of its own and kept trying to give the president a Nazi salute. Herbert York remembered having a conversation with Dwight Eisenhower in which Ike said that two most powerful technocrats in the country were "Teller and von Braun". Kubrick noticed their influence as well, and hit two birds with one stone.

Dr. Strangelove

Admire him or despise him, von Braun was larger than life. In 1950, the popular science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein had written a short story titled "The Man Who Sold The Moon", about a business executive who managed to promote and execute a flight to the Moon. The title could be just as well given to Wernher von Braun's career, and the real story was far more interesting than any fiction.

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