Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Read in 2015 - 15: Dr. Space

"Dr. Space" is a nickname that was given to Dr. Wernher von Braun, the German-born rocket scientist whose work was crucial in allowing the US to reach their goal of a manned moon landing within the decade of the 1960s, as set by President Kennedy in his memorable speech of 1962.

"Dr. Space" is also the title of a biography about von Braun; a book I very much wanted and received as a birthday gift back in March from my sister.

The author, Bob Ward, knew von Braun personally through work: he was a young journalist assigned to cover space flight topics for his newspaper, and von Braun took him under his wings, teaching him what he needed to know about the physics of space flight in order to get his facts right.

Wernher von Braun was/is a controversial figure, and I am aware of what has been said and written against him as well as for him. Therefore, what I really like about this biography is that the author does not take sides. Instead, he collects whatever information he can gather about his subject, presenting it chronologically and in a manner neutrally enough for the reader to form his or her own opinion - as good, professional journalism should do.

Bob Ward knew and interviewed personally many of the people who worked closely with von Braun, many of them being also close personal friends, not just colleagues. He does not quote or cite anyone without a reference; there is a long list of source material in the book.

Also, there are two appendixes: one "Letter on Goddard Patents" and the other "Letter on Moral Responsibility in Hitler's Germany".

Let me share two quotes from the book with you:
"[The Saturn V rocket was] a machine the size of a cathedarl built to the tolerances of a microscope."

"He preached individual responsibility and absolute perfection of product , having learned the hard way in the rocket and satellite business that near perfection is the equivalent of disaster."
I have read many books and seen many documentaries about von Braun, and as he died in 1977 (so that nothing "new" could have happened recently), I did not expect great surprises. But I did indeed learn several new facts about von Braun's life, his work and his family. This is a book that will go on the "space shelf" of the book case in my bedroom (see this post for details), and I am very probably going to read it again at some stage.


  1. Hello Meike,

    Space travel seems so much more accessible these days than it did just a few decades ago. Amazing how the influence of men such as Wernher von Braun really have shaped the world beyond recognition.

    Dr Space does seem a very fitting title. We know little of his life and this sounds to be a good way to find out more.

  2. Hello Jane and Lance,

    You are so right about this - people such as von Braun really have shaped the world. So much of what we take for granted today (mobile phones, weather reports, much of the internet, satnavs, to name but a few) would not be here without someone having first developed rockets powerful enough to lift satellites into orbit.

  3. WvB was one of the fathers of space travel and for that alone he deserves better recognition than he has. In my opinion a genius in whatever field, the arts, music, science, must be looked at differently from other, ordinary humans. Without whitewash, of course.

    re your previous post: I am amazed that you have storks; there are many storks in parts of the Alsace but I thought they had more or less been driven out from Germany.

    There were storks on the Niederrhein in my childhood but I haven’t heard of one for many decades. I just love these birds, they have so many stories and so much folklore attached to them.

    It’s nice to be back!

    1. Welcome back, Friko!

      You are right; a genious is certainly different from an ordinary person. I've observed that with some of the authors whose works I really admire; their personal lives were so troubled, so weird, not ordinary at all.

      Storks are beautiful birds with fascinating social lives, and used to be a lot more common in our area, too. There are still more of them in the north and north east of Germany than in the south, and they are not a common sight where I live.

  4. I think a good biography can illuminate someone's life ... so many of them copy from each other but there is usually an archive or two somewhere with more and unpublished material in.

    1. As you know from your own experience, Jenny! If I have interpreted correctly something you mentioned recently on your blog, you are currently working on another book about Lewis Carroll, and maybe you have indeed come across unpublished material.