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A robust (5 ft. 11 in., 185 Ibs.), hearty man with a booming laugh and a frank manner, he can be both ruthless and devious in his striving for space. To some, Von Braun's transfer of loyalty from Nazi Germany to the U.S. seemed to come too fast, too easy. Von Braun's critics say he is more salesman than scientist; actually, he learned through the bitterest experience that his space dreams had to be sold ("I have to be a two-headed monster-scientist and public-relations man"). Others claim that the onetime boy wonder of rocketry has become too conservative, e.g., a West Coast rocketeer says that Von Braun is wary of unproved new ideas, no matter how promising, and that he "still takes the conventional view that we should go into space with chemical rockets, with overgrown missiles of conventional design." To this, Wernher von Braun pleads guilty. "The more you're in this business," he says, "the more conservative you get. I've been in it long enough to be very conservative, to want to improve what we've got rather than begin by building what we haven't." So long as the frontiers of space are broken, Wernher von Braun does not care how; he would happily ride a broomstick into the heavens.
Says Germany's veteran Rocketeer Rolf Engel, who has known Von Braun since 1928: "He is a human leader whose eyes and thoughts have always been turned toward the stars. It would be foolish to assign rocketry success to one person totally. Components must necessarily be the work of many minds; so must successive stages of development. But because Wernher von Braun joins technical ability, passionate optimism, immense experience and uncanny organizing ability in the elusive power to create a team, he is the greatest human element behind today's rocketry success."
Mother Knew Best. Von Braun's origins had deep earthly roots in Prussian Junkerdom. A Von Braun fought the Mongols at Liegnitz in 1245, and the family's aristocracy was certified by the centuries. Wernher was born in Wirsitz, East Prussia (now part of Poland), the middle son of Baron Magnus von Braun, the local state administrator. Today Wernher's older brother, Sigismund, is counselor at the German embassy in London; his younger brother, Magnus, is program-control manager of the Chrysler Corp.'s new missile division in Detroit. Last week in a comfortable Oberaudorf apartment, Baron Magnus von Braun, tanned and vigorous, celebrated his 80th birthday, marked by a four-page letter from Wernher and a gift of twelve bottles of Rhine wine. Said he, fingering his white walrus mustache in wondermentnow mixed with prideat his son's strange fascination with space: "I don't know where his talent comes from."
Unquestionably, much of it came from Wernher's mother, an enthusiastic amateur astronomer ("Odd," says Wernher von Braun, "but few mothers are"), who pointed out to him the planets and constellations in Prussia's clear night skies. "For my confirmation," says Wernher von Braun, "I didn't get a watch and my first pair of long pants, like most Lutheran boys. I got a telescope. My mother thought it would make the best gift."