The former Nazi rocket scientist who all too accurately saw the future

This morning’s Observer column:

… In June 1945, the [US] State department approved the transfer of Von Braun and his specialist team to the US. He worked on the US army’s ballistic missile programme and designed the rocket that launched the US’s first space satellite in 1958, four months after the USSR’s Sputnik sent the American political class into a panicky tailspin. In 1960, his group was assimilated into Nasa, where he became director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center and the lead architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.

Not bad for a former SS officer, eh? But, as I discovered as I burrowed down the agreeable rabbit hole on which [Robert] Harris had launched me, the story gets better. During his early years in the US, Von Braun became pally with Walt Disney, with whom he collaborated on a series of three educational films and to whom he probably confided his dream of a manned mission to Mars. More intriguingly, in 1949, when he was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas, he wrote a science fiction novel (in German) entitled Marsprojekt but failed to find a publisher for it. He wrote it, he writes in the preface, “to stimulate interest in space travel”. Eventually, the novel was translated into English, cleared by the Pentagon (on the grounds that its author’s visions of space travel were “too futuristic to infringe on classified matters”) and published in 2006 as Project Mars: A Technical Tale…

Read on



  • And George Dyson sent a photograph of his father’s copy of the technical appendix to von Braun’s novel.