A worthwhile biography of a fascinating man
By Bob Ward
(Naval Institute Press, 2005, 300 pp, $29.95) Wernher von Braun was a baron from birth. He learned to play the piano from the composer Paul Hindemith, and he assembled a jet-powered vehicle (six skyrockets lashed to a coaster wagon) at the age of 12. As the youthful chief of Germany's rocket program, he got into trouble with his Nazi overlords because he talked of space travel when all they wanted from him was to drop explosives on the heads of their enemies.
Von Braun not only led Germany into space-by way of the V-2 ballistic missile that hammered London in the last year of World War II-but the United States as well. His portable allegiances caused the comedian Mort Sahl to quip, after seeing a von Braun biopic called I Aim at the Stars: "But sometimes I miss and hit London!"
Bob Ward is most interesting when he deals with the question of von Braun's war guilt-not only a Nazi, but an SS officer and head of a factory that employed slave labor. The story flags a bit (and so, in the end, did the seemingly indefatigable von Braun) amid the politics and bureaucracy of Fort Bliss, Redstone Arsenal, and NASA's Washington headquarters. Still, a worthwhile biography of a fascinating man.