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Ed Buckbee discusses von Braun’s contributions to the aerospace industry during a presentation at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Dec. 6. (Record Photo/Kendyl Hollingsworth)

Ed Buckbee shares insight, memories working under von Braun during the Space Race

HUNTSVILLE — Those interested in Huntsville’s role in the Space Race had a special opportunity to hear from Ed Buckbee, former public affairs officer for the Wernher von Braun team, when he spoke at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Dec. 6.

Buckbee, who was also named the first executive director of the USSRC in 1970, shared his memories and insight to a large crowd as part of the center’s Pass the Torch series. The event was a sort of early kickoff for a year’s worth of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of man walking on the moon in 1969.

“There’s a lot of volunteer hours going through, and it is symbolic of our community as we celebrate 50 years ago, where we are in space today and where we’re going tomorrow,” said Joe Vallely, vice president of external affairs at the USSRC.

Members of the von Braun family are serving as co-chairs of the 50th anniversary activities, Valley said, and two of von Braun’s children, Margrit and Peter, were in attendance at Buckbee’s presentation.

Buckbee began in 1959 as an army officer at Redstone Arsenal before serving as the public affairs officer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. While woking closely with von Braun and other key figures on the team, Buckbee was able to witness the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

“Ed directed the design and operations of the museum that you see and the space camp operations that you see where so far, more than 17 million visitors have visited here,” Vallely said.

Since working in Huntsville, Buckbee has authored “The Real Space Cowboys” and edited “50 Years of Rockets and Spacecraft.”

In the beginning of his presentation to a large audience that included both space campers and many other members of the community, Buckbee explained that he was able to see more than one side of von Braun in the roughly two decades he worked with him. Not only was Buckbee able to see von Braun as a scientist, but also as an extremely effective communicator.

“I think all of us that worked with him learned a lot about communicating with Wernher von Braun,” Buckbee added. “He was just unbelievably good at delivering messages from the White House, from NASA headquarters and just generally from the public.”

From there, Buckbee discussed what it was like to work on von Braun’s rocket team, as well as  what all they experienced—their pride in teamwork, their sense of commitment and their passion for manned space flight, and even further, in beating the Russians to the moon.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was president in the late 1950s, Buckbee said he decided to put the military officers who worked with von Braun into a private organization. That organization was NASA.

This was a great move for von Braun and his team, seeing as it was more difficult for them to share and develop their ideas prior to that. Their time in Fort Bliss in the mid 1940s, Buckbee explained, was some of the “most wasted five years of [von Braun’s] life” because of these limitations. “It really was about a five-year period when they really didn’t see a future like they would later,” he added.

Buckbee said Gens. Medaris and Toftoy were two men who probably had the highest impact on von Braun on him in the area of exploring space for peaceful purposes. Buckbee also described Medaris as the man who brought space to Huntsville, Alabama, while Toftoy was responsible for bringing the von Braun team to the United States. This team of 120 German scientists soon grew to about 7,000 in the U.S. through the engineers who became employed in the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Redstone Arsenal. “All these guys knew nothing about rockets or missiles, but they were really good engineers, and they became a part of the von Braun team,” Buckbee said.

Working on their first effort with the Redstone weapon became the catalyst for the team eventually building the capability to make rockets. From there, von Braun’s popularity skyrocketed. He was featured on the cover of TIME magazine as the “Missileman” Feb. 17, 1958.

“We began to hear a lot about ‘Missileman,’ and the press came here in great numbers to meet the Missileman and hear his story,” Buckbee said.

One of the biggest disappointments the team faced was when the Russians “shocked the world” to become the first to launch something into space with Sputnik. This happened as von Braun’s team was preparing to launch their satellite.

“To this day, we’re still disappointed that we fooled around, waited too long and let the Russians become the first to launch something into space,” Buckbee said. “… It was a surprise for all of us.”

Eventually, von Braun handpicked a few scientists to join his team, and together they created Explorer 1, the U.S.’s first satellite that was launched into space in early 1958, just a few months after Sputnik.

At the time, ABMA was considered the space division of the army before NASA became the primary provider of those efforts. “That’s when we began to see a lot of things happen unrelated to weapons, but part of the exploration of space,” Buckbee explained. “… To this day, I don’t think people in this country realize how much technology is developed in Huntsville, Alabama, and ends up being used in special places.” The space program was truly born, and von Braun and his team were brought to the area for that purpose. Not long after their arrival, seven astronauts were selected and sent to Huntsville for the Mercury project.

Buckbee said the first time he was in the presence of a rocket was May 5, 1961, when the Mercury Redstone 3 launched Alan Shepard, in his Freedom 7 capsule, into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Huntsville’s Redstone had been modified for the Mercury flight and was the first American manned space booster.

With this great accomplishment, Buckbee said there was a big celebration that lasted “hours and hours” in downtown Huntsville at the courthouse. “That was the day that we realized we were truly in the space business,” Buckbee said.

President John F. Kennedy also became interested in the Space Race, particularly in beating the Russians to the moon.

When the president wanted to know if the U.S. would, in fact, beat the Russians to the moon, he decided to take a trip to Huntsville to find out from von Braun himself. Buckbee worked with the Secret Service that day, and they brought Kennedy to the “cowshed” where they watched static test firings. “The president was very impressed with that,” Buckbee said. “He didn’t realize we were so far along toward manned flight.” The president was also impressed on a trip with von Braun to Cape Canaveral to see the progress of the Saturn program firsthand.

Von Braun had assured Kennedy that not only would they beat the Russians to the moon, but they would do it within a timeframe that he set. This became even more real to the president after touring the Saturn program.

“Unfortunately, that president never had a chance to experience an actual launch, but he certainly had a firsthand tour of the Saturn program by von Braun, and I think he left there believing, ‘we’re really going to do this. We really are going to go to the moon. We’re going to do it in this decade,’” Buckbee said.

Many from Huntsville would go down to the cape to man things down there, and eventually, many stayed, resulting in the creation of the Kennedy Space Center, Buckbee noted.

The drive of von Braun and his team only seemed to accelerate. At a point, von Braun began to delegate work to other centers in the southern “fertile crescent” for space technology and exploration. These areas consisted of Huntsville, Alabama; Cape Canaveral, Florida; Houston, Texas; and New Orleans, Louisiana. The Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans also works in conjunction with the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi.

“It was a shock to a lot of people in our community that we were actually taking some of our work to other centers,” Buckbee recalled. “… [Von Braun] was going to build 50—I repeat, 50—Saturn IB’s and 100 Saturn V’s. There was no way he could do that at our little operation here because he wanted this operation to continue to push technology and let those other facilities produce the production-line rockets, and that’s what was planned all along to get us eventually on to Mars.”

Buckbee described the Saturn S-IC stage as “our baby.” That stage was ground tested 36 times in the test stands at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. While some tests were only seconds long, most were about two-and-a-half minutes, according to Buckbee.

“That vehicle was perfected before we allowed the contractors to produce and develop the real vehicles that would fly there,” he said. The ground test firing had to be watched from about 2,000 feet away and shook the ground with about 700.5 million pounds of thrust. “That was quite an experience to share with other people.”

Once the Saturn V was perfected and launched successfully, Apollo 11 came along. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins became the three astronauts that would be sent to the moon in the three-man spacecraft. “There was no question, by the way, about Neil being the first … he was the guy to be the first to walk on the moon,” Buckbee said.

Buckbee explained to the audience how crucial it is to have someone in the cockpit of a spacecraft, even today, to go anywhere in space. Armstrong was set to land the lunar module when he looked down at the last minute and put the spacecraft in a hover position above a large crater about 50 yards wide and 60 feet deep. The crew was fortunate that Armstrong ended up landing the module about 100 yards away—and with only 17 seconds of gas left in the tank—from that original landing site.

“If he had landed the spacecraft in that crater, we probably would have had our first crew stranded on the moon because the spacecraft would probably have been at a weird angle—it would not have certainly been level—and we may have really had ourselves in a mess,” Buckbee explained. “By the way, if they had landed and gotten out of the spacecraft and tried to climb up a 60-foot wall, they wouldn’t make it in a spacesuit.”

In an old interview that Buckbee showed, von Braun described the moon landing as “undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, highlight.” He was relieved to have the three astronauts home safe, though. In that same interview, von Braun said he was not surprised that they were able to land a man on the moon.

“To be very frank, when I was 17 years old, I had no doubt that man would land on the moon in my lifetime, but of course, at the age of 17, I had no idea what it would really take to do it, nor did I know what a billion dollars was, so it dawned on me only gradually that this was a much bigger undertaking than what my childish naivety had thought it would be, but I also never had any doubt that it would come to pass,” von Braun told the reporter in the video.

The U.S. ended up launching 13 Saturn V moon rockets, nine of which were manned and went to the moon, according to Buckbee.

“It’s amazing what that vehicle accomplished with no failures whatsoever in any of those missions,” he said. “In fact, it ended up sending the Skylab up on the very last flight unmanned … quite an accomplishment of one particular vehicle.”

The audience was amused when Buckbee said the U.S. quite literally kept score with the Russians during the Space Race. “Every time we had a flight to the moon, we sent an announcement out to all the television stations, newspapers and magazines in Moscow letting them know that we had completed another successful flight,” Buckbee recalled. They never heard a word from the Russians about that, though.

Von Braun participated in many press conferences at the cape, and Buckbee said he was so popular with reporters that if von Braun was not invited to the press conference, it was unlikely that the media would show up. When he was present he would be getting all the questions, so at one point, Buckbee said they had to plant a few questions themselves. That served as a testament to von Braun’s great success as a communicator.

“He not only gave them insight into the mission, he made you believe it was going to be successful,” Buckbee said of von Braun. “In those days, that was kind of unique.”

Of course, von Braun was not only popular with the president and the press. He was also consulted by Walt Disney in the development of Epcot to find out what the future might look like.

“I don’t think we ever satisfied Walt Disney with what the future was going to hold, but it turned out to be an interesting theme park, certainly, and it certainly had a picture of the future,” Buckbee said.

In the end, the PeopleMover became von Braun’s contribution to Epcot, according to Buckbee. He had strongly advised Disney to give visitors something they would remember rather than use something as mundane as buses.

In regard to interesting and innovative vehicles, Buckbee said von Braun was often persuaded to buy many of these strange contraptions on speaking arrangements and trips. Von Braun, also well-versed as a pilot, was inclined to test out many air and land vehicles himself. Two contraptions he ended up purchasing were a Super Guppy aircraft and a Molab, or mobile laboratory. Buckbee said the Molab is still around.

“That was the type of thing that the contractors realized: if you got von Braun engaged with your project, your idea, you had a good chance of being successful,” Buckbee added.

In closing, Buckbee remarked upon how he still marvels at Braun’s vision and sense of purpose and credits him with creating “a new breed of thinkers, of innovators and problem-solvers.” He also said von Braun helped many understand the importance of having a permanent presence in space.

“He helped us touch the stars, and he left behind a blueprint for exploring the universe,” Buckbee added. “He was a crusader for human spaceflight. If he were here today, he would be calling for spacefaring nations to join together in the human exploration of space. He would have encouraged us to work together, pushing cutting-edge technologies and challenging us as explorers to navigate bold and difficult paths. He would have said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for another journey, another walk, and this time on Mars.’”

Von Braun’s daughter, Margrit, later used her father’s words to call upon the attending space campers to continue innovating and cracking the secrets of the universe.

“I’m glad that you’re identified as the workforce development of the future because you really are the heirs to the space age, and I congratulate you for your being here at space camp,” she said.

To learn more about Buckbee and his contributions, visit www.air-space.com.

During a Q&A session following the presentation, space campers and adults were able to gain a little more insight into who von Braun was as a person. To answer one question, Margrit described her father as “just our dad” when he was not working.

“When he was at home, he was not a rocket scientist,” she said. “My mother can attest to that … but he was very much just our dad. That’s how we knew him was as our dad. We spent every Sunday at Guntersville at the lake, and he didn’t talk about work, but other than that he worked a lot. He was gone a lot during the week, but when he was home on the weekends, he was with us, and he was just our dad.”

In addition, Margrit said neither she nor her siblings were pushed to follow in their father’s footsteps. Instead, they were encouraged to study and work hard at what they were passionate about. Von Braun also had many interests beyond space exploration, according to Margrit, including music and history.

“We were really encouraged to do whatever our hearts took us to as long as we worked hard and did it well,” she said. “My sister and brother both studied history, and I studied environmental engineering. I don’t think any of us had the nerve to go into rocketry.” The audience laughed at her latter statement.

To answer one question from a space camper, Buckbee explained that though nobody ever became angry with von Braun, there were times when people wondered if they were capable of doing some of the things von Braun said they would do.

“That sometimes got our attention because we would not always know the vision that he had about the potential of this country and NASA and the contractors,” Buckbee explained. “He had a much better feel for that than most of us. He could see beyond … the problems. We would see the little problems that would cause that not to be successful, but not Wernher von Braun. He would look beyond. He was always looking to the future.”

According to Vallely, 2019’s Pass the Torch series will be dedicated to the Apollo era to celebrate the momentous anniversary. Throughout the year, the USSRC will also host a number of panelists on various topics that examine the “tremendous technological feat” of landing a man on the moon.

“We’ll have a number of topics and panelists looking at that tremendous technological feat and how 400,000 Americans working together were able to put that together and land us on the moon and bring us safely back,” he said. “We’ll also look at other areas as well.”

For a list of upcoming events at the USSRC, visit therocketcenter.com or view the “Events” page on huntsville.org.

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