Friday, May 15, 2015

Nick Meets Werner von Braun

President J. F. Kennedy and Werner von Braun: both shared a dream of landing a man on the Moon.
In 1957, I was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, a year away from a degree in Engineering Physics. I answered an ad for a summer job at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. I look upon my trip to late '50s Alabama as my first visit to a foreign country.

My summer job at Redstone Arsenal was exceedingly boring, having to do mainly with documenting the mechanical parts that go into the construction of a rocket weapon. Perhaps because I possessed TOP SECRET security clearance and was almost a physicist, my bosses took mercy on me and awarded a few assignments that took me out of the blueprint trenches and into the upper atmosphere. Every week or so, I would visit an office labeled "nuclear warheads" to check if the production of these crucial components was still on schedule in line with our corporate flow chart.

Then our documentation group was assigned to publish an internal Glossary of Missile Terms for the enlightenment of the troops.  I was chosen to interview the boss of Redstone concerning, among other things, the definition of "ballistic missile". Our boss was Werner von Braun.

I elevated up to von Braun's office, was ushered in and shook his hand. He offered me a seat and I interviewed him for almost an hour about the basic physics of ballistic missiles. In 1957, von Braun was 45 years old. He appeared big and physical like a retired football player, restless and uneasy behind a desk, aching for some sort of action.

Von Braun taught me a lot about ballistic missiles. After the initial burn, a ballistic missile travels in "free fall" like a rock tossed into the air. Ideally such a rock or rocket would travel along a gravity-defined trajectory called a "parabola" (a curve that quirky author Thomas Pynchon dubbed Gravity's Rainbow). But other forces are at work on the rocket besides gravity-- primarily air resistance and fictitious forces due to the rotation of the Earth.

Inside the missile, engineers have installed an "inertial platform" constructed of gyroscopes and accelerometers. If gravity were the only player in the game, this inertial platform would feel no forces and the trajectory of the missile would perfectly track gravity's rainbow. However in the atmosphere of a rotating Earth, the missile will experience additional forces as it travels from launch site to target. A new trajectory is calculated on the ground for a model atmosphere and rotational corrections, this "more realistic" trajectory will produce an expected pattern of forces on the inertial platform.

If the inertial platform feels only these expected forces, it does nothing, but if new forces are encountered different from those predicted for the path stored in its computer memory, the missile fires small attitude-control rockets to bring the rocket back into its calculated course.

The flight of a ballistic missile then is not truly ballistic. Its theoretical trajectory is calculated with the best corrections available -- producing a non-parabolic arc between launch and target site. En route to the target, the inertial platform measures the deviation between this theoretical path and the path the missile is actually following and applies appropriate rocket thrust to bring the course in line with what theory says it ought to be.

After a few more questions about other topics, I thanked the boss for giving me so much of his time, shook his hand a second time and went back to my pals in the trenches. I returned to school in Ohio before the missile glossary was completed and a few months later, the Russians sent up Sputnik, whose beep-beep-beep from space forever changed the world.

Alabama in 1957 was indeed for me a foreign country, with its incomprehensible deep South dialect, its peculiar patterns of racial segregation, its colorful Bible-belt fundamental preachers on the stairs of the Huntsville Court House, born-again Baptist tent revivals in the countryside and the ever-present feeling in the air (and in the public statues of Confederate heroes) that for many residents of Alabama the War Between the States was still current news. I was often referred to as a "Yankee"

And only much later, back home in Columbus, did I realize that in that casual interview with Werner von Braun, Nick Herbert's skin had come in contact with real psychic power --  Nick's hand one mere handshake away from the hand of officially designated Grand Satan Unsurpassed.

Postage stamp honoring Werner von Braun


nick herbert said...

Jack Sarfatti and Iona Miller both reference Tom Lehrer's classic song about this famous German rocketeer, Watch it here:

Graeme Thomson said...

That's a cracking tale. I never knew about Von Braun. Just read about him on Wiki. Fascinating. I loved this satirical jibe aimed at him: "I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."

The song you link to is also brilliant.


nick herbert said...

Tom Lehrer is one of America's National Treasures. His "The Elements" is a classic at

Graeme Thomson said...
Bizarrely enough I heard this song on a BBC Radio 4 show on Saturday as I was driving. It was used as a backdrop to a feature about something I can't even remember. But I do recall thinking: "That's an incredible song in the background."

The programme never mentioned the song but now I know who did it. Thanks again.

Now I need to learn about Tom Lehrer. He seems as gifted in his own field as Von Braun was in his.

All the Best

Graeme Thomson said...

PS: Thanks for the reply, too.
PPS: I have asked before and, on the oft chance you never saw my previous question the other week, would like to ask you again: "Would you consider setting up a Twitter account?"

Graeme Thomson said...

Hi Dr Herbert.

I won't mention the T word again :)

I confess I am addicted to this particular social media platform and would have loved to follow you on it.

That was only reason I, somewhat rudely, asked about it again.

Slainte mhath!