Looking for a local angle on the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings this week, Washington DC news station WTOP printed a glowing biography of the “brilliant” rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who was laid to rest in nearby Alexandria in 1977. The article brought on an uproar, however, and was swiftly retracted. It had failed to say that von Braun was a Nazi.
There are few corners of scientific progress that aren’t tainted in some unspecified time in the future of their historical past by immoral or unethical behavior. Physics, biology, zoology, medication, psychology, vaccine science, anthropology, genetics, nutrition, engineering: all are rife with discoveries made in circumstances that may be described as unethical, even illegal.
Von Braun’s presence on the Apollo program was no outlier. More than 120 German scientists and engineers joined him there, together with fellow SS officer Kurt Debus (who grew to become director of Nasa’s Launch Operations Center) and Bernhard Tessmann (designer of the colossal Vertical Assembly Building at what’s now Kennedy Space Center).
They had been among 1,600 scientists recruited by spies as part of Operation Paperclip at the end of World War Two – all shielded from prosecution, given protected passage to the US, and allowed to proceed their work. Allied forces additionally snapped up different Nazi improvements. Nerve agents such as Tabun and Sarin (which might fuel the development of latest insecticides in addition to weapons of mass destruction), the antimalarial chloroquine, methadone and methamphetamines, as well as medical analysis into hypothermia, hypoxia, dehydration and more, had been all generated on the back of human experiments in concentration camps.