From the Mixed-Up Files of Dr. Wernher Von Braun
It is ten o’clock at night, and I have the Space Camp all to myself. The campers (excuse me, “trainees”) are in their dorm rooms, left in the custody of the parents and teachers that have come with them to Huntsville, Alabama as chaperones. Most of my coworkers have left for the day, and the few who, like me, live at the Space Camp are pursing various avenues of well-earned relaxation. Some are out exploring the burgeoning Huntsville nightlife; many are clustered in the staff lounge watching television; a couple have retreated to their small windowless rooms to take in whatever solitude they can find. After a long day of shepherding children through the vast campus, of strapping (and unstrapping) every camper into every astronaut simulator, of recounting the saga of America getting to the moon with the enthusiasm of as if it were the first time (for the hundredth time), the one thing that the Space Camp counselors (excuse me, “crew trainers”) have had enough of, is SPACE; the last name they want to utter for the nth time is “Wernher von Braun”; the last thing they want to do is traipse around the museum exhibits after hours.
More for me then.
I walk away from the dorm, thankful that I am do not have a night watch shift. The dorm itself is a retro-futurist structure meant to resemble a space station I suppose, however the bright grey concrete and the multi-tier architecture give it the pronounced feeling of a prison, a feeling only amplified by the responsibilities of night duty (such as walking up and down a tier enforcing lights out volume restrictions) which seem to mirror those of a juvenile correctional officer. But as claustrophobic as the windowless “hab units” feel (especially the small room I share, and whose emasculating top bunk i I sleep on) is as open as the Space Camp feels to me when I am alone in it. I walk underneath Discovery (a to-scale model of the space shuttle of the same name); during the day it is used as a teaching aide and as a makeshift awning in the event of rain; in the moonlight it is more silhouette than structure: the giant burnt orange external fuel tank looks like the dome of a temple protected by the parapets of the two solid rocket boosters; the glider itself, the black lettering softened by the dim light, looks more like an animal than a machine; a bird ready to takeoff with a gust of ambitious wind.
I turn the corner of the main building, and the skyline of the Space Camp presents itself to me. On my left is Rocket Park, with its collection of historic replicas arranged on an evolutionary scale from von Braun’s diminutive “V-1 BuzzBomb” (scourge of London) to the Redstone rockets used early during the Mercury program, to the Juno II used to launch our first probe; on my left is a scale replica of the Saturn V that took the Apollo 11 crew to the moon. During the day, one could imagine them all arranged in height order, jockeying for position like the energetic kids who look at and touch them; but at night, they are headstones in a cemetery garden, peaceful and solemn but for the blinking red light at the top of the Saturn V: Huntsville’s Empire State Building.
I stop at its base. Truth is that I started taking these night walks largely in an effort to find a comfortable and quiet place to read, and the metal courtyard chairs underneath the Saturn V—looking up at the flared exhaust tubes which look like giant steel bells—are the most comfortable at the Space Camp. But they have turned into more than that. Over the two weeks that I have been working here (seemingly non-stop) these walks have become my only time for quiet, for solitude (sharing bunkbeds is not as much fun as I remember from ten-year old sleepovers) and for reflecting on the history that is bursting from the grounds of the Space Camp. I enter the Davidson Space Center, the central museum of the campus, and, as I have every night for the last week, head upstairs to commune with the artifacts of American space history. The stairs to the second floor are spiraled, and pass underneath a model of one of Da Vinci’s flying machines. On the wall above the doorway is a quote from Dr. Wernher von Braun, the face of early rocketry:
“The Rocket will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven.”
Ah, but do the “gates of heaven” open up for the space travelers his rockets enabled, or for all the people that his missiles killed in the war? In my self-satisfied snark, I cannot help but think of another quote, this one about von Braun from the satirical singer-songwriter, Tom Lehrer:
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.
‘Ha, 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.
These thoughts are only reinforced when I enter the Saturn V hall—named for the full sized rocket which hangs from the ceiling of the long rectangular room, reminiscent of the Blue Whale in the Hall of Biodiversity of New York’s Natural History Museum—and I am brought face to face with one of von Braun’s famous V-2 missiles. Ovular up to its sharp tip, and made of black and white checkered metal, it looks inspired by a cartoon, perhaps made to order by Wile E Coyote. Its fins look too ostentatiously ornamental to possibly be aerodynamic (though there is no shortage of unfortunate historical evidence as to its technical efficacy). A plaque stands next to it spelling out in words what the hall’s layout is screaming; starting with the V-2 and ending with exhibits documenting and celebrating the Apollo moon missions, the message is clear: that the journey to the moon began with German weapons research, that we owe Neil Armstrong to Wernher von Braun.
Staring at these artifacts of the best and worst of human technological curiosity, I cannot help but ask: was it worth it? A few weeks on the job, I cannot help but wonder what to tell the eager children of Space Camp about its inspiration ii.
From THE OFFICIAL SPACE CAMP MISSION JOURNAL (interspersed with occasional notes of context):
[The heading of the page reads IMPORTANT PEOPLE, and the upper right corner shows a picture 1 of von Braun wearing a sport coat and a tie.]
1 — THE PICTURE - This is admittedly juvenile, but there is absolutely no evidence that von Braun is wearing pants in this picture. Yes, it is unlikely that he got dressed to the nines from the waist up and posed in his (I’m imagining) tighty-whities. But there is no evidence to the contrary. Let us consider this a preliminary metaphor for examining von Braun’s complicated war history: we are, inevitably, only looking at half of the picture. Many people happy to revel in his engineering accomplishments (and his importance to the history and economy of Huntsville) will focus on his suit and tie clean cut post-war image, and consider any attempts to look below the frame to his career in the Third Reich to be on the level of perversion. But cropping the frame does not undo half a life.
Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) was one 2 of the most important rocket scientists 3 of the 20th century.
2 — “ONE OF . . . ” - While calling von Braun “one of the most important rocket scientists of the 20th century” is doubtless a nod to historical etiquette (perhaps there is a vocal and volatile Hermann Oberth appreciation club out there somewhere that it is wise not to provoke), this phrasing inadvertently raises a fascinating question of culpability, because the only argument that von Braun is not the most important rocket scientist by a wide margin is if we want to give some of the credit (and, by extension, blame) for his accomplishments to those who inspired him. Do we credit Robert Goddard (the first person to build and test a liquid fuel rocket, even if the in the process of testing he burned his house down) and Oberth (whose theories von Braun applied)? How much? If I inspire a young mind to science at Space Camp, do I bear responsibility for that student’s adult creations?
3 — “ROCKET SCIENTIST” - A central element to the Space Camp history pedagogy is the distinction between a “Missile” and a “Rocket”. Beyond the technical difference in payload—a missile carries munitions, a rocket carries a capsule—the students are encouraged to think about the difference in purpose: a missile explodes, whereas a rocket explores. Setting aside the assumption that exploration and destruction are so easily bifurcated (and we are talking to nine-year olds; a lot of assumptions will be ignored), note how even this seemingly simple characterization of von Braun as a “Rocket Scientist” is an apology. Not only does this, given the Space Camp’s definition of a rocket, deftly dismiss his role in the military, more generally it points our attention to his genius (which is undeniable) rather than the ethics of what that intellect was put to. A “Rocket Scientist” is also a euphemism for a genius (though much of the work of Chaos Theory suggests that blindly clinging to the primacy of linear equations and Newtonian principles is, in itself, a kind of delusion), a characterization that already sets the stage to excuse his involvement in Nazi politics as the social confusion of a savant.
As a young man 4 he became interested in the possibility of space flight, in part due to the science fiction of Jules Verne 5 and H.G. Wells and the scientific writings of Hermann Oberth.
4 — AS A YOUNG MAN - It is worth taking a moment to consider von Braun’s family and upbringing (and not merely for the irony that his father was a press secretary for the Nazis, a lineage that uniquely suited him to spend half his life downplaying his connection to the Third Reich). Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun was born into (low-level) Prussian aristocracy. The estate he was raised on was on land near Kaliningrad whose tie to German nationalism dated back to the Teutonic Knights (Biddle 8). His father used family and political ties to obtain a governmental position that, when the war began, became a propaganda post. Though unquestionably precocious, young Wernher’s schooling and early positions in the German military science division were fostered both by his elite family connections (which still held considerable weight even after the fall of the Junker government) as well as his prototypical Aryan looks. Put another way: even if von Braun did not identify as a Nazi (and there is no evidence of this; most charitably we could say that there is truth to the quote attributed to him, “I am so busy with my rocket work that I have no time to spare for political activity” (Biddle 75)) the Nazi’s certainly identified with him.
5 — JULES VERNE - Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon is absolutely pivotal to the mythos of von Braun that the Space Camp relies on. As most crew trainers tell it, from a young age, after reading Verne, von Braun was inspired to help send men into space. It follows that all of his work (including the development of ballistic missiles for the Third Reich, and then later for the United States) was with the eventual goal of manned space flight. I do not know if this provides ethical cover for von Braun, or implicates him further (if the price of pursuing his childhood dream was so much carnage, wouldn’t that make him more a sociopath than a dreamer?), and, admittedly, the Space Camp is not interested in mounting a defense (nothing in my time there suggested they view him to controversial). Rather, by using Verne to paint a picture of von Braun as a lifelong dreamer, the Space Camp connects von Braun to the young aspiring astronauts who populate it. In this way they do not simply try to counteract his guilt; they actively assert his childlike innocence. They happily fall in behind the popular (though possibly apocryphal) von Braun quote attributed to him after the first successful launch of a V-2 missile: “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” iii
After reading Oberth’s 1923 scientific study, “Die Rakate zu den Planetenraumen 6” Dr. von Braun wrote to Oberth for guidance in building his own rockets, and it was Oberth’s response that encouraged Dr. von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry 7, two of his worst subjects, so that he could better understand the physics of rocketry.
6 — DIE RAKATE ZU DEN PLANETENRAUMEN - If we are to begin to talk about the strange hold that the history of the Third Reich has on the way we talk about violence (on the way we compartmentalize culpability for atrocity in that place and time) we could do worse than starting with the semiotics of the German accent in the English speaking imagination. Consider how much more sinister Die Rakate zu den Planetenraumen sounds than Rocket to Interplanetary Space.
7 — CALCULUS AND TRIGONOMOTRY - No one denies von Braun’s precociousness. But it does seem an odd thing to celebrate. While this story does suggest academic perseverance (a laudable quality in a student, though one that, in von Braun’s case, gives new and ominous meaning to the term “gunner”) what we are primarily celebrating von Braun for is the thing that is least replicable: his genius. I do not want to get into a philosophical argument here (lest the Ayn Rand disciples who believe in a state of nature meritocracy of every conceivable form besides literary merit accuse me of trying to give out participation trophies), rather a practical one. Why would we raise up models who offer, primarily, qualities of praise (such as generational intellect) that we cannot emulate? Other than deriving simplistic parables of hard work (such as VON BRAUN TRIED REALLY HARD AND LEARNED TRIG, which could just as easily be based on Mighty Ducks movies which are far more entertaining and, with the exception of some weird race politics of the Iceland team in the second installment, require no consideration of Nazis), what could a student possibly emulate about von Braun’s life? KEEP WORKING LITTLE TIMMY, BECAUSE IF YOU ARE ALREADY A GENIUS AND YOUR CHILDISH DREAMS OVERLAP WITH THE MILITARY NEEDS OF FASCIST IMPERIALIST STATE OR ITS ADVERSARIES, THEN THEY REALLY CAN COME TRUE!
Later while attending the Berlin Institute of Technology and studying under Oberth, Dr. von Braun was recruited 8 by the German army to develop ballistic missiles. He earned his Ph.D. in Physics from the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1934 at the age of 22.
8 — RECRUITED - There is clearly something of Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t mention the war!” going on here; why else would they use the word “recruited” to describe von Braun’s entry into the German military? One doesn’t really get the sense he would have much of a choice. And this would be a great opportunity to employ suggestions of coercion. But, again, we have the combined facts of von Braun’s unapologetic participation in the Nazi war machine (on the record: for the eventual purpose of facilitating manned space flight) and the Space Camp’s unapologetic disinterest in this chapter of his past as anything other than the chrysalis from which he emerged in America.
Dr. von Braun was the leader of the team that developed the V-2 ballistic missile 9 for Germany during World War II.
9 — THE V-2 BALISTIC MISSILE - A few notes on the V-2 (other than its role as the foundational machine of the space program, which the Space Camp does not fail to report): The clinical, alphanumeric name obscures the original context. It was the second iteration of the Vergeltungswaffen, which translates to “Vengeance weapon.” This “vengeance” was brought upon, among other locations, London, killing at least 2,700 people during the war (though this will be roughly 10% of the amount of people who died constructing these weapons under von Braun’s (debated) command). Weirdly, the best thing that can be said about the V-2 (besides the considerable praise bestowed upon it by the Space Camp) is that its considerable expense helped contribute to Germany’s fiscal insolvency, and its benefits to their cause came relatively late in the war (though the same cannot be said of von Braun’s early accomplishment: the V-1 (V IS FOR VENGEANCE!) “Buzz Bomb” (a device so named for the sound it made when its munitions armed on its descent to its target).
The V-2s were developed at Peenemunde 10 and manufactured at the Mittelwerk factory 11.  Before the Allies
captured the V-2 rocket complex [liberated the Dora labor camps] iv, Dr. von Braun and his top rocket scientists surrendered 13 to the American Army, brining along their plans and test vehicles.
10 — PEENEMUNDE - The Baltic Seaport where the majority of the research and development of the German V-2s took place. More than just a production site, it was the center of a particular scientific/utopian ethos. Later in his life, von Braun argued that the focus on science at Peenemunde (rather than politics) was evidence of his apolitical Nazi affiliation, but as Wayne Biddle argues in Dark Side of the Moon, “The Peenemunde utopia and the Nazi dystopia comprised a single split personality. Peenemunde was the Third Reich. They formed a compound of science and society that could not be separated, except perhaps in the minds of men who believed that science occurs in a politically antiseptic realm, who later wished to erase the past after the devil had taken his share” (84).
11 — FACTORY? - I understand that this is being written for nine-year olds (or maybe I don’t understand, maybe that’s what this is all about) but using the word FACTORY to describe the Dora-Mittlewerk forced labor camp where more than 20,000 people died, and where the bulk of von Braun’s V-2s were produced (under his documented oversight) seems to go past apology or tone deafness to outright deceit. I do not know what we owe the dead, or what power language has to pay those debts, but let me say now what I never said to my Space Campers: Mittlewerk was not a FACTORY; it was an annex to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Mittlewerk was not a factory; it was a war crime. And while von Braun’s culpability for its atrocities is debatable (he was ultimately not prosecuted for war crimes, though no amount of Jules Verne book club devotion could account for his blindness to what happened there considering his role in its power structure), there is nothing debatable about the place and what happened there. FACTORY? A fucking FACTORY?
12 — [ ] - There is, of course, no way to capture history without summary, and no way to summarize anything, let alone the bloodiest war in human history, without at least partially erasing the nuance and particularity of people and their struggles in the name of narrative efficiency. And yet. There is something uniquely loud about the pause here. In one sentence we are told of the V-2s being developed, and in the next sentence the Allies are capturing the facility. Would that the chronology had been so abrupt! There is a world in this pause. Maybe this is what the study of history is: locating and speaking these pauses. Maybe our responsibility in the preservation of collective memory is simply not letting ourselves move in between sentences like these ones without at least marking and mourning all that is lost in the pause that separates them.
13 — SURRENDERED - What a beautiful, oddly hopeful word choice: surrendered. As if he had a choice! As if he had all the agency in the world and just up and decided, you know what, fuck it! I give up! The war is over!
As part of Project Paperclip 14, Dr. von Braun and part of his rocket team were relocated from Germany to Fort Bliss, Texas 15.
14 — PROJECT PAPERCLIP - Project Paperclip was the name of the program to recruit German rocket scientists after the end of the war (the term “recruit” actually having some meaning here, as the United States was competing for scientists with the Soviets). All of the scientists seeking asylum submitted applications, and the most promising of these were affixed with a paper clip: hence the name. In hindsight, von Braun might have wanted his team to be named for something with more technological immortality. His decision to come to America instead of Russia is seen as evidence that his focus was always on the space program, though it is more likely a result of the Soviet’s being more interested in technicians than experimental designers like von Braun. This gap in initial focus is largely believed to be the reason that the Soviets were the first to get to space, but ultimately America was the first to conquer the more complicate task of a lunar landing.
15 — FORT BLISS - At Fort Bliss, von Braun’s team of German rocket scientists were so carefully guarded they referred to themselves, tongue in cheek, as “prisoners of peace.” The United States government, far from trusting them and welcoming them with the open arms that the Space Camp narrative implies (WAR’S OVER BOYS; LET’S GO TO THE FUCKING MOOOOON!), thought of them more calculatedly as “intellectual reparations.”
In 1950, Dr. von Braun’s team was moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama 16. For fifteen years after World War II, Dr. von Braun worked with the U.S. Army in the development of ballistic missiles.
16 — HUNTSVILLE - While von Braun’s motivation for moving his team to Huntsville is actually somewhat charming (supposedly, he found that the Northern Alabama terrain reminded him of Germany in its hilliness) the effects of the local community and economy were revolutionary. His contribution to the Redstone Arsenal (a weapons facility) and his later connections to NASA turned Huntsville into a technological capital of the South (“Rocket City”). It is understandable, in a way, why the Space Camp staff and management (mostly comprised of Huntsville residents) would not spend a great deal digging into the darker histories of a man for whom half of the city appears to be named.
Using the V-2 engines as a starting point von Braun and his team developed the Redstone family 17 of rockets. This group of rockets included the Redstone rocket, the first rocket to carry an American 18 into space, the Jupiter and Juno rockets which were used to test re-entry vehicles and launch satellites, and the Saturn 1 rockets which were NASA’s first heavy-lift launch vehicles used to prepare for the Lunar missions and to launch the Skylab crews.
17 — FAMILY OF ROCKETS - Another pleasant euphemism. One could imagine a retelling of Goldilocks in which she stumbles into the Redstone Arsenal and finds the missile that is “just right.” Though even if we accept at face value the split between “Rockets” and “Missiles” (Rockets explore! Missiles explode!), we would be remiss not to note the inherent violence of rockets themselves, even if their only target is the moon. Think of the miles of Florida coast that needs to be evacuated because of the impact of the launch’s volume! Think of the sheer quantity of rocket fuel that is burned to achieve the monumental task of breaking orbit. Here is something I learned at Space Camp (and that anyone on a roller coaster can testify to): gravity is not a social construction. The human body is not designed for space travel, and anything we build to make it possible will pay a violent price of one kind or another.
18 — AN AMERICAN IN SPACE - I believe that the last haven for Cold War rhetoric will be the Space Camp. For all of the talk of space being the great human unifier (and this is central to ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS component of the von Braun narrative) there sure is a lot of attention to the first Americans to go into space or to orbit the Earth (even if Alexi Leinov, that colossus of a Soviet cosmonaut, did both first). This Cold War context is also important to the von Braun discussion, because lest we (lest I) get too proud of ourselves simply for not being the descendants of Nazis, we can remember that the McCarthyist paranoia over the spread of Bolshevism was matched only by that of Hitler.
In early 1950s Dr. von Braun ignited America’s interest in space exploration by publishing an article on the future of space flight in Collier’s magazine 19 and starring in three short films 20 produced by Walt Disney 21 that featured his plans for the future of space travel. Among von Braun’s early concepts were plans for a wheel shaped inflatable space station that when spun would provide astronauts with artificial gravity. Another of his innovative ideas was rockets with reusable components, an idea later incorporated into the Space Shuttle. Further setting the stage for the Space Shuttle where von Braun’s early concepts for a plane that could be launched like a rocket.
19 — MAGAZINE - And if you have trouble processing the differences in celebrity culture between the height of the space race and the present day, take a moment to imagine a magazine article having any impact on society at all.
20 — SHORT FILMS - He also made promotional videos for Hitler to convince him to fund ballistic missile research.
21 — DISNEY - Von Braun’s relationship with Disney is somewhat low hanging fruit, as perhaps the best way to think of the Space Camp’s historiography is one of Disneyfication, in which the complex contours of von Braun’s move from Nazi missile designer to American space hero are turned into an overly simplistic “swords to ploughshares” narrative along the lines of turning The Ice Princess into Frozen (and in fact, there are some staggering parallels between Elsa’s orgiastic Let it Go moment—unaware or unconcerned with the effects of her release on the world around her—and von Braun’s freedom to launch rockets as a member of the Third Reich).
In 1960, President Eisenhower renamed a portion of the Redstone test facilities the George Marshall Space Flight Center, transferred control to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and appointed Dr. von Braun director. While the director of the MSFC, Dr. von Braun led the effort to create the Saturn V launch vehicle, the rocket that would take Americans to the Moon and launch Skylab, our first space station. In 1970 following the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the moon 22, NASA asked Dr. von Braun to move to Washington D.C. to head up the strategic planning effort for the agency. In 1972 he retired from NASA and worked on pioneering satellite communication systems for Fairchild industries in Maryland. He died in Alexandria, Virginia on June 16, 1977.”
22 — THE MOON - A 25 Billion dollar metaphor (150 Billion v adjusted for today’s value). While there were certainly important technological developments during the Apollo program (such as computers) the same is true of terrible wars that do we not celebrate for their ancillary benefits (We have, for example, found a way to lionize the internet without constantly using it to justify the military projects, such as Vietnam, that fueled its early development). What we take most from the moon landing is not any specific scientific breakthrough (partly because it has not, as of yet, been the springboard to further space exploration it was promised to usher in) so much as an example of something thought to be impossible that was proved to be doable. There are other metaphors that the Space Camp draws from the moon landing, such as the conversion of weapons of division—like the V-2—into machines that unified the world (though, this seems hard to reconcile with the borderline xenophobic narratives of American exceptionalism that WINNING THE SPACE RACE seems to inspire, to say nothing of the fact that the base of production for these machines of UNITY was staunchly segregated for at least the first half of the space program. Can you imagine a Freudian slip in which George Wallace comes to the podium and declares: “[Rocket development] today, “[Rocket development] tomorrow, “[Rocket development] forever!” Perhaps in tandem with John F. Kennedy giving his iconic speech: “We choose to go to [Vietnam] not because it is easy, but because it is hard”).
Before we go any further with the trial of Dr. Wernher von Braun, let us take a moment to consider some important facts about the prospective jurors, aka SPACE CAMPERS:
1) Pretty much all of them are wearing astronaut costumes; everyone else is wearing a bright t-shirt whose particular fluorescent color is determined by their age, and designed to help tell apart hoards of small children who more or less look alike. Even if we allow that the replica flight suits project a certain dignity, everything else they are carrying—such as long tubes of powdered sugar, commemorative cups in the shape of Aliens, and the melted reside of DIP N DOTS vi painting their faces—detracts from the level of gravitas one might want for a consideration of war crimes. Similarly . . .
2) The trial of von Braun (should I go through with it) would take place in an amusement park. In this way, if we are to accuse the Space Camp of Disneyfying history, at least we can credit them with providing the appropriate theme park attractions to pull it off in style. Whether the campers prefer G-FORCE (the carnival style centrifuge vii) or SPACE SHOT (which launches its secured riders to the top of a ten story pole before letting them free fall and then repeating), they are not clamoring for additional history lectures during group free time. And while history is a required component of almost every Space Camp program, the schedules are mostly structured around the various simulators. Put another way, a Disneyland employee could stand at the gates to Pirates of the Caribbean and lecture the guests about the relationship between the fetishized maritime economy of the ride, and the realities of the transatlantic slave trade, but it might actually be a dick move.
3) The space campers are, with rare exceptions, absolutely jacked to be here. Consider the case of my favorite camper, a nine-year old boy from Southern Mississippi named Daytona: As soon he was sorted into my “team” (a group of about 12-16 kids) he came to the front of the line, standing as close to me as possible and, unable to contain himself, let loose the most earnest chain of utterance I can ever recall hearing. He said—and here I will try, with grief in the acknowledgement that I will not succeed, to appropriately characterize his mode of speech, because it was more than just a deep Southern accent. I truly believe that the musicality of Daytona’s voice was more a result of his ear-to-ear smile, the stretching of his mouth, than just the dialect of his hometown. Similarly, his somewhat eccentric inflection seemed due to his eagerness to speak and resulting inability to wait until the appropriate moment to provide emphasis. His voice was as bright as his blinding blond hair which flopped over his ears and eyebrows like a toy war helmet too big for its enthusiastic wearer—he said (barely able to stifle his own joyous laughter): “I’M SO EXCITED! I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO COME HERE! I LOVE SPACE! SPACE IS MY FAVORITE! MR DAN, SIR, WHAT’S THE FIRST SPACE THING WE’RE GOING TO DO?” Suffice it to say my response was not, “Well young man, we are going to talk about how that giant rocket over there was designed by a Nazi.”
4) To reiterate, the campers are usually between the ages of nine and eleven. This is not to say that they need to be protected from the truth, only that perhaps we need to weigh the value of von Braun as a teaching metaphor against the merits of full faith disclosure in all instances. Put another way, where does a history teacher’s chief loyalty lie: with the truth of events, or with the students who might benefit from a particular narrative frame?
And while we are debating the pedagogical questions surrounding talking to nine year olds about Nazis, let’s take a moment to consider how spectacularly ill-suited I am for the task:
1) I am also wearing an astronaut suit. Though while on small children it looks cute and hopeful (facsimiles of adult clothing perhaps foreshadowing the wearer one day growing up to be whatever they dream of) on an out of shape thirty year old man, it traverses just about every fantasy imaginable. Given that it is a jump suit and it is not custom fit, there are only two options for a man of my proportions: wear a suit that is too tight, or one that is way too long. Mine somehow accomplishes both, hugging and puckering the gut, and seeming to act as a kind of conceptual art piece ridiculing the idea that my body could ever go to space. And as an adult, the suit could most charitably described as looking like a foolish costume (personally, I think I look like a prison janitor in it), but more accurately, the suit calls attention to its own requiredness, undermining the central shared delusion that every SPACE CAMP interaction is built on: that everyone wants to be there. And while there is an argument that the way we talk about weapons could stand to lose some dignity or claim to maturity (I’m imagining it be mandatory that anyone who wants to appropriate government funds for the blowing up of people and/or things should be required to dress in an adult version of a child’s play clothes), as I stand in front of my students (excuse me, as I stand in front of TEAM MERCURY) I feel that I am not radiating with the ethos of a qualified history teacher.
2) I am not a qualified history teacher, nor have I been trained in any meaningful way. From the interview (which focused much more on my experience as a camp counselor than as a teacher viii) to staff training (which provided us facts about space history, but did not ask any questions of us about the goals of teaching it) the vibe of the Space Camp is much closer to a recreational camp or an amusement park (and many of the counselors cross train to operate the rides as a way to get additional shifts) than of an educational setting.
3) I might not want to be a teacher. It is strange, because my only real qualifications are in the education track, but when I am teaching (especially at the Space Camp) I feel entirely fraudulent. I feel as if my enthusiasm and patience are masks, and that I cannot separate my feelings of responsibility for historical truth from my interest in burning down the structures that require me to be enthusiastic. When I applied to work at the Space Camp (in an interlude between a Master’s degree and a PhD program) it seemed like the perfect antidote to my disenfranchisement with teaching composition (imagine: teaching students who are excited to be in class!), but I am beginning to worry that what I really resented was being asked to stand in front of the room and feign any kind of authority or knowledge. Perhaps what feels like righteous indignation about the (half hearted) concealment of von Braun’s legacy is really just irritation that I’m not getting many hours and that my bunk bed is so shitty.
And, come to it, how righteous is my indignation? What of the hypocrisy of working to expose the past while ignoring the present (wouldn’t my anger be better pointed at the developers of American drone technology?) or of occupying the oddly safe space of criticizing Nazis, those perfect villains, preserved forever in historical simplicity as the killers of Anne Frank and the tormenters of Indiana Jones. Rather than providing these students with historical context, perhaps I am merely avoiding the context of the present, retreating into the prehashed and Manichean moral frameworks that require no self-evaluation. Maybe history, like the Moon (which we went to partly to avoid looking at what we were, and are, doing on, and to, the Earth), or like SPACE CAMP (a retreat into the safety of suspended adolescence), maybe history is another kind of escape from the responsibilities of living in the present.
(Though I remember how I felt walking on the beaches of Normandy. Looking at the impossibly steep cliffs that eighteen year-olds in Halloween costumes were tasked to climb in the face of automatic weapon fire and mortar explosions. The beach was so calm—the violence of the waves hitting the rocks belied by the soothing sound—so oddly peaceful given its history, yet the weight of that history’s realness felt important then, as it feels important now.)
It is now eleven or so at night; I have spent roughly the last hour sitting (lying down?) in the replica of the Mercury-1 capsule. One of the perks of having the place to myself is that I don’t have to jockey with small children for these small pleasures as I might during the day, but now, my feet having been elevated above my head for so long (imagine sitting on a chair that has fallen over) I am feeling a bit flush. I pull myself out of the capsule and awkwardly get to my feet, the full length of the Saturn V coming once more into view.
I cannot help by quote young Daytona, because the truth is “I’ve always wanted to come here.” And while working at the Space Camp did not live up to my hopes, my first few days when I got to experience it as a camper might were fantastic. They have this chair (attached to the ceiling with complicated springs) that allows you to experience the feeling of lunar gravity. You get to wear headphones and say things like “Go Flight.” And the first couple servings of DIP N DOTS are sort of pleasing.
As is the sense that I have the entirety of Space History to myself in this quiet hall. During the day, it feels like a zoo, like the children are poking on the tanks of the astronauts’ ghosts, not letting them sleep. But now, those ghosts feel free to walk. I go up to the picture of the Apollo 1 crew right, taken right before their tragic deaths. The three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Robert Chafee, and Ed White ix—are smiling, and while there is a sad irony to these smiles, that sadness is tempered somewhat by the knowledge they had of the risks they took x.
I do not know precisely what poignant conclusion I should draw from looking these men’s pictures in the eye, but I feel privileged to have a quiet moment to tempt one.
i. ^ A bed that is paradoxically too small for a grown man, and yet too high off the ground for anyone who is not 6’ tall or blessed with supernatural jumping ability.
ii. ^ This is true both literally and figuratively. The impetus for the creation of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (which houses and operates the Space Camp among other programs) was an appeal by von Braun to the State of Alabama to document the history of the rocket program, so much of which was tied to the history of Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
iii. ^ For those keeping score at home, the planet it landed on is called London. My grandmother on my mother’s side (a pistol of a woman named Leila Solomons) was forced into basements and bunkers to avoid these bombardments. Her brother, John Solomons, who lied about his age so that he could join the RAF and be one of Churchill’s “few”, died in the Battle of Britain trying to stop V-1’s from delivering their damage. This feels like it needs to be noted, if only in a cursory way, when we (when I) tell the story of von Braun.
iv. ^ My edit.
v. ^ “Why don’t you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut. Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the mooooooooooooon!” —Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick
vi. ^ And if this is, indeed, the “ice cream of the future”, then it is a future of which I would like no part.
vii. ^ Let me explain why this ride feels like death. As the weight of the G-Force pushes against your body, you stop being able to move your limbs. And yet, you have the clear sense that you are moving very fast. This combination of being unable to move, yet traveling very fast, strikes me as what death will feel like.
viii. ^ My experience is as an English teacher, or, more specifically, as a Graduate Assistant teaching freshmen composition: a low level player a few rungs above the students in the larger pyramid scheme of the academy.
ix. ^ And here I want to credit my Space Camp trainer, who not only required us to list on our final exam the name of every astronaut who died in the service of their mission, but noted that remembering them was the least we could do.
x. ^ Here is the sadly prescient quote from Grissom that speaks to this: “If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.”