A highlight for any college community, especially smaller colleges, includes guest lectures by important people of their times. These can include authors, artists, politicians, journalists, celebrities, and scientists. The best lectures are provocative, inspiring, and certainly memorable. Here is the story of one such event.
As the newly-appointed director of the Marshall Space Flight Center at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Dr. Wernher von Braun was invited by the Wheaton College Student Union as its final guest for the 1960-61 Lyceum season. Scheduled to speak at 8:00 on June 3, 1961, in the newly-constructed Edman Chapel, Dr. von Braun delivered his lecture, entitled “Why We Must Conquer Space” to a capacity crowd. The lecture occurred just one month after the first American space flight that lifted Alan Shepard and his Mercury capsule on a Redstone rocket.
Von Braun’s presentation, accompanied by a Disney-animated film, featured an explanation of the various stages of rocket deployment as a piloted spacecraft thunders toward the stars. Surveying the wonders of science and discovery, von Braun emphasized the necessity for researching space flight, particularly for satellite communications, national defense, and meteorological forecasting. During the Q&A session afterward, von Braun addressed questions about solid fuel propellants.
The final question asked whether he thought that his findings in any way contradicted religious belief. “No, I do not,” he responded. “I believe that whereas outer space is definitely the realm of God, I believe also that Earth is the realm of God, and I do not see any contradictions about moving from here to the Moon any more than I feel that a fellow is committing a sinful act by moving from one city to another. The whole universe belongs to God, and I think that God doesn’t mind at all if one of his creatures moves from here to here in his universe. In fact, I am convinced that if the good Lord had the intention of not letting us do this thing, he would’ve easily found ways and means of putting a few obstacles in our path. But I absolutely fail to discover any such obstacles, so I am convinced it is his intention that we do these things.”
From 1947 to 1976, he presented approximately 500 speeches, speaking on topics ranging from education and religion to the Cold War and space travel.
During WWII, von Braun—a former member of the Nazi party and decorated war hero—supervised the development of German V-2 rockets, a deadly new weapon employed by Adolph Hitler to blitz London. After the war, von Braun and his colleagues surrendered to the Allies and were brought to the U.S., where they were stationed at White Sands Proving Grounds in Alamogordo, New Mexico, continuing their research on intermediate range ballistic missiles. As rocket technology matured, von Braun and his team were incorporated by the government into the visionary nucleus of NASA, lending their expertise to its stated goal of space exploration. Later operating from his lab in Huntsville, Alabama, he developed the Saturn V booster rocket, which propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon in 1969.
According to W. Albert Wilson, a former NASA employee and Gideon Society member, in 1962 a troubled-looking von Braun requested a private session after hearing Wilson present the Gideon ministry to a church in Alabama. “When I left the office, I knew that he had become a Christian,” recalled Wilson. Strengthening his faith, von Braun attended a Lutheran church and often read from the Gideon Bible Wilson had gifted to him.
Scattered throughout von Braun’s lectures, many collected in The Voice of Dr. Wernher von Braun: An Anthology (2007), are intriguing remarks about God and faith:
We do not expect to find, through the exploration of space, tangible proof of the existence of God. But as scientists we cannot but admire His handiwork more deeply as we learn more about creation. And indirectly we learn more about the Creator…For spiritual comfort I find assurance in the concept of the Fatherhood of God. For ethical guidance I rely on the corollary concept of the brotherhood of man. Huntsville Ministerial Association, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Nov. 13, 1962.
Although I know of no reference to Christ ever commenting on scientific work, I do know He said: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Thus I am certain that, were He among us today, Christ would encourage scientific research as modern man’s most noble striving to comprehend and admire His Father’s handiwork. Religious Implications of Space Exploration: A Personal View, Belmont Abbey College, North Carolina, November 22, 1971.
In 1976, von Braun was invited by the Lutheran Church of America to present a paper at its synod. Confined for cancer treatment in a hospital, von Braun worked on his presentation for months, but was unable to read it when the date arrived. He died on June 16, 1977, at age 65.
In this reaching of the new millennium through faith in the words of Jesus Christ, science can be a valuable tool rather than an impediment. The universe as revealed through scientific inquiry is the living witness that God had indeed been at work. Understanding the nature of the creation provides a substantive basis for the faith by which we attempt to know the nature of the Creator. Responsible Scientific Investigation and Application: A Talk Presented to the Lutheran Church of America, Philadelphia, October 29, 1976.
In recent years, the contributions and legacies of many individuals in von Braun’s generation have been reevaluated, especially those like von Braun who were involved in the Nazi atrocities. The significance of von Braun’s visionary and technical role in the American space program remains undisputed, though some may question his public professions of faith as a kind of cynical diversion from his past. Yet, if they were not sincere what would he have gained by them, considering his indispensable leadership in the cold war “space race” and his national celebrity status?
Guest lecturers on campus provide the community access to what’s going on in the real world, beyond of the college culture “bubble.” The audience that June evening at Wheaton College was treated to an insider’s perspective on one of the hottest issues of their time. It’s also likely that von Braun’s thoughtful answer to a simple question involving the intersection of science and faith invited the Christian students and faculty to engage themselves in a new frontier.
Keith and Stephen,
Thanks for this historical vignette. It is well researched and fulfills Jesus command: “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure new things and old.” (Mt 13:52).
Thank you for this insightful history. it goes to show that God calls sinners to do his work. It is not our place to condemn those God has restored, simply because we know of their past sins.