Most people know the connection between Werner von Braun, the brilliant German rocket scientist who was poached by the Americans after the war, and taken to the US to develop missiles for the US military. How this led to the Apollo moon missions must have been such an incredible personal journey for Von Braun, and one that still leaves us not sure how we should feel about that success, and the rocketeers origins. Much has been written about this topic, such as From Nazis to NASA by Bob Ward
A strange little book, Peenamunde documents the progression of the Nazi rocket program until the end. It does oddly seem to involve phrases that go something like “sadly this rocket wasn’t successful in reaching it’s goal…” when actually the goal would have resulted in the death of more civilians in the allied countries in World War II. However, rather than that sounding as unsavoury as I’ve just suggested, it rather points to the problem of describing the successes and failures of a rocket engineer who ultimately had a great deal to do with the success of sending Americans to the moon – it’s odd isn’t it, you see where I’m going with that, right? You’d have to ‘begin’ your sense of pride at his achievements for America at a certain point in time, and block off all feelings about him before that…or maybe that’s not how people feel…
Von Braun was always interested in space travel, and the potential that rockets had to provide that. He famously said after the success of his first V2 rockets in killing people in Britain that “the rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet” and while working for the US military he wrote Das Marsproject, a ‘manual’ on how to get to Mars – still relevant today. Von Braun actually retired from NASA when he realised that there was no chance of the agency having the funding and political direction to carry on with the space exploration that had long been his motivation.
However, to enjoy the contribution he made to NASA. creating the Saturn 5, the greatest rocket ever built, you really do need to shut out some unpleasant truths. Von Braun claimed that he knew nothing of the horrors that were going on in Nazi Germany, however a friend, Adam Cabala described it thus (Sellier, Stuhlinger, IMT)
“… the German scientists led by Professor Wernher von Braun also saw everything that went on every day. When they walked along the corridors, they saw the prisoners’ drudgery, their exhausting work and their ordeal. During his frequent attendance in Dora, Professor Wernher von Braun never once protested against this cruelty and brutality . . . . On a little area beside the clinic shack you could see piles of prisoners every day who had not survived the workload and had been tortured to death by the vindictive guards . . . . But Prof. Wernher von Braun just walked past them, so close that he almost touched the bodies.”
Amy Shira Teitel, as ever, has presented a great like video about the Nazi rocketeers
Naturally Von Braun has to reinvent himself, and it is easy to believe that he was disgusted, and ashamed (hell, what human being wouldn’t be!) so what was he to do? Thinking about this isn’t as straightforward as it first appears, it’s a study in moral relativism and arguments about the greater good etc…The Nazi’s were students of American pioneer Goddard, and without his work the V2 wouldn’t have been possible, so further perspective provides further changes the emotion about this matter further.
War has always seen great strides in technology, but perhaps we’re entering a more positive era where commercial opportunity can provide the great strides in space technology that we can all feel positive about.
(Sellier) A History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets. André Sellier. 2003