Shooting For The Moon


In 1969 the United States landed the first man on the moon.  It was the culmination of the one of the greatest and most useless dick wagging contests in world history.  However, it was also one of the greatest achievements of humankind.  Though many thousands of people gave everything they had to see this moment, perhaps no other had a boner of pride quite like the one wielded by Wernher Von Braun on that day.  For Wernher it was the completion of over forty years of work, though in his mind it was only the first step towards the conquering of the stars.  Wernher and his team of stolen German scientists were the minds behind some of America's greatest rockets, including the Saturn V, the massive engineering marvel that lifted men to the moon.  He was the father of modern rocketry.  Even the rockets used by the Soviets were descended from his early designs.  More importantly, he was also the most forceful promoter of space travel, single handedly raising the eyes of an entire nation to the stars.  It's just too bad the guy was a frickin Nazi. 

Wernher, being a German, was of course born in Germany, though with the added luxury of being part of a wealthy family.  From an early age Wernher took a great interest in rocketry and the idea of space travel.  Though his early boyhood attempts only resulted in him blowing up a wagon in the middle of a street, he kept at it, pressing the entirety of his keen mind towards the singular goal.  The entirety of his education was centered on physics, mathematics, and engineering.  Unfortunately by the time he graduated there really wasn't that much money going around for random rocket research and dreams of the stars.  However, there were plenty of government jobs available, especially in the area of militarizing rockets.  Wernher, not being a man to turn up his nose at any opportunity, took one of these jobs with the German Army in 1937.  Recognizing it as a surer way to rise higher within his chosen field, he soon after joined the Nazi Party.    

Like many Germans of the late 1930's, Wernher was overall supportive of Hitler and his Nazi regime.  Sure there were definitely questionable things going on, but with the economy and standard of living rising exponentially, many people were more than happy to bury their heads in the sand.  For Wernher it was all about the pursuit of his goal.  As the world fell into chaos and Hitler unleashed the horrors of the Holocaust, Wernher happily worked away on an island in the Baltic Sea building bigger and better rockets.  In 1940, to gain further authority for his research, he joined the SS, Hitler's fanatical private army and secret police.  The culmination of this research was the V-2, the first rocket designed to reach space and the model for every child's drawing of a rocket today.  By 1943, Wernher was only 31, but already in charge of the entire program.  Unfortunately, soon after things began to turn against the Nazis and Hitler personally ordered Wernher to quit fucking around already.  Hitler wanted a super weapon.

To manufacture the weaponized V-2 the Nazis built a secret factory, known as Mittelwerk, under a mountain.  Not having enough people available to run such a factory, what with the war and all, the Nazis settled on using slave labor, building a nearby concentration camp called Mittelbau-Dora.  The concentration camp became the home to 60,000 POWs, Jews, and others labeled as ne'er-do-wells.  The building of  the factory was horrific, costing 8,000 lives.  The construction of the V-2 was no better.  Starting in 1944, by the end of the war 3,000 V-2's had been launched at Allied cities, killing an estimated 9,000 people.  Over that same period an estimated 12,000 prisoners were killed at the Mittelwerk.  Murder, unsafe working conditions, starvation, and disease all took their toll.  Wernher knew about all of it.  He and his staff were said to have personally picked out prisoners with the skills they needed.  When attempts at sabotage began, he ordered prisoners flogged and even hanged.  Death was always around him, but it was nothing compared to his vision.  In 1944 he convinced his superiors to let him launch one V-2 straight into the sky.  It was the first time a man-made object reached space.  

When it became apparent that the Nazis were not going to win the war, Von Braun arranged it so he and his team could be captured by the Americans, thus avoiding the Soviet Army which took control of the Mittelwerk.  Both of the soon to be Cold War belligerents were desperately grabbing up whatever Nazi scientists and super weapons they could find.  Wernher and his team were taken back to the US where they were given jobs first with the army and then with NASA, their dark pasts hidden away, their public personas presented as unwitting dupes.  Eggheads too busy with their research to fully understand what was going on.  Wernher's continued work led to rockets which launched the first ballistic missiles and the first American satellites.  Throughout the 1950's he worked tirelessly to promote space travel, even appearing in several Disney specials.  Eventually these efforts, with some help of the Soviets shooting a person into space, led to the American manned space program.

After man reached the moon in 1969, public support for the space program dropped and plans for expeditions to Mars were abandoned.  His dream shattered, Wernher puttered around NASA for the remainder of his career, his last accomplishment being the founding of NASA's Space Camp for children before dying very painfully of cancer in 1977 at the age of 65.  As for his fellow former Nazi scientists, most lived out their lives in the Unites States, supplying the country with a huge number of innovations.  Eventually one, Arthur Rudolph, was tried for war crimes in 1984.  He was 78 years old.  He was allowed to return to Germany.  He died a free man in 1996.