Robert Harris's V2 was an absorbing second world war thriller about British attempts to locate and destroy the base in the Netherlands from which Hitler was born. V2 is an example of the research that underpins Harris' plots. The portrayal of Wernher von Braun, the German engineer who was the leading figure in the development of Nazi rocketry and who was snaffled by the US, was an interesting aspect of the novel.

Robert Harris wrote a review about his fears of a rocket man.

Von Braun was portrayed by Harris as a shrewd operator who used the Nazi regime to enable him to further his dream of space exploration. Although he joined the National Socialist party in 1937, he claimed that it was the only way to continue his technical work on rocketry. The decision to join the SS is a useful part of Harris's story.

He spent two weeks in a Gestapo cell after being accused of bringing in too much patriotism, but he was restored after Albert Speer, the minister for war production, interceded. Von Braun was an astute manipulator of the Nazi regime for his own purposes, whatever the truth is about this. When Germany surrendered, the Americans would be more interested in his potential usefulness than in the employment of slave labour in the German rocket programme.

It proved. The state department approved the transfer of Von Braun and his team to the US in June 1945. The rocket that launched the US's first space satellite was designed by him, four months after Sputnik sent the American political class into a tailspin. He became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the lead architect of the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon in 1960.

He knew the US would be more interested in his usefulness than in, say, slave labour in the German rocket programme

Not bad for a former officer. The story gets better as I discovered that Harris had launched me down a rabbit hole. Von Braun collaborated with Disney on a series of educational films and he may have shared his dream of a manned mission to Mars. He wrote a science fiction novel in German but failed to find a publisher for it when he was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas. He wrote it to encourage interest in space travel. The novel was translated into English and published in 2006 as Project Mars: A Technical, after being cleared by the Pentagon because of the author's visions of space travel being too futuristic.

Three decades after its composition, the action is set in 1980. The United States of Earth was established after a devastating war between the western powers and the eastern bloc. Lunetta, a space station that dropped nuclear missiles on the Soviet Union, helped the west win the conflict. Astronomers discovered canals on Mars, suggesting the existence of intelligent life there. The president wants to know if the Martians pose a threat to Earth.

The technical requirements of a huge space expedition involving a flotilla of 10 spacecraft with 70 crew members that would return after spending 443 days on Mars are outlined in 48 chapters of Project Mars.

Chapter 24 relates what the explorers discover about the inhabitants of the planet, who are humanoid in appearance and live underground. They welcome the visitors to whom they appear to be members of an ancient and benevolent group. Martian technology includes underground transport and organ transplants, for example, and they believe that technology should be used ethically.

Von Braun's account of how these super-humanoids are governed is the knockout for this columnist. It is done by a group of 10 people.

What is this super-sage?

Why, the Elon.

Do you remember anyone?

What I’ve been reading

Alex Trembath wrote an essay titled Cars Are Here to Stay.

The transcript of a good New York Times interview with the great French economist is called Thomas Piketty Thinks America Is Primed for Wealth Redistribution. I hope he is right but I fear that he is not.

When the pumps run dry is a lovely post by Quentin Stafford-Fraser on what happens to petrol stations when we all drive electric vehicles.