The Wernher von Braun Method

By Brian Balkus · 6 July 2024

Note from the Editors: This essay is contained in our fifth print edition, Futurism Reloaded.

How Science-Fiction created the Future

In the aftermath of World War II, the architect of the Nazi’s V-2 rocket program Wernher Von Braun lived in seclusion along with 150 of his men in the deserts of west Texas. They were there to work on the US Army’s Project Fireball, which entailed launching V-2 rockets at a remote range. The Germans soon started using another name for their work, dubbing it Project Icebox. The Americans were putting their rocket ambitions on ice with the Army not allowing Von Braun to undertake any new rocket projects, publish research, or conduct planning related to space.

These restrictions left Von Braun in despair. Since he was a boy, he had been fixated by dreams of space travel. He now believed that his lifelong ambition may be over and lamented to his colleagues that “Space isn’t our problem. Our problem is time.” The V-2 was primarily the product of a small group of men who worked together for many years. Growing older these men believed the window was closing for them to achieve their goal of building a rocket capable of putting men into orbit and beyond.

Slowly the Army loosened its restrictions on Von Braun, and he began presenting technical papers at conferences, including a 1947 one on speculative satellite technology. But the Pentagon still resisted providing any additional funding to his team and rejected proposals by Von Braun to pursue larger rocket development projects, some of which involved space.

With his work stymied in Washington, Von Braun started to pursue a different strategy. He launched what would become a long campaign to popularize space exploration in the US. It was this campaign ultimately that resulted in Von Braun joining NASA in 1960 where he led the development of the Saturn rocket series that would put Americans on the moon in 1969.

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Many of the most ambitious technical projects in the 20th century had their roots in works of science fiction and futurism – meaning the speculative study of the future. This type of futurism began in the early 20th century with essays by the writer H.G. Wells, which he called “Anticipations.” The possibility of building an atomic bomb was first described in Well’s 1914 novel The World Set Free. Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system was heavily influenced by a report produced by a civilian advisory committee led by two science fiction writers, including Larry Niven, author of the novel Ringworld. What made Von Braun special was that he combined both the futurist and the doer in a way that is arguably unmatched in modern history.

Von Braun’s popularization campaign was influenced by his days as an apprentice to Hermann Oberth, a physicist and space flight theorist who is regarded as one of the three founding fathers of rocketry. Like Von Braun, Oberth’s interest in rocketry was sparked by a childhood obsession with science fiction, especially Jules Verne’s book From the Earth to the Moon. And also like Von Braun, Oberth understood the advantages of space popularization. Oberth wrote articles and books related to space, most notably a pamphlet called By Rocket Into Planetary Space. This led to Oberth becoming technical advisor to the hit science fiction movie Woman in the Moon which led to space exploration becoming a wildly popular topic in Germany in the 1930s.

The fame gained from his media work enabled Oberth to attract both funding and a committed group of students who he worked with to create Opel-RAK, the world’s first large-scale experimental rocket program. When Von Braun became an apprentice to Oberth, one of his chief duties was raising money for rocket research. Initially this work extended to manning a display on interplanetary rockets at a Berlin department store where he would regale housewives with tales of low-cost rockets and men on the moon.

His work with Oberth made a lasting impression on Von Braun, instilling an appreciation for how to use media and storytelling to advance his projects. In 1943 the German military was close to withdrawing its support for the development of the Aggregat 4, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, due to repeated test failures. Von Braun hired motion picture film crews to get footage of rare successful launches and had them cut the best footage into a sizzle reel. This was shown to Hitler who subsequently ordered the program be placed at the top of Germany’s military priority list. These experiences turned Von Braun into, in the words of British rocket scientist Val Cleaver, “Not only the world’s leading rocket engineer, but a superb political engineer as well, a technical salesman without equal.”

Under the watchful eye of the US Army, Von Braun knew his popularization efforts would have to start small, so he began by simply giving a talk to the El Paso Rotary Club (which received a standing ovation). Next he tried his hand at fiction, drafting a story about the world’s first manned mission to Mars and pitched it to eighteen different American publishers, all of whom rejected it. Titled Marsproket, his book was published in German and featured a man with the title ‘Elon’ overseeing a 10-man government Mars colony government.

Undeterred, Von Braun developed conceptual models of spacecraft to use as props for future talks. In 1951, he took one of these models – a three-stage “ferry rocket” for launching people and cargo into orbit – to a Symposium on Space Travel held at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. The model and Von Braun’s talk at the symposium left an impression on the editors of Collier’s Magazine, then one of the largest magazines in America. Colliers subsequently produced an illustrated 28-page special issue about the symposium titled “Man will Conquer Space Soon” which received an enthusiastic response from the public and was followed by two more special issues about space featuring Von Braun with each issue expanded upon and published as books.

The books caught the attention of Walt Disney who invited Von Braun to participate in a three-part television series on space exploration that featured vivid dramatizations of rocket launches, space shuttles and stations, as well as a manned trip to Mars. The Disney series was watched by 42 million Americans, including President Eisenhower who requested a copy of the show so it could be shown to Pentagon officials. The show was the start of a long friendship between Von Braun and Walt Disney, who later hired Von Braun to be a technical advisor on the development of Disneyland’s Tomorrowland.

Many of Von Braun’s engineers disapproved of his media pursuits, but he was unapologetic. He responded to criticism from a fellow veteran of the V-2 program stating: “We can dream about rockets and the moon till hell freezes over. Unless the people who understand it and the man who pays the bill is behind it, no dice.” In 1958, a year after Von Braun’s last Disney show aired, an event happened that would grab the attention of the men who pay the bills in the US – the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.

In the years prior to the launch of Sputnik, Von Braun proposed that the US develop a series of satellites armed with nuclear missiles that would enable it to enforce an uncontestable Pax Americana on the globe. The launch of Sputnik presaged a future where Americans would be the ones staring up at a hostile nation’s artificial moons.

Stills from Disney's Man in Space (Copyright Disney)

One man who quickly understood the implications of Sputnik was Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Senate Majority Leader. When he learned of the launch, he went on a nighttime walk in silence with a few friends who were visiting him at his ranch in the Texas Hill Country. Johnson would later recall that the “Sky was like velvet and the stars hung close like brilliant diamonds around us. Each of us was pondering what the future now held. We had lived with the sky all our lives, and suddenly it was as though we had never seen it before.” Before the night was over, Johnson had spoken to many of his colleagues and had received approval for a Congressional investigation into the US’s faltering space program.

While the Soviets had struck first, Johnson was quick to remind his fellow Texans, who grew up with the lore of the Alamo, that “History does not reward the people who win the battles, but the people who win the war.” Johnson intended the congressional investigation to be the first step in winning this war and he put on a master class on how to manipulate public opinion throughout. If Von Braun was the ultimate technical salesman, Johnson was the ultimate political salesman. Von Braun was one of the star witnesses of the Congressional hearings as was Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, who “painted a verbal picture of a universe in which mastery of outer space meant mastery of the world.”

Following the completion of the investigation, Johnson’s committee issued a 17-point plan to win the space “race for survival.” This plan included the formation of NASA, which President Eisenhower had previously mocked as a “great Department of Space.” But public opinion left him no choice, and NASA was formed in 1958 based on legislation Johnson helped draft.

A few years later President John F. Kennedy named Johnson chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, which made him the most influential person in Washington on space policy. Today Kennedy is famous for his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech but he tried on three occasions to curtail efforts at a moon mission, and behind closed doors at NASA he once told administrators that he was “not that interested in space.”

Despite his trepidation about spending money on space projects, Russia’s launch of the first cosmonaut into orbit in 1961 put public pressure on Kennedy to respond. An exasperated Kennedy told his staff he wanted someone to “just tell me how to catch up.” Johnson wrote to Von Braun seeking ideas for space projects that would dramatically outdo the Soviets. Von Braun wrote a long letter back telling him that he knew the perfect project, one he had been dreaming about and working towards for most of his life – namely landing men on the moon and returning them safely to earth.

Von Braun’s letter convinced Johnson who he drafted a memo to the president calling for the US to announce a moon mission. He since became the most effective and passionate advocate for a moon mission, and it was his forceful and persistent advocacy that did the most to push Kennedy into ultimately announcing, in 1961, that the US would land men on the moon by the end of the decade.

The Apollo Program was met by public skepticism when it was announced, and it was only until after the Program had accomplished its goal in 1969 that a majority of Americans were in favor of the vast budget spent on it. And it was easy to understand why; spending on Apollo consumed 2.5% of the country’s GDP each year for nearly a decade during a time of war and increased social spending.

After Johnson became president, he received an annual recommendation from Charles Schultz, his Director of the Bureau and Budgets, to cut funding for the Apollo Program in order to save the US the embarrassment of its inevitable failure as well as money. And every year, Johnson resisted until the pressure became too great due to the cost of the Vietnam War, finally reducing NASA’s budget in 1968.

President Kennedy tours the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with Wernher von Braun, Robert Seamans, Lyndon Johnson and James Webb (September 11, 1962)

While Johnson protected the Apollo Program politically, Von Braun did his part to win over the public. NASA turned astronauts into the biggest celebrities in the country and the agency became one of the most unlikely and influential design firms in history. NASA employed a small army of illustrators within its Future Projects Graphics Group who were tasked with illustrating future space flights and technologies that were shown to members of Congress as well as the public. A Harvard-educated writer, Fred Ordway, worked under Von Braun producing a series of illustrated books about space. Ordway and a NASA illustrator later went to work as technical consultants for Stanley Kubrick on his 2001: A Space Odyssey movie, perhaps the most influential science fiction film of all time.

The culmination of the efforts of Von Braun and Johnson finally came on July 16, 1969, when they and one million live spectators watched the launch of the Apollo 11 mission. Joining Johnson in the VIP section at Cape Canaveral was an elderly Oberth, who when spotted by a reporter told him that he “Began thinking of this flight when I was a boy of eleven. It was just as I imagined – only more marvelous.”

Von Braun retired from NASA in 1971. Two years later, with his role in the success of the Apollo Program largely forgotten, Johnson died. After the US won the race to the moon, space exploration was no longer a political priority and NASA’s budget subsequently declined dramatically and permanently. Today spending on NASA accounts for only 3% of the federal budget.

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Wernher Von Braun essentially became the sole defining visionary of the US space program. But what happens when someone like him is gone? There was no successor to Von Braun, and for decades after the end of the Apollo Program NASA lacked both a compelling vision and a leader with the stature to sell this vision to Congress and the public.

If Von Braun has a successor today, it is probably Elon Musk, who has followed many of his strategies. When Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 he deliberately sought to become a celebrity and played up the archetype of a Silicon Valley prodigy, cameoing in the first Iron Man movie and talking to any media outlet that would listen about his plans for reusable rockets and colonizing Mars. Like Von Braun, Musk produced conceptual designs to stoke public interest and developed detailed, if fanciful, plans for Mars colonization among other works of futurism.

Also like Von Braun, Musk understood the importance of influencing the people who pay the bills. Musk’s chief advisor in the early days of SpaceX was Michael Griffin, a legendary figure in the space industry who would be named head of NASA a few years later. It was under Griffin’s NASA that SpaceX received its first big break when it was awarded a $278 million contract to develop a vessel to supply the International Space Station as well as a follow-on contract for $1.6 billion in 2008.

Musk would become a donor and close ally with President Obama starting with his 2008 campaign. The Obama Library houses 541 pictures related to Musk taken from 2010-2015 from one on one meetings in the Oval Office to private White House dinners to the President inspecting a rocket with Musk at Cape Canaveral. This relationship proved fruitful for Musk, particularly the Obama Administration’s decision that following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 the US would rely on contractors, most notably SpaceX, to launch cargo and astronauts into space.

Von Braun and Musk show what is possible when compelling visions of the future are joined with political will. Without these men it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the achievements that they are best known for never occurred. Men wouldn’t have walked on the moon, reusable rockets and satellite internet constellations that are the equivalent of Starlink wouldn’t have been developed.

Men like Von Braun and Musk inspire us to think about the critical questions of what if and why not. Without compelling visions of the future the default is stasis and reliance on expediency and market logic. In the political sphere politicians default to selling fear and appeals to the narrow personal interests of voters. But there is an unmapped opportunity to join together visions of the future that inspire with a political program focused on enabling this future to be built.

Arguably the last major Western political figure who grasped the potential of futurism was Reagan. During his 1980 presidential campaign it was conventional wisdom to believe the US was in decline. Yet Reagan rejected this view in his 1980 speech, announcing that he was running for president, as he was flanked by photos of the American flag planted on the moon and the famous “Earthrise” taken from the first NASA orbital mission. In his speech, Reagan criticized those who claimed the US was “no longer possessed of the will to cope with our problems.” In Reagan’s view, a true American lives “in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place.”

This philosophy eventually carried on during his presidency. Reagan announced grand initiatives such as the X-30 hypersonic passenger plane, space station, joint US-Russian fusion power research, and more. It was Reagan’s relentless optimism and positive vision of the future that helped lift America’s national mood over the course of his presidency, with a new sense of promise taking hold.

This is the lesson for politicians and thinkers on the Right today who obsess over contemporary declinist narratives. Instead of this politics of defeat, we should focus more on creating a vision for a great technological civilization. Normal people don’t want to constantly be reminded of culture war grievances – they want to believe in a great future. One day much of the history of the United States will be forgotten, but humans will always remember men walking on the moon for the first time and which flag is planted on the lunar surface.

As he was dying of cancer in 1976, Von Braun wrote an essay that weaved together his thoughts on science, space, theology, and the destiny of mankind. He wrote of exploring outer space as a “way out of our evolutionary dead alley” and an attempt to understand the nature of creation. Before the Apollo Program was a technical feat, it was an act of imagination that helped Von Braun make it a reality, and it’s with the same imagination that he wrote his final words. Perhaps this is the deeper lesson to learn from his life: we can’t determine what our future should look like without imagining first and until the very end.

Our fifth print edition “Futurism Reloaded”, is now available.

Brian Balkus is a correspondent for Palladium Magazine. He can be followed @bbalkus. 

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