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Review - Dark Side of the Moon - Wayne Biddle

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This is the second title I've reviewed where the author couldn't resist the title The Dark Side of the Moon. In Gerard De Groot's case, the book featured the political struggle behind the race to put a man on the Moon. Here the darkness in question is the dark past of Wernher von Braun, the man who seemingly effortlessly slipped from being a Nazi arms designer and honorary SS officer to being a hero of the US space programme and a popularizer of the science of space travel. 

If I'm honest Wayne Biddle's book contains no science to speak of, and very little on technology, which is why it can only receive 3 stars. As a pure book, it's well up in the four star rank. What it does well is fill in the historical background to the First and Second World Wars and uses this as the setting for exploring the nature and the motivation of the von Braun family. 

Like many people my age I had been taught about the Second World War in isolation with little about the first war or how Germany got to the position where Hitler could get in the ascendant, so I found this fascinating, even if Biddle's prose is a little pompous to begin with (it settles down after the first couple of chapters). 

Although von Braun's wartime activities and awareness of the slave labour used to construct the V2 rockets is reasonably well known by now, the book really brings it home. It's not a hatchet job, but makes a good effort at pinning down the reality of the von Braun past, rather than the hype that was put around when the US authorities were more interested in tapping into his expertise than exploring his political credentials. 

Only in hardback

Review by Brian Clegg


Community review by Jay N. Foster

I recently read "Dark Side of the Moon" by Wayne Biddle.  

I found this book to be a complete hatchet job on Dr. Wernher von Braun.  Dr. von Braun was an American hero who  placed the USA 1st in space. Certainly he had a past as we all do.  Author Biddle's initial effort at smearing Dr. von Braun is entirely based on an assumption that since Dr. von Braun was a German and Hitler was in power that he must have supported.  This is clearly a finding of guilt by association with absolutely no proof presented. Biddle also concludes without a scintilla of proof that von Braun attained his position through politics and his fathers prominence.  There is no substantive arguments presented to support this position. 

From my personal knowledge, Dr. von Braun was a genius. I worked for the man for 16 years, and he earned the respect and loyalty of his associates through his knowledge, skill, sound technical reasoning, and ability to get the best out of his employees.  He rarely, if ever, had to give a direct order.  His management technique, allowed him to listen to his associates ideas.  Through discussion he would accept your ideas or he would convince you with his logic to accept his approach to problems.  In this way his associates always bought into the decisions that were required for the successful assault on the moon.  His technical and management knowledge usually prevailed in these discussions but his associates always knew that they had an opportunity to make their case.

Biddle writes disparagingly that von  Braun never wrote, designed, or built anything to the last detail.  Of course not.  That is a strength, not a weakness.  von Braun was managing thousands of engineers and related staffs [~100,000 during the Apollo Program]. von Braun gave guidance, direction, and management experience to the government and contractor employees all across the program.  He was the consummate manager, Systems Engineer, and father figure to us all in spite of his relatively young age.

There was no basis presented by Biddle for his continually disparaging von Braun's young age.

Biddle makes the bald statement that von Braun never questioned or resisted Nazism -- p94.  Wrong.  He discussed the program with associates in Germany and talked about going to the west.  He was overheard and subsequently incarcerated by the SS.  Col General Dornberger interceded thru Himmler to Hitler stating that he needed his Chief Engineer back.  von Braun spent 2 weeks in a German prison on this occasion.

On the back of the cover a quote: "---without ever realizing the true meaning of American Democracy and culture." 

Von Braun certainly did understand the America he came to love.  Based on my 16 year association with von Braun, I believe he clearly understood America, supported Democracy, and thanked providence every day for being able to work, and follow his dream working for NASA and the USA.

As can be seen, I believe that Wayne Biddle decided to do a hatchet job on von Braun and he accomplished that objective through innuendo, supposition, and unsubstantiated assertions.  

I strongly believe that the life of Wernher von Braun taken as a whole shows a man that was thankful for America, its freedoms, and resources that allowed him and America to be the first to visit a neighboring celestial body.

In 500 years, the 20th century, and the decade of the 60's will be remembered as the time that man first successfully visited another celestial body.

These are my sincere comments concerning Wayne Biddle's book.  


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Last update 05 June 2007