For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

By Jack Ganssle

Wernher von Braun

Published 8/17/2009

Mike Ficco has an interesting blog, and I enjoyed his recent postings . Even the youngster in the White House is now sporting a few grey hairs, and Mike's picture shows, well, that though we went to the University of Maryland together, it was a very long time ago. We have had a spirited back and forth via email about Apollo.

In his posting Mike says he thinks a huge part of Apollo's success was due to Wernher von Braun. Von Braun had the marketing savvy needed to sell the idea of going to the moon and a clear vision for what that mission would require. His TV appearances helped dispel the notion that space travel was a Buck Rogers fantasy. My dad worked with him, and we have a family lore of von Braun stories.

Von Braun was indeed an astonishing marketer and brilliant engineer. From my reading of history I believe he nearly single-handedly nurtured a nascent space program in this country through the 1950s, when no one had much interest in rockets.

But during the 60s von Braun did not lead NASA. He ran Marshall Space Flight Center, whose role was to manage just a portion of the Apollo program. Which he did, brilliantly. His command of project management brought the Saturn V online with only two test launches.

When JFK issued his challenge our space capability was primitive. We didn't know how to get to the moon. Von Braun's plan to assemble a single vehicle in Earth orbit that would go to the moon, land, and return. Turns out, he was wrong. We sent a tiny CM/CSM and LM, and then left the LM behind.

Von Braun's role of a visionary was largely eclipsed by the Apollo program itself, once Kennedy issued his challenge. The country was mesmerized by the idea of going to the moon. The program acquired a momentum of its own.

Part of Apollo's success, I believe, derived from the tragic death of a charismatic president. He was succeed by one who tried to embrace JFK's vision in many areas. Further, LBJ had a special interest in space. He remained in office till after we had put people in orbit around the moon, and to within months of Apollo 11's successful landing. Though both presidents had fatal flaws, Johnson in particular provided a continuity that kept the money rolling to NASA. Ironically, a war he had escalated led to cost-cutting that that cancelled his and von Braun's vision a few years after Johnson left office.

Mike's blog ends: "Return to the moon anytime soon? Ain't gonna happen. Go to Mars? Don't make me laugh." And with that I agree. A lunar return would be really exciting, and human exploration of Mars even cooler. But the moon is at least a hundred billion dollars away from Earth. Mars is much more distant. Federal spending will be hugely constrained in coming years, and I doubt that Americans will care to divert tax revenue to these sorts of missions.

But the Chinese might.