“My 12 Years with Wernher von Braun”
” … The deserted, dust-covered halls of the Redstone Arsenal, the former Redstone Ordnance Center, filled with new life as the [Nazi] team went to work to develop guided missiles for ABMA, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. The team grew, with other members from overseas joining it in subsequent years, including von Braun mentor Hermann Oberth himself, who lived in Huntsville from 1955-1959 and then returned to Germany because of his pension. Their first assignment was the development of the V2-derived intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) Hermes C, of 500 miles range. … “
Jesco von Puttkamer
Human Exploration & Operations Mission Directorate
NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
March 23, 2012
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today marks the 100th anniversary of Wernher von Braun’s birth. Engineer Jesco von Puttkamer, a 50-year NASA veteran who was recruited by the pioneering rocket engineer, offers this memoir of the man, his work and his legacy.
On March 23 of this year many people who had the privilege to know him celebrate Wernher von Braun’s 100th birthday. I am one of them since, under his leadership in the “Von Braun Rocket Team,” I have spent the best years of my life, and after that more years in Washington in his company until his early death in 1977.
When I arrived in Huntsville, Ala., in the summer of 1962 as a newly baked “Diplomingenieur” (MS) with the engineering diploma from Aachen Technical University fresh in my pocket, it was due to an invitational telegram from Dr. von Braun to the young student who was planning emigration to the USA because his field of interest had neither present nor future in Germany: “Do not go to industry. Come to Huntsville. We are going to the Moon.”
At my arrival on the bumpy air strip of the chainlink-fenced country airport in Alabama, I entered a world the likes of which had never existed before nor would ever exist again. This stronghold of rocket builders was embedded in a unique setting of cotton fields, magnolia trees and red clay dirt. The town of Huntsville, displaying sign boards at the city limits proudly shouting “Rocket City, USA” and, equally boastful, “Heart of Dixie”, i.e., center of the Southern States’ Dixieland, was “The Place where Spacebegan”. A lot of what today appears to us as matter-of-fact in the U.S. space program had its beginnings here, in the “Space Capital of the Universe”, as the local Chamber of Commerce and HIEC, the Huntsville Industrial Expansion Committee, liked to call it.
Just 15 months had passed since President John Kennedy’s challenge to the U.S. Congress (which I too had taken up), in which he called upon his people to set sail for the Moon: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” As Wernher von Braun said in 1964, “He made the country feel young again.”
Most people today would probably find it difficult to imagine the bizarre world in which I found myself. Located in the north of the state, where the foothills of the Smoky Mountains changed into extensive cotton fields along the banks of the Tennessee River, the county seat of Huntsville, founded in 1811 and dozing along for decades in classic lethargy, had at most been known as America’s main producer of Nasturtium officinale, laying claim to the title of “Watercress Capital of the World.” Then came a sudden awakening, first in 1941 in the form of the U.S. Army with the Redstone Ordnance Center to manufacture shells, grenades and bombs with toxic and incendiary agents for the Chemical Weapons Service until its closure. Then the “space people” moved into the former ammunitions center on Redstone Arsenal. Almost overnight, they transformed Huntsville into a soaring symbol of utopian visions becoming reality.
The initiators of the sudden revolution were Wernher von Braun and 117 Peenemünde rocket experts who descended on the township on 15 April 1950, coming from Texas under the auspices of the Army to develop military missiles just as they had done in earlier years for their Nazi employers. Their engineering expertise brought forth the new generation of large carrier rockets which would fulfill Kennedy’s mandate and open space to humankind.
If in those years one heard the name Huntsville, Alabama, one didn’t think of John Hunt, who in 1805 discovered here the strong “Big Spring” and built his log cabin next to it, nor of the Choctaw/Chickasaw Indian nation which before him maintained a holy meeting place at the Tennessee, but of the “Rocket Team” and its driving force and guiding planner, Wernher von Braun. People throughout America knew the charismatic manager with the broad face and heavy accent from Collier’s Magazine and Walt Disney films, and Huntsville, with southern pride, had come to see him as a local hero, as the wizard of the new, fascinating rocket technology of the space program.
It had been a rocky road on which the original von Braun team had come stumbling to Huntsville. After the collapse of Germany in 1945, they had been interned by the U,.S. Army at Landsberg/Lech and then, in Operation Paperclip (preceded before 1946 by Project Overcast), brought to the camp of Fort Bliss near El Paso at the Texas-Mexico border, the last members of the group arriving on 23 February 1946.
The original team of Peenemünde top experts numbered 118, including von Braun. They were subsequently joined by their families and other German specialists, some from the World War II era, others from the post-war generation. Their reputation as those men who developed the murderous V2, the ancestress of the later Saturn rocket generation, remained with them throughout their lives in a special way and not without evoking split feelings: Many Americans looked upon the “Nazi Scientists” at first with skepticism, some with outright animosity, particularly when it became known much later that the mass production of the V2, under SS command (not the Army’s or von Braun‘s jurisdiction), had been undertaken with concentration camp prisoners under unspeakable conditions, resulting in the loss of more human lives than caused by the actual 3,500 missiles fired at targets like London and Antwerp.
The team’s transfer to Alabama ended the boring years of waiting at Fort Bliss, when the Korean War caused the Army to engage their rocket experts fully for the first time. On April Fool’s Day (April 1) 1950, the Fort Bliss group was given the green light to move to Huntsville. On the next day, a small advance party struck out for Alabama, and about six months later the eastward trek by 130 Germans and their families was completed. To quote space writer Bob Ward in the Huntsville Times of 1 April 1965: “They traveled in caravans of autos and trucks that formed 20th Century wagon trains. Flat tires, overheated radiators, wrong turns and other troubles delayed their progress over the 1300-mile route, but they made it.” Also arriving in Huntsville with the von Braun team were about 500 military, 80 civil service and 100 General Electric Company personnel.
The deserted, dust-covered halls of the Redstone Arsenal, the former Redstone Ordnance Center, filled with new life as the team went to work to develop guided missiles for ABMA, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. The team grew, with other members from overseas joining it in subsequent years, including von Braun mentor Hermann Oberth himself, who lived in Huntsville from 1955-1959 and then returned to Germany because of his pension. Their first assignment was the development of the V2-derived intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) Hermes C, of 500 miles range. Later, the range was reduced to 200 miles, and the project, at times under the unofficial designation Ursa or Major, was christened Redstone on 8 April 1952. In February 1956, when the Soviet Union launched Sergei Pavlovich Korolev’s first nuclear-tipped ICBM into the Kara Kum desert, an R-5M with a 5 kiloton plutonium warhead, Maj. Gen. John Medaris brought in top military and civilian personnel, tripling the number of ABMA employees to 5,000. Until 1958, there followed 37 test flights of the Redstone, which inherited much from its predecessor V2 but differed from it with a number of technological innovations, viz., integral “monocoque” propellant tanks instead of tanks separate from the missile shell, an advanced guidance system, improved fuel pumps in its engine, a detachable warhead section and, consequently, a different aerodynamic design.
When I came to Huntsville, I was immediately made aware that the rocket team’s early years with the U.S. Army were significantly shaped by the on-going competition between the branches of the Armed Forces: Army vs. Navy vs. Air Force. As an early consequence of these rivalries, the range restrictions of ABMA missiles had been ordered by Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson, in his “roles and missions” directive at the end of 1956, limiting the Army to surface-to-surface missiles with a range not to exceed 200 miles, whereas the Air Force was given responsibility for land-based surface-to-air missiles, and the Navy for ship-based air defense weapons systems. Less than a year later, on 4 October 1957, the Soviets launched Korolev’s R7 “Semyorka” with Sputnik 1, which achieved what von Braun’s Jupiter-C could have accomplished months, if not a year, earlier. The shock touched off by Sputnik in the U.S. became even bigger on 3 November when Korolev launched the 1,100-lb Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika.
Five days later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s new Defense Secretary Neil McElroy rescinded his predecessor’s 200-mile limit on the Army and directed ABMA to proceed with launching an Earth satellite using a modified Jupiter-C. Von Braun asked for 60 days, General Medaris, his boss and well used to Wernher’s optimistic enthusiasm, made it 90 days. It took the Rocket Team exactly 84 days. Explorer 1 went successfully into orbit on 31 January 1958 on a four-stage Redstone named Juno-1 and right away discovered the Van Allen radiation belts of Earth. America had entered the Space Race. The Huntsville Times reported the triumph of the von Braun team with headlines like JUPITER-C PUTS UP MOON and EISENHOWER OFFICIALLY ANNOUNCES HUNTSVILLE SATELLITE CIRCLES GLOBE. In “Rocket City, U.S.A.” people danced on the streets and honored Wernher von Braun with an unprecedented victory celebration.
In April 1958, President Eisenhower finally sent a proposal to Congress calling for the establishment of a civilian space agency, and an exclamation mark was smacked behind it by Sputnik 3, launched one month later (15 May). Its launch by Korolev caused a new shock: It weighed a monstrous (for that time) 3,000 pounds. Ike stood firmly to his “Space for Peace” policy, which made all the difference (and certainly made me want to join in right away), when on 29 July he signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into Public Law (P.L. 85-568). With that, he assigned nonmilitary space activities to a civilian agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), created on 1 October 1958, and built on the foundations of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) that had existed since 1915.
NASA’s immediate answer to the Sputniks was the manned Project Mercury, initiated on 9 February 1959, one month after the Soviets again galvanized the American space program by launching Lunik 1 to the Moon with 800 pounds of instruments. Mercury could be accomplished with existing (though man-rated) missiles, but what NASA really needed were big rockets, and that meant exactly von Braun’s know-how and his plans for the heavy launch vehicles of the Saturn family. ABMA’s large boosters packed a performance far in excess of what the Army needed for their missile doctrine. Thus, the Army Project Saturn was the catalyst for the transfer of ABMA to NASA, after the Air Force actually proposed the transfer of their own will.
On 1 July, Dr. von Braun officially became Director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), whose 4,670 persons at first had to contend with quite frugal office spaces at ABMA Headquarters, Building 4488. One of them was my first workplace, and I certainly wasn’t complaining. In the mid-1960s modern new buildings were ready, among them the 10-story Headquarters Building (no. 4200), immediately dubbed the “von Braun Hilton”.
For Wernher von Braun and his team, the major change brought about by the transfer from the Army to the civilian NASA in 1960 was the new emphasis on “out-of-house” work, today known as “outsourcing,” as compared to the “dirty hands” in-house approach traditionally favored by (and favoring) the Rocket Team. In von Braun’s view, to be an effective leader, which means to be both planner and doer, a manager should “keep his hands dirty at the work bench.” This approach derived directly from the “Arsenal” concept first used at Peenemünde, then also encountered at ABMA. By always being in the forefront and immersing himself intimately in the whole vehicle, with all its minute technical working-level details, von Braun constantly set an example himself. In my 50 years with NASA (as of 2012, and counting), I have never met anyone else who came even close to him in that respect.
What I learned in those years under Wernher’s leadership has never left me nor ever failed me. Technical competence was more than a catchword at Marshall – it was a way of life! Von Braun insisted on it. His ability to build, lead and inspire a team was legendary; like no one else. He had that special knack for building a top-notch team, fully aware of the fact that for creating a genuine team spirit, one has to get all people involved. He was a master in making everyone feel important (“…as the second most important man,” as Konrad Dannenberg put it at one time), not to suggest status but simply saying “you are crucial for realizing this project.” Therefore all of us tried hard to do our best. His “secrets” included maximum delegation of authority as a must; he knew that a team run by its leader in high-handed fashion — which he never did — was doomed to mediocrity.
As equally important, he insisted on a free and continuous two-way flow of communication, i.e., from top to bottom and bottom to top. If good ideas originating on the working level do not find their way to the top, the group’s effort will be lame at best and quickly become susceptible to the dangerous “group think” phenomenon. As the third leg in building a sterling team, he demanded excellence, which always involves great attention to detail and the famed “hands-on” approach. Technical competence was the proverbial attribute of the Rocket Team, and we worked hard on it and took great pride in it. In dealing and wheeling with the “competition” in Houston or with top management in Washington, Wernher often ventured far out on the proverbial limb, but we never left him “dangling.” never let him down or failed to bail him out and back him up.
For the Marshall team, the momentous launch of Saturn SA-1 on 27 October 1961 was a first great event in what was to become, in subsequent years, an unbroken sequence of unforgettably exciting highpoints. Saturn I was used for 10 missions, four of them in the Block I version, with only the first stage S-I “live,” and six times as Block II with a live second stage, the S-IV, powered by six Pratt & Whitney LH2/LOX RL-10 engines. Among the nine flights of its successor version, the upgraded Saturn IB with the S-IVB as second stage, were the first manned Apollo mission (Apollo 7), three manned Skylab missions (SL-2, SL-3, SL-4), and the U.S. half of the joint Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) with the Soviet Union in 1975. The third and much larger Saturn vehicle, finally, designed specifically for the lunar landing missions and the crowning achievement of the decades-long struggles of the Rocket Team, was the 110 m tall Saturn V, with 13 successful missions out of 13 attempts.
The Huntsville Times called it the “world’s largest rocket,” but then they didn’t know yet about the gigantic N-1 (Nositel-1) being developed by General Designer Sergei Korolev in Russia. When Korolev passed away in January 1966 after a cancer operation, his successor as Glavniy Konstruktor became Vasiliy Pavlovich Mishin. In great haste, under extreme pressure from Moscow, he began N-1 assembly in Kazakhstan in February 1967, and two years later, on 21 February 1969, the first N-1, 105 m tall and weighing 2,700 tons, thundered from its launch pad in Tyuratam, today’s Baikonur, powered by 30 engines in the first stage. Sixty-nine seconds into the flight, the propulsion system failed and the giant fell to the ground, about 50 km from the pad. Fifteen months earlier, its competitor, our Saturn V, had completed its first flight flawlessly. Three more N-1s attempted the flight to orbit, the last one on 23 November 1972, but all failed, dooming the Soviet manned lunar program.
The decade of the 60’s, driven by the “Space Race” and the enthusiasm sparked by it in the U.S., was the embodiment of everything the young Space Age could offer in its exuberance, from discoveries on distant planets to manned flights into space and landings on another world. They were the best years of my life. For breakfast, Huntsville’s newspapers continuously served up headlines straight out of Science Fiction. For example, in just the span of one year, 1965, they screamed:
· SATURN V TAKES ITS FIRST STEPS ON WAY TO MOON (when our first S-IC test booster was rolled to the test stand);
· RUSSIAN TAKES WALK IN SPACE (when Alexei Leonov stepped out of his Voskhod-2 capsule and floated 16.5 feet away from it);
· RUSSIA’S ZOND 2, MARINER 4 STILL RACING TOWARD MARS;
· RANGER SLAMS INTO MOON WITH CAMERAS GRINDING – LIVE PHOTOGRAPHS ARE SHOWN ON TV (on Ranger 9’s successful lunar recon mission);
· MONSTROUS ROCKET HANGAR SLOWLY GOES UP AT CAPE;
· DRAMATIC MOVIES SHOW ASTRONAUT’S WALK IN SPACE (on Edward White’s first U.S. spacewalk from Gemini 4);
· RUSSIA’S LUNA 6 TO MISS THE MOON (after the probe suffered a malfunction during a course correction burn. One month later, Zond-3 took the first pictures of the backside of the Moon, and the first one was released by the Tass news agency on August 16, 1965);
· THUNDERING SATURN TEST SHAKES UP HALF OF ALABAMA (when the “unlucky” 13th test firing of the S-IC stage encountered atmospheric conditions that sent the shockwaves of the 2.5 minute test to towns and cities as far away as 125 miles);
· DARING GEMINI CREWS SUCCEED IN SPINE-TINGLING RENDEZVOUS (on the double flight of Gemini 6 and Gemini 7).
Molding Huntsville’s MSFC, Houston’s MSC (Manned Spacecraft Center, today Johnson Space Center, JSC) and Cape Canaveral’s KSC (Kennedy Space Center), the three prime NASA field centers involved in the lunar landing program, into a closely knit team was accomplished with great success by George E. Mueller, head of Manned Space Flight at NASA Headquarters in Washington, and his Apollo Program Director, Sam C. Phillips. Their overall role in and contribution to the eventual towering success of the Apollo Program simply cannot ever be overstated. Without the “All-Up” testing philosophy that George introduced in 1963 and ordered us to follow in spite of our skeptical reluctance, the first manned lunar landing by Apollo 11 would never have taken place as early as 1969, within the time frame set by John F. Kennedy. Mueller’s teletype directing all-up testing arrived on 1 November 1963, and I still vividly remember our “all-up” shock. “All-up” simply meant that the very first test flight of the giant Saturn V would be conducted with all three stages “live.” Moreover, to maximize the payoff of that first flight, the payload was to be a live Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM), carried through a trajectory closely simulating a return from the Moon.
On 9 November 1967, on Saturn V Chief Engineer Arthur Rudolph’s 60th birthday, our giant Moon rocket proved George Mueller right: It executed its maiden flight without flaws. Even the restart of the third stage, for the first time fully automated and in weightless space, after three hours coasting in orbit, went without a hitch, boosting the unmanned Apollo 4 command module (CM) back into the atmosphere with lunar-return velocity. Imagine: There were nine million parts in the Saturn/Apollo system plus its ground support equipment, and all of this was “put together” in less than six years! This success enabled the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, to launch eight months later on their famous Christmas 1968 flight on the third (!) Saturn V flight.
And only seven months after that, in the night hours of 20 July 1969, the “Eagle” of Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins fulfilled Kennedy’s mandate, within the specified time (“… before this decade is out”) and within the 1961 cost estimate by NASA Administrator James Webb of $24 billion. In winning the Space Race of the Cold War, our Saturn vehicles may well have been instruments of deterrence that helped prevent another hot war, because Apollo’s peaceful response to the military challenge of Soviet Russia re-established the global strategic “rocket equilibrium“ before the whole world. It is to Eisenhower’s, Kennedy’s and von Braun’s great credit, to practically have “invented” civilian spaceflight with the establishment of NASA, the development of the wholly non-military Saturn V, and setting the lunar landing goal. To their vision, we owe much today, and humans in the future will owe so much more.
With respect to the media and the general populace in all those years, public attention naturally remained focused on the astronauts. Consequently NASA’s MSC in Houston reaped the lion’s share of idolization and celebration, while the work of us engineers and managers was taken largely for granted. Thus, Huntsville’s role in manned missions received much less attention than “Houston Mission Control” with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs and their crews with their Chevrolet Corvette Stingrays. But Wernher’s public fame around the world as “Mr. Space” more than made up for this. And let it also be said that the real key to space were our big boosters, on whose engineering excellence and reliability the lives of those intrepid men rode. Already for the Redstone missile, dubbed “Old Reliable”, the Army had insisted on “better than 90%” reliability and a basic system for monitoring and ensuring it had been proposed by Kurt Debus, chief of launch operations, as early as February 1952.
For Huntsville, after the first lunar landings an epoch approached its end, even though we at Marshall strove to continue Wernher’s legacy after the launch of Apollo 17, the last lunar mission on the 12th Saturn V (7 December 1972). After six moon landings of the Apollo Program, further progress in space came to a near standstill. Our dreams about a Lunar Base and Flights to Mars turned out to have been pipe dreams – dead ends. Skylab, our first space station, was a return to Earth orbit – and eight months later even that program ended. The Space Shuttle brought new hope because routine transportation to space, as we perceived it, is the key to the future. But after 30 years and 135 flights, the epic Shuttle Program was tragically closed down. Today, all we have is the International Space Station ISS and NASA’s plans for a new Exploration Program.
On 25 February 1970, Wernher von Braun left Huntsville for Washington D.C. to work at NASA Headquarters as Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning on a long-range goal for NASA and America straight from his own dreams: the Mars Project. Two years later he had to realize that the miracle of 1961, Kennedy’s Camelot period, could not be repeated. The texture of American society had changed: Other priorities had gained the upper hand. On 10 June 1972, Wernher departed from NASA to accept the position as Vice President/Engineering & Development at Fairchild Industries, an aircraft company in Germantown, Maryland, on the outskirts of D.C. Never could he, or we, imagine at that time that it would take another 35 years for a new presidential mandate – only the second – for the nation to reconsider Moon/Mars-Exploration by humans (George W. Bush, 14 January 2004), heavily modified in 2010 under President Barack Obama. If we persevere, Wernher’s visions will still become reality, step by step, although considerably later than he, and we, had wanted it.
In Huntsville, his position as MSFC Director, and thus as my top boss, was assigned to Eberhard Rees, for many years von Braun’s second in command, as far back as Peenemünde, and also Marshall’s Director/Technical. In terms of engineering expertise, Rees, a jovial and easy-going Svabian gentleman from Trossingen in Southern Germany with an honorary doctorate, was equal to his popular predecessor, but his strengths lay in other areas – and they were more amenable to the new wind that had begun to blow in NASA in the Post-Apollo Era — or rather the opposite: the new calm. Uncompromising technical excellence for the development projects left to him, such as the Lunar Rover, the HEAO satellite observatories and the space station Skylab, launched on our last Saturn V (the 13th of 15 built), went with the fading from the limelight of national popularity.
The real phenomenon of Wernher von Braun and his role as charismatic leader of such a unique and extraordinary development team puzzled many interested onlookers and researchers already during his lifetime. The preferred explanation seemed to point to social, cultural and political peculiarities of Germany’s history. Social and psychological analysts invoked the “notorious” propensity of Germans for romanticism, added to it the Prussian bureaucracy of Frederic the Great and his feudal system with its militaristic emphasis (for which some liked to point to Kurt Debus’ dueling scars from his student years as evidence) and whipped up the whole with the reference to Baron von Braun’s East-Prussian aristocratic heritage. Clearly, so the rash conclusion by some people, here was a modern version of the old feudal system: the land-owning Country Squire (“Landjunker”) who regarded his co-workers and underlings as vassals.
That, of course, was complete nonsense; nothing could be further from the truth. To impute a vassal’s mentality to highly intelligent and ambitious men like Ernst Stuhlinger, Kurt Debus, Karl Heimburg, Konrad Dannenberg, Ernst Geissler (for whom I worked as Scientific Assistant at that time) and most of all Eberhard Rees, at most shows how little outsiders knew them. There was probably more truth in the words of a U.S. Army observer in 1947 of the Peenemünders when he compared them with a team of “one President and 124 Vice Presidents”, where the VPs, knowing clearly what was good for them, felt quite well off with Wernher. It was to the credit of Eberhard Rees’ delightful modesty that such analyses more often than not completely overlooked his role in Wernher’s persona. In reality, without Rees von Braun was incomplete as team leader at Marshall, and it was Eberhard’s presence which guaranteed that the inherited and paternally influenced “Junker” in Wernher was reined in.
But in my opinion there can be little doubt that von Braun represented for all of us a kind of Jungian Father symbol, in whose eyes everyone wanted to excel and shine to please him – even Eberhard Rees and Ernst Stuhlinger. And “pleasing” him could only be achieved by superior expertise, unflagging excellence and optimum performance which in turn meant that all of them were similarly demanding of their own subordinates. The result was close to a perfect team.
The Father symbol worked only as long as each of the Laboratory Directors had direct access to Wernher. This meant frequent meetings punctuated by lively exchanges of views between the Boss and his Directors as well as among the latter. Controversies and conflicts were aired in open debate and usually resolved in “give-and-take” negotiations based on clear-headed logic.
The fantastic efficiency of this “patriarchal” system began to lose its power during the latter years of the Apollo Program when von Braun saw himself forced, by lack of time and under the mounting external pressure of an increasingly complex space program, to reduce his direct personal contact with his Directors more and more and to ration his accessibility. Instead, he increasingly worked with them through an inner advisory staff of specialists and via written notes from the Directors, the (preferably one-page-only) “Weekly Notes”, to which he responded with handwritten comments penciled in the margins, returning the sheets initialed with a large “B”. Such tokens of praise did not suffice in the longer run, of course. It was a kind of depersonalization which eventually had to lead to a weakening of the role model and Father image, and to a gradual torpidity for a formerly unimaginably dynamic and vital organization. That, more than anything else, really illustrated von Braun’s personal impact on and significance to Marshall’s work and accomplishments.
During Eberhard’s tenure came a very ugly phase in NASA’s history: the time of great waves of layoffs. For a team so passionately devoted to its mission, with so much heart behind its work as was the case for us, the feared word “RIF” (Reduction in Force) of the U.S. Civil Service (CS) caused end-of-the-world depressions and moods of loss and emptiness. On 16 August 1971, about 250 CS employees of the approximately 5,800 members of the world-class Marshall team, after having developed the mighty Saturn V and delivered the Moon for the U.S., received their severance notices, the dreaded “pink slips:” on 2 October at the latest they had to be “out the gate,” with little assistance or aid provided at that time. “Pumping gas,” “peddling insurance” or “selling real estate” were some of the options these individuals were facing. Additional cutbacks followed immediately, reducing the MSFC work force in the two fiscal years 1972/73 by almost 600 positions and bringing its CS employment down to 5,214 by 30 June 1973.
For Eberhard, the layoffs of 1972 were the last straw that broke the camel’s back. He suffered. It was exactly the opposite of what he had joyfully hoped for his tenure as Marshall Director, after decades of patiently filling the difficult post of “Wernher von Braun‘s Number Two” — development and growth. When a new, even larger layoff wave drew in sight for Fiscal 1974, he threw in the towel: On 26 January 1973, Dr. Eberhard Rees retired from NASA, after three years in a position that for a man like him really should have been joyful and fulfilling. His successor, Rocco Petrone, Kurt Debus’ early Launch Director, then became the Great Axe Swinger who killed off the legendary team.
Wernher’s time also came to an end. On 16 June 1977, he died in Alexandria, Virginia, from complications following intestinal cancer surgery. His final resting place is a very modest grave under the oak trees of Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria.
That was the ultimate end of the famous Rocket Team. But today, 35 years later and 54 years after Explorer 1, Huntsville abounds with remembrances of MSFC’s brilliant director with his great power of conviction, like the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) with the world-famous Space Camp or the sprawling complex of the Von Braun Center (VBC), whose construction started on 24 February 1970, in Wernher’s and his family’s presence, one day before his departure for Washington, DC. In front of the VBC, today’s visitor is greeted by this marker:
“This plaque was placed here by citizens of Huntsville and Madison County, Alabama, in honor of Dr. Wernher von Braun, who directed research and development operations for the Army at Redstone Arsenal from 1950 to 1960, and served as Director of George C. Marshall Space Flight Center from 1960 to 1970. It was unveiled on February 24, 1970, on the occasion of his transfer to Washington, DC, as Deputy Associate Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Dr. von Braun, whose vision and knowledge made possible the landing of the first man on the moon by the United States, contributed significantly to the life of this community. He will forever be respected and admired by his local fellow citizens.”