My former boss once told me an intriguing experience he had with Werner Von Braun.
I was reminded of it over Christmas when my older son (home from college) asked, “Were there really Nazis in NASA?” The question came out of nowhere. Unprepared, I reacted by asking him where he got that idea? He said he heard someone named Richard Hoagland talking about it on Youtube. I’d actually met Dick back in the early nineties at the GRC when he put on a presentation about the Mars face. A colleague of mine, who was helping put on the event, introduced us. I found Dick’s information interesting, but I wasn’t prepared to give any unusual ideas much thought or attention back then. So the name was familiar to me, and I instantly assumed that Hoagland’s discussion had not been light and airy. At any rate, my son dropped the question, sensing my non-responsive reaction implied, “No.” But, it wasn’t that simple. I felt badly about not answering his question. A few days later I gave him an answer closer to the one he deserved. A week or two ago I actually emailed Dick to relate to him what I told my son, what I’m posting here. As I reflected back I felt badly for not giving his ideas more attention. I’ve spent most of my life dismissing without serious consideration those ideas which didn’t fit with my own. I read about a study recently which confirmed that humans are far more likely to believe evidence which supports what they already believe, and far less likely to believe equally sound evidence which doesn’t. I don’t know if Hoagland’s ideas then or any he’s had since are valid, I’m not familiar enough with them to say. But I felt a somewhat melodramatic need to apologize for my dismissive attitude. Perhaps this is an attempt to make amends, step 9 in a program of my recovery from being far too sure about the governance of the universe.
What I’m posting below is in large part cut and pasted from that email to Dick Hoagland, which in and of itself was cut and pasted in large part from something I’d written for myself last month. I began the process late last year of going through my old journals and converting notes into something I could share. I haven’t gotten much down yet, but the exercise is therapeutic, and mostly enjoyable.
So, here is roughly what I told my son:
There were Nazis in NASA’s early days, and I’ve learned things that make me suspect there still are. They got us into orbit, and onto the moon. I want to believe that’s where it ended. I just hope they’re not the ones taking us back to the moon, or driving us on to Mars. The early influential rocket scientists within NASA were all former Nazis. The official position was that they were only playing the game of politics in Germany to move their scientific research forward. But some initially wondered if it was more than that, some worried the interest in that ideology lingered. By the time the rocket program was in full swing, those doubts were pretty well forgotten. I should say that Nazism is about a lot more than persecuting and killing jews, homosexuals, and the handicapped. Nazism was a much larger political philosophy, and the persecutions weren’t a universally supported part of those politics. Soon after I started at Lewis, my boss took me out for drinks to welcome me to Ohio. At some point he asked how I got interested in space and I told him my dad had given me a copy of Von Braun’s The Rocket’s Red Glare and reading it I knew I wanted to build rockets. My boss snarled, “Lousy kraut.” I was stunned to say the least, to hear the father of our rocket program and a near idol of mine so insulted. “Do you want to hear a story about Von Braun?” Without waiting for my reply he started in…
[Obviously these won’t be his exact words, but in feel and fact they aren’t terribly far off. I took the liberty of making up the name of a magazine article below. My memory is keen and aided by my journal from that period, but both have limits.]
“Von Braun wore the meatball pin [NASA’s logo] on his lapel for every launch, and at many PR and press events. It was his good luck charm. A member of his transplanted Peenemunde team had given it to him the morning of the first Mercury flight, and he wore it for the launch. Mission successful, the ritual stuck. Much too much was riding on each flight not to seek ridiculous comfort in rituals. All of us were superstitious in those days. Damned if I didn’t wear the same Bulova watch for every flight, even after it broke and I had to wear a second watch on the other wrist. Early the morning of one of the later manned Mercury launches I went to help Von Braun with a press event, to answer anything that came up related to my systems. Technical problems with the PA system forced a slight delay, and we were waiting in an adjoining lounge for the event to start, just him and I. Only a few times had I been alone with him, and I always found the experience discomfiting. Luckily Von Braun sensed the awkwardness. He immediately took off his coat, put it on the back of his chair, and walked out of the room to get coffee. An engineer came in a moment later to fetch us and lead us to the dais. Trying to save time, I grabbed Von Braun’s coat so he wouldn’t have to come back for it. Running down the hall to find him, I accidentally dropped the coat. Unconsciously I reached down, and as I picked it up a spur on the edge of the meatball pin hooked onto the carpet fibers, snagging the coat for a moment before the coat, but not the pin, pulled free. Stuck face down on the carpet, what stared up at me should have been the plain back of a dull silver pin. To my surprise, I was looking at a dull silver skull and crossbones fitting just inside the pin and roll clasp of the original pin. With no time to waste on comprehension, and all my worry devoted to the press event and the subsequent launch, I just grabbed the pin, reattached it where I thought it had been, and continued down the hall. On finding Von Braun, he seemed annoyed, grabbed the jacket, and we went to the press briefing. Obviously I should have thought more about the pin incident, but it got lost among the seemingly more serious events. No more than a month later, though, I was at a bar reading a story in one of those men’s adventure magazines that was popular at the time; “Escaped from the SS” was the title. I flipped the page and there in an illustrated scene of horror was an SS officer smiling charmingly, despoiled girl at his feet, his cap nonchalantly skewed, and upon that cap the skull and crossbones “death’s head” logo of the SS. I felt sick. How had I not understood it when I saw it on Von Braun’s pin? Out of context, in the commotion of my anxieties, I just didn’t get it. Now I did, and I began to consider what it meant that the head of our program wore this, wore it hidden in plain sight. I had seen him meet with Eisenhower wearing that pin for Christ’s sake, I had the photo to prove it. I noticed later that he sometimes wore it more discretely pinned underneath his lapel flap; you wouldn’t know the meatball pin was there unless you lifted up the flap. I considered the possibility that perhaps this was just another superstition. Perhaps this was his “lucky” death’s head from his days launching V-2s. Perhaps some would have swallowed that story if he’d offered it, but no death’s head ever brought luck to the slave labor at his Peenemunde, or to the Jews exterminated from the cities and towns throughout his Germany. If he still considered that a talisman of luck, then god help the man who has no luck at all.
“It would take years before I knew for certain, before I could no longer deny his ongoing and active participation in Nazi ideologies.
“I stayed at the bar really late that night, and got really drunk. I didn’t know what to do, who to tell, who would care, or what would happen to them or to me. By morning the alcohol had done its job and I had “forgotten” everything. The memory of what I’d seen now felt fuzzy, the ominous meaning of what I realized now felt only like a nightmare from which I had awoken. I must have been mistaken, somehow about something. Over the years I saw many things which proved I wasn’t. But, I didn’t tell anyone anything until years after Von Braun and all the other krauts were dead, retired, or both. I waited until well into the shuttle years, and well into my last promotion. When I finally did tell people, colleagues I trusted, nobody believed me. So I stopped talking, if they weren’t going to believe, then I could go back to not believing me, too. So I don’t care if you believe me now, but just don’t ever mention him again.”
I did mention Von Braun to him again. I came to believe my boss. I had discovered other things on my own. And he told me things which fit too perfectly to be false. And yet, I proved myself no better a steward of the truth than he. Somehow I still refused to entirely believe it. Cognitive dissonance got me through.
But, yes, there were Nazis in NASA, and I believe there still are. Hoagland was right.