Three Space Anniversaries: Two Triumphant, One Tragic

Yuri Gagarin

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

This week, the space community marked two triumphant achievements, and dutifully ignored a third space-related anniversary that marked the darkest depths of depravity to which human beings can sink.

The two triumphs were the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, and the first space shuttle mission exactly 20 years later flown by John Young and Bob Crippen. Since anniversaries seem more important when they involve nice round numbers, the celebrations this year were extra special.

While these milestone flights were being celebrated, everyone conveniently ignored an event that took place 16 years and a day before Gagarin rocketed off to space. On April 11, 1945, the U.S. Army’s liberated the underground V-2 rocket factory and the adjoining Dora concentration camp.

A mass grave for concentration camp victims at Nordhausen.

Soldiers who liberated the rocket factory found walking skeletons, mass graves and pits full of human ashes from the crematorium. As the Nazi regime collapsed, Allied armies were finding similar camps throughout the Third Reich.

Slave laborers built thousands of V-2s in hellish conditions. As many as 20,000 of the 60,000 of the slaves at Camp Dora died. It made the V-2 an unique weapon: the rocket killed more people who built it than the enemy who died in its attacks.

There was a scramble among the victorious Allies to collect all the V-2s, equipment, engineers and technicians who had designed and tested the rocket. Although the V-2 was an ineffective weapon that failed to reverse the course of the war, the Allies saw the rocket’s enormous long-term potential.

V-2 launch

The V-2 was the first human object to reach space. It was the forerunner of the rockets that have sent men to the moon and spacecraft out of the Solar System. The V-2 was the ancestor of powerful nuclear arsenals that have kept the world on the edge of a nuclear precipice for the past 60 years.

Although some people involved in running Camp Dora were prosecuted, the Allies ignored the roles the people who designed and tested the V-2 had in exploiting slave labor. The technology and expertise were deemed to be too important.

Wernher von Braun and a group of more than 100 German engineers and technicians came to the United States. Another group went to the Soviet Union.

Von Braun and his team built nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles for the U.S. Army. Their rockets launched America’s first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit in 1958 and first American in space, Alan Shepard, in 1961. The Saturn V that landed Shepard and 11 other astronauts on the moon was developed at the von Braun-led Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

And here we have the dichotomy that has haunted von Braun’s historical reputation. Yes, he and his team immigrated to the United States like so many millions of others, becoming law abiding citizens and contributing greatly to their adopted land. That’s the positive part.

And yet, they were also deeply enmeshed in helping Adolf Hitler’s regime win a genocidal war. And they exploited slave labor in the process. Some were more involved than others, and their freedom to change things was extremely limited. Not that they were really prone to want to stick their necks out anyway.

The one thing that drove von Braun during both periods of his life was the dream of spaceflight. The Nazis furthered that ambition until they couldn’t anymore. Then the Americans were his best bet. It’s always troubled those who have looked at von Braun’s life.

An interesting question is what would have happened if Adolf Hitler had not blundered by invading the Soviet Union. What if Germany and Italy had held on to their conquests in Europe and Africa? In short, what if the Axis had won World War II?

My guess is Von Braun and his team would have continued developing increasingly powerful rockets for Hitler’s fascist Third Reich. Germany would have eventually unlocked the secrets of the atom. A Nazi regime equipped with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles is the stuff of nightmares and Star Trek episodes.

In this alternate reality, there would be statues, buildings, schools, parks, launch centers and God knows what dedicated to von Braun all over the Greater Reich. The first man in space might have been Luftwaffe pilot named Klaus or Gunter whose flight would be celebrated each year on the state-controlled NaziNet. And the exploitation of slaves at Dora and other death camps would be called fake news by Nazi propagandists.

We should be eternally grateful that we don’t live in that world. But, we must never forget what happened at Camp Dora.