The Rocket Dreamer
A Historical Fiction by Geoff Gonzalez
Based on a true series of events
The yellowing papers rustled as the wind blew through the opened window. The plaster walls creaked slightly as the strong gust of Florida breeze shook the room. For an office that was only occupied for a fraction of the year, it was remarkably just as messy and unkempt.
Wherner von Braun awoke gently from his dreams to the sound waves crashing on the nearby seashore. It was almost sunset, and the long black silhouette of the nearby lighthouse was already creeping its way across the golden landscape. He drew a heavy sigh, contemplating the long, myriad dreams of the night before. Ever since he had flown down to the Cape, he could not stop thinking about his rockets. They permeated his every dream, his every thought. Never once had they failed to give him that same childish rush of excitement and inspiration he had experienced as a boy in Germany.
He had only to sit in his office above Hangar C and look out towards Missile Row to see them. Far above the green expanses of the Canaveral forests, the rockets stood proud and beautiful, gleaming splendidly against the darkening skies. When the Doctor grew tired of the figures and facts and press, he would often sit here alone for hours at a time. In fact, he spent most of his time in that office staring out the window; ever watching the endless streams of workers and machinery rumbling up and down ICBM Road.
Always watching the slow, yet necessary creation of the mechanical marvels.
During these extended periods of solitude, all visitors and employees were strictly forbidden from entering the great Doctor's office. Even Eberhard and Magnus were sent away when he needed time alone, but they understood completely.
The rocket scientist, as the very best of them believe, is not merely a man of machinery, but of hopes and dreams; a most peculiar cross between the cold, calculating observer and the dreaming artist. He was forever torn between calculating the maximum mechanical potential each rocket possessed and painting the landscape of the heavens with the pale glow of his slender creations. Hence, the rocket scientist needs his time to think; not only to calculate and measure, but to dream and create. This was the majesty of von Braun's mind; he dreamed more deeply and lovingly of his creations than anyone ever had or will ever again. That is what made the Doctor special, what made him better than all the rest. Everybody in the world relied on his work in some way or another and he knew it too. "The more, the merrier," he would often say. "But I have to think of them first!"
Today, however, his thinking was interrupted by a sudden rapping on the door.
"Herr Doctor?" a German-accented voice inquired.
The Doctor shook his head and rubbed his eyes, pushing his tousled gray hair back across his forehead. He grumbled at the unwanted intrusion.
"Damn it, Eberhard!" he shouted, "You know not to disturb me at this hour."
"I am sorry, Wherner, but it is rather important," the voice said quietly. "May I please come in?"
The subtle earnestness made Wherner pause. Eberhard Rees was not usually one for emotions and seldom ever interrupted him. Ever since they had met while working on the Nazi V-2 missiles, he had grown quite fond of his eager assistant. Rees was smart and intelligent, yet expressionless and introverted; the perfect kind of man he needed on his team of German elites. Thus, whenever the engineer used his calm, quiet voice, the Doctor was quite willing to listen.
"Come in," he said at length.
The door swung open to reveal the intruder of his privacy. The "young" assistant, as Wherner still called him, stood on the threshold of the metal doorway that led to the hangar below. Rees was in his mid-fifties now; still hale and hearty of heart, but even quieter and refined than when they had met. He was usually very cheerful and amiable, but today his smooth face bore a grave expression that von Braun could not understand. The man's entire composure seemed to reek of bad news, which made Wherner slightly apprehensive. Rees opened his mouth as if to speak, but looked down away as he shuffled his feet. Despite their long friendship, he had always been rather shy around Wherner.
The great Doctor, on the other hand, was in no mood to play games.
"What is it, man? Spit it out."
The former Nazi engineer instinctively flinched and saluted to his superior, drawing a curious glance from von Braun. Something was definitely wrong.
"What's WRONG, Rees?" the Doctor asked impatiently. "You're starting to worry me."
"Well..." his assistant answered in a hesitant voice, "we've just received news from Washington regarding our plans for the Saturn and NOVA boosters. I was told to deliver them to you as soon as possible."
Wherner was now legitimately anxious. "What did they say? Did they approve the rockets?"
Eberhard looked down again, quiet and unmoving.
"Herr Doctor," he nervously replied, "they've canceled the Saturn through fiscal year 1970 and the NOVA program completely. They..." his voice broke off as he looked away sadly.
"Sit down, Rees," von Braun said, gesturing towards a nearby chair. "Let me get you something to drink." He soon returned from a small side room with a steaming cup of coffee.
"Please tell me more," Wherner said quietly.
The engineer sniffled softly as he sipped the scalding liquid. The Doctor knew a broken heart when he saw one and he had never seen anything like it before in Eberhard; he was usually his most reserved engineer.
"All our plans…" Rees whispered, "Mars and a space station by '80, a moon base by 2000. They've all just been...thrown away…"
"Did they give any reason why?" Wherner asked softly.
"The Apollo program has taken far more money than anyone in office had ever anticipated. Gemini was fairly quick and easy because the Air Force already had what they needed. Butwith all our expensive testing and designing, the government has become increasingly skeptical of the need for our programs. They disapproved of the Saturn IB because the Saturn I had worked just fine. They did not realize that it was essential to the versatility of the Saturn and scathingly denounced it as an "extravagant expenditure." And the Five? Ha! Who would ever want to dish out a billion dollars for a single rocket? Not a soul! And that thinking only brought them to the question of the NOVA series; it was gone before it even reached the House...I just...I just can't, Wherner. All our dreams..." He sat quietly, staring out the window at the black-and-white lighthouse above them. Not crying or even tearful, but for a man who had shown little emotion in his life, it was more than obvious that he was upset.
The unexpected emotional weakness in Rees surprised the Doctor very little; he was on the verge of tears himself. Still, as the icy commander his men knew him to be, he had to show his strength, no matter the weakness. His greatest dreams were gone, perhaps forever, but he knew that no matter how hard the world tried, it could never take them away from him. Emboldened by his thoughts amid such grief, he resolved to show his assistant the true meaning of things.
"Come here, Rees," he whispered quietly, "There's something I need to show you."
Eberhard cocked his head to the side and squinted at him. Comfort was not traditionally one of the Doctor's strong suits.
"You want me to come...WHERE? Over there?"
Wherner rolled his eyes. "Yes, Eberhard! Come sit by the window. I need to show you something."
Confused again by his antics, Eberhard slowly crept towards the window and sat atop the low filing cabinet. He looked around the world that lay behind Wherner's desk; random drawings and meaningless scribbles lay all over the floor, haphazardly arranged in a madman's pattern. Models of rockets past and present sat atop the shelves and bookshelves, surrounded by a plethora of dusty books and manuals. Feeling slightly uncomfortable and awkward, he looked up at his superior.
"What do you want to show me?" he asked.
But Wherner said nothing. He didn't even acknowledge Rees' presence. He just stood by the window staring out at the rocket pads with the biggest smile Eberhard had ever seen.
"What is it, Wherner?" he asked again. He was certain that the Doctor was slowly losing his mind.
Suddenly, without any kind of warning, von Braun grabbed his face and pointed at the red gantries along the Atlantic shore.
"Out there, Rees," Wherner said dreamily, "Can't you see them? Hear them? Feel them rumbling in your heart?"
Eberhard sat quietly for a second.
"You mean...the rockets…sir?"
"Yes...," the Doctor replied, "the rockets...the gantries...the sights and smells and sounds of our every dream. They're mine just as much as they are yours, Eberhard; you know that they are. You see, I hardly ever leave Huntsville because there is much work to be done there. But every second that I am down here is a dream state for me. There is not a more wonderful feeling in this world than watching your childhood dreams every day just a few miles from where we are standing now. For instance, look at Pad 36."
Eberhard followed the crooked finger to the twin red gantries at the rounding of the Cape. A brand-new Atlas missile had just been wheeled down the road and was being guided by the pad engineers to its place on the stand. The flatbed truck backed up as far as it could before the capture rails rolled the missile off its back, producing a sharp metal screech as the rocket was wrenched from its former supports. On the ground near the fuel tanks, a gleaming white Centaur stage stood waiting for its long-awaited mating with its Atlas counterpart; the match made in Huntsville was just minutes from reuniting. After a few tense moments of moving the rocket up the pad's incline, the engineers finally guided the aluminum-hulled booster onto the erector and secured it tightly with thick iron bars. A loud siren suddenly blared as the silver rocket was slowly pointed skyward.
"Fifteen degrees, clear the test stand area to the roadblock" a distant voice called over the PA. The rocket slid slightly within its harnesses, but the erector held it firm in place.
"Forty-five degrees," the voice called again. So close, the Centaur seemed to say as it watched in eager anticipation.
"Ninety degrees. Capture." A siren blared again as a metallic "bang" thundered across the landscape. With a final squeal, rattle, and hiss, the Atlas sat comfortably nestled in the loving hands of Pad 36A.
"There!" the Doctor suddenly exclaimed. "All ready and prepared for launch. Now wasn't that exciting, Rees?"
The assistant looked dumbly at the gantry.
"Wherner..." he said, "it's just an Atlas-Centaur. Aren't you at all concerned about what's going on up at Kennedy? About the Saturn?"
Wherner gave him a serious look. "Kennedy Space Center? You mean the place where only one rocket is being made at a time and always very, very slowly? Where the dreams of man are controlled and stifled by the wallets of governments, except that which is necessary for glory? When it comes time to launch the Saturn V, I will always be proud and excited. It is indeed our greatest achievement and if what you've told me is true, then it will be the highest we'll climb for a very long time."
"Too true..." Eberhard whispered softly.
"But let me tell you something, lad. Do you know why I come to Hangar C when I am down here in Florida? Why, of all places that I can be, I choose here? Because this is where rockets are FREE, Rees. Kennedy is where the public is looking now, and so the government seeks to control it. They use their greed to restrain the potential and fictionalize it to the point of mediocrity. But down here? Down here, rockets are missiles; missiles are for the military; the military wants to be better than the Soviets, and thus, the rockets are FREE. Limitless, unrestrained, and savagely beautiful. That's the perfection of them, Rees. Take any of those qualities away and the rockets will be dead, not alive as you and I know them to be."
Rees was indeed awed by great Doctor's speech, but there were still things he did not understand about him.
"But what makes these rockets beautiful, Herr Doctor? Why did you fall in love with Cape Canaveral and not Kennedy?"
Wherner merely smiled.
"Take a look, Rees," he whispered quietly in his ear.
As the sun slowly slipped behind the pale horizon, the blue streetlights along ICBM Road flicked on simultaneously, painting a bright outline leading all the way up the darkening coast. Shortly afterward, a buzzer sounded from within Hangar C. One by one, as if by some dark magic, the red gantry lights of each launch pad switched on and filled the night air with their distant humming.
The IRBM gantries to the south lit up rather quickly, since they were relatively small, but the giant pads on along ICBM Road took a considerably longer time. First, Pads 36A and 36B, with the brand-new Atlas-Centaur happily nestled in its motherly embrace. Then the other Atlas pads 11, 12, 13, and 14, spotted the horizon with four perfect red outlines of the classic Atlas gantry. They stood stark red against the black night sky, like crimson monoliths of a world unknown to mankind. Soon, another buzzer sounded and the lights of the great Titan pads came on, just like the others. 15, 16, 19, and 20, they appeared, dotting the horizon with even more lights. And far away, closest to Kennedy, lay the twin Saturn pads: 34 and 37. The massive Apollo structures provided the perfect crown atop the line of America's proudest launch complexes.
And just then, as if to perfect the other-worldly scene, a full red moon crept over the Atlantic Ocean.
Wherner put a reassuring hand on Eberhard's shoulder as they both surveyed the beauty of the technological monoliths stretching out along the soft horizon.
"Missile Row, Rees;" the Doctor said, "the most beautiful sight in the entire world. Not Peenemunde, Kapustin Yar or even the Baikonur Cosmodrome could compare to what you see now. This is Cape Canaveral: the only place in the world where rockets are free and the dreams of man are allowed to grow. We have given the world the Saturn, and with that, they will forever change this world. Let them have that, let them do as they please; I have this office and my rocket dreams. That is more than enough for me."
In that moment, the eyes of Eberhard Rees were fully opened. Never before had he seen the world of rockets in such a beautiful way and never again would they look the same to him.
"Thank you, Wherner," he said with a heavy sigh. "That was a beautiful sight."
The great Doctor smiled from ear to ear as he clapped his assistant on the shoulders; he knew when his work had been done.
"Good on you, Rees. I'm glad to have shown it to you. Now you really should be going; I'm sure the other engineers are wondering where you've been. Also, could you send for Magnus? I need him to draw up some things tonight."
"Of course, Herr Doctor." Eberhard dutifully replied as he stood and walked away.
But before he reached the door, the gentle German voice stopped him.
"And Rees? One more thing."
"One day, when I am gone, you will be here to take my place. You will be the director at Marshall, the chief designer of my projects, and everything that I am now. One day, this will be your office, and you will sit here and watch the rockets just like I do now. And so, I just want you to never forget one important thing."
Eberhard looked at his superior intently. "What's that?"
"So long as there are dreamers in this world who are willing to let their imagination come to life, there will always be rockets here at Cape Canaveral. Without dreams, rockets are nothing. You must teach men to dream again, Rees. Promise me you will teach them as I have taught you."
Eberhard nearly choked on his words as he forced them out of his mouth; he was struggling hard now to hide his emotions.
"I promise you I will, Herr Doctor," he said at length.
Another broad smile.
"You're a good man, Eberhard. Have a good night."
"You too, Wherner." The assistant said, shutting the steel door as he walked across the threshold.
Almost thirty years later, Eberhard Rees sat in the office above the aging Hangar C at Cape Canaveral. Wherner von Braun had been dead since 1977 and, as the great Doctor had always intended, Eberhard was now the Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The old man, as Rees was now called, looked out across the land he had watched with von Braun on that magical night. But it looked so very different now.
All of the Titan and Atlas pads had been completely destroyed; unneeded and unnecessary now that the rocket families were slowly being reduced and retired. The only pads that still stood along the coast was the gantries at Pads 36A and 37 to the north, but even those had been changed to a hideous grey color with harsh orange padlights. Everything seemed hostile or made of plastic; a world most unfit for any rocket that longed to soar free.
The Cape had been killed by the very men who swore to protect it.
As Eberhard sat alone in the old, disused office, he looked down and saw a hollow Atlas D missile lying miserably against the side of the hangar. Never again would this proud missile launch into the skies; never again would it feel the thrill of being hoisted into the gantry to be mated with a fitting upper stage. Never again…
The sun soon set and a buzzer sounded dreadfully from within Hangar C. But along the shoreline of the Cape, there was nothing but darkness and ruins of a world long departed. No rockets, no gantries, no nighttime preparations for some future launch. All dead and cold.
And old Eberhard finally cried.
"So long as there are dreamers in this world who are willing to let their imagination come to life, there will always be rockets here at Cape Canaveral.
The rockets of Cape Canaveral and their launch pads have been all but lost to history and memory. They are there in museums and books and pictures, but the people of today will never know what they truly meant and what they truly mean. They are the silent, staring artifacts of a world long gone; a world in which exploration flourished, rockets soared free, and men were courageous and unafraid to dream.
"Teach men to dream again. Promise me you will."