Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ethics 1 - Wernher

Rubbing his eyes, Wernher von Braun decided to call it a night. Gathering and collecting his papers together on his desk into meticulous order, he looked at his study clock – it was past one o’clock in the morning– far too late. His wife Maria had already turned in, but he knew it was pointless. He’d had a several disturbed nights recently, and felt that tonight would probably end up much the same.

He leaned back on his chair, sighed and took a moment to look around his study filled with memorabilia from his long career in rockets. Pictures of his achievements, of him with world leaders and celebrities, and of course his beloved model rockets were everywhere. Almost every rocket he’d worked on was here - they were his legacy. However there was one that was conspicuous by its absence.

His study reflected his life now in America – but it was a sanitised version of his life. Looking around there wasn’t a single reminder to him or any visitor of his past in Germany so long ago now. No mention of his A-4 rocket that had made him such a prize to world government. To him it was always the A-4 rocket, though to Hitler it was the Vengeance weapon of the German nation, and to many a frightened European city resident looking to the skies in terror it was the V-2.

Rockets had been his passion since he was a boy. He remembered all too well trying to set a speed record by connecting a toy car to a lit firework back in Berlin when he was twelve. He couldn’t help but smile looking back at the memories of the panic it’d caused in a nearby crowd and the trouble with the Police he’d gotten into. It seemed so innocent now.

But that passion never died as the young boy became a man, driving him to study rocket engineering at the University of Berlin. Under the Weimer Republic which ruled Germany at the time, there was open research into scientific methods for space flight, but as the madness of Hitler’s National Socialism took over the country such ideas were slowly smothered. Rockets were needed by the Fatherland, but rockets for the military not rockets for space exploration.

With no other options open to pursue his chosen field, Wernher had made a deal with the devil - he realised that now - and joined the military rocket research team at Peenemünde. The country was stuck with Nazi fever and no one dared antagonise the new masters of Germany. So to secure his position he became a member of the Nazi party to fit in. And why not? Everyone else seemed to be doing it. It would only be years later he would learn the true horror and the deepest shame of what being a Nazi meant.

It was the mid-30s, and Germany prepared for a war with Britain and France that seemed inevitable. The finished technology of the A-4 was still some way off and not perfected. But the potential – to deliver huge bomb payloads without need of airplane bombers could reshape the way air forces worked, render airplanes obsolete within years. Head of the SS Heinrick Himmler himself wanted to control the technology, to earn the gratitude of the Fuhrer himself if it were successful, and took a personal interest in the project.

Wernher could not stand the man; he was like an opportunistic weasel, always interfering with the work at Peenemünde. Never the less he was a weasel with a ruthless reputation, and when Himler offered Wernher an officers commission in the SS, it was an offer Wernher dared not refuse. He only wore that uniform the once, on receiving his commission, but it was once to often for Wernher’s liking and it still was an unpleasant memory.

As the inevitable World War began and gathered pace, so did the research at Peenemünde, and a working version of the A-4 rocket was completed in 1942. A single working rocket would not win the war by itself, it needed to be mass produced at a factory with adequate power, material and workers. Peenemünde was not suitable for such a factory, so a production site was set up far away at Mittelwerk, in an abandoned mine which was converted into a rocket production facility almost a mile in length deep underground, utilising a mixture of skilled German and unskilled slave workers from a nearby concentration camp.

At the time he had no idea what depravity hid behind the term “slave workers from a concentration camp” meant. Few in Germany really did. Hitler had come to power promising to eradicate the menace of the Jews, and he was true to his word. Should the German people have expected anything else? And yet for many a card carrying Nazi it all happened so out of sight and out of mind, it was easy for many to turn a blind eye and deny responsibility later.

But not for Wernher, his first visit to Mittelwerk had removed the scales from his eyes, and he had seen some of the horrors of the Nazi regime at first hand. His first memory was watching a cart being removed from the factory floor. It was filled with perhaps a dozen corpses of Jewish slaves in their telltale-striped uniform. The bodies inside barely looked human, they looked more like skeletons wrapped in a last piece of loose fitting flesh, faces grey and sunken seemingly trapped forever in a silent scream. Wernher felt physically sick, and the smell, oh my God the smell, and the flies it would haunt him forever!

The SS guard who escorted him around the premises spat at the trolley of corpses as it passed. “Damn Jews!” He cursed as they passed him, then after taking in Wernher’s pale complexion laughed saying. “Don’t worry there’s plenty more to work on you precious rockets.”

The factory floor was indeed a Cathedral to rocketry, like some underground seventh wonder. Gantries towered high up in the roof, rockets lay in parts as far as the eye could see in different levels of completion, and the flashing arc of welding threw out sparks intermittently, lighting it all like some lair of ancient legend. But Wernher soon realised his heaven was other peoples hell. For if the dead were being carted out, then he could see that inside the living dead toiled in misery in their thousands. Ghoulish, barely human, these wretches watched and stared at Wernher. It was a stare like a muffled cry of agony and despair. It was a stare that made Wernher ashamed to be German, ashamed to be human. It was a stare he could not return

“Why doesn’t someone do something for these people?” Wernher had blurted out to his guard in disbelief at what he was seeing.

“I’d be careful my friend about that sort of talk – unless you want to join them.” The SS guard had said coldly, his steel blue eye fixing Wernher with absolute contempt before he muttered. “Damn Jew sympathiser.”

That was the first and last time he raised his voice over the subject, under the Nazis you were lucky to even get a warning. Fear kept him silent from then on. Back at Peenemünde, he was asked by his colleagues how things were going at Mittelwerk – how could he reply truthfully to that?

The conspiracy of silence. It haunted Wernher still to this day. To see wrong on such a grand scale and not speak of it and not challenge it, was to lose a piece of your humanity. Germany was at war, the facilities at Peenemünde were targeted and bombed regularly, and he lost many a friend to such action by the Allies. But he kept moving courageously on in the face of the enemy, refusing to be defeated or broken. But in the face of his own country and the administration that was running it, he felt guilty of the worst kind of cowardice.

It wasn’t long before he realised how difficult and perilous the tightrope he walked with the Nazis truly was. Perhaps his SS Guard at Mittelwerk had reported him to his superiors, but he’d caught the attention of the Gestapo and one day they came for him, bundling him away in the dead of night. Two weeks he’d been trapped in that vile cell in March 1944, not knowing if tomorrow he’d face torture, slave labour or a firing squad. He’d heard that if you had really displeased Hitler, you were garrotted by piano wire, and your execution filmed for the Fuhrer’s pleasure. It was an unpleasant thought.

Luckily for Wernher, the A-4 rocket program had stalled without him, and Hitler himself had called for Wernher release and immunity from prosecution for now “so long as he was indispensable”. The command had a chilling ring to it.

8th September 1944 – a dark day for Wernher, tinged with shame. The first A-4 rockets were launched in anger; one at Paris, two at London. The A-4 was now indeed Hitlers Vengeance weapon, raining destruction on far off cities. To Wernher it was the worst day of his life. His work and dreams had become the tools to kill indiscriminately.

The weapon was never as reliable or effective as hoped by the Nazi elite, but it was well named Vengeance. It could not hope to bring victory to the Nazis, just help them in their final death throes to inflict more misery upon the peoples of Europe. The Allied forces who had advanced ever closer since the Normany Landings of June 1944, were unhindered by the attacks, and the Russians were closing in on the East unchecked. It was only the innocent who suffered.

It surely seemed only a matter of time before Germany fell, though all talk of defeat had to be conducted in the most intimate of circles. Even in it’s death throes, the Nazi order was something to be feared – defeatism was a crime punishable by a brutal death as a warning to others. The SS “guarded” the Peenemünde rocket team, moving them back as the Russians slowly advanced into Germany.

Wernher learned that his guard’s orders from the Fuhrer himself were to kill them all rather than see them captured by the Allies. Wernher felt like there should be outrage at such a set of orders; after all his team’s loyalty to the Fatherland, it seemed so unfair, so barbaric. But with shame he conceded why should he be so surprised? What had he done with his outrage after seeing the slaves of Mittelwerk. Had he helped a single one of them? Why should he expect that he deserved any better fate?

Knowing they could rely on no-one else, his team secretly planned it’s defection to the Americans. The Russians were much closer, but surrender to them was unthinkable – Russia had been ravaged by the Nazis, and rumour was that the Red Army was inflicting a brutal revenge on German prisoners as they closed in on Berlin. Somehow the plan had worked – the SS had spread the team out fearing losing them all in bombing raids, but leaving them relatively lightly guarded. His team secretly slipped their rabid SS guard dogs in the dead of night – not easy considering Wernher had suffered a compound fracture to his arm weeks before, and was not at his most mobile – and they handed themselves over to the first American column they came to. Within a month of the end of the war, Wernher, his team, their plans and material were being shipped out to America.

There were high hopes with war over that the era of space flight rocketry would be ushered in. But there was no such change in direction, rockets were still in the military arena. The A-4 rockets were to be rebuilt and test firing continued to reproduce the technology for their new American masters. Thankfully this time without the slave labour and the human targets.

Of course there were many questions asked of him and his staff. Were they still Nazis? How involved had they been in the slave camp at Mittelwerk? Had they any idea how many thousands of slaves had died there? Why had he accepted a rank in the SS? How do you explain the madness of those years to someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to fear his own Government, who doesn’t know what it’s like to have to censor every word you utter in case the secret police or an informer are listening? He’d been around America enough to notice that those who most violently accused him of being a Nazi didn’t notice segregation and prejudice in their own country. He’d seen the signs saying “No Coloreds” and “White Only” – Wernher dared not mention that the root of so much evil in his own country had started with similar signs saying “Not For Jews”.

Despite the accusations which seemed never far away, it seemed that in America as with Nazi Germeny, he would be immune to prosecution “so long as he was indespensible”. The new direction of his work soon became clear – the war had brought into being two weapons of awesome potential – the German A-4 rocket, and the American atomic bomb. The American Pentagon wanted them in one package, an atomic weapon capable of being fired from hundreds of miles away. The result was the Redstone rockets, the lovechild of the geniuses of Oppenheimer and von Braun. It would be the world’s first ballistic nuclear missile and certainly not it’s last.

With the Redstone rocket a success, Wernher had hoped to get rocketry back on course for his dream of space exploration, but it met once again with nothing more than frustration - his project was ordered to restrict themselves with respect to it’s space aspirations. The Government wanted to put a satellite into space using American technology from American engineers, and launched Project Vanguard, not wanting to be seen by the American people as still dependant on Nazi know-how.

Wernher’s participation in the space travel may well have never happened had it not been for the events of 4th October 1957, and he had a Russian to thank for it all. That was the day that Russia launched what would be known as the Space Race by sending the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. There was an uproar about it, everyone wanting to know how the Russians had beaten the Americans into space.

It transpired that America hadn’t been the only one to find plans and potential in Germany’s A-4 rockets after the war, and von Braun’s work had been reverse engineered and refined by a Russian whose identity was revealed only as “the Chief Designer”. Wernher admired the Chief Designer’s obvious genius, and feel envious of the support the man must have from the Russian government. Was it to much to hope that they were kindred spirits sharing the same passion and goal, but separated by the iron curtain between their chosen countries?

Wernher felt frustration as he could only watch as America tried to save face by launching it’s first satellite from a Vanguard rocket – the rocket blew up on the launch pad in front of a live TV audience. It was a humiliation for the country, and the President eager to save face soon turned to Wernher and his team. It was the opportunity Wernher had waited eagerly his whole life for, and he did not disappoint.

On 31st January 1958, his Explorer 1, a modification of his Redstone rocket, blasted successfully into orbit, and America finally entered it’s reply to the Space Race. It was a poor response, the satellite barely a quarter of the size of the Russians. But the competition was now underway. It sent shock waves through to country, and the Government soon decided to coordinate the nations efforts under a single organisation, and NASA - the National Aeronautic and Space Administration - was formed. Having provided America with the space flight success it so yearned for, Wernher and his team now had now earned his place at the heart of America’s fledgling organisation.

The Space Race. It was all about being first - first satellite in space, first animal in space, first man in space, first woman in space, first manned spacewalk – Russia seemed to claim it all in what seemed a juggernaut of one success after another, with America coming second best.

It frustrated the American people to always come runner-up, but it was a more personal grievance to Wernher. His team and America had the lead in rocketry after the war, but the time had been whittled away on other projects.

He’d felt at times as watched and mistrusted by his adopted country as he had ever felt back in Germany, though thankfully there was no Gestapo to answer to here. He had been repeatedly hounded by some quarters about his past - he knew what some were saying about him. He’d heard people curse him as “that Kraut, “that Nazi”, “that murderer”. Some even said to his face people like him should have been hung with the other Nazis at Nuremberg.

He’d not dared retaliate or justify himself to many who had spoken thus to him – how can you open a dialogue with such people and their prejudices? How could you explain the madness of living under the Nazis to anyone who hadn’t been there? It was easy to read a newspaper report, and sit in your chair in America, and say you’d have behaved differently. No newspaper report or book or film could ready you for the daily routine of living under the terror of the Nazis. Perhaps that’s why he tried to keep as much of his old team together, because to them you didn’t have to explain yourself, they knew, they accepted, and they moved on – they were perhaps closer than any family given the trials they’d experienced together.

There was never any doubt about the ultimate prize in the Space Race – to be the first to get a man on the Moon. But the road to the Moon was a path lined with tragedy, the Gods of Rocketry seemed to always demand their blood sacrifices. The chief advocate of the Moon program, President Kennedy was assassinated, and the Apollo program he’d instigated continued as his legacy to his country. Meanwhile over in Russia, his opposite number, the “Chief Designer” Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, died from complications due to overwork, leaving no clear successor to his legacy. And with his loss, the lack of his genius and vision, Russia’s race to the Moon stalled.

Wernher had met many great and famous people – leaders, politicians, film stars. But he’d never met, Korolyov, his opposite number. Wernher often wondered about that. He’d been allowed to read a security file on the “Chief Designer” after his death. A Ukrainian by birth, Korolyov had originally been an aircraft designer rather than a rocket scientist. He’d also been a victim of Stalin’s Purges, spending six months in slave labour camp in Siberia which caused him health problems for the rest of his life. He was only “released” from there because Russia needed his expertise to design new aircraft, as the war between Russian and Germany gathered pace. At the war’s end, he was hand picked to inspect and evaluate what little the Americans had left of the A-4 technology at Mittelwerk when the Russian army had taken ownership of the facilities.

There was so much Wernher could identify with this man, like an echo of his own life. Living under a Nazi or a Communist regime, it all seemed equally brutal. Would Wernher and Korolyov have been able to understand and respect wach other, what they had suffered for their persuit of space? Would they have been friends or distrustful rivals if they’d met? Wernher hoped inside that as engineers with the same dream there would have been respect and (dare he even think the word) comradeship. But of course he would never know. However when the history of the Space Race was written, Wernher mused, the name “von Braun” would always be mentioned next to the name “Korolyov”. Wernher smiled at that, geography and politics might have kept them apart, but history would put them together.

Even without the Russians out of the race for the Moon, the timeline for Apollo though was ambitious, too ambitious, and it meant many corners were being cut in an attempt to meet deadlines. The schedule was exhausting for everyone – long hours, working at the weekend, there seemed no break from it. For Wernher it was a tiring schedule – not since his days in Peenemünde had Wernher consistently had to put in such long hours, and it was all too clear to him, that he wasn’t as young as he once was. It was little wonder overwork had it’s hand in the death of Korolyov.

The Apollo program; from the mighty Saturn V rocket which would be the most powerful rocket ever launched to the Apollo capsule which would take the astronauts from the Earth to the Moon and back, it was all new technology. An order of magnitude more advanced and complex than anything NASA had launched thus far. Everything was being rushed – mistakes and miscommunication happened in any project, but with Apollo, they were going unnoticed in the breakneck pace to try to deliver. The inevitable catastrophe happened in January 1967 - the launchpad fire of Apollo 1 in a routine test, American astronauts "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, all dead.

Wernher had known death all too well during the war, it was something you almost became blinkered to when it was going on all around you. But this was something different, something avoidable. Was it avoidable though? There was a hush silence and whispered introspection amongst those involved with the program. Everyone had been working at such great pace, in an attempt to reach the Kennedy’s milestone of landing on the Moon by the end of the decade. But it took a tragedy like this to pull people back and realise the mistakes they’d compounded in their haste. Would a lone voice of reason have been listened to before then?

NASA after the Apollo 1 tragedy did not fare well, it’s whole manned mission stalled in the repercussions of that disaster. It had been a sobering lesson. The causes of the accident were rigorously scrutinised, everyone took part in the investigation. Everything was examined and redesigned, checked and double checked. Piece by piece, each mission element was tested and flown. With lives on the line, there could be no more mistakes. The next manned mission, Apollo 7, went flawlessly.

It paid off for America, and on 21st July 1969 – in an event watched world-wide - Neil Armstrong step from the Apollo 11 lunar landscape onto the surface of another world. Man had landed on the Moon – it was indeed a giant leap for mankind. Telegrams of congratulation came from around from the globe. The day was a mixed one for Wernher, he’d reached his dreams of going into space, but in a way knew this would be the beginning of the end.

Despite the monumental achievement, the public soon lost interest in landing on the Moon. The Apollo Project was rescaled, with three of the planned landings cancelled. America had won the Space Race by reaching the Moon first, but seemed little interested in continuing now National Pride had been satisfied.

Wernher fought hard to try to keep the momentum of the Space Race alive, but it was in vain. The Russians without their genius Chief Designer had given up on the race to the Moon, and without the competition, America seemed little interested setting new goals. Wernher left NASA soon afterwards amidst the budgetry cutbacks at NASA, as so many projects were wound down. The Apollo project had taken a huge commitment from the American people. Wernher wondered if perhaps it was unfair for him to expect it to continue. But with barely 10 years between Explorer 1 and Apollo 11, imagine where mankind could be in another 10, 20, 30 years time …

However Wernher accepted now he would never see another Moon landing in his lifetime. The grim truth was he’d recently been diagnosed with cancer within his kidney, and several operations to remove it had failed. A slow death sentence gave a man a different perspective on life and the world. Perhaps that’s why he was sleeping so badly now, does a condemned man always muse on the mistakes of his life whilst waiting for the end?

The fate of mankind and rockets were now intertwined. That was his legacy, his mark on the world.

On the one hand the Apollo rockets had allowed mankind to reach out into space for the first time, and land on another body other than the Earth. The dream of so many civilisations since mankind began, to be able to look down on the Earth from another world, had been realised. Perhaps mankinds future lay out there amongst the planets and stars beyond, a new era of exploration and colonisation lying ahead.

On the other hand, there was the latest generation of the Vengeance rockets which were now called Inter-Contental Ballistic Missiles. Both Russia and America had them. Nuclear weapons with such range as they could now strike anywhere on the planet at the touch of the button. The whole world now lived and cowered under their threat – they were Vengeance weapons indeed. And unlike the Apollo rockets, Governments could not fund and make enough of these. Why have enough nuclear warheads to destroy the world three times over, when you could have enough to destroy it four times over? And they called it a deterrent – Wernher had hoped that with the fall of Hitler and the Nazis the world would be freed from such madness.

To the stars or to oblivion, which was mankind’s destiny?

Wernher retired to his bedroom, switched on a bedroom lamp, and changed into his pyjamas. What made him uneasy was that whether rockets lead mankind to greatness or genocide, he had played an equal part in both destinies. Would future generations see him as a saviour, as a monster, or perhaps as just a man? Time would decide.

Food For Thought ...

This short story although about Wernher von Braun, is a partly fictionalised account of his life. I’ve strived to be historically accurate as possible throughout, however no-one can really know his exact thoughts on the events he was part of.

Wernher lived through difficult times. It’s easy to criticise his part in Nazi Germany, the main desire to write this story came from asking myself “but could I have done any better had it been me?”. I think the answer is sadly no. Many Germans did try to stand up, and the Gestapo erased them from history. Wernher’s behaviour during the war isn’t heroic, but perhaps very human.

We was a Nazi, and a member of the SS. But he was also arrested and threatened for his defeatist attitude and desire to develop rockets not for the military but for space flight.

If it’s made you ask yourself if you’d what you’d have done in his place, then perhaps it’s succeeded in it’s purpose.

No comments:

Post a Comment