So what if I told you that four Nazi scientists received the NASA distinguished Service Medal, the highest award it can bestow on anyone? Well, it would be true and that’s exactly what happened in 1969. How, you might wonder, did Nazis end up at the centre of NASA. That’s a good question and so let’s quickly understand what was going on within the US and NASA.
It all began with the US swooping up German scientists, engineers and technicians in what was called “Operation Paperclip” between 1945 and 1959. As the Nazi regime collapsed, the US decided that it would pick up the more useful scientific elements within the community. This was partly defensive insofar as it didn’t want the Soviets getting this valuable human resource, but it had other motives as well, as we shall discover. More than 1000 Nazi scientists would be recruited into US ranks and NASA was to be a prime recipient.
Let’s focus on one particular Nazi scientist, his name was Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun. He was e leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Nazi Germany and would later a pioneer of rocket and space technology in the United States. His reputation was made in the development of the V2 rocket. This became the first artificial object to travel into space on 20 June 1944. America saw the benefit of having such engineering expertise under its control and so Werner Von Braun came to the US in June 1945. He was to develop a key role in NASA and in particular the development of the Saturn rocket programme.
It’s interesting to note that between 1954 and 1957, Von Braun worked with Walt Disney on a series of popular films aimed at advancing the notion of space travel. In other words, the US public in particular was being groomed by Disney for what would be called the Space Race and the US had this former Nazi embedded at the heart of the programme! Von Braun was to author quite a few articles that pushed the idea of travel to the Moon. For example, as early as 1950, and 19 years before it allegedly happened, he was prominent in an article entitled “Dr. von Braun Says Rocket Flights Possible to Moon”
NASA itself came into being in 1958 and Von Braun was perfectly placed alongside several fellow former Nazi colleagues to lead what would become the race to the Moon. Why did the US think it needed to have such a race when it faced so many problems and challenges on this planet? I suggest this was actually more about international politics than interstellar flight. In September 1962, President John F Kennedy made his famous speech in which he explained “We choose to go to the Moon… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”
This was a clear timetable. The USA would allegedly achieve a lunar landing within less than 8 years and this would take place under the auspices of the Apollo programme. Von Braun’s Saturn rockets would be a crucial element with this programme. In other words, the US used Nazi engineering genius to get ahead of the USSR and make the first lunar landing on July 20th 1969.
However, whether or not that event actually happened is highly questionable (Spoiler alert – it didn’t) but there is no doubt that is was a massively successful PR coup for the USA.
It’s sobering to think that none of it could have happened with the genius of the Nazi scientists.