Moon Shot Museums

Enjoyed a trip to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, this week. Huntsville played a role in manufacturing munitions during the Second World War, a role that continued afterwards as a site of rocket and missile development for the U.S. Army. This meant that the city became the American home of a great many German scientists and engineers nabbed in Operation Paperclip, including the most important one of all: Wernher von Braun. With the Space Race, Huntsville and von Braun became even more important, and the success of the Apollo missions has ensured their fame forever, memorialized in this museum. 

The main hall, designated the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, contains one of the few Saturn V launch vehicles still in existence,* displayed horizontally, elevated, and separated into its component sections. Underneath it, all sorts of artifacts, information, and interactive exhibits about just what the NASA needed to do to make space flight and  lunar exploration possible. It was all very complex, but technology, organization, and wealth got the job done. 

Some of the items on display include:

A capsule from Project Mercury (see Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff). 

A capsule from Project Gemini.

The Command Module for Apollo 16. 

A Lunar Roving Vehicle, including instructions on how to unload it from the Lunar Exploration Module and unfold it for use, something I always wondered about.

Space Race memorabilia. 

Admit it, you were always curious.

Von Braun himself is presented as a great genius – not only for his skills in rocketry, but also in negotiating with politicians, publicizing space exploration, and managing his team. Apparently he was very inspirational to work for. 

The museum does not completely ignore his past. Pictured is a V-2 rocket, developed by von Braun and his team for Nazi Germany – some 3000 of which were built by slave labor and fired at targets in England and the Low Countries, killing some 9000 people. This was the so-called Miracle Weapon that was going to turn the tide of the war and save Germany from invasion. It didn’t, but building such devices was very interesting to the former allies of World War II, especially as there came to be the possibility of arming them with nuclear warheads for added destructiveness. So rather than facing any sort of postwar de-Nazification or possible trial, von Braun and most of his team were scooped up and brought to the United States before the Soviets could get them, where they were put to very good use. Recall the joke: “Why did we win the Space Race? Our Germans were better than their Germans.” It does not appear that von Braun retained any Nazi sympathies during his American career, in the mode of Dr. Strangelove (if he ever had them in the first place, although he did attain the rank of Sturmbannführer in the SS). And it seems that most Americans were willing to play along, in thanks for services rendered – with the notable exception of Tom Lehrer, who called him “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience” and imagined him saying:

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

So if you’re looking for a museum devoted to a less controversial figure, you should visit the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. We stopped in last summer on our way home from Canada, serendipitously on the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. Neil Armstrong, of course, was the first human to set foot on the Moon, and his hometown is very proud of him, although his museum doesn’t have nearly the collection that Huntsville does. He comes across as a clean-cut, straight-arrow midwesterner – exactly the sort of all-American hero to serve as great PR for the space program.  

Some items on display:

From Armstrong’s early days as a test pilot.

Armstrong’s space suit.

Saturn V model with tower.

Rocket engine. (It looks too small to be an F-1.)

From slightly later in NASA’s history: technology to allow astronauts to drink soda in a zero-gravity environment. (Apparently NASA was neutral during the Cola Wars.)

I kind of wish this plaque read “We got here first! Screw you, Commies!” which is what the whole thing was really about.

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* The Saturn V erected in the courtyard of the Huntsville museum is a full-scale model, constructed in 1999. It serves as a Huntsville landmark and provides the sort of publicity that von Braun would approve of, but it cost the Center $10 million of borrowed money and was instrumental in the firing of director Mike Wing after all of one year on the job.