In the von Braun household it was never a question if man would make it to the moon – it was simply a given.
Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Margrit von Braun headed to the basement of her family’s Huntsville home, turned on the black and white TV, sat on the couch with her siblings, and watched with the rest of the country as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Just days before she had felt the ground shake under her feet as the Saturn V launched Apollo 11 into space, an “incredible roar and then it was completely out of sight.”
Notably missing from the couch that night was von Braun’s father, Wernher. The man who had a hand in making it all possible was watching his dreams come true from Mission Control in Houston.
“As kids we grew up with this expected certainty that we were going to the moon,” von Braun said. “It wasn’t, ‘If we pull it off,’ it was, ‘On that day they’re going to land on the moon,’ and turn on the TV – there they are. As kids we had no appreciation for all of the scenarios of, ‘If this or that happens’ or if something goes wrong, which is what they were always doing in the
background. They were testing everything so it would be perfect the first time.
“The spirit of the place was, ‘This is going to happen. We are going to do this.’ And that’s a lot different than saying, ‘We’re going to try to maybe pull this off, if we’re lucky.’ I grew up with that sense of certainty and optimism. You prepare for failure but you really do everything you can to keep that from happening. There’s a lot of luck involved, but there’s a whole lot of preparation and hard work.”
While her father would become synonymous with America’s victorious race to space, at home there was plenty of humor and affection for the von Braun children, who not only enjoyed their father’s company when he was home in Huntsville, but also had the opportunity for quality one-on-one vacations with him, just the two of them.
“Those were really special times,” said von Braun, who went on a scuba diving trip with her father to Mexico in the mid 60s. “Our parents gave us such a great foundation of a loving family. That sticks with you your whole life. You hope to make something good out of that.”
If the pressure to answer President John F. Kennedy’s call to send man to the moon by the end of the 1960s was a burden for the rocket scientist, it was not one he necessarily carried home to his children.
“When he was home, he was home. He was very much a person that paid full attention to where he was at the moment. When he was home, we were the center of attention. He worked at home a lot, but when he wasn’t working, he was with us, asking us what we were doing. We spent every Sunday in nice weather at Guntersville on the lake – that was his day off, his day of recreation. He loved to swim.
“Even though he traveled a lot and worked a lot, I don’t remember ever feeling like I didn’t have time with him when he was there. It always felt like he was just interested in what we were doing. The time you spent with him was really your time. I think a lot of his employees felt that way too.”
The von Braun family – wife Maria, and children Iris, Margrit and Peter, are honorary chairs of the Rocket City’s Apollo 11 50th anniversary celebration, a “great thrill,” von Braun said.
“I think we’re celebrating people working together, which is getting to be a rare thing it seems like,” von Braun said. “It was a piece of teamwork. It’s still sort of the standard, we still say, ‘If we can get a man to the moon, why can’t we do X?’ We still use that as a standard, because it was teamwork, it was having a common mission, having an incredibly optimistic goal, shall we say, as an understatement. A lot of people said it was impossible, it was never going to happen, but people were so enthused and so convinced that they could do this.”
The past several months have been a flurry of anniversary activities for von Braun, who has logged plenty of frequent flier miles between Huntsville and Idaho, where she lives today. Through her visits, von Braun has been able to rediscover the other side of her father, the rocket scientist.
“It’s just so touching – people come up and share real personal encounters and good memories. It means a lot to me because I didn’t work for him,” said von Braun, who was 25 when her father died from cancer in 1977. “A lot of people say how he really took such a personal interest in what everybody was doing, which was nice to hear. That was part of his leadership style, was to make everybody remember how they were such an important part of every piece of the Saturn V. Everything had to work perfectly. Everybody felt that great responsibility, but excitement. You were responsible for it, but you were also excited that you were responsible for it because it really matters.”