Wernher von Braun, considered the father of space flight, began to look to the heavens for inspiration as a young man. But it was many years later before he seemed to understand how science fits into God’s plan.
He left a complicated legacy. On one hand, he was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket that took men to the moon. On the other, he led the development of the V-2 rocket the Nazis used to bombard London during World War II.
Who was Wernher von Braun?
Wernher von Braun was born on March 23, 1912, into an aristocratic German family, and he received a telescope as a gift from his mother when he was confirmed in the Lutheran church. Then he read a book about space travel.
“It filled me with a romantic urge,” he said. “Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to. Not just stare through a telescope at the Moon and the planets but to soar through the heavens and actually explore the mysterious universe. I knew how Columbus had felt.”
Von Braun began to experiment with primitive rockets while continuing his education, eventually receiving his doctorate in physics. He began working for the German army in 1932 and later joined the Nazi Party.
He led the development of the V-2 at a site on the Baltic Sea, where the Germans used slave labor from concentration camps. Thousands of workers died.
Some historians consider him a war criminal. Michael J. Neufeld, author of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, takes a slightly more benevolent view: “In many ways, he had sleep-walked into a Faustian bargain—that he had worked with this regime without thinking what it meant to work for the Third Reich and for the Nazi regime,” Neufeld said. “And he bears some responsibility for his own actions, therefore.”
As the war began to wind down, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for German scientists. Von Braun, who had grown disenchanted with the Nazis, and more than one hundred members of his engineering team came to the US under a then-secret program called Operation Paperclip.
He worked for the US Army for fifteen years before joining NASA in 1960. He became a popular figure in this country, writing books and articles and even serving as spokesman for three Disney TV programs about space travel.
He tried to minimize his involvement with the Nazis, and so did the Army. In fact, his work for the Nazis didn’t become widely known until after his death.
“In autobiographical articles and press interviews, he stuck to the line that he was an apolitical scientist who only wanted to go into space,” Neufeld wrote in an article for American Experience. “He built missiles used against Allied cities because it was his national duty in wartime.”
Was Wernher von Braun a Christian?
Although technically a Lutheran, he clearly worshiped science. But after he came to America, von Braun’s attitude began to change. Although accounts of his conversion differ, he accepted Christ, and friends and colleagues noticed a difference in his behavior.
He liked to whistle “The Old Rugged Cross,” his secretary said, and Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (ESV), became his favorite Bible verse.
He often spoke of the harmony between science and religion. “Science and religion are not antagonists,” he wrote. “On the contrary, they are sisters.”
Just a year before he died of pancreatic cancer in 1977, he wrote the introduction to a friend’s book. One paragraph seems to put von Braun’s role in the space program in an eternal perspective.
“Our space ventures have been only the smallest of steps in the vast reaches of the universe and have introduced more mysteries than they have solved,” he wrote. “Speaking for myself, I can only say that the grandeur of the cosmos serves to confirm my belief in the certainty of a Creator.”