Not Exactly Rocket Science

Genie Scott and I share a fondness for the songs of Tom Lehrer, the satirical songwriter of the 1960s. The NCSE holiday party where we were prevailed upon to sing his Christmas carol (“Christmas time is here, by golly, / Disapproval would be folly / Deck the halls with hunks of holly / Fill the cup and don’t say when”) will not soon be forgotten, unfortunately. So, in the words of a different Tom Lehrer ditty, gather ’round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun.

A correspondent recently wrote, “The other Sunday, my pastor said that [von] Braun believed that it took faith to send a rocket to the moon. Recently [Answers in Genesis] published a cartoon in response to Bill Nye which seemed to allege that von Braun was a young[-]earth creationist.” But, he continued, “I have found many sources about von Braun claiming there was a designer, but even [Michael] Behe claims that. Did von Braun believe in common descent or an old earth?”

That struck me as a good question. My correspondent’s von Braun, of course, is Tom Lehrer’s: Wernher von Braun (1912–1977), the German rocket scientist who was important in developing both the V-2 rocket during World War II and the Saturn V booster rocket, which launched Neil Armstrong to the moon, during the Space Race. He wasn’t a slouch scientifically, receiving a PhD in physics from the University of Berlin, twelve honorary doctorates, and the National Medal of Science in 1975.

But late in his life, von Braun was willing to lend his name and reputation to various creationist efforts. He wrote a foreword to Harold Hill’s From Goo to You by Way of the Zoo (Plainfield [NJ]: Logos International, 1976)—which I always think wins the prize for entertaining creationist titles, as much for the scansion as for the rhyme. (A later edition of Hill’s book in 1984 featured a foreword by the astronaut James Irwin, continuing the supposed connection with the space program.)

Worse, in 1972, von Braun wrote to Vernon L. Grose that “I endorse the presentation of alternative theories for the origin of the universe, life[,] and man in the science classroom,” and his letter was read to the California state board of education, which was then embroiled in a dispute over the treatment of evolution. (The dispute was complex and protracted, running from 1969 to 1974, and involving the state science framework, the content of textbooks, and eventually a lawsuit, Segraves v. California.)

Still, that doesn’t mean that he was himself a young-earth creationist. Is it likely that a space scientist of his eminence would have turned his back on the abundant evidence for the great age of the universe and the earth? A cursory search suggested that he never offered a detailed discussion of his views on these topics, so it would be necessary to examine all of his writings and papers carefully to be sure. And apparently there are over two hundred linear feet of his papers in his archives.

Not decisive but certainly suggestive was the fact that a 1995 article in Creation Research Society Quarterly (32[1]:7–10) entitled “Wernher von Braun: The father of modern space flight—a Christian and a creationist” reverently described von Braun’s scientific career and religious faith without mentioning his views on the age of the earth or common descent. It’s hard to believe that the author wouldn’t have triumphantly described those views if they coincided with those of young-earth creationism.

Dorothy Nelkin mentions von Braun’s support of teaching “alternative theories” in the text of The Creation Controversy (New York: WW Norton, 1982), but adds in a footnote (p. 92, n. 28), “Von Braun later qualified his position, stating that he believed there was ‘divine intent’ behind the processes of nature, but did not believe that all living species were created in their final form 5,000 years ago.” She doesn’t give a source for the later qualification, however, and it wasn’t until after I answered my correspondent that I found it.

Well, there’s a limit to how much time I can lavish on research. So, not having found anything by von Braun himself or in the literature on the creationism/evolution controversy that answered my correspondent’s question, I turned to a recent biography, Michael J. Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (New York: Random House, 2007), which The New York Times’s reviewer described as “the most complete, fully documented[,] and critical account that the imperfect documentary record is likely to yield.”

That enabled me to end my response to my correspondent by quoting Neufeld: “Although he had made public statements supporting ‘design’ in the creation of the world and the human mind, he sought, like other mainstream believers, to integrate Darwin, big bang cosmology, and God. His thoughts along those lines were neither original nor profound, but he certainly was not about to forsake the science that pointed to a Universe and life-forms evolving for aeons, albeit subject to divine intervention” (p. 470).

It was only later that I discovered that Grose, who elicited the letter from von Braun, published his own account of the California fracas, after a long delay. In Science but not Scientists (Bloomington IN: AuthorHouse, 2006)elaborately subtitled How Everything Began: CHANCE or CREATION?—Grose quotes von Braun as clarifying his letter:

  1. If fundamentalistic religion means belief that the book of Genesis gives a correct scientific account of how the world came into being; that 4004 BC is the date of the origin of the earth, and that all living things were “created” in their final form rather than developed through evolutionary, “survival-of-the-fittest” processes, then I am most emphatically not a believer in fundamental religion.
  2. If, however, the question is whether behind the many random processes which are operating in nature, there is a “divine intent”, my answer is an equally emphatic “yes.” With this position I am only sharing and accepting the views expressed by giants of science such as Newton, Kepler, Faraday, Pascal[,] and Einstein. (p. 358)

The clarification seems to confirm Neufield’s summary of von Braun’s thought and to be the probable source of Nelkin’s footnote. And it certainly seems to be a reason that Answers in Genesis ought to refrain from counting von Braun as among the “Great Creation Scientists”! All it takes is a little patience to examine the historical record. After all, it’s not exactly rocket science.

This was originally published in the print supplement to Reports of the National Center for Science Education 2012;32(6):5–6. Had you been a member in good standing of NCSE when it was published, a copy of the supplement would have been delivered to your mailbox, and you wouldn’t have had to wait for it to appear on the Science League of America blog. So why not take a moment to join NCSE, or renew your membership, right now? It’s only $35, $40 for foreign addresses, and $700 for a lifetime membership. Such a deal!

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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