This article shares a bit of NASA history that is not as well known as many of us think it is; that is, how a Nazi put America on the Moon. But first, some silliness.
Much hullabaloo about how familiar it looks:
But why? Star Trek fans insisted NASA name the first shuttle Enterprise, so it makes sense that logo designers for the US Space Force go for a similar look:
And it’s definitely a lot better than the choices given to Trump supporters in a 2018 email:
Not everyone knows this
On to our main topic . . .
I thought everyone knew this. It’s never been a secret, for the evidence was right out there for all to see.
It was even on TV, years before the first American left our planet for the stars. In 1955, Disney produced three TV specials. The first, Man in Space, was watched by 40 million Americans in the comfort of their homes. It featured scientists with German accents explaining how space travel works. Did nobody make the connection?
But not everybody knows this. I recently watched a new documentary on the moon landing with two experts sharing opposing views on whether or not we really went to the moon. The NASA defender (who had suggested that doubting NASA was unpatriotic) was surprised — no, shocked — to learn that the rocket that took us into space was designed by a Nazi.
It was enough to nearly shake his faith in NASA. What else the space agency might have hidden?
And I’m sitting there, wondering, how does this man know so much about NASA, seemingly willing to defend the agency’s honor to the death against treasonous doubters, and yet have no idea who designed and built the Saturn V rocket. So, here’s a short article about how a Nazi put America on the moon.
For more than a decade following the German defeat in WWII, the USA and the USSR sought to add the finest German scientists and engineers to their laboratories.
The USA was helped along by a list of top scientists,, engineers, and technicians the Nazis made and then discarded once the war was clearly lost. The list was drawn up by Werner Osenberg, head of the Wehrforschungsgemeinschaft (defense research agency), which explains why it was called the Osenberg List.
After the German surrender, a lab tech at Bonn University found pieces of the Osenberg List stuffed behind a toilet. He got the list to MI6, which eventually forwarded it to the US Army, whose chief of Jet Propulsion research prioritized the names,, putting the tippy-top most elite of the group onto what became known as the Black List. One name stood clearly at the top of the Black List: Wernher von Braun.
Happily for the Americans, Von Braun and his team were hoping to be found by them, since the only alternative was being found by the Soviets. They were in territory slated to be turned over to the Soviets, hiding from the Red Army when Wernher’s brother Magnus, also an engineer, saw an American private in the area where they were hiding. Magnus told the private that his brother invented the V2 rocket and they all wanted to surrender before the Soviets found them.
The private wasn’t sure what to believe but forwarded the information up the chain. The Von Braun brothers and the rest of their V2 engineering team were taken to safety just two days before the area was turned over to the Soviets.
The world reacts
There was world-wide resentment over the USA’s decision to bring these scientists here and to give them jobs. Some were thought to be war criminals deserving trials and sentences. War crimes or not, most thought it was wrong to give any kind of reward or vindication to anyone who had ever worn a swastika on their lapel.
Perhaps the only possible justification is knowing that their work would continue after the war. The only question was whether a particular scientist would work for the USA or the USSR.
The Nazi scientists knew this, too, and that’s why Magnus von Braun was so happy to see the army private that day.
Wernher explained at a press event soon after their surrender:
We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.
Medal of Freedom
In 1976, the Ford Administration wanted to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to von Braun. It was denied due to the objections of presidential aid David Gergen, who said, “”Sorry, but I can’t support the idea of giving [the] medal of freedom to [a] former Nazi whose V-2 was fired into over 3,000 British and Belgian cities.”
Born in 1912, Wernher von Braun became fascinated with astronomy after his mother gifted him with a telescope at his confirmation into the Lutheran church. At age 13, he came across a copy of Hermann Oberth’s, By Rocket into Planetary Space, and at age 18 (1929), Von Braun assisted the rocket pioneer in the static firing of Oberth’s first liquid-fueled rocket motor.
When the Nazis came to power, rocketry was high on the list to build the most powerful (destructive) weaponry. It was then that Von Braun developed the first ballistic missile, named the A4. Hitler was so giddy over the potential devastation it could wreak on his enemies, he immediately promoted Von Braun, and the A4 was renamed by the Ministry of Propaganda as the V2 (“Vengeance Weapon No. 2.)
From 1937 until the end of Germany’s war effort, Von Braun headed the A4/V2 program at Peenemünde. The first test of the rocket was in 1942; the first launch in the war (over London) was in September 1944. The whole world then learned that Nazi rockets were the best ever made with engineering technology years ahead of any other country.
To the Moon
When the V2 launched successfully over Europe (1944), Von Braun said to his fellow team members, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.”
When this was reported to Hitler, Von Braun sat in a gestapo jail cell for two weeks until Albert Speer was able to personally convince Hitler that the V2 program could not continue without the scientist.
With all private rocket research banned by the Nazis, Von Braun was building rockets the only way he could in those days – for the government. His goal was not to build weapons for war but to develop rockets for space.
After the fall of Germany, both American and Soviets searched the areas where Nazi scientists were known to be hiding. Wernher and his associates, like most people living in Germany at the time, wanted to go with the Americans and dreaded contact with the Soviets.
The Space Race
Most people remember this line from president John F. Kennedy’s “Moon Speech” at Rice Stadium on September 12,1962:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . . “
Fewer people recall what JFK said in a similar section of his address to Congress on May 25, 1961:
Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own.
The Soviets put the first satellite in space (Sputnik, 1957) and the first man in space (Vostok I, April, 1961).
The first American satellite rose four feet, fell to the ground and exploded. It would be nick-named Kaputnik by the press.
By the time of the president’s speech, the USA had caught up with a manned launch earlier that month (Freedom 7), but it was still not certain that America could best the USSR overall.
One reason was funding, which JFK requested of Congress in the speech.
The other (and likely main) reason the USA was running behind those first few years may be that the government did not let their prized catch do any rocket building.
For more than 10 years, Wernher wasn’t made the head of rocket engineering for the USA. He had no authority and was assigned lowly, routine tasks. He bristled under these constraints as he watched Nazi scientists in the USSR make progress on their rockets. Wernher watched helplessly as the Soviets beat the USA into space, but remaining a subordinate was part of the deal he made to come here.
Primarily because of Americans’ disappointment over Sputnik, the government finally put Von Braun to work in 1958, authorizing him and his team to work on an orbital launch vehicle project he had first proposed in 1954.
In 1960, Von Braun moved to NASA and was appointed director of its Marshall Space Flight Center. The Center’s first project was the Saturn V rocket that would launch the Apollo missions into space.
Consequences of the Race to Space
The race to space brought a lot of handy stuff to the world. Consider the dust buster, memory phone, computer mouse, and ear thermometer, just to name a few.. It is all b
The main consequence of who won the space race is much bigger than that. For it is all but certain that if the USA had not launched Operation Paperclip to find the man at the top of their list and others of the best Nazi rocket scientists, the Soviets would have, and the USSR would have won the race to the moon.
That would have been a huge boon for Soviet propaganda, and we would be living in a very different world today.
The mind of Wernher von Braun
To better understand the mind of the genius, consider these well-known quotes from the man:
Everything in space obeys the laws of physics. If you know these laws, and obey them, space will treat you kindly.
Science does not have a moral dimension. It is like a knife. If you give it to a surgeon or a murderer, each will use it differently.
Conquering the universe one has to solve two problems: gravity and red tape. We could have mastered gravity.
I have learned to use the word impossible with the greatest caution.
The real problem is not a lack of ethical legislation, but a lack in day-to-day guidance and control. When science freed itself from the bonds of religious dogma, thus opening the way for technological revolution, the Church also lost much of its influence on the ethical conduct of man.
My experiences with science led me to God. They challenge science to prove the existence of God. But must we really light a candle to see the sun?
For me, there is no real contradiction between the world of science and the world of religion. The two are dealing with two different things, but they are not in conflict with each other. Theologians are trying to describe the Creator; scientists are trying to describe His creation . . . While, through science, man tries to harness the forces of nature around him, through religion he tries to harness the forces of nature within him . . .
To be forced to believe only one conclusion–that everything in the universe happened by chance–would violate the very objectivity of science itself.
The farther we probe into space, the greater my faith.
Man in Space film (introduces Von Braun @ 1:22) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qelAX9bnM1s