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Est. April 5, 2002
February 07, 2019 - Issue 775

The Worst and the Best of Humanity:
1937 and 1969

"In the 1950s and 1960s, the nuns made sure to educate
us by presenting us with documentaries featuring the
sword - wielding crusaders, ridding  the world of evil doers.
When it wasn’t the heroic  faces of those whose skin
matched that of our  teachers/religious guardians, the nuns
and priests,  it was dark-skinned 'Africans'
we were made to look upon with pity."

my sisters/ we

always talked & talked

there waz never quiet

trees were status symbols

I’ve taken to fog/

the moon still surprisin me

Ntozake Shange, “Sense of Heritage”

There is a reason, after all, that some people wish

to colonize the moon, and others dance before it

as before an ancient friend.

James Baldwin, “To Be Baptized,” No Name in the Street

I say there is no darkness but ignorance.

Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 4, Scene 2

Yuri Gagarin, 12 April 1961

If only the Covington Catholic high school students had knowledge of American history, then Indigenous elder Nathan Phillip wouldn’t have feared them as they surrounded him. It would have been for elder Phillip one big open-air classroom session no different than the large lecture halls at universities. Instead, as evident by the expression of superiority on the face of the student staring down elder Phillips, the privileging of alternative facts and personal beliefs seemed to outweigh existential knowledge. How a little Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States or Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States could have gone a long way to uniting the decedents of America’s conquerors and the conquered peoples.

A little less lying. Less suppression of the facts.

Sometime in June of 1969, I applied and received my social security card and became an employed citizen for the first time that summer, working as a nurse’s aide, cleaning out bed pans and removing soiled sheets. Mayor Richard J. Daley initiates a city-wide program whereby high school students would gain work experience, not to mention, a little pocket money. “Staying out of trouble” or “off the streets” wasn’t an incentive, at least for us girls on the Southside in the Catholic parish of St. Anselm where adults operated a surveillance program. Any infraction was reported to “the proper authorities,” that is, to parents and grandparents, if the observer didn’t abide the “outside” authority of nuns or priests.

Saving to put aside money for the personal items I’ll need in my dorm room at college, I’m thinking about being the first in my family to fly off to college. A black and a girl.

In July of 1969, Apollo 11, with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, head for the moon and a scheduled lunar walk on its surface. I’d been watching these NASA launches since the Mercury program began in in 1958. Astronauts Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom fly in a suborbital pattern around our planet while on February 20, 1962, John Glenn, in Friendship 7, took the Mercury spacecraft into Earth’s orbit. So on July 20th, I’m sitting in my grandfather’s armchair in front of our black and white television, watching the first Moon boot steps down from Eagle’s ladder. Then the next foot. Both feet firmly on the moon. There’s a human life form from Earth on the Moon.

I’m all of 15 years old, but I’m with him. I’m on the moon with Armstrong and Aldrin.

Wernher von Braun is hurriedly invited to come live in the US, work for the US space program, provide the US with value intelligence regarding rocket science.

At Peenem�nde Army base, the man responsible for orchestrating the building of the V-2 rocket, work that began on August 28, 1948, is also the man overseeing the carving out of anhydrite rock two underground tunnels at Dora Mittelbau—with the slave labor of prisoners from Buchenwald. Von Braun is determined to build his V-2 to travel five times the speed of light. Look out London, Brussels, Paris. Many of the inhabitants of these cities, however, never had time even to look up.

Von Braun, Patrick Hicks writes in “V-2 and Saturn: A Tale of Two Rockets,”, was “the center of gravity for the V-2 program at Peenem�nde: all major decisions orbited around him, and he made sure his rockets hit their intended target.”

But the body count begins at home, at the site of creation. Ten thousand Jews dig through the anhydrate, and no matter how many die where they worked from tuberculous, typhoid, or pneumonia, writes Hicks, there are replacements, almost as emaciated as the workers. When the dead bodies were more than anyone could ignore, let alone walk over, Nazi officials at the Dora Mittelbau camp asked headquarters for help. We need our own oven! And more engineers arrive to build an oven to dispose of human beings worked to death in the world’s largest underground laboratory for the making of the V-2.

Von Braun joins the Nazi Party in 1937, and he excels once he’s put in charge of the camp at Dora Mittelbau. Heinrich Himmler pays a visit and, so pleased at what he sees, Himmler promotes the young von Braun to SS-Sturmbannf�hrer von Braun. Hitler pays a visit and the scientist presents a film in which the V-2 rocket soars off the launch pad. Hitler promotes von Braun to “professor on the spot.”

It’s all good for von Braun, but not so for thousands of others. As Hicks reports, von Braun’s V-2 kills 1,696 in Belgium, 1,403 in the UK, 76 in France, and 19 in Holland. Twenty thousand mainly Jewish prisoners lost their lives in the building of the V-2 rocket. At the end of World War II, however, the Americans didn’t want to know about the atrocities committed at Dora Mittelbau. The US Army may have been stunned at the wonders uncovered in the tunnels, but it “kept the crimes against humanity that occurred at Dora classified.”

The Russians! The Russians!

The US “opened its arms to these men.” Walter Dornberger, von Braun’s partner and “enthusiastic” Nazi, along with Arthur Rudolph, who maintains a “constant supply of prisoners at Dora,” are waved in.

Welcome! Lady Liberty welcomes you all!

The narrative of Operation Paperchip makes it possible to justify the work permits of Nazi scientists as long as there’s no mention of underground “tunnels” or “Jewish labor” or the “V-2” or that ravine filled with human ashes at Dora Mittelbau. In fact, Hicks argues, “sticky questions are made to disappear” because these scientist were recognized as “indispensable” for the development of space program that would launch Americans beyond Earth’s orbit and on to the moon.

The scientists, enjoying ticker-taped parades and awards, are promised the moon: wealth and luxury, anything you desire! “Propellant and sheet metal were given priority over blood and bone; certain numbers were given priority over others.”

It doesn’t seem likely that the two events, the Holocaust and the Saturn V lifting off for the moon, happened, writes Hicks. But both did happen. The horror of the Holocaust and the awe of the moon walk in 1969.

Neither events are impossible.

Months before Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins are to land on the moon, the three, training in a remote “moon-like desert” out West, encounter an Indigenous elder. (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind).

For several tribes, this territory is home.

What are you doing here?

We are part of a research expedition. Shortly, we’ll travel to the moon.

The elder is silent and then asks if the astronauts would do him a favor: relay a message to the “‘holy spirits’” on the moon. Our peoples who have gone on are there.

Of course, and the astronauts are instructed to repeat, again and again, the message in “tribal language.”

“‘What does it mean?’”

Oh, I can’t say, It’s a secret known only by member of the tribes “‘and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’”

Back at the base, the astronauts look around for a translator and find one.

What does it mean?

And before the translator speaks, he laughs. “Uproariously.”

What does it mean!

“‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’”

Fifty years ago on July 20, 1969, the Eagle lunar module lands on the moon. Not long after, Armstrong becomes the first human to stand on that lunar surface. Back on the spacecraft, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins monitors from above. He’s taken what for me is an amazing photo: in the foreground is the Eagle hovering above the lunar surface and, in the distance, in the jet black of space, is crescent-shaped sphere. Earth. All of life is on that small sphere—except for the photographer, astronaut Micheal Collins.

In Huntsville, Alabama, at what is now named the Wernher von Braun Center, it’s namesake and his team is ecstatic.

I wish the Nazi Wernher von Braun never existed, only the Saturn V creator, scientist Wernher von Braun.

Nothing good can come of deliberately ignorance!

I didn’t know anything about von Braun when I was a young follower of NASA’s early manned- space exploration programs. I’m not even aware of the number of victims of the Holocaust. And as for the “Soviet Union”--it’s an enemy with a weapon that can wipe us out. So for years, we’re subject to drills in which we hide under our desk or quickly walk, in line, class by class, to the fallout shelter in the recreation center. I’m not at all aware, at 15 years old, of the extent to which the combined regimes of fascism and totalitarianism have systemically tortured and killed over 15 million people and displaced millions. And I read newspapers and books.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the nuns made sure to educate us by presenting us with documentaries featuring the sword - wielding crusaders, ridding the world of evil doers. When it wasn’t the heroic faces of those whose skin matched that of our teachers/religious guardians, the nuns and priests, it was dark-skinned “Africans” we were made to look upon with pity. In contrast to the nuns and priests, and those victorious crusaders, Africans lived in an unfortunate place, almost as distant from “civilization” as the moon is from Earth. It was a jungle-like place where the “uncivilized” had yet to come down from the trees and walk on the Earth.

Closer to home, nuns discuss decisions about our development with “Mother Superior” as if as if our African American parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors who fled the brutal conditions of Jim Crow segregation and the practice of lynching in the South were mere apparitions without historical memory.

While privy to snippets of stories about the normalization of injustice in the South, I had never heard the story about NASA hiring black women as mathematicians. These women are there for the Mercury Project. They are at Mission Control in Houston, and they are there at Huntsville. Mathematician Dorothy Vaughan is there at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory. So are fellow mathematicians Kathleen Johnson and Mary Jackson. Christine Darden is at the Control Room at Langley’s Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel.

I can put names to almost 50 black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980,” writes Margot Lee Shetterlyii (Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race) in the Guardian, February 7, 2017. War had the African American women marching off to NASA after the agency put out a call for mathematicians.

I tuned in to Star Trek on the television.

I was five when then Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson created the NASA Act of 1958—still too young to recognize in President John F. Kennedy’s “Moon Speech,” May 25, 1961, both the race to beat Russia and the challenge of our curiosity to want to know what’s beyond our home planet. The exploration of space, Kennedy said, is “one of the great adventures of all time.”

Humans have been responsible for creating the worst possible conditions for all life on this planet. Out of sheer ignorance, fear, we have as our heritage wars and massacres that wipe out millions because of religious or racial differences. Class differences. Gender differences. “Imagined orders,” writes Harari. No good reason whatsoever to be so ignorant. So violent.

How is the definition of civilization to suggest the expending of mental and physical energy to starve whole populations of people as Stalin did in the Ukraine and in Poland? And currently, as the US and Europeans manage by way of embargoes against it’s “enemies,” subject children to a starvation diet, how do these “powers” recognize themselves as “superior” beings? The von Braun’s today, following the money, work as scientists and as engineers for the US and Europe, devising high-tech weaponry that will end up with dictatorships who, in turn, stomp their proverbial iron boots on segments of their populations.

And, nonetheless, despite the atrocities, humans walked on the moon!

It wasn’t an all white, all male enterprise; it wasn’t all about competition and military prowess.

I’ve always considered the manned-space exploration program the best thing humans have ever accomplished. Too see the inside of those 1960s and 1970s spacecrafts, to see the “technology” then, the metal, wires, switches, is to wonder how was it possible to accomplish the feat once, let alone 16 more times, through Apollo 17. In all, “the two most important flights,” states Micheal Collins, “were Apollo 8 and Apollo 11–8 about leaving and 11 about arriving.”

And approximately 25,000 humans diggers of anhydrite rock at Dora Mittelbau existed despite the cover up of the atrocities committed there. This history can’t be dismissed, erased, hidden. This violence of ignorance is foundational to our society. Isn’t it? But we know now, don’t we?

Despite the suppression of knowledge, I was there at NASA with the African American women, contributing and witnessing the awesomeness of the human potential for good.

Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek television series, notified Gene Roddenbery, the show’s creator of her plans to leave the show. Word gets around. It’s no longer a rumor.

A week later, she is backstage after some event had ended and someone asks if she had a few minutes to speak with a fan. A big fan! Nichols assumes its a Trekkie. Another Trekkie. So Nichols turns to face this big Trekkie fan.

It’s Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. - another Trekkie fan!

“‘I am the biggest Trekkie on the planet,’” King tells Nichols. In the King family, everything comes to a halt when it’s time to watch Star Trek. “‘And I am Lt. Uhura’s most ardent fan.’”

King was “shaken” by the news that Nichols had given notice to leave the show, so he had to see her; she had to know that she couldn’t just “abdicate” her position “on the groundbreaking series.”

King added: “‘You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be.’”

Lt. Uhura remained aboard the Enterprise as its chief communications officer.

Star Trek is canceled after three years on air; however, Nichols went on to assist NASA in their efforts to recruit more women and people of color to the space program. She assists with the recruitment, for example, of Sally Ride, the first women astronaut while her role as Uhura influences the first black female astronaut, Mae Jamison as well as Whoopi Goldberg who plays the role of Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

There are always possibilities… Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.




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David A. Love, JD
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