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The dark side of the Moon - the cover up that led to space race

At the end of the Second World War, the US recruited 1,600 Nazi scientists for their rocket prowess. A new film tells the story of the cover-up that led to the space race, writes Hilary A White

Troubling past: Nasa scientist Arthur Rudolph, whose role in the US is looked at in the new docu-drama
Troubling past: Nasa scientist Arthur Rudolph, whose role in the US is looked at in the new docu-drama

By Hilary A White

Next Tuesday marks half-a-century since the Apollo 11 mission set off in an explosive rumble of rocket fuel and monolithic ascension into the realm of legend. Four days late, half-a-billion awestruck mouths hung open around the world as the biggest small step in human history was taken.

Just strange enough to be fantastical, but just familiar enough to feel like part of us, the Moon was now both territory and scientific lore, one enigma giving rise to another as its mystique was eclipsed by precision engineering, physics and single-minded courage.

As anniversaries go, no one can deny that this is worthy of adulation.

But rarely does the path to immortality leave no casualties in its wake, as a new docu-drama reminds us.

Using dramatised scenes based on actual court transcripts alongside expert interviews and archive footage, Prisoners of the Moon examines the terrible price paid for the rocket technology that propelled Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins there and back.

At the end of the Second World War, America knew that it was behind the Soviets in certain areas and one of these was the development of rocket power.

In 1945, it collected and moved some 1,600 Nazi scientists to the US as part of Operation Paperclip, its plan to harvest intellectual reparations from the ruins of post-war Germany.

Why did the Americans get them? Because, at that point, they had something neither the Soviets nor the British nor the French had: money.

Some of these men were Nazi Party members because it was a survival tactic, but some were zealous, dyed-in-the-wool Nazis - and it is no wonder the US scrubbed their files in order to get them through the gate. Arthur Rudolph, a party member since 1931, was one such man.

Rudolph had worked alongside rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun on the V2 missile and both men were sequestered into the US military to assist in the development of the ballistic missile. After that, the pair were involved in developing the launch mechanism for America's Explorer 1 satellite in 1958.

"The Americans couldn't have got to the Moon without the Germans," the film's director, Johnny Gogan, says.

"Well, it would've taken them a lot longer, because they just didn't have the know-how.

"When the Russians put Sputnik into space, that caused huge consternation in the US.

"And when the Moon landing becomes the first global TV event in 1969, it is itself a result of satellite technology that the sequence is able to be broadcast globally for 500 million people - that couldn't have been done without the space technology."

The Third Reich's V2 missiles were produced using slave labour drawn from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, and it is believed that Arthur Rudolph was directly involved in the punishment of these prisoners. Some 20,000 slaves are estimated to have died at the V2 rocket factory.

Jump forward to the late 1970s and the US Democratic Party, along with the mainstream Press, were becoming very interested in the fact that there were so many Nazis in the US: a sacrificial cow was needed.

Having retired in 1969 with top Nasa honours, Arthur Rudolph became the only one of the many Nazi engineers and scientists in the US to be charged with war crimes. He ended up signing a plea bargain with the FBI in 1983, was stripped of his US citizenship and deported back to Germany. His stunt-like attempt to re-enter the States via Canada in 1990 is where we join him at the start of Gogan's film.

An immigration tribunal followed and it was during the course of this that the full story was exposed about Rudolph and his peers, the atrocities they left behind them in Germany and the sleight of hand used to smuggle them into American society.

The sentiment of some at the time was that Rudolph had done his penance by way of 38 years' loyal service to the US military and Nasa and that he was being made a whipping boy. Others, however, maintained that his crimes were unforgivable.

It shouldn't be seen as spoiling the party for this upcoming commemoration to include a mature discussion about the terrible price that was paid for a successful Apollo 11 mission.

  • There will be a special screening of Prisoners of the Moon at the Crescent Arts Centre, University Road, Belfast, on Saturday, July 20, at 8.15pm. Tickets £10/£8. For more details, see https://crescentarts.org

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