Dr. Wernher von Braun was 21 years old when he first sketched a rocket to the moon. He liked to say his future was set in stone by a gift from his parents when he was confirmed in the Lutheran Church.
“Other boys were given watches and their first pair of long pants,” Dr. von Braun explained. “My gift was a telescope.”
The dark years of World War II found him in Germany as the top missile expert for the military. The V-2 rockets he designed struck England with precision, but Dr. von Braun would later confide his regret. “They fell on the wrong planet,” he told close friends.
As the war ended, Wernher von Braun and other German missile scientists surrendered to the United States Seventh Army. Dr. von Braun was taken to Fort Bliss, Texas, to share his V-2 rocket knowledge.
The backstory is the von Braun team and their families did not take to the short trees and flat land in Texas. Accustomed to greener vistas and cooler weather, they chose to move to Huntsville, Alabama, home of the government’s Redstone Arsenal facility, the site of future research on long-range nuclear missiles.
There would be no snow-skiing, but the small cotton town was tucked away at the tail end of the Cumberland Plateau. Hill country. Ironically, the German scientists brought more than scientific knowledge to Alabama. They started a symphony orchestra and pooled their savings to buy houses in older neighborhoods, finding their way in a new country.
Dr. von Braun’s work, a Redstone missile tested within a stone’s throw of cotton fields, powered the first United States’ suborbital manned space flight in 1961. Named as head of the Marshall Space Flight Center, Wernher von Braun would see his biggest challenge overcome when the Saturn V rocket, 363 feet tall, weighing 6.2 million pounds, carried into space, Apollo 11, sending the first astronauts to the moon.
The 50th anniversary of that national achievement was Saturday, July 20. Wernher von Braun would describe the day of the moon landing as the beginning of a role he did not relish: “scientist and public relations man.”
Astronauts Aldrin, Collins and Armstrong would remember their trip to the moon and back as days in a manned module the size of a large car. Decades later, scientists determined one of the later astronauts’ temporary celestial homes, noted as a “drifting capsule,” had been found in space. It was originally named “Snoopy.”
On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I asked an old space guy, my husband, what surprised him when he looked back on his IBM years of shuttling from Huntsville, Alabama, to Cape Kennedy for launches.
He said years later, he woke in the night and caught his breath to speak out loud to no one. He remembers saying, “We were so young” — he in his late 20s and most of the astronauts no older than 35.
His good friend, Dr. Bob Naumann, smart enough to have written a physics textbook, recalls shepherding a group of young scientists through the study of paths of meteorites, a precaution before the Saturn V left the launch pad.
Saturday, Dr. Margrit von Braun, the daughter of Dr. Wernher and Maria von Braun, spoke at a historic Huntsville church, one built before the Civil War. She shared her father’s thoughts on science and religion.
The opening hymn was ”Creation,” written two centuries ago, rendering the moon as a teller of stories: “The moon takes up the wondrous tale, and nightly to the listening Earth, repeats the story of her birth.”
Those singing, veterans of the ground crews who checked and re-checked every test, who wrote computer programs, slept little and worked late, know the story of the Saturn V by heart and can still recall the surprise of tears when the rocket “slipped the bonds of Earth.”
How could mere mortals not be changed by taking part in sending a man to the moon, and, yet, with quiet dedication, their work went on.
When a full moon rises in the sky, older eyes look toward the heavens, still remembering the night there were footprints on the lunar surface.
We came together then, moonstruck, grateful for this “fragile Earth, our island home.”