My grandfather was a civilian employee of the U.S. military. He worked in the Pentagon “as the plaster was still drying.” He wasn’t some super secret scientist or anything like that. He was a self-educated administrator who periodically got to meet some pretty famous people.
Somewhere’s there a newspaper photo of him and Charles Lindbergh. I have no idea why they’re together. I just know the picture exists.
I’ve also known there’s a famous autograph floating around the family. A couple decades ago I saw a copy. Finding the stamp collection and the Nazi-censored envelope over the winter, however, pushed me to ask around the family to see if anyone still had a copy of it, because, you know, the autograph of a Father of Rocket Science is something you should keep around. And, yet, no one is quite sure where it went.
This week I found a photocopy in a box I haven’t opened in at least a decade.
We’re not quite sure where to put it. We have a whole hallway of autographs. There’s lots of sci-fi actors, a couple Green Bay Packers, Chuck Yeager, a few classic movie actors. We’ve had most signed in person, although my husband has bought a few through the mail: no, he didn’t watch Katherine Hepburn sign her name.
So movie-buff husband has Sean Connery and Katherine Hepburn.
And I have a reluctant Nazi rocket scientist.
Really, this shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows us.
My grandfather met von Braun several times in the course of his work. In 1956, von Braun sent a lovely letter to Grandpa’s eldest son, who was about 10 at the time:
Kind of adorable, isn’t it?
Von Braun was only 30 years old when he designed the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. He was a member of the Nazi party, but that doesn’t specifically comment on any racial views: we think of Nazis in terms of racial policies, but being part of the Nazi party was ultimately a political issue. Gaining membership was a badge of honor, and there would have been some expectation that someone of von Braun’s position would apply. He was also given honorary membership in the SS, which he later stated was not something he could feasibly turn down.
Of course, he’s not going to play up Nazi affiliations after surrendering to American forces. On the other hand, there’s nothing unbelievable in his story. Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List was a member of the Nazi party too, and he’s buried in Israel, of all places. Politics get complicated.
But he’s still the guy who invented the V2 and Saturn V rockets, the former used to bomb London and the latter used to put Americans on the moon.
He’s also credited with the concept of Space Camp, although it didn’t come into being until several years after his death.
And he’s the guy who typed a letter to a 10-year-old in 1956.