50 years ago the world watched as man first landed on the moon, an incredible accomplishment by the engineers and scientists of NASA. But what if some of those same engineers and scientists had a secret history that the U.S. government tried to hide?
Publish Date: Jan 26, 2021
on March 23rd, 1925 a teenager living in Germany named Werner von Braun got a telescope for his 13th birthday. The moment he peered through its lens up, but the planets and the Stars and the moon, it was love at first sight. Every night he looked at the sky, imagining what it was like up there. He began reading Jules Verne and other sci fi writers who dreamed of space travel getting lost in the fantasy. Around this time, some astronomers and scientists began publishing articles saying space travel was possible. It wasn't just a crazy science fiction idea. If you build a rocket of sufficient power, probably based on liquid propellants, you could propel something into orbit. You could go to the moon, maybe even eventually go to the planets. When von Braun came across these ideas, he was floored. He said he had written an article in a astronomy magazine about an imaginary trip to the moon, and he said it filled me with romantic urge, not just to stare at the moon and planets would actually explore the mysterious universe. I knew how Columbus had felt, he said. Von Braun became obsessed with space travel. In fact, it became his dream toe lead. An expedition to the moon to go to the moon himself. Tow land on the moon. This is Michael Neufeld. I'm a senior curator of the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington. See, it's part of the Smithsonian, and he wrote a biography of Werner von Braun. He was raised in a very traditional aristocratic family, largely in Berlin. Von Braun graduated high school in 1930 enrolled in college and decided to major in engineering. And he still a linked up with a very new rocket group that was in Berlin. And this rocket group was part of this sort of enthusiasm for space. Travel had arisen in the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was the government of Germany. From 1919 to 1933 until the Nazi party took power. Von Braun got involved with this rocket group, which his father found kind of baffling. He ended up going off into this area, which his father thought was basically crazy. You know, why was he interested in this crazy rocket technology which just seems so far fetched at the time? Before long, though, the army started getting interested in rocket technology to pumping more and more money into it, although unlike von Braun, they didn't have space travel in mind. The Army is building up this rocket program because it believes that you could attack an enemy almost without warning. This missile would come super sonically and impact in the city. And so they had visions of creating the surprise secret weapon. They recruited rocket scientists and engineers, including Bomb brown. And then, just a few months later, the world completely changed. Through the end of January 1933 Hitler came to power. Hey, consolidated power very quickly and fun. Brown at this point was just a student who was working for the Army. So he was a very minor person at this point. And like a lot of people, he sort of observed the Nazi seizure of power A. To this point, von Braun wasn't very interested in politics or anything other than rockets. But in time there were some things about the Nazi ideology the von Braun would get behind. His upbringing was very conservative nationalist, so there were parts of the Nazi appeal which he liked, You know, the nationalistic dimension of Hitler's rule, and I have many indications that he became a believer in Hitler. But then, so did almost the entire German population. You know, Hitler had this string of remarkable success. Hitler was reasserting Germany's power in the region, which for many Germans, including von Braun, was a good thing. As the 19 thirties went on, the Nazi party solidified its hold over the country. Von Braun eventually joined the party, became an SS officer, and despite the fact that he was still in his twenties, he quickly climbed the ranks of the rocket program to become one of its leaders. What von Braun was this kind of wonder Kindy scientist, adored by everyone who he came in contact with. This is journalist Annie Jacobsen, who wrote a book called Operation Paperclip. He waas tall, blue eyed, blond, extremely good looking diplomatic. He had this Polish aristocratic background if he wanted to be so, but he was also able to essentially be, you know, sort of buddy buddy and talk to the ordinary worker, so he had an ability to inspire people. But he was also a very Machiavellian character, meaning he was willing to do whatever it took to see his dreams come to fruition. In my biography, I argue that he essentially becomes trapped in a Faustian bargain with the Third Reich and one of the deals that he made very early on with the devil, meaning Hitler himself was to build rockets for the Third Reich. You know, they'll give them all the power and resources he wants to build rocketry, but only if they do it their way for their purposes. A means to an end. Von Braun figured if he played by the Nazis rules on put in the time building up the rocket technology for military purposes, he might eventually be able to use that technology for space travel. Back way. Take you now to Berlin tonight, here in Berlin, we should have a decision. Brothers to be peace or war. This is London. You will now hear a statement by the prime minister. I am speaking to you from the Cabinet room with 10 Downing Street. In the fall of 1939 Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Hitler's Nazi state on World War Two began. It is evil things that we should be fighting against. Route force bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution. And against them, I am certain the right will prevail. Pressure mounted for the rocket program to succeed. They brought prisoners from nearby concentration camps. Toe work on the rockets underground in a factory with horrible conditions on from Brown was there, and he saw some of the things that were going on. It was a hellish environment. Dark, cold, dirty, dangerous, thousands of people living and working in concealed caves, sleeping on straw or bare rock. They were beaten, sometimes even killed, for not working fast enough. And one Polish survivor later recounted that von Braun seemed quote completely unperturbed by the pile of corpses. There was not a whole lot he could have done about it. But he wrote documents, you know, regarding how concentration app labor should be used. He was involved in decision making about how the missiles were going to be produced. It's hard to say exactly how much fun Brown was involved in the day to day decisions there, but notes from one meeting revealed that he was among a small group of people who decided to set up the factory and bring prisoners from concentration camps to build the rockets. He was still morally responsible in some sense, because he was part of that system mhm.