Dear Dr. von Braun: Eccentrics, Crack Pots, & the Moon, Part I

Today’s post is by Shane Bell, Archivist at the National Archives at Atlanta.

Leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, NASA personnel, engineers, and contractors were not the only people who recognized the gravity of the occasion and the significance of project Apollo. Many United States citizens also felt they were witnesses to momentous historical events. Some believed reaching the moon would alter the course of human history. In 1949, a Gallup poll found that only 15 percent of those polled believed that humans would land on the moon within the next fifty years.[1] Barely twenty years later, the United States was on the verge of doing just that. As a highly visible and longtime spokesperson for space exploration and NASA, Dr. Wernher von Braun was naturally viewed by many as the public face of the engineering behind the effort. Astronauts, the most publicly visible individuals in the space program, had only been around since 1959. During the 1960s their ranks grew larger, well past the original Mercury 7. Although astronauts performed ever greater feats of daring, and undoubtedly contributed to the explorer mystique of NASA, Dr. von Braun had existed in the public realm far longer in his advocacy of space exploration. It was he who came in to American living rooms in the 1950s and set out a fantastic vision for exploring space and helped deliver the first American satellite into space in 1958. And it was Dr. von Braun, a German immigrant, who adapted his engineering and management skills and dreams of spaceflight to the uniquely American way of technology development. At the same time, he worked consistently to convince the American people the endeavor was in their country’s best interest. Even in areas as far afield from rocketry as religion, Dr. von Braun struck a chord with many in his adopted country. Despite his work on ballistic missiles for the German army during World War II, his story became an American story and resonated deeply with many Americans. 

Beginning with the Collier’s articles of the early 1950s and the Disney films of the mid-1950s, Dr. von Braun established a place in the American imagination as a kind of pied piper who extolled the virtues, benefits, and technical prowess of his adopted homeland as it attempted to best the Soviet Union in this new frontier. His high profile space advocacy efforts stemmed from his personal belief “that any project of such magnitude as the conquest of space can be successful only if it enjoys the full support of the public.”[2] Dr. von Braun played as large a role as any in courting the public with his advocacy of space travel. While “his engineering and managerial expertise contributed to a technological revolution … his respect for the power of imagination had changed the way America perceived space exploration … in the 1950s.”[3] His screen star good looks, heavy German accent, and considerable erudition and experience helped Dr. von Braun capture the imagination of many Americans. In diverse forums such as TV, print, and even Congressional testimony, the general public and policy makers were exposed to his boundless enthusiasm for space exploration, specifically American space exploration. After arriving in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950, Dr. von Braun and his team settled into small town southern life and worked hard to integrate into the community, a process eased by his local presence and natural charisma.[4] Although foreign and exotic, the space pioneer was also warm and familiar. This peculiar combination brought many over to his side regarding U.S. involvement and investment in space.

Despite the glossy articles in Collier’s and the widely viewed Man in Space shows produced by Disney in the 1950s, Dr. von Braun’s approach to space had it critics. Many scientists, and more than a few U.S. citizens, viewed Dr. von Braun’s grand plans for orbiting space stations and exceptionally large rockets as mere fantasy, a waste of precious resources and public funds. The dissenting view of space exploration, put forward notably by the chairman of President Eisenhower’s science advisory committee, James Killian, promoted the use of automated probes and satellites to explore space. Although more practical, inexpensive, and less dangerous than manned exploration, these methods simply did not resonate with the American public in the same way as Dr. von Braun’s plans for living and working in space. While the gregarious and photogenic German engineer held the public’s attention, more conservative science advisors had the ear of the Eisenhower, and later the Kennedy, administrations.[5]

As it turned out of course, neither vision quite prevailed. The U.S. did send humans to space but not in the numbers or the dramatic ways portrayed by Dr. von Braun in the 1950s. By the late 1960s Dr. von Braun was an elder statesman in promoting space exploration. His vision of massive orbiting stations never materialized but he remained committed to the Apollo program. His crowning achievement at NASA, the impressive Saturn V rocket, had already cemented his place in American aerospace and aeronautics history. Throughout his career, Dr. von Braun remained a vocal advocate for human space exploration. It is in this context that this blog post discusses correspondence sent to Dr. von Braun via the Public Affairs Office at Marshall Space Flight Center from the years 1968 to 1970 [Dr. Wernher von Braun’s Personal Files, 1968 – 1970 (National Archives ID 2827681), Public Affairs Office, George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Record Group 255: Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Archives at Atlanta.]

As a prominent public figure, as well as the Director of a major NASA facility during the height of the space race, Dr. von Braun received a great deal of correspondence, both in his official capacity and of a more personal nature. NASA staffers at Marshall Space Flight Center sorted through the mail, determining which needed Dr. von Braun’s personal attention, which could be answered by staff, and which merited no response. Official NASA business was relatively easy to recognize. In the days before email and instant electronic communication, NASA employees, contractors, and other official correspondents mostly conveyed their messages in writing. Even routine phone messages were often written down and sometimes resulted in a letter as a response. Non-official correspondence from well-wishers, fans, critics, children, and those “less friendly” to NASA’s endeavors was handled by staffers. Many of these people who wrote Dr. von Braun simply wanted to make their voices heard, to get something off their chest, or communicate in some way with him. Many felt a connection to the man who oversaw the design and construction of one of the greatest feats of engineering ever attempted. They no doubt felt this because of the longtime presence of Dr. von Braun in the public realm for nearly two decades. Leading up to and after the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, many of these individuals wrote to Dr. von Braun. They expressed their hopes, fears, frustrations, optimism, pessimism, admiration, and sometimes scorn in what can only be described as “colorful” ways. 

Amid the requests for speeches, photos, autographs, and other ephemera associated with the rocket engineer, the Director’s Office received a great deal of correspondence labeled by staff as “CP” for Crack Pot. These letters frequently discuss topics such as religion, science, technology, conservation, philosophy, and the Soviet Union. It is a testament to the scale and scope of NASA’s Apollo program that it affected so many people in such profound ways. One writer from Michigan, undoubtedly concerned with the afterlife, stated bluntly to Dr. von Braun: “Please don’t disappoint me at the Pearly Gates. If I am not fortunate enough to make your acquaintance here on earth, I am expecting to make it in Heaven – Don’t disappoint me Mr. Von Braun.”[6] These types of letters were not unusual for Dr. von Braun to receive. From his earliest days working on missile development for the Army and moonlighting as an advocate of space exploration, he received fan mail. After promoting the Collier’s articles in 1952, Dr. von Braun remarked about the correspondence he received: “Fan and crack [pot] letters keep on pouring in at a rate of 10 to 20 a day…”[7] The tide of letters would ebb and flow over the years, but the public fascination with the German rocket engineer remained high for the rest of his life.

One facet of Dr. von Braun’s life which elicited a great deal of correspondence was his professed Christianity. Fellow believers sent him Bible verses, thanked him for his service to the nation, and expressed how they were encouraged by his personal beliefs and public professions of faith. Interestingly, some letter writers who felt religious kinship with the engineer did not share his desire to land humans on the moon. One writer told Dr. von Braun that the moon was off limits to humanity, despite the fact that “the time is now here when man’s compiled knowledge of computation has enabled him to walk upon the surface of the moon.” This same letter further states: “assuming you have read in the book, commonly known to us as the Bible, you have read exactly the items belonging to man for his exclusive use and the moon and stars are NOT INCLUDED” (emphasis in original).[8] Clearly some fellow believers did not feel that human space travel was sanctioned by the almighty. Others, however, agreed with space exploration on religious grounds. In an August 1969 letter, a writer from Mississippi told Dr. von Braun that they “believed that God has given his permission for another door to be opened.”[9]

Publicly Dr. von Braun did not shy away from the issue of science versus religion. He stated science and religion could comfortably co-exist and were not at odds with one another. In a speech delivered to the Alabama Governor’s Wife’s Prayer Breakfast in 1969, Dr. von Braun stated that “science and religion are like two windows. From one we see the reality of creation and from the other the meaning of creation.” The statement resulted in a letter from Denver, Colorado whose author agreed with him. The author also felt compelled to send Dr. von Braun a treatise on what he called “unified-energy,” which derived its power from electromagnetic fields. On July 2nd, 1969, another letter writer, perhaps caught up in the fervor preceding the launch of Apollo 11, sent “irrefutable proof [that] God created heaven and earth.”[10] This proof was in the form of several typed pages interspersed with handwriting describing the sea in vague terms, bits of poetry, astronomical calculations, and numerical sequences, which perhaps, were understood only by the letter writer. In spite of the dubious scientific basis for some of the letter writers’ claims, many Americans were enthusiastic about mankind’s ultimate destiny to reach the stars. More than a few, in fact, saw the effort as divinely inspired.

Dr. von Braun’s public profession of faith combined with his status as an engineer and proponent of science was, however, found disagreeable by some. In July 1969, an individual from Ohio sent a letter along with a newspaper clipping which included a quote from Dr. von Braun on the potential failure of Apollo 11. In the clipping, Dr. von Braun is quoted comparing the mission with primitive “aquatic life crawling on land for the first time” several hundred million years ago. The letter writer expresses surprise that a man who professes to be a Christian could make such a statement and asks him “why are you an evolutionist?” The same writer demands Dr. von Braun to provide “scriptures which convince you of your belief.”[11] Another letter writer, critical of Apollo, asked in March 1970 “Isn’t it so strange that God’s children would want a shuttle plane to see and visit on the moon.”[12] As much as some believed on religious grounds that humans were meant to travel into space, others believed on those same grounds that it should be off limits.

There was no shortage of people who saw the moon landings as a sign from God. Many believed the promise of Apollo 11 and future human exploration of space was a precursor to recognizing the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. With the United States leading the way (to the moon at least) in space exploration, one letter writer believed America’s successful moon landing would be a sign to “the atheistic Communist leaders of Russia and China” and would “further along the pulling of the rug out from under Communistic Atheism.” Writing only a week before the launch of Apollo 11, this writer felt America’s great technological triumph would bolster morality, decrease materialism, and provide “evidence of God’s truth and power.”[13] Another writer, speaking more bluntly just before the launch of Apollo 11 stated that “truly God looks over our country out there…” and that “if we get to the moon ‘God Will’ the Russians will have to get on the right side of life.”[14] More than the long term destiny of humanity, the moon landing was seen by many as divine vindication for the United States and democracy. Perhaps of even more immediate importance, it was a repudiation of communism. Whether for or against the aims of Project Apollo, most writers who mentioned international relations in any way were unanimous in their contempt for the “godless communism” of the Soviet Union. One writer criticized Apollo on religious grounds but for fear of the Soviet Union reaching the moon first. The letter from early 1969 boldly declares that “it would be better if the U.S. Apollo 11 never even left the pad. But helped more in the defense of God’s Kingdom on Earth against the communist constant rape of the nations with their evil destruction warring against all, to recognize communism.”[15] Perhaps God did not want humans leaving the bounds of the earth, but maybe an even greater concern was the overthrow of communism.

Some correspondents used religion to comment on Apollo in grandiose terms and express their negative opinion of the program. In a July 1969 letter, one writer gives the effort great stature, stating that the moon landing is man’s attempt to rebel against God. The writer equates the attempt to try “in vain to equal God’s works in the universe,” despite the fact that landing a small craft on the moon hardly seems on par with universe creation. The writer puts it bluntly, stating that God gave man “dominion over the fowl in the sky, the animals in the field and other earthly aspects of his creation. But God did not authorize a flight to the moon.” [16] That, according to the writer, would contaminate a place God created but did not place humans.

In addition to his specific work on Project Apollo, many writers urged Dr. von Braun to personally use his talents in service of God and country. Some writers acknowledge his work on the V-2 during World War II, some even mention his Nazi ties. Of these, however, most admonish him to use his personal fame as a force for good in the world. Their thoughts, while often highly critical, generally express a hopeful optimism moving forward as they implore Dr. von Braun to capitalize on his position and celebrity. A long letter from Ohio written in July 1969, reads in part:

“You have come to us from a nation that in this century so cruelly treated God’s ancient people.  If this is what scientific knowledge can lead to, we don’t need it.  You have, therefore, an opportunity to make restitution for the shame of the German people.  The shame that took six million Jews and countless thousands of Americans and all other nations in the name of Hitler.  Take a look at where you are today…You are in the finest position in the world to fuel the knowledgeable young people of the world.”[17]  

The letter does not make it clear whether the writer agreed with the aims of Project Apollo or not. The writer did make clear, however, their desire to see Dr. von Braun stand as a force of moral righteousness in the world. Another correspondent put it more bluntly; they included a newspaper clipping of an editorial article which decried the trip to the moon as wasteful when there were more pressing concerns here on earth. The writer put it simply: “God’s children need help, not a trip to the moon.”[18] It seems that people recognized Dr. von Braun’s potential to effect change as a public figure regardless if they agreed with his mission at NASA.

First page from letter from folder 10.

[1] Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 29.

[2] Quoted in McCurdy, 36.

[3] Mike Wright, “The Disney-Von Braun Collaboration and Its Influence on Space Exploration” https://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/disney_article.html, (accessed February 18, 2018).

[4] Shaila Dewan, “When the Germans, and Rockets, Came to Town,” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/31/us/31huntsville.html, (accessed February 18, 2018).  Michael Neufeld, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: Knopf, 2007), 285-290, 317.

[5] McCurdy, 57-58.

[6]Folder 2. Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes in this article come from: National Archives & Records Administration, National Archives at Atlanta, RG 255 (National Aeronautics & Space Administration) 71B1623 Dr. Wernher von Braun Personal Files, 1968-1970, boxes 13-15, “Eccentric Letters” folders 1-15.  Each quote is given by the specific folder in which the letter appears.  The names and specific locations of the letter writers have been omitted for privacy reasons.

[7] Quoted in Neufeld, 260.

[8] Folder 2.

[9] Folder 12.

[10] Folder 6.

[11] Folder 12.

[12] Folder 4.

[13] Folder 5.

[14] Folder 1.

[15] Folder 5.

[16] Folder 9.

[17] Folder 11.

[18] Folder 10.

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