The Men Who Took Us to The Moon

So it has been fifty years since John Glenn was strapped inside a little metal capsule that reeked of infectious claustrophobia and spun three times around the globe as a breathless world watched the skies in wonder and amazement, straining to catch a glimpse of the spacecraft bouncing sunlight off its nose.

America had shuddered when the Russians launched Sputnik. America feared the worst when the Russians beat us into space. America stared at the moon at night and wondered whose boots would make the first imprint, and they dreaded the thought that it might be Red, and, overnight, the Cold War turned even colder.

John Glenn checks his Mercury capsule after orbiting the earth.

John Glenn with three spins around the globe on a February day in 1962 did not dim the threat of war with Russia, but, for one grand moment, America had something to brag about.

We were back on top again. And we stayed there. And we kept climbing into the space until the first imprint on the moon was Red, White, and Blue.

John Glenn’s had been the first step. At the time, there was no step more important.

We were at a grand and glorious occasion in Huntsville, Alabama, one night while the bright and beautiful from the Country Club and Junior Service League set were in the midst of toasting those at NASA’S Redstone Arsenal for developing and building the great and massive rockets that had carried men across the void of space and onto the cold, foreboding surface of the moon.

The wine was flowing. The laughter ricocheted from one buffet table to another. Candlelight reflected off the crystals of a massive chandelier. Dr. Wernher von Braun, the elegant, eloquent, and sophisticated genius behind NASA’s daring rocket program, was holding court, talking softly about his vision for conquering space and traveling to Mars to anyone who wanted to listen, and almost everyone in the room did. He was brilliant. He was captivating. He knew as much about public relations as he did rocketry.

We were standing in the corner with a coquettish young Junior Service Leaguer who was doing her best to talk small talk with a non-descript, gray-haired little engineer, or maybe he was a physicist, who was the brains behind the program. His name was one I could not spell, pronounce, or remember.

As the seconds ticked down from ten to one, with the fuel boiling in the rocket, with the emptiness of space beckoning, it was he who read the data. It was he who made the decision to launch or scrub a mission. It was his finger that literally pushed the button that sent the rocket on its way. If he didn’t pull the trigger, nothing fired.

The young lady took a sip of wine, looked up at him, batted her big, brown eyes, and asked, “Just how many launches have you been associated with, Doctor?”

“About nine hundred,” he said.

“Oh,” she replied breathlessly, “I didn’t think we had put that many rockets into space.”

The good doctor smiled kindly, leaned forward, and whispered, “But you must remember, my dear, the first seven hundred were aimed at London.”

She didn’t drop her wine glass, but she did have trouble swallowing.

America had indeed conquered space. It was the result of good, old-fashioned hard work, and American ingenuity. Just ask anyone. And, sure enough, there was a lot of good, old-fashioned hard work and American ingenuity involved.

But we won because we had the Germans.

We won because we had the Nazis.

Werhner von Braun, with the injured arm, and his team of scientists surrendering to the United States.

We won because no one knew as much about building rockets as Dr. Wernher von Braun and the boys from deep inside the caves around Peenemunde who had designed the notorious and infamous V-2 rockets – the vengeance weapons – and unleashed them on the condemned landscapes of Europe. When the news reached Germany after the first attack struck London, it was, von Braun would later say, his darkest day. “The rocket worked perfectly,” he said, “except it landed on the wrong planet.”

The Germans had the edge, and they knew it.

The Russians knew it.

And so did the Americans.

As Germany crumbled, and it was obvious that World War II was nearing an end, everyone wanted the rocket scientists, aerospace engineers, physicists, chemists, space architects, and weaponeers who had toiled for the Fatherland under the unflinching grip of Adolph Hitler.

The Soviet Army was only 160 km from their base in Peenemunde in the spring of 1945, and Wernher von Braun called his planning staff together. Surrender, he said, was inevitable. But to whom should they give their loyalty – along with their brains, ideas, technology, and blueprints.

Said one engineer, “We despise the French. We are mortally afraid of the Soviets. We do not believe the British can afford us. So that leaves the Americans.”

Von Braun used forged papers to steal a train and lead 500 of his colleagues through a war-torn country. The Russians were marching closer. The German SS had orders to kill the engineers and destroy their records. Von Braun hid the blueprints in an abandoned mine shaft, and his brother stumbled upon an American private with the U.S. 44th Infantry Division. “My brother invented the V-2,” he said calmly. “We want to surrender.” America had their man and their men.

Wernher von Braun, always the possessor of a silver tongue, told the press, “We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering the weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”

President Harry S. Truman had decreed that the United States would not accept any German who had been a member of the Nazi Party or an “active supporter of Nazi militarism.” So American intelligence, in an operation known as Paperclip, simply smiled piously and began creating false employment and political biographies for the scientists, finally expunging all Nazi Party memberships and regime affiliations from their public records. The scientists were even given security clearances to work in the United States. It was don’t ask, don’t tell, and Truman never asked.

So we had the Germans. We had the Nazis.

Their first rockets had left London in ruin. Their last rockets took us to the moon.

All was forgiven.

And most were like the young Junior Service Leaguer at a grand Country Club gala in Huntsville, Alabama. They never suspected. They never knew. Twenty-five years had passed, a war was fought and forgotten, and history, as always, had been written by the winners.



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