Smithsonian Curator Michael Neufeld to Give Lecture on Wernher von Braun

Created: April 10, 2014
Last Updated: January 17, 2020

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WASHINGTON, PA (Nov. 14, 2013)—A pioneer of the space program. The Father of Rocket Science. This is how many describe aerospace engineer and scientist Wernher von Braun, who played an important role in building a space program for the United States.

But when Dr. Michael Newfeld, a curator in the history department of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, visits the Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) campus next week, he’ll discuss an entirely different aspect of von Braun’s life.

Neufeld’s award-winning book, “Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War,” discusses the engineer’s accomplishments as well as the time he spent as an SS Major working for Adolf Hitler and developing rocket technology for the Nazi regime.

The departments of History and Physics, with the college’s grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, are collaborating to bring Neufeld to campus on Nov. 19 for a public lecture in the Yost Auditorium of the Burnett Center at 6:30 p.m. Neufeld also will be available on Nov. 20 to meet with students in the atrium of Swanson Science Center.

“There is this whole other side of this man, which was his connection to Hitler and the Nazis,” said William Sheers, PhD., professor of Physics at W&J. “His technical accomplishments during the war in Germany were phenomenal, and personally, I don’t think anyone could have done it but him. But it’s this conflicting business that makes him intriguing.”

Von Braun oversaw the development of the V-2 rocket—Hitler’s so-called “vengeance weapon”—which flew to a height of about 60 miles before descending to Earth at four times the speed of sound, exploding in the English countryside and killing about 3000 civilians in the process.
Sheers said the V-2 rocket was an engineering masterpiece, and likely no one but von Braun could have pulled it off. Its design laid the foundations for missile and thermonuclear weapons development to come.

However, Sheers said, there is a question as to whether von Braun felt conflicted about his work during this time, and Neufeld will address that possible conflict in his lecture.

“It seems inconceivable that [von Braun] didn’t see what was happening,” at that time in history, Sheers said, but he was driven to advance his career and work toward space exploration. However, that opportunity came at the cost of joining the Hitler’s SS Army.

“Life in Nazi Germany wasn’t an easy time,” Sheers said. “People talk about von Braun making a Faustian bargain. It’s my speculation that he didn’t have any interest at all in weaponry. I think he wanted to get into space, but it went the way it did. At that time, with your family there and having to make a choice of who to support, it would be very difficult to decide what to do.”

Neufeld curates the Smithsonian’s collection of rockets and missiles up to 1945, including those of the American pioneer Dr. Robert Goddard, as well as the collection of Mercury and Gemini spacecraft and components. He has appeared on numerous television and radio programs including the History Channel, C-SPAN, PBS, NPR, BBC, and the German ZDF network. His book is considered the definitive Von Braun biography.

His Nov. 19 lecture is free and open to the public. A meet-and-greet reception will be held in the lobby outside of Yost at 6 p.m., prior to the lecture.

Neufeld also plans to visit history classes on campus, and will be available between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. in Swanson Science Center to speak with students.

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