Fifty years after NASA sent men to the moon for the first time in human history, the agency has kicked off a campaign to return to the lunar surface within the next five years, and from that future “moon station,” to send men and women to Mars.
In addition to lobbying Congress for more funding, NASA has thrown out an offer to private companies for $7 billion to take the first steps for a U.S. return to the moon by 2024. The agency is seeking companies who can deliver cargo, experiments and supplies to a spacecraft named Gateway now in lunar orbit.
In May, Trump upped NASA’s budget for next year by $1.6 billion—pledging to “restore NASA to greatness.” Vice President Mike Pence echoed this promise on Aug. 20 at a meeting of the National Space Council.
“We’ve put an end to decades of budget cuts and decline,” Pence said. “We’ve renewed America’s commitment to human space exploration, vowing to go further into space, farther and faster than ever before.”
NASA’s lunar plan, if brought to fruition, will be a stunning comeback after almost five decades of engineering feats that are entirely robotized, such as Skylab, Space Shuttle, New Horizons and the International Space Station (ISS). None of these space stations in lunar orbit have carried human crews.
The Dark Side of NASA
NASA has hosted publicity events and documentaries celebrating the half century mark since the first moon landing, seeking to re-ignite public enthusiasm for its historic achievements and those now on the planning board.
In counterpoint, several media pieces have revisited a darker side of NASA, unveiling the unsavory backgrounds of some of the men who held important posts at the agency during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.
“Consider what we now know since Neil Armstrong fulfilled President Kennedy’s pledge to send an American to the moon and return him safely to Earth,” wrote the LA Times. “We now know that Werner von Braun, brilliant developer of the Saturn V booster that propelled Apollo 11 to the moon, almost certainly employed slave labor developing missiles for Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
“And we now know that that the Saturn V booster had its origins in the terrifying V-2 rockets developed by von Braun that Hitler embraced for their “annihilating effect.”
“I’m old enough to remember the moon landings,” the author reflected. “It’s extraordinary when something so iconic from your childhood turns out to be not all it appeared to be.”
Von Braun and dozens of German engineers and scientists who worked under him at NASA were Nazis who had belonged to the Nazi Party and served Hitler until the end of the war. Some had designed cutting edge ballistic weapons for Hitler and had commandeered slave labor to build them in the underground factories of Camp Mittelbau-Dora, where up to 60,000 inmates died. Others had developed biological and chemical weapons such as lethal nerve gas and bubonic plague.
Some of the most abhorrent of these Nazi experts had conducted medical experiments on countless concentration camp inmates at Dachau and Ravensbruk. They performed operations without anesthesia; injected diseases and inflammation into the bodies of victims to test new antibiotics; forced inmates into vats of freezing water, measuring how long it took them to die; and conducted countless other horrific tortures in the name of science and medicine.
How did these criminals end up in the United States holding high-status government posts, enjoying a tranquil post-war life of achievement, comfort and public admiration?
Operation Paper Clip
Their bizarre story begins with the crumbling of the Third Reich, when American and British scientific intelligence teams scoured occupied Germany for chemical and biological weaponry and facilities. From nerve and disease agents to the feared Vengeance-1 and Vengeance-2 rockets, Nazi scientists had worked on an impressive arsenal. As the war came to a close in 1945, both American and Russian officials began scheming to get that technology for themselves.
In their hunt for weapons, the Allies stumbled across a whole arsenal of nerve agents including bubonic plague germs. Another spectacular find was a huge cache of tabun (a sarin-like chemical). While searching the I. G. Farben laboratories on the German-Polish border, British soldiers uncovered 175 forested bunkers storing aerial bombs carrying a powerful nerve agent.
They called in American Army chemists, who tested the chemical and found that just a drop on the skin would kill a rabbit in minutes. In 1945, 530 tons of tabun were shipped to various locations in the United States.
Research facilities across Germany were seized and their personnel interrogated. With the capture of the top secret “Osenberg List,” the Allies had a full catalogue of scientists and engineers who were the brains behind the Nazis’ once-indomitable war machine.
So began Operation Paperclip, a decades-long, covert project to bring Hitler’s scientists and their families to the United States. These men were hired under secret military contracts and put to work on weapons projects in all sectors of the U.S armed services as well as the CIA.
In this secret operation, more than 1,600 Germans were secretly recruited to develop armaments “at a feverish and paranoid pace that came to define the Cold War,” writes historian Annie Jacobsen in “Operation Paperclip.”
Although he officially sanctioned project, President Harry Truman forbade the agency from recruiting any Nazi members or active Nazi supporters. But with the Cold War escalating and the Germans’ scientific know-how deemed crucial to national security, heads of the military and defense establishment chose to bypass this directive.
Officials from OSS, forerunner to the CIA, doctored up the dossiers of Nazi scientists, deleting evidence of war crimes and saving them from prosecution.
“There began a propaganda campaign by the U.S. government to whitewash the pasts of these scientists who we knew were ardent Nazis,” explained Jacobsen in an interview with NPR. “It happened on a number of levels, from the bureaucrats in Army intelligence who were asked to re-write the files, on up to the generals in the Pentagon who flatly said we need these scientists and we’re going to do what it takes to keep them.’
An Adopted American Hero
One of the most well-known recruits was Werner von Braun, the technical director at the Peenemunde Army Research Center in Germany who developed and oversaw the manufacture of the V-2 rockets, the world’s first ballistic missiles.
Von Braun was an SS Sturmbanfuhrer – equivalent to an army Major. His rockets, carrying a one ton explosive warhead, rained down terror and claimed the lives of thousands of civilians in London, Antwerp, and other cities. After the war, he pretended to have been too engrossed in his blueprints and calculations to fully comprehend the horrors of the regime he served.
In reality, far from being oblivious to Nazi horrors, Von Braun was personally involved in Nazi atrocities, and was a direct, hands-on participant in war crimes. Among other things, he personally supervised the manufacturing of rockets, using tens of thousands of slave laborers.
An estimated 20,000 slave workers toiling to build Von Braun’s rockets died of starvation, maltreatment, or were murdered by their guards while building his rockets. He was often at the slave labor facilities, and had firsthand knowledge of the horrific workplace conditions.
After surrendering to the Americans in May, 1945, Von Braun and other rocket scientists were brought to Fort Bliss, Texas as “War Department Special Employees” to assist the U.S. Army with rocket experimentation. Von Braun later became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, which eventually propelled two dozen American astronauts to the Moon.
The well-spoken von Braun became the center of America’s space fixation: a brilliant engineer, communicator and manager who promised America the moon and delivered, beating the arch-rival Soviets in the process.
But his past kept resurfacing at odd junctures. TIME noted in 1958 that, to some, Von Braun’s “transfer of loyalty from Nazi Germany to the U.S. seemed to come too fast, too easy.”
That skepticism came through in a popular 1967 song: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That’s not my department, says Werner von Braun.”
Although defenders of the clandestine operation argue that the balance of power could have easily shifted to the Soviet Union during the Cold War if these Nazi scientists were not brought to the United States, critics point to the ethical cost of ignoring their abhorrent war crimes and shielding them from justice and accountability.
“The 21 men profiled in Operation Paperclip were not nominal Nazis,” Jacobsen points out. In the case of eight of them, including Otto Ambros, Theodor Benzinger, Kurt Blome, Walter Dornberger, Siegfried Knemeyer, Walter Schreiber, Walter Schieber, and Werner von Braun — each at some point worked side by side with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, or Hermann Goring during the war.”
Fifteen were dedicated members of the Nazi Party; ten of them also joined the ultra-violent, ultra-nationalistic Nazi Party paramilitary squads, the SA (Storm Troopers) and the SS (Protection Squadron); and two wore the Golden Party Badge, indicating favor bestowed by Hitler.
Six of the men profiled in Operation Paperclip stood trial at Nuremberg and one stood trial at Dachau for regional war crimes. One was convicted of mass murder and slavery, served a short sentence in prison and was then granted clemency. After being released, he was hired by the U.S. Department of Energy.
They all came to America at the behest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some officials believed that by endorsing the Paperclip program they were accepting the lesser of two evils — that if America didn’t recruit these scientists, the Soviet Communists surely would.
These Nazis overall were very successful in the new post-war lives. Just as the majority of them won top military and science awards when they served the Third Reich, so it went that many of them won top U.S. military and civilian for serving the United States.
“One had a U.S. government building named after him, and two continue to have prestigious national science prizes given annually in their names, “relates the author of Operation Paperclip. “Dr. Benzinger, who was one of the Nazi doctors that came here, died at the age of ninety-something. He had a wonderful obituary in The New York Times lauding him for inventing the ear thermometer. Entirely left out of the story were the experiments he performed on concentration camp prisoners.”
The Exposure of Arthur Rudolph
As the country this July celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo’s moon landing, a fascinating new documentary looked at the historic moment through a very different lens, revealing the direct link between the lunar landing and Nazi Germany.
Prisoners of the Moon tells the story of Arthur Rudolph, a Nazi scientist who, along with his mentor, the above-mentioned Werner von Braun, developed space rockets for the United States at NASA. The two German colleagues used the rocket technology they originally developed for the German V2 missiles at the Mittelwerk factory and adjacent Mittelbau-Dora slave labor camp.
More than a decade after he retired, Rudolph was investigated for war crimes and in 1983 became one of the first Nazis to be stripped of his U.S. citizenship and deported to Germany. The documentary focuses on a 1990 tribunal held in Canada, after Rudolph attempted to sneak back into the United States. He was arrested and questioned by authorities at an immigration hearing that delved into his wartime behavior.
“Prisoners of the Moon” uses transcripts of the 1990 tribunal to unveil the story of the military cover-up that allowed Nazi scientists tainted by war crimes –Rudolph among them—safe passage into the United States because their scientific knowledge was considered too vital to forego.
The documentary includes a survivor’s detailed account of the atrocities at Mittelbau-Dora including systematic starvation, torture and public executions. It also includes testimony from a U.S. infantryman who liberated the camp, where he found thousands of decaying corpses and conditions that defy description.
Smoking Gun Evidence
Rudolph maintained during the OSI’s investigation of his role at Mittelbau-Dora that he had no knowledge of the atrocities, and even tried to help some inmates by getting extra food rations for them.
Yet an investigation revealed that his office was just a stone’s throw from the prisoners’ barracks, a parade ground where prisoners were hanged and where the crematorium stood, and where, towards the end of the war, 100 prisoner bodies were burned every day.
During the 1990 tribunal, a “smoking gun” memo from 1943 was unearthed, in which Rudolph advocated the use of prisoner labor. ‘Requested allocation of prisoners from concentration camps’, he wrote. His signature is visible on the last page of the memo, revealing that his declarations about his innocence are lies.
“Rudolph had a Nazi Party membership card on person when he was first interrogated by US military police. The policeman who interviewed him wrote a handwritten note saying, ‘100 per cent Nazi, dangerous type, should be interned.’
In a clear example of the dossier-doctoring up by U.S authorities that enabled Nazi scientists who had committed war crimes to escape justice and immigrate to America, Rudolph’s Nazi membership card and annotation were left out of his file.
Hubertus Strughold, “Father of Space Medicine,” Unveiled as War Criminal
Other prominent Nazis hired under Operation Paperclip included Dr. Hubertus Strughold, who played an important role in space medicine by developing space suits and other life-support systems.
During the war, Strughold was a prominent German medical researcher and head of a Berlin Institute who used inmates from the Dachau concentration camp as guinea pigs for human experiments. Test subjects were subjected to surgeries without anesthetics, immersed in frozen water to examine the effects of hypothermia, and placed in air pressure chambers and deprived of oxygen.
The Dachau “cold” immersion experiments—whose brutality stood out even in the context of Nazi crimes—have become emblematic of the heinous cruelty of Nazi medicine and the culpability of anyone who stood by passively witnessing it.
After the war, investigators at the Nuremberg War Trials listed Strughold as one of thirteen “persons, firms, or individuals implicated” in the Dachau medical atrocities. Yet he never stood trial for war crimes. Instead, he was brought to America, where he held high ranking medical positions in the Air Force, as head of its School of Aviation Medicine in Texas.
He then went to work for NASA as head of the Department of Space Medicine. Strughold conducted pioneering work in the physical and psychological effects of manned space flight, and his efforts helped get American astronauts to successfully walk on the Moon. Because of his contributions to the field, he became known as “the Father of Space Medicine.”
Experiments on Young Children
Since 1963, the Space Medicine Association has given out an annual Hubertus Strughold Award to top physicians or scientists for outstanding work in space medicine. In recent years, the Award has become the subject of controversy, as evidence has emerged of Strughold’s involvement in medical atrocities during the war, including experiments conducted by his Institute on young children from a psychiatric asylum.
In these cruel experiments, half a dozen children 11 to 13 years old were taken from a nearby Nazi psychiatric facility known as Brandenburg-Goerden and brought over to Strughold’s Berlin laboratory in 1943. Once there, the children, most of whom had epilepsy, were subjected to “hypoxia,” or oxygen deprivation experiments. They were placed in an altitude chamber and administered lower levels of oxygen to see if the conditions would trigger seizures.
In a book on Nazi medical practices between 1927-1945, author Hans-Walter Schmuhl, a German scholar, recounted those experiments in detail, explaining how the tests had initially begun on rabbits.
He described how Dr. Strughold had several “vacuum chambers” and the children were subjected to experiments that simulated altitudes of nearly 20,000 feet. Despite being deprived of oxygen for a painfully long time, the children survived the research.
Even so, as a Wall Street Journal article recounts, Dr. Schmuhl wrote that the scientists “knew from the animal experiments that young epileptic rabbits reacted…with violent, often fatal convulsions.” They “expected (and hoped) that the children would react like the rabbits.”
Brandenburg-Goerden, where the children were housed, was a center for euthanizing mentally ill patients and other so-called undesirables, including children. Their bodies were disposed of in a nearby crematorium.
Strughold denied participation or even knowledge of the Dachau human experimentation, and for years, most physicians and scientists in his field took him at his word. But an OSI (Office of Special Investigation) turned up minutes from a Nazi conference discussing the findings of the “cold” experiments in which Strughold made comments, proving that he was present and involved in the matter under discussion, but lied about it.
Disgraced After Death
Strughold’s critics argue that a prestigious scientific organization has no business awarding a prize that honors a man who held a senior position in the Third Reich and was quite possibly complicit in some of its worst crimes.
Dr. Russell Rayman, a former Executive Director of the Aerospace Medical Association has lobbied over the years to have the award stripped of Strughold’s name. The man, he says, “was clearly part of a big killing machine.”
Dr. Yehezkel Caine, a member of the aerospace medical group who wants the award eliminated, declares: “there is no way on this planet that anyone of Strughold’s stature could have been where he was without being complicit.”
Other German authorities on Nazi medicine emphatically agree. “He was sitting in the Luftwaffe ministry, he was the director of the Medical Research Institute—he knew exactly what was going on at Dachau,” says Dr. Wolfgang Eckart, a professor at the University of Heidelberg, quoted in the Wall Street Journal.
Strughold died in 1989. In the years that followed, his activities under the Nazis came under greater scrutiny, and documentation from the 1945 Nuremberg investigations implicating him in war crimes came to light. Despite decades of deception, the truth of who this “father of space medicine” really was, finally emerged.
Von Braun Hand-picked Victims
On September 20, 1945, Werner von Braun arrived at Fort Strong. The small military site on the northern tip of Boston Harbour’s Long Island was the processing point for Operation Paperclip, the government program under which hundreds of German scientists were brought into America.
Von Braun filled out his paperwork that day as the inventor of the Nazi V-2 rocket, a member of the Nazi party, and a member of the SS who could be linked to the deaths of thousands of concentration camp prisoners.
The V-2s that were rained down on London beginning in 1944, of which Werner Von Braun was the chief designer, were built in German underground factories at Mittelwerk, where construction was done by prisoners from the nearby Dora-Mittelbau slave labor camp.
Over 60,000 prisoners lived, worked, and died in the damp underground tunnels at Mittelwerk. Some succumbed to disease and malnutrition. Some were worked to death. Others were hanged publicly in group executions. The death rate rose so high that corpses could not be disposed of and a crematoria was brought to the camp.
Werner von Braun was not just one of the brains behind the V-2 rocket program, but had intimate knowledge of what was going on in the concentration camps, historian Annie Jacobsen writes in Operation Paperclip. Von Braun himself hand-picked people from horrific places, including Buchenwald concentration camp, to be worked to death building his rockets.
Germany ultimately launched more than 3,000 missiles of Von Braun’s design against Britain and other countries, indiscriminately killing at least 5,000 people, while as many as 20,000 concentration camp prisoners died assembling the weapons.
Years later, in America, von Braun called the V-2 “his contribution to Germany’s wartime arsenal. It was what any citizen was expected to do.” In his callous approach to the hideous suffering and carnage his rockets caused, von Braun personified the banality of evil. He was also a shrewd opportunist who switched allegiances with ease.
Rehabilitated In America
On May 1, 1945, upon hearing that Hitler was dead, von Braun immediately made plans to surrender, harboring hopes that the Americans would be interested in supporting his research into rocketry and having him build rockets for them.
Hiding with his fellow rocket engineers in Bavaria at the time, von Braun selected an emissary from the group, his younger brother Magnus, to find American soldiers to whom they could surrender. By nightfall on May 2, Werner von Braun was in the hands of American soldiers and within months, the U.S. government made him the offer he’d hoped for: military funding to develop an Americanized version of the V-2.
Two and a half decades later on Wednesday, July 16, 1969, von Braun stood in the firing room at Kennedy Spaceflight Centre and watched another of his rockets, the Saturn V, take the Apollo 11 crew to the moon.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, he had been photographed shaking hands with presidents, smiling with astronauts, and posing in front of the massive rockets that would launch them into space. With Apollo’s spectacular success, he was now adopted as an American hero.
In the years since Cold War hostilities and the Space Race began to recede, historians have felt freer to assess von Braun’s legacy with greater objectivity. As his Nazi past resurfaces, he is increasingly being framed as an unrepentant war criminal whose collaboration with Hitler was purposely suppressed by the U.S government.
“His image as Cold War hero hiding a whitewashed Nazi past is being debated more fiercely than ever,” writes Time magazine, “as is the extent of America’s moral bargaining in using von Braun to propel its ambitions.”
“One Giant Step For Mankind?”
In 1969, millions watched the live broadcast from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as Saturn V blasted off, carrying three men hundreds of thousands of miles into space. Four days later, two of the astronauts made the first human footprints on the moon’s dusty surface, spending two hours collecting rock samples and planting the American flag in the moon’s soil.
For Americans, the mission’s success was seen as a symbolic victory over the Soviets; it proved that America could hold its own in the space race and demonstrated democracy’s superiority over communism.
In the 1950s and 1960s, communist aggression from the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear warfare dominated the political and emotional landscape in the West. With the Cold War between Russia and the United States locking the two super-powers in a standoff, the Kennedy administration made it a top priority to overtake the pioneering Russian space program—even allocating $25 billion to NASA to carry out the mission.
“One small step for a man… one giant step for mankind,” astronaut Neil Armstrong famously intoned as he stepped onto the moon.
NASA bolstered the expectation that “the giant step for mankind” would open a pioneering frontier that would bring space colonies and space stations to the moon, hosting hundreds of people for months at a time.
That did not happen. The experts who were so excited about this vision in 1969 would have been stunned to hear that after several more lunar flights ending in 1972, no further manned space flights to the moon would be undertaken for almost half a century.
If NASA gets its way, that picture is soon going to dramatically change.