At sixty-two, von Braun would be, by far, the oldest astronaut to fly at this date. But there was no doubt he kept physically fit. He was an avid outdoorsman, boater and scuba diver. We mustn’t forget that Deke Slayton actually did fly a mission at the age of fifty-one, and many years later, John Glenn flew on the space shuttle at the age of seventy-seven! By 1972, NASA was certainly becoming a little more flexible about astronaut age-restrictions.
For most of von Braun’s career as an American space engineer, his war record was well-covered up. News that von Braun was actually a member of the Nazi party (perhaps reluctantly) did begin to leak to the public in the late sixties but never quite reached the level of scandal. The suggestion that he might even have been involved in the securing of slave-labour to help build his V2s came to light not long after. This accusation——disputed by von Braun——naturally tarnished von Braun’s reputation further, but again the damage was not major. To many von Braun remained an American hero. He was the figure in the Walt Disney special who explained to American children how they would soon land men on the moon.
There is no doubt there were people in NASA who held a personal grudge against von Braun. Who never forgot that his missiles killed innocent civilians in London and Amsterdam only twenty years before. There were many who felt the work force at NASA was scandalously over-represented by Germans, namely von Braun’s colleagues from Peenemunde. And finally, von Braun’s popular image among both the public and the American Senate (where von Braun regularly spoke before committees) seemed to irk many a NASA administrator who felt von Braun was going over their heads.
All this being said, it was not beyond an American president to over-ride NASA decisions. Even decisions about crew selection. It was largely this process that won Jack Schmitt—the first and only geologist to fly to the moon—a seat on Apollo XVII.
For the most part, LBJ didn’t give a damn what his critics thought, if he felt he was right. He didn’t mind putting noses out of joint. Appointing von Braun as Lunar Module Pilot of the last lunar mission, would have been one last great gesture of LBJ’s, showing everyone just who was ‘in charge’.
So, that, my friends, is how Wernher von Braun might have ended up flying to the moon. And the back story to my back story.
Cue in Frank Sinatra please…
FLY ME TO THE MOON
LET ME PLAY AMONG THE STARS…