Meet the former Nazi rocket scientist who all too accurately saw the future | John Naughton


I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) V2, Robert Harris’s absorbing second world war thriller about British attempts to locate and destroy the base in the Netherlands from which Hitler’s “Retaliation Weapon 2” – those devastating rocket-powered bombs aimed at London – were launched. Harris is famous for the meticulous research that underpins his plots and V2 is no exception. For me, a particularly interesting aspect of the novel was his portrayal of Wernher von Braun, the German aerospace engineer who was the leading figure in the development of Nazi rocketry and who was snaffled by the US (with a large number of his technical associates) to enjoy a splendid second career as the mastermind of the US space programme.

Harris portrays Von Braun as an exceedingly shrewd operator who effectively used the Nazi regime to enable him to further his dream of space exploration. Although he joined the National Socialist party in 1937, he claimed that doing so was the only way of being allowed to continue his technical work on rocketry, which is perhaps plausible. Less so perhaps was his decision to join the SS, a decision that plays a useful role in Harris’s story.

At one point, though, he came under suspicion for being insufficiently “patriotic” and spent two weeks in a Gestapo cell before being reinstated after intervention by Albert Speer, the minister for war production, on the grounds that he was essential to the V2 programme. Whatever the truth is about this, what is abundantly clear is that Von Braun was an astute manipulator of the Nazi regime for his own purposes. He also knew that when Germany eventually surrendered, the Americans would be more interested in his potential usefulness than in, say, the employment of slave labour in the German rocket programme.

And so it proved. In June 1945, the state department approved the transfer of Von Braun and his specialist team to the US. He worked on the US army’s ballistic missile programme and designed the rocket that launched the US’s first space satellite in 1958, four months after the USSR’s Sputnik sent the American political class into a panicky tailspin. In 1960, his group was assimilated into Nasa, where he became director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center and the lead architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.

Not bad for a former SS officer, eh? But, as I discovered as I burrowed down the agreeable rabbit hole on which Harris had launched me, the story gets better. During his early years in the US, Von Braun became pally with Walt Disney, with whom he collaborated on a series of three educational films and to whom he probably confided his dream of a manned mission to Mars. More intriguingly, in 1949, when he was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, he wrote a science fiction novel (in German) entitled Marsprojekt but failed to find a publisher for it. He wrote it, he writes in the preface, “to stimulate interest in space travel”. Eventually, the novel was translated into English, cleared by the Pentagon (on the grounds that its author’s visions of space travel were “too futuristic to infringe on classified matters”) and published in 2006 as Project Mars: A Technical Tale.

The action is set in 1980 – three decades after its composition. The world is governed by the United States of Earth, established after a devastating war in the 1970s between the western powers and the eastern bloc. The west won the conflict with the aid of Lunetta, an orbiting space station that dropped nuclear missiles on the Soviet Union. Soon after “peace” returns to the world, astronomers discover canals on Mars, suggesting the presence of intelligent life there. The president orders a mission to Mars to establish just how intelligent the Martians are and whether they pose a threat to Earth.

Project Mars is very much the work of an engineer, outlining – in 48 chapters – the technical requirements of a huge space expedition involving a flotilla of 10 spacecraft with 70 crew members that would return after spending 443 days on Mars before the trip back to Earth.

Chapter 24 is particularly interesting because it relates what the explorers discover about the planet’s inhabitants, who are conveniently humanoid in appearance and wisely live underground. They welcome the visitors, to whom they appear to be members of an ancient and benevolent “super-civilisation”. Martian technology is far superior to that of the vacationing Earthlings: it includes underground transport and organ transplants, for example; Martians take ethics and morality seriously and they believe that technology should be used responsibly.

But the real knockout, at least for this columnist, is Von Braun’s account of how these super-humanoids are governed. It is all done by a group of 10 “men” under an ultra-wise leader.

And what do they call this super-sage?

Why, “the Elon”.

Remind you of anyone?

What I’ve been reading

Keep on truckin’ Cars Are Here to Stay is the title of a sobering essay by Alex Trembath.

Ever the optimist… Thomas Piketty Thinks America Is Primed for Wealth Redistribution is the transcript of a good New York Times interview with the great French economist. I hope he’s right but fear that he is not.

When the pumps run dry Forecourt Futures is a lovely blog post by Quentin Stafford-Fraser on what happens to petrol stations when we all drive EVs.