On July 22, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought an end to the Space Race when they landed on the lunar surface and buried the US flag into its surface. The incredible moment, watched by millions worldwide, marked the success of eight years of work, after President John F. Kennedy promised to land a man on the Moon “by the end of this decade” on May 25, 1961. Thousands of engineers, scientists and astronauts came together to complete one of science’s greatest achievements.
But not all of them were American.
After World War 2, 60,000 French and Russian prisoners of war in Nazi Germany built the forerunner to the Saturn V rocket that propelled Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins out of Earth’s orbit.
They were under the orders of Wernher von Braun, a 22-year-old SS officer with a PhD in engineering who, in the early Thirties, was given a grant by Adolf Hitler to build experimental rockets.
An elaborate facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom was built to meet von Braun’s needs and he quickly hand-picked hundreds of Germany’s top engineers and physicists.
By 1942, his team had launched the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, the V2 rocket, which cost twice as much as the Allie’s atomic bomb and caused 9,000 casualties after thousands reigned down on London and Antwerp.
But a year later, the RAF got their own back on von Braun – known as The Baron inside Peenemunde – pulverising his site and forcing him to flee to somewhere more covert.
As the war began to fizzle-out after Kursk and Stalingrad, von Braun knew he was living on borrowed time and took his team of 118 scientists to surrender to the first US troops they could find.
But, the Allies had a list of Germany’s top scientists who they wanted to recruit under top-secret Operation Paperclip, and so von Braun was taken to the US, not as a war criminal, but an aeronautics pioneer, along with 1,600 others.
Von Braun later told Americans that his leadership of the Nazi rocket programme was merely a means to advance scientific knowledge, putting humankind on the path to its greatest adventure, rebranding himself as Werner.
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He claimed he “felt helpless to change the situation” in the camp, yet surviving PoWs testified that he had ordered beatings and been present at hangings.
In 1957, the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik into space gave von Braun, or Werner, his break.
He was put in charge of the US ballistic missile programme and, within a year, his team had launched Explorer 1, America’s own satellite, based on plans for his V2 missile.
NASA was founded a year later, and with his success, von Braun was made their top engineer, challenged with designing the Saturn V rocket.
Von Braun became the centre of America’s space obsession, an extraordinary engineer, communicator and manager who promised the Moon and delivered.
But, more recently, historians have begun piecing his life together.
Author Michael Neufeld said in 2019: “He was not ideologically very interested in Nazi ideas.
“Although he was happy to profit from his status as an Aryan aristocrat.”