Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

A Much Sadder Space Anniversary, Now Largely Forgotten…

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 12, 2009
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Over at Aviation Week, Jeff Manber points out that this weekend marks several key space-related anniversaries:

  • Galileo’s appearance before the Vatican to defend his heretical views about the Universe
  • The first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961, celebrated in Russia as Cosmonautics Day and worldwide as Yuri’s Night
  • The first space shuttle mission precisely 20 years later

There’s also a much more tragic anniversary, one that is now largely forgotten and almost universally ignored within the space community. That would be the liberation of the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp on April 11-12, 1945.

What the American the 104th Infantry Division found outside the central German of Nordhausen was hell on Earth. Beneath this bucolic setting of farmland, rolling hills and lush forests lay an enormous underground factory where slave laborers were literally worked to death producing weapons for Adolf Hitler’s monstrous Nazi regime:

In Nordhausen the Division found a large German concentration camp for political prisoners, discovering 5,000 corpses among the 6,000 inmates in various stages of decay. The corpses were scattered throughout the buildings and grounds of the large camp and all of them appeared to have been starved to such an extent that they were mere skeletons wrapped in skin. Most of the bodies apparently lay untouched since death had overtaken them, but some were stacked like cordwood under stairways. In almost all bunkers and buildings the living were found lying among the dead. In one corner was a pile of arms and legs.

All medical personnel that could be spared in the Division were rushed to the scene to give medical aid. Hundreds of the male citizens of the town were ordered to the camp, where under guard, they worked several days carrying litter cases and collecting corpses by hand. They dug mass graves on a prominent hill near the camp and carried the corpses through the town to the graves.”

An estimated 20,000 out of 60,000 prisoners died at Dora building the V-1 buzz bomb, the V-2 missile and other weapons in only 18 months. Those who survived were scarred for life.

Unlike the slave laborers, few of the scientists or technicians who worked on the V-2 suffered any ill effects. Few were held accountable for anything that happened. Instead, they were coveted by the Allies after the war. Wernher von Braun and more than 100 of his colleagues were brought to the United States, where they were instrumental in the Apollo lunar program. Others helped the Soviet Union develop its weapons arsenal.

The V-2 became the basis for most of the rocket technology that followed. These modern marvels have enabled us to launch satellites into orbit, humans to the moon, and spacecraft clear out of the Solar System. They also have kept us on the edge of a nuclear precipice for half a century.

These unpleasant dualities have made it nearly impossible for the space community to deal intelligently with Dora. There’s a deep vein of optimism and Utopian thought within the space community, a faith in the ability of technology and the space frontier to liberate the human race. Dora shakes that faith like a 7.0 earthquake.

Historian Michael J. Neufeld pointed out why in his highly-regarded books, “The Rocket and the Reich” and “Von Braun.” The images of walking skeletons greeting shocked American soldiers shows that advanced technology and tyranny can mesh quite nicely. The thought of the highly educated and refined Wernher von Braun, patriotic and loyal American, exploiting prisoners as a Nazi Party member and SS major is quite jarring. That rockets can help humanity freely communicate but also wipe out our entire civilization is not something one wants to drink a vodka toast to at midnight on Yuri’s Night.

And so, Dora is largely ignored. A horrific tragedy is largely forgotten; to the extent that it is remembered, people begin to draw the wrong conclusions from it. That includes otherwise smart people like space tourism pioneer Peter Diamandis, who founded the International Space University. Witness these mind boggling remarks that he made during an awards ceremony in 2006 held by the National Space Society (a group that von Braun helped to found):

If you look back at what von Braun did in Nazi Germany It was incredible what you can do with literally a dictatorship. Look at the numbers. 6,000 V-2s built. 6,000 missiles were built in Nazi Germany. The recurring cost was $13,000 a launch for those vehicles. You can bring the cost down with mass production. We’ll come back to what will drive …

[Multiple audience comments – including me – “SLAVE LABOR”]

Yea, and slave labor, Sorry.


But you know – again to you the rest of us would happily be slave labor for that mission. Can you erase that from the video tape?


But the fact of the matter is that mass production of rockets is possible if you have a real marketplace. And war is not a good one. Moving forward though …

Diamandis later apologized, but the fact that he made those remarks showed a remarkable ignorance on the part of one of the leaders of the modern space movement. If he was that uninformed, how many others have no knowledge of the tragedy that unfolded at Dora and the lessons it holds for us?

I visited Mittlebau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial about a month after Diamandis made his remarks. I viewed the exhibits, walked through the remains of the above-ground camp, and joined a guided tour of the damp, chilly tunnels where slaves once labored so long ago.

It was a sobering and depressing visit, but one that I am grateful to have finally made. It left me with a feeling that the space community has never fully dealt with what happened in that hell 65 years ago. And a sense that we need to do more.

I propose an annual wreath-laying ceremony on April 11 as a memorial to the 60,000 who suffered there and the 20,000 who perished. This solemn occasion should include prominent members of the space community.

Education is key. Curriculum on space history should be reviewed and improved where appropriate. Thanks to recent scholarship by Neufeld and others, we now have much clearer and nuanced understanding of the German rocket program, Dora and where responsibility for this tragedy lies. This is a complex subject; it’s time that we treated as such. Scholarships in space and humanities could also be established in cooperation with the Dora Memorial, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other groups.

We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future. By doing these things, the space community can say in a loud, clear voice, “Never again!” We can say to the ghosts of Dora, “You did not die in vain.”

3 responses to “A Much Sadder Space Anniversary, Now Largely Forgotten…”

  1. Jim Bennett says:

    When I was in Munich in 2001 I visited the excellent Deutsches Museum. It had a special exhibition on Dora-Nordhausen which was extensive and very honest about the nature of what went on there. It is part of the whole story of rockets and space travel — as is the lesser-known story of the Soviet gulags and their role in the Soviet space program, which I wish you would have mentioned as well. All of this should be known.

    I am not too familiar with Neufeld’s recent work. What exactly was the relationship between Von Braun and the Peenemunde development team, and the management of the production facilities at Dora?

    It would also be useful to examine the overemphasis on Von Braun and his Germans in US 20th-century rocket development. There was an independent American line of research under Goddard and his sccessors predating 1945 and Operation Paperclip. If you look at Goddard’s pre-war J-Rocket, you will see that he had hit on most of the solutions that the Peenemunde team inependently developed; their big contribution was reducing them to mass-production practice, and that is what they contributed to the US program after the war. But the US would certainly have developed its own space launchers post 1945 working with the Goddard legacy, maybe needing a bit more cost and time, even without the shortcuts von Braun contributed.

  2. Chuck Divine says:

    I found your website via Rand Simberg’s.

    I agree one hundred percent with you on this topic.

    There’s an interesting thought about space and technology today. We don’t have slave labor with horrific death tolls today. But Von Braun showed a clear willingness to use people as slaves. People can change as they get older. But how much of the way we do technology and space owes to the Von Braun mindset? It was only 6 years ago that Columbia happened. The investigating board found a culture that did not listen and did not learn from past mistakes. That kind of culture is most closely associated with dictatorships — especially those like Hitler’s.

  3. amalie says:

    Dear Doug,

    Thank you for your very brave and accurate writing.

    Unfortunately tech and tyranny are well known as being highly compatible partners, a condition which did not end with the fall of Nazi Germany.

    Such dangerous alliance continues to threaten today as underpaid shift workers in tech oriented manufactures die of overwork and government sponsored on-line censorship provides newer styles for totalitarian controls .

    Civil society within the information age certainly becomes a vulnerable institution, even at global scale we will see the need for a continuing affirmation of the true intention of science in the service of humanity.

    What is of much concern is the tacit agreement of many qualified tech types, in the possibility of slave societies and perhaps even the “benefits” of those situations.

    Yes .. I have actually heard such talk myself, at a fairly advanced California tech conference 2008 …

    It seems to be much easier for many tech types to envision and even accept the spread of wide scale totalitarian outcomes, than to engage for a conscious strategy against such unacceptable conclusions.

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