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X-Prize victor remembers von Braun

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Aviation pioneer Burt Rutan has been fondly remembering on the BBC his childhood hero - German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

The X-Prize victor recently hooked up with two surviving members of von Braun's V2 team and admitted that von Braun's dreams of space travel had inspired him on his own quest to escape Earth's bounds. Sitting with Ernst Stuhlinger and Konrad Dannenberg, Rutan enthusiastically examined what he calls the "Rosetta Stone" - von Braun's teenage diary outlining his ambitions to send man to Mars. Said Rutan: "Here he is a teenager, in 1929 or so, talking about what wonderful things we can do in space."

Rutan modestly dismissed comparisons between himself and von Braun: "I clearly don't think I'm in that league," he admitted. "But I am not done yet. For me to be compared to von Braun, I've got to go at least to the moons of Jupiter, perhaps to the stars themselves."

While von Braun's contribution to the advancement of rocketry is undeniable - his post-war work for the Americans was vital to the eventual success of the Moon landings - he is rather less fondly remembered by many Europeans, especially the inhabitants of wartime London.

At 6.45 on the evening of Friday 8 September 1944 the first V2 to hit London slammed into Staveley Road, Chiswick, killing three. On 25 November 1944, 160 died when a V2 hit a packed Woolworths in New Cross Road, south London. A total of 1,300 V2s were fired at England, killing 2,724 people. A further 1,265 rockets - aimed at disrupting Allied disembarcations - landed on the port of Antwerp and pre-liberation Paris took several hundred hits from the device.

That von Braun and his V2 team escaped punishment for their work on Hitler's terror weapon is a classic tale of pure pragmatism in the chilly climate of post-war Europe. The US was determined to secure both von Braun's expertise and hardware lest they fall into the hands of its erstwhile ally, Russia. Von Braun booked himself a "no-questions-asked" ticket to America and quickly knuckled down to helping his adopted home win the Space Race.

Von Braun's place in history continues to provoke polemic. Did he have Nazi symapthies? Did he work voluntarily for Hitler or was he "volunteered" for the job? Should he have faced a war crimes tribunal?

The debate was recently revitalised by controversy surrounding German lenswoman Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl directed the propagandist Hitler biopic Triumph of the Will, considered by some a masterpiece of the genre. Riefenstahl's close collaboration with the Nazi propaganda machine ultimately led - despite her protestations of non-Nazi political allegiance - to her lifelong exclusion from further filmmaking.

Many, however, now insist that her work should be judged purely on technical merit, and without regard to the reason for, or the background to, its creation. Others demand that Riefenstahl's films be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with her memory, since they cannot be divorced from the regime that begat them.

Von Braun's legacy continues to be subjected to the same scrutiny. To many, he is a brilliant scientist who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To an equal number of dissenters, he is a brilliant scientist who was always in the right place at the right time - firstly when Hitler favoured him with vast resources to pursue his dream of rocketry, and subsequently when the Americans favoured him with vast resources to pursue his dream of space travel.

Whichever of these most adequately reflects the truth - had a wide-eyed student Burt Rutan not met von Braun at a 1965 San Fransisco technical conference, we may not have recently witnessed the world's first private space flight when SpaceShipOne briefly skipped out of Earth's atmosphere. Von Braun would have been delighted. ®

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