That Time Wernher von Braun's Rocket Tried To Kill My Father

Humanity now lives in space permanently. Our spacecraft have left the solar system. Our space telescopes look back to the beginning of time. We are spacefarers.

Space technology has its roots in weapons of war. America's early accomplishments in space were achieved with direct use of Nazi technology and personnel. Russia followed a similar path. Today North Korea, Iran, and other nations use rocket designs with a clear lineage originating with Hitler's V-2. All technology is iterative. Smart technology persists and finds peaceful uses despite its war making origins.

As we focus on the 50th anniversary of America's Apollo 11 mission, it would be informative to glance back at the legacy of using Nazi technology to accomplish this epochal feat of human ingenuity. For me this is incredibly personal.

Hitler's V-2 nearly killed my father. Yet I helped design things that flew into space on rockets inspired by V-2 technology - often with my friends on board. The technology that tried to kill my father gave me a career.

As best I can collate the facts, on 18 March 1945, a V-2 missile was launched from Statenkwartier in The Hague in occupied Netherlands at 9:25 am by Battery 485.  It was one of the last V-2 launches before Germany lost the ability to use these weapons. As the rocket sped away from the surface it reached an altitude of over 50 miles - perhaps more - the edge of space. After a flight time of 5 minutes or so it fell from space with a vengeance and slammed into London at nearly 2,000 miles per hour. It hit near the Marble Arch Underground station - specifically at Hyde Park (near Speakers Corner) in Westminster.  

The blast created by the impact formed a crater 60 feet across and sent a supersonic shockwave outward. An instant later and several blocks away the shockwave picked my father up out of bed in his room above a pub and threw him through a set of glass doors.  He had no warning that this was going to happen. No one ever did. While he was badly cut up, he was otherwise all right - physically.  

My father had been invited to go out for beers with his roommates - but he was broke - so he went to bed early instead. He never saw his roommates again.  My father was 22 at the time.

Continued below

As I grew up my Dad would tell this story in a matter of fact sort of way - among the other things he did during the war. But the war clearly left a mark on him. Although there was not a formal name for it at the time, today we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When I was growing up World War II was as far away - or as close - for my father as 9-11 is for us today.

In the mid 1980s, during a visit to Washington, DC, I took my parents to the National Air & Space Museum where there is a V-2 on display. My Dad didn't say much other than to remark that it was much smaller than he had expected it to be. I asked him if he'd like to touch it (everyone did - the paint was worn of on one fin). He declined the opportunity and was strangely silent.

Over the years, as he aged, the details started to fade whenever I'd ask him about the experience.  But I had long ago committed his recollections to memory and later, to paper.  With the advent of the Internet I sleuthed out the exact location of the events he had recalled. The Nazi's preoccupation with documentation provided a precise description of the launch of each of their rockets.

Twenty-five years after my parents visited me in Washington, my father, then 88, started to take medication to help with forgetfulness.  He was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer's. We had lost my mother to this disease a few years earlier. For a while he could still go to the local library, do some research, and then give a lecture on local history more or less from memory - and he could still play a mean game of chess.

Alas, as the medication he was taking started to do what it does for you i.e. makes your brain work better - on everything - all at once - like turning on every light and appliance in your house simultaneously just to make some toast. Memories started to come back in vivid detail.  But they came back often as lucid nightmares too - the V-2 experience being among the more prominent.  As a result of my concern for what my father was going through, I also had nightmares - nightmares  that I can still recall - leaving memories in my head reconstructed from my father's recollections of a missile strike 10 years before I was  even born.

Two-thirds of a century after a near-miss with a projectile that fell from space, the horror of this weapon still took its toll - as all well-designed terror weapons do. But this weapon's terror managed to jump into another generation.

As the years passed, my father's Alzheimer's progressed and these memories soon disappeared altogether. My father died a year ago of Alzheimer's a few weeks shy of his 95th birthday. To speak my last words to my father I had to speak into his good ear, the other one having been damaged by the V-2 impact, now some 73 years in the past.

In 2016 I was in London to give a speech. I met up with my friend Alex Whitworth a British expat who lives in Australia and sails small sailboats to crazy places around the world. I met Alex via astronaut Leroy Chiao at an event I organized with former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Alex and his pal Pete had sailed around the world - backwards - from Australia. One day they got somewhat lonely and contacted NASA via satellite phone since they thought that astronauts probably feel the same way. Long story short, they ended up calling Leroy on the ISS using their satellite phone.

I had done some internet searches and had connected my father's recollections, his location, and documented V-2 impact sites. Alex and I went to the Hyde Park location I had found online. It was 71 years after the impact. The crater had been filled-in long ago. The park is now filled with large trees - sycamores. After a few minutes of looking around we both noticed a slight bowl-shaped depression. The wartime debris had settled over time. But the outline of a crater - such as is seen on many worlds - was clear.

As a senior citizen I had found the crater that was created by a weapon that nearly killed my father during World War II - an event that could have prevented my existence - but for the slightest of currents in Earth's uppermost atmosphere as it fell from space.

We're now all immersed in celebrations of the 50th anniversary of humanity's first steps on another world. I will be as inspired as would any space-crazy young boy who grew up in the 60s who was told that this was going to happen - and then saw it happen exactly as NASA said it would - someone who wishes we could just go back and pick up where we left off so many years ago.

My good friend Homer Hickam, author of "Rocket Boys", the basis of the film "October Sky" told a poignant story of growing up in coal country in West Virginia - and a chance interaction with Wernher von Braun that shaped his future career at NASA. I am slightly younger than Homer but I too heard von Braun's gentle German accent explain all of those exciting things we'd do in space one day on TV.

My passion for space started as a 6 year old boy. My father never voiced anything negative about von Braun. My parents nourished my interest in space without any World War II connotations. We were all swept up in Apollo fever. As a young boy I saw tattoos on the arms of some of my friends' parents and grandparents. Only as a young adult did I put together the Holocaust and the creation of the V-2 by imprisoned slaves. As I did the truly evil origin of this weapon and how it nearly killed my father manifested itself in my mind.

As we laud these inestimable accomplishments built upon the war time work of von Braun and his team, we can never forget the toll that the core technology and its practitioners took on the inhuman state-sanctioned use of slave labor that built these rockets - or the innocent people who endured the use of these hyperkinetic sledgehammers from space used in time of war.

I'm tired of all the history books and apologists who seek to write off what von Braun et al did as being beyond their control. Yes, they earnestly sought to use their wartime skills for postwar peaceful purposes that likely affected all of human history more than their wartime efforts. But I have yet to read an apology from any of them that makes me think that they were truly sorry. They did what they did.

Yes, I am bitter. And conflicted. I have a perfect right to be. I saw my father suffer for decades from the effects of nearly being killed by a ballistic missile - something who's stepchild threw Alan Shepherd and Yuri Gagarin into space - things that mesmerized me and propelled me on a career. But I can now see beyond the bitterness to see the vastly more important uses of this technology.

Alas, in all of the Apollo 11 hoopla we're about to experience the truth behind this Nazi technological heritage is going to be glossed over. NASA will make no mention of it. Nor will Congress or this White House. Wernher von Braun was an adopted American hero who just appeared out of nowhere and created wunderbare raketen and did Disney TV shows. And then we went to the Moon. Alas, we now live in an era where history is either irrelevant or is a political weapon to be deployed in political campaigns.

I have sat on this story for decades and waited until my father had left this world to speak of it. Now it is time to seek closure.

The V-2 was shaped like a Wehrmacht "S" model bullet for aerodynamic purposes.  Bullets are shaped so as to best fly toward and then kill or destroy once they arrive at their target.  The V-2 was a big bullet - and it still works as a terror weapon all these years later - whether it is a North Korean or Iranian variant - or a near death recollection from a 22 year old soldier embedded in the mind of his 63 year old son.

Epilog

In 2018 I was at the National Air & Space Museum to see a special traveling exhibit - the hotel room in the final scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey". Half a century earlier this film had an utterly profound effect on me when I first saw it as 13 year old boy with my mother. Standing in this re-creation was utterly transcendental for me.

Afterward I walked around the museum as I have done a hundred times and ended up over by the V-2 . I was in a very contemplative mood after the 2001 exhibit. I had been visiting the museum for nearly half a century. Indeed, I rented it twice for NASA in the 80s for receptions. This place is a touchstone for me and my career.

I stood there looking around. I was standing precisely where my father and I had stood nearly 30 years before. Then I heard someone speaking in German (I took it in high school) and then Dutch (I have Dutch family members). A father was pointing to the V-2 and explaining what it was and how it was used to his young son. I walked over and introduced myself and gave a very short summary of what I wrote above.

The man was from Germany but his wife was Dutch. His son was pure european. They live in The Hague a very short distance from the launch site of the V-2 that almost killed my father. Indeed, they have visited the launch site - it s now forested with small historic markers and receding into the mist of lost history.

We both realized the irony of our meeting. The man said "we are related somehow, you and I". Indeed we are.

After a lifetime of simmering resentment toward wartime Germans - and their postwar space age adulation - for the things that they did that harmed my father - I was utterly disarmed by this man's words. He was perhaps 40 years old - at most. Two generations removed from the war. A German living in The Netherlands with a Dutch wife and a multi-national son. Typical in modern Europe. His son was three generations removed from the war. They were all free of the burdens that I still carried.

Just as a living forest had overgrown the V-2's launch and landing sites, it was time for my own issues to revert - and then fade - into the inevitably encroaching and healing landscape of time.

We cannot change the past. We can only learn from it. But we should never forget it - lest we repeat it (not a new concept). But to not try to derive some lasting, positive benefit from tragedy would only serve to further harshen what happened.

As space advocates - and the current NASA Administrator are fond of saying - "Ad astra per aspera" - "through hardships to the stars". I am not certain all of them fully grasp the hardships that forged our modern space exploration efforts. The number of people who were active in the early days of our space program is rapidly dwindling. I suppose somewhere there is a Latin phrase to the effect of saying "out of tragedy comes promise".

I'm not going to attempt any moral equivalency here. I cannot change the past. I can only shape the future. We turned German swords into American plowshares and used them to explore the solar system and become a spacefaring civilization. Some good came from the bad. I can live with that. I don't really have an option.

Alas, the Apollo 11 anniversary celebrations will purposefully gloss over the true scope of Nazi contributions. Such talk would spoil the party. What I write here will not change that. We live in a time of twisting historic facts and ominous tendencies so as to justify our future intentions. So it goes.

But as we look back to the horrors that spawned much of our modern space technology we just need to pause and ask ourselves whether we should dwell on things that we cannot change - or focus on the things that we can change.

For me, I am focused outward - toward the stars - because that is what my parents raised me to do.

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Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium September 10 - 12, 2019






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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on July 17, 2019 11:42 AM.

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