The Rocket Man's Dark Side

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Don't say he's hypocritical,
But rather that he's apolitical.
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

Comedian/songster Tom Lehrer didn't know the half of it. When he composed these sardonic lyrics about the famed German rocket scientist, von Braun was already in the U.S., enjoying public acclaim for designing rockets that enabled us to launch our first satellite, land men on the Moon and become dominant in space. Yes, we were all aware that von Braun had developed the V-2s that rained down on London in the waning days of World War II.

Still, he was apolitical, wasn't he, and during the war had really only been pursuing his lifelong interest in rocketry. And hadn't he fully redeemed himself with his great contributions to our space race with the Soviets?

That's the gist of the official von Braun biography posted on the web site of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, where under the directorship of von Braun, the mighty Saturn 5 rocket was developed. And it's this sanitized biography that has roused the indignation of Tom Gehrels, a noted University of Arizona astronomer and pioneer in the program to discover and track Earth-threatening asteroids. A member of the Dutch resistance during World War II, Gehrels readily acknowledges von Braun's contributions to the world of science, but is all too aware of the little-known dark side of both him and his brother Magnus. "They were Jekyll and Hyde characters," Gehrels insists, "and the full truth ought to be known."

It is Gehrels who has pieced together that truth, largely from interviews with surviving political prisoners who had been forced to build V-1s and V-2s under the supervision of the von Brauns in an underground complex near Nordhausen, Germany. These prisoners were housed in an adjacent concentration camp called Dora, and new arrivals were given the standard welcoming speech: "You came in through that gate, and you'll leave through that chimney [of the crematorium]."

Indeed, some 20,000 died at Dora, from illness, beatings, hangings and intolerable working conditions. Workers, scantily clad, were forced to stand at attention in the biting cold during roll calls that went on for hours. Average survival time in the unventilated paint shop was one month. One prisoner told of being bitten on his legs by guard dogs. Presumably to test the effectiveness of a new medication, one of his legs was treated, the other allowed to fester and deteriorate.

For reasons best known to von Braun, who held the rank of colonel in the dreaded Nazi SS, the prisoners were ordered to turn their backs whenever he came into view. Those caught stealing glances at him were hung. One survivor recalled that von Braun, after inspecting a rocket component, charged, "That is clear sabotage." His unquestioned judgment resulted in eleven men being hanged on the spot. Says Gehrels, "von Braun was directly involved in hangings."

Hangings were commonplace, and Dora inmates remember von Braun arriving in the morning with an unidentified woman, having to step between bodies of dead prisoners and under others still hanging from a crane. These were not ordinary hangings, Gehrels says, "not hanging that breaks the neck of the prisoner, but they were slowly choked to death with a kind of baling wire around their neck."

In the early days at Dora, condemned men often shouted anti-Nazi slogans to the other prisoners, who were forced to watch the hangings. But the SS soon put an end to that. It became routine to silence the condemned by propping open their mouths with little sticks held in place by baling wire looped around their necks. In a postwar visit to the museum set up at Dora to document the horrors of the camp, Gehrels saw some of those sticks on display, as well as photographs of von Braun at Dora, lest anyone believe that he wasn't present to witness and help perpetrate the horrors.

Now the question is whether NASA — as well as the Smithsonian Institution, which sponsors an annual von Braun lecture — should continue to perpetuate the myth that Wernher was in effect a jolly fellow, well met, who was interested only in his singular dedication and contribution to space flight, politics be damned. Or should they act responsibly, bite the bullet, revise von Braun's biography, rename the lecture and concede that the pioneering space flight genius committed monstrous sins?