I’m reviewing Michael Neufeld’s biography of Wernher von Braun for The Common Review, and reading this book, I’m struck by how flabbergasting it is to discover what others find interesting and the questions I have that they don’t even begin to answer. Neufeld is an academic mucky-muck at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (to whatever degree that designation still stands — the Smithsonian has turned away from its academic potential to a great degree in the last twenty years). And, oh my good sweet Jesus, that man loves his rocket technology. I probably shouldn’t write this in such a public place where God and the world (and my editor) can find it, but I found myself skipping past dozens of pages of technical minutiae.
And oh my holy shit could this author use some more exposure to twentieth-century German historiography. The degree to which von Braun is given the benefit of the doubt about whether he was aware of the use of slave labor at Dora-Mittelwerk is astonishing — and more than that, the author doesn’t seem particularly interested in the moral implications of his knowing. Nor does he have anything to say about what it means that the United States scooped up Nazi rocket engineers after the war, or about the enormous scientific shortcuts that NASA took for the sake of beating the USSR to a manned spaceflight to the moon. I think that this sort of lay-it-all-out tech fetishism is exactly what Lehrer is getting at — our blithe acceptance of the idea that science has its own trajectory that has nothing to do with our aims as a society.
Neufeld depicts von Braun as a romantic figure, someone entranced by the promise of human travel to distant stars who was far too enamored with this dream to pay too much attention to who was funding his projects or of the uses of his technologies. Isn’t this the same kind of thinking that allows the machine of “big science” to roll forward in the first place? Further, Neufeld isn’t making any serious argument for… anything… when von Braun’s story could easily be a cautionary tale against the subversion of science and engineering to state goals.