Unraveling The Nazi Origins Of The American Space Program

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Editor’s note: The following excerpt is adapted and condensed from Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s “Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight.” The graphic novel commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the man landing, conjuring “the long history of the visionaries, star-gazers, builders, and adventurers who sent Apollo 11 on its legendary voyage.”

This chapter explores how Nazi scientists sowed the seeds for what would become the U.S. space program. 


Excerpted in an abridged form from “MOONBOUND: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight” by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 4th, 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. All rights reserved.

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  1. War - the great incentive for scientific discoveries.

    Partly out of desperation, partly out of need, and often spiced with unique, irreplaceable concentration of resources, wars tend to create far more inventions, technologies, scientific discoveries, than times of peace.

    If there was peace, would nuclear power or the bomb have been created? If there was peace, would the Gatling gun have been designed? And what of the tank? The airplane? C-4?

    War drives science as much as science drives war.

  2. I’d conjecture authoritarianism (leaders, followers) is the forcing function of historical miseries. It’s just built into the DNA of too many folks.

  3. My parents evinced little interest in the moon landing, but allowed me stay up late to watch Neil Armstrong step off the ladder in black and white…

    Gather 'round while I sing you
    Of Wernher von Braun
    A man whose allegiance
    Is ruled by expedience
    Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown
    “Nazi, Schmazi!” says Wernher von Braun

    Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
    Say rather that he’s apolitical
    “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
    That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun

    Some have harsh words for this man of renown
    But some think our attitude
    Should be one of gratitude
    Like the widows and cripples in old London town
    Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun

    You too may be a big hero
    Once you’ve learned to count backwards to zero
    “In German, und Englisch, I know how to count down
    Und I’m learning Chinese!” says Wernher von Braun.

    • Tom Lehrer
  4. If you want to quote Tom Lehrer, please mention his name, he’s still around, btw., aged 91.

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