Friday, March 30, 2012

His 100th Birthday

March 23rd was Wernher von Braun's 100th birthday. The US Space and Rocket Center has been gearing up for the celebration with their informative exhibit (open until May), and a few guest speakers. This post is my own reflection from one of the recent lectures.

Last week the "F" and I had a unique opportunity to learn more about my beloved Dr. Wernher von Braun through a thick German accent spilling the priceless memories of working for and with the late rocket scientist. Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer, a proud member of NASA for 50+ years, painted a beautiful picture of von Braun's personality and leadership style. He described a man known for never saying a hurtful word and being humble enough to visit blue collar workers and inquire about their job duties. His management style was a careful balance of delegation where the delegates had authority to make tough decisions.

My favorite memory Dr. von Puttkamer shared was about the beginning of his own career. He talked about corresponding with von Braun via letter from Prussia to America asking advice for college courses in the hopes of one day working with von Braun.Von Braun would always reply with good advice. Von Puttkamer described writing a specific letter to von Braun following his graduation from college with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

"I wrote to von Braun saying that I wanted to immigrate to America since the Aerospace jobs in Germany were slim. I basically said that I would immigrate to America and plan to work in industry for a few years since I was a greenhorn. Then after gaining experience I hoped to meet up with him and his team to build rockets."

A few weeks later von Puttkamer received a telegram from von Braun.

The telegram was very short and said:

Don't go to industry.
Come to Huntsville.
We are going to the moon.
-von Braun

As Puttkamer was telling us this story (remember, with a thick German accent), I couldn't help but feel a rush of excitement, for him and for the nation.

Wernher was so incredibly talented, but yet so incredibly personable. There is no doubt his management style "got the job done", and how might NASA's outlook be different now if someone had as much charisma as Dr. von Braun? I am completely onboard with von Braun's leadership and managerial style. It is in line with my morals and my personality and my limited experience with leading groups. It is not a question of being a "pushover", it's more about working for a person you ENJOY working for, and someone you know respects your position, whatever it might be. I don't know the climate of NASA's leadership, I don't work for NASA. But I do know we are losing right now, we are losing a national vision for space flight.

Dr. von Puttkamer mentioned one more nugget of knowledge worth sharing. Of course he is biased to support spaceflight, "But really," he said, "America just needs something scientifically stimulating, something which challenges our current knowledge, but more importantly, inspires young people to work hard in math and science fields." He's right. And as much as I would love that inspiration to blossom from America's human spaceflight ventures, the truth is we are in a desperate situation right now. We need something other than health care debates and economy downers to light the flame for the next generation.

Dr. Jesco von Puttkamer shares his memories last week at the US Space and Rocket Center.
Who will step up to accept the challenge von Braun indirectly delivered? Someone has to...and soon!