What Would Wernher Do?
a story by Daniel Schenker

All visiting dignitaries make a pilgrimage to the Rocket Center, and on this occasion, the staff extends every courtesy to a fellow scientist of high caliber, the evening’s guest speaker: Dr. James Solomon, Ormsby Foundation Professor and Director of the National Laboratory for Planetary Studies, Distinguished Visiting Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and esteemed honoree of international organizations from B’nai B’rith to the Soviet Cosmonautics Foundation. During the afternoon he is afforded the opportunity to crawl through a mock-up of the Space Station’s living quarters, watch astronauts train in the Center’s huge neutral buoyancy tank, and view rare archival footage of the late Dr. Wernher von Braun as Director of the German Army’s Peenemünde test facility in the state-of-the-art media lounge. He also participates in a scheduled round-table discussion about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a subject on which he has published widely. Because the weather is fine, he takes a few minutes to walk around Tranquillity Base Plaza where Redstone, Jupiter, Atlas, and Saturn rockets are displayed in their launch positions, along with the Enterprise, the original prototype of the Space Shuttle. He tries not to be impressed with this display of hardware, styling himself today a Jonah in the land of Nineveh, but he fails because, like all successful and ambitious people, he can hardly resist the aura of seven and a half million pounds of thrust that still clings to the long silent motors of the Saturn V. He perhaps regains his moral equilibrium when he passes by the SR-71, Mach 3 successor to the infamous U-2, which has precious little to do to with NASA, but is nonetheless extremely popular with the tourists. The plane is black and dagger-like, and makes no bones about its connection to the military, a candor that renders its undeniable charm easier to resist.

At around 5:30, a little early perhaps, but for a $10,000 lecture fee one is willing to make some concessions, his host, the University Provost, comes by the hotel to take him to dinner. As they settle into the plush seats of the car, the Provost remarks that his youngest daughter has just finished reading the professor’s most recent book on extraterrestrials, and thinks it would make a great movie. Solomon politely dismisses the idea with a laugh, not wanting to jinx the delicate negotiations with a major Hollywood studio that have lately consumed him. He learned from his Universe TV series that the profits from videos and film can be enormous, and while he considers it a mild vice, he cannot resist the luxuries that real money affords, like the Cordovan leather interior of the Provost’s new Mercedes which carries them like a magic carpet over the interstate spur that leads from Research Park to the vestigial downtown area. Quaint nineteenth-century shops and warehouses, now mostly converted into law offices, face the monstrous Bauhaus courthouse that occupies the town square. As they pass the vacant Loew’s Theater, the Provost turns sentimental and tells Solomon about the day back in July 1969 when they switched off the projector in the middle of True Grit so that people could join the spontaneous celebration of the moon landing out in the streets. Von Braun was carried around the square for nearly an hour on the shoulders of the ecstatic citizenry before his colleagues and the police could pull him back down to earth.

Just past the empty theater is the New Orleans-style facade of the Founders Club, a joint venture of old real estate money and new corporate money, opened recently in what had once been a dry goods store owned by a Jew named Grunwald. Solomon and the Provost step inside a foyer illuminated by torch-bearing cupidons and carpeted with oriental rugs whose dubious authenticity tempts the connoisseur in Solomon to peel them back and check for labels. The dentist’s office decor cries out “White people!” to him who, knowing nothing of the late Mr.Grunwald, wonders how many Jews have ever been in here, not that he would recognize a kosher lamb chop if it jumped off his plate and bit him on the nose.

After dinner, Solomon and the Provost join a convoy of vice presidents for the short drive to the university. On a campus indistinguishable from the office park across the street, they pull up to an athletic center named for the aerospace corporation which funded its construction, and disappear inside through a rear door.

Around the front of the building, an unexpected bottleneck has formed at one of the main entrances. As members of the audience attempt to enter the gymnasium, their progress is arrested by an outstretched arm that hangs before them like some ancient device from Prussian heraldry. The hand at the end is gathered into a fist and presents for inspection a Xerox copy of a newspaper article about Solomon’s messy divorce from his first wife. Its poor quality suggests several removes from the original. The arm, hand, and associated body parts belong to Dr. Nathan Bedford Royal, a professor in the school’s history department, noted for his revisionist theories of both the American Civil and Second World Wars. Royal was a long-time resident of the town who over the years had become a kind of informal spokesman for the interests of the rocket community. During the controversy over the dubious provision in von Braun’s will setting aside a third of his estate for the construction of a local Holocaust memorial, Royal had written a series of letters to the paper, exposing certain facts about interested parties to the dispute (one of them a notorious Francophile), and proving conclusively that their behavior in the affair had been motivated by “a deep-seated ethnic anxiety” about the Nordic races.

A standing-room-only crowd gradually fills the hall. In an effort to dress up this large but dowdy venue, a dozen gigantic images of von Braun have been suspended at regular intervals around the gymnasium. They hang there like medieval tapestries, gently rippling in the air currents of the building’s internal climate. Everyone in town knows these images as well as they do those of the Marlboro man. Back in the 1960s, an area schoolteacher gained national recognition by writing a children’s book that taught the Twelve Virtues by using many of these same pictures. One wall displays “Imagination,” in which a contemplative von Braun in profile gazes at the model of a rocket he designed for a Walt Disney program; opposite hangs “Determination,” which shows a younger von Braun seated at his desk in Peenemünde, eyes locked on to the viewer as he holds pen in hand, ready to sign some important document.

Before most people have had a chance to study Professor Royal’s flyer, the house lights dim, while powerful spotlights at the base of each von Braun image switch on. From a side door near the stage now enters a line of balding men with shocks of white hair. They move toward a roped-off section of empty seats set up directly in front of the speaker’s podium. Most are in shirt sleeves, a few wear dark jackets and narrow ties. They move along as if trudging through heavy snow drifts. When seated, they fold their hands and stare down into their laps. These are von Braun’s former Peenemünde colleagues. Their reluctance to look up at the larger-than-life images of von Braun is understandable. The pictures only serve to remind them of the Director’s untimely departure. He was only sixty-five! Without him they would have been a collection of technically brilliant nonentities, and now they are sinking back into the historical oblivion from which he briefly raised them. A few even speak bitterly of having been abandoned by their leader, uncollegial talk which the top people among the survivors vigorously suppress.

Although no formal announcement has been made, enough members of the audience recognize the former Peenemünders to begin a round of applause, but before this builds to an ovation, the hall darkens, and in the empty space above the middle of the gymnasium floats a most uncanny image. It is a one-stage rocket painted like a harlequin, sitting on its launch pad. The surrounding countryside is heavily wooded, not with the familiar palm and palmetto of Cape Canaveral, but rather with the tall spruce of northern Europe. The colors are peculiar, too, recalling the preternatural richness of gladiator films from the 1950s. A man’s voice, flat but booming, now fills the gym: “fünf, vier, drei, zwei,” only to be lost inside the roar of ignition. Technicolor pink flames billow out from around the base of the rocket as it lifts from the pad and begins a lazy counter-clockwise roll. This is an amazing holographic reconstruction of the film that had been shot, under von Braun’s direction, of a successful V-2 firing in the Spring of 1943, using color film so rare that von Braun had made a personal appeal to Himmler to obtain it, a move he would later regret. The rocket ascends toward one of the basketball hoops where after about twenty seconds it disappears into a virtual cloud bank just like the one that hung over the Baltic half a century ago.

The clouds now coalesce into holographic nebulae and stars, and floating beneath them there arises an eerie but recognizable landscape: scattered boulders in high resolution, the pink sky of a Martian sunrise. Everyone knows this scenery from the photographs sent back by Viking, the unmanned probe perhaps closest to the heart of this evening’s distinguished speaker. But we are not alone. Spacecraft are parked all around, their names stenciled on their sides: Oberth, Ley, Goddard, Tsiolkovsky, Armstrong. Astronauts bustle about, setting up equipment. Their silvery visors reflect the landscape and one another, until slowly one of the visors clears, revealing the face of Dr. Wernher von Braun, in the prime of life. Then another clears, and it, too, is von Braun. Then another, and another, until there are three dozen von Brauns going about their business on Mars, marking, measuring, collecting. The audience signals its approval with a standing ovation. At its peak, the vision melts under a blaze of spotlights that illuminate both the podium and the learned astronomer himself, Dr. James Solomon. For a moment everyone is surprised to see someone who isn’t von Braun, but goes on applauding anyway.

Solomon appears taller now than he ever did on television, an illusion produced by a play of light and shadow that assures the speaker El Greco-esque uniformity with the images of von Braun around the hall. He lowers his outstretched arms, signaling for the crowd to be seated. The noise in the hall is turned off like a faucet, and the well-behaved audience is as attentive as the freshmen in the professor’s introductory astronomy course on those rare days when he and not some advanced doctoral candidate actually delivers the lecture. He smiles broadly and gestures toward a line of chairs on the stage behind him, where sits the ubiquitous Provost and his stony-faced team of vice-presidents.

Also on stage, separated from his colleagues by a couple of empty chairs, and indeed, almost sitting in the shadows, is the university president, Dr. Vohles. His responsibilities as a lobbyist and fund-raiser dictate that he hardly ever comes to campus, leaving all the important decision-making to the Provost. From many years of huddling with legislators and wealthy donors, Dr. Vohles’s head seems to hang a little distance in front of his stooped shoulders, like the lanterns carried by the Negro jockeys that once graced the lawns of homes in some of the area's better neighborhoods. In contrast to the vaguely disapproving frown of the Provost, the President’s owlish face beams at an audience he is genuinely delighted to see,  as if he never imagined that so many ordinary townspeople would actually show up at a University-sponsored cultural event.

Solomon turns to address the crowd. “Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to the Trustees of the Von Braun Memorial Lecture Fund, the Provost of the University, and his entire team of vice presidents. It has also been an especial pleasure to renew my acquaintance with your President, Dr. Vohles.” Vohles bobs his head and waves tentatively to the audience, pleased to have been recognized. “How long has it been, Fritz, since we stood on that lonely runway near Washington, watching as von Braun brought his plane to a landing—15 years? 20? We gave our best shot at trying to save the Saturn program for interplanetary missions, and although we failed, I still treasure the note von Braun sent afterwards, assuring me that we had done nothing to be ashamed of.”

Without looking down, Solomon now extends his left hand toward the Peenemünders seated directly beneath him. “Allow me to acknowledge, too, the contributions of the men whom Dr. von Braun loved like brothers, and whom we are honored to have with us tonight as our special guests. You started your careers in what were not necessarily the best of times, and like your youthful leader, had to make some difficult choices. Squeezed in the same vise of history, any one of us might have done the same” — there is a momentary pause — “or differently. Who could know?” Solomon shrugs like an old Jewish tailor, as the rising inflection of his last three words echoes in the far reaches of the hall. “But out of the dread ambiguity of those years arose a miracle. As a boy on Long Island, like another boy once in Upper Silesia, I knew that my destiny lay with the stars and planets. But I thought they were only be studied from afar until the day in 1948 when I heard that a V-2 launched from White Sands, New Mexico, by Dr. Wernher von Braun had reached the unthinkable altitude of 250 miles.”

None of the Peenemünders looks up at Solomon. They contribute polite applause to the general din before once again pressing their soft, wrinkled bodies into their seats, like prisoners awaiting the next blow from a sadistic interrogator.

Solomon continues: “Today a new generation of scientists and engineers faces that same dread ambiguity. Will the modern rocket lead us to mass annihilation, or will it carry us to the planets and the stars? Recently the President of the United States has proposed the deployment of a space-based anti-ballistic missile system which he assures us would render America invulnerable to Soviet attack. To the technical people in the audience let me say that I know you could overcome whatever obstacles stand in the way of developing such a shield. Soon after the Apollo landings in 1969 a young space enthusiast asked Dr. von Braun, ‘What is the most important thing a man needs when he wants to build a spaceship and travel to the Moon,’ and von Braun answered, ‘The Will to do it!’ But today, can Will alone guarantee security?”

“As many of you know I have long been a proponent of the unmanned exploration of space. I have taken this position because I believe that not a single datum of scientific knowledge is worth the cost of a human life.” He is now in his public television mode, the demiurge in a wool sweater, sitting next to the fireplace, telling the human species how it all began and how it will end. “Once at a conference I attended on planetary exploration, I remember von Braun quoting the Bible. He said, ‘The man who never changes his opinion is like standing water and breeds reptiles of the mind.’” Solomon tilts his head to one side, bringing his mouth near the microphone, and looks up at the gargantuan von Braun hanging nearest the podium. It reproduces not a photograph but rather a mural familiar to everyone from a local restaurant known for its unique offerings of Appalachian and German cuisine. The mural shows von Braun from the shoulders up, as Rocket Center Director, almost breaking into a smile as he fixes the observer in his gaze. Above him float the various missiles whose development he oversaw; beneath him are illustrations of old houses, a general store, horses and buggies, bales of cotton and other mementos of the town’s bucolic past. Solomon studies the mural for several seconds, and then in a low rasping voice exclaims, “Dr. von Braun, I stand before you, your colleagues, and the people of this community tonight to make a confession: I . . . was . . . wrong!” His head drops to his arms folded across the top of the podium as he tolls out the vowel in the last word, punctuating it with the final “g” of his native Long Island dialect. 

No Marrano hauled up before the Holy Office of the Inquisition for spitting out a mouthful of pork on the Feast Day of St. James, and begging the magistrates at his auto-de-fé for the relaxation of a sentence of burning at the stake to one of simple decapitation, could have presented himself as more thoroughly contrite. The crowd is electrified. People jump to their feet and pump their fists in the air. Solomon lifts his reddened eyes and looks around like a fox who has finally resigned himself to the trap.

When things settle down he continues: “I had always believed that science belonged in one place, politics in another. Von Braun knew better. As a twenty-year-old engineering student in 1932 he accepted the world-historical burden of scientific enterprises and went to work for the German Reichswehr. After Hitler became Führer, hours that he would rather have spent at his beloved Peenemünde test stands were passed haunting ministerial offices in Berlin, persuading the Nazis to believe whatever they wanted to about the military uses of his rockets so long as they provided the resources to nourish his secret dream of space travel. Even the success of the V-2 against civilian targets in Paris and London, which von Braun personally detested, he saw as an opportunity to argue for a winged version of the rocket with a longer range, knowing that it might serve as a test vehicle for sending the first human into space. Indeed, only a genius like von Braun could have fully appreciated this relationship between politics and space.”

“And so tonight I stand humbly beneath these images of your departed leader with a modest variation on his theme: Where von Braun made politics work for space, I suggest that we make space work for politics.” Solomon draws himself up to his full height, like a boy about to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before a school assembly. “I believe that the President of the United States should propose to the General Secretary of the Communist Party that both countries commit to a joint venture with the goal of landing humans on the planet Mars by the year 2007, the fiftieth anniversary of the first manmade satellite in earth orbit. The dangers inherent in manned exploration remain with us, and the financial cost of the mission will be considerable, but when one looks at the world today with the same ‘ruthless toughness’ that von Braun and his colleagues brought to an understanding of their own times, this seems a logical means to promote world peace and the survival of the human species.”

The audience responds with unexpected warmth and enthusiasm. Is it the proposed 20-year life of the project, long enough to keep every engineer in town busy through retirement? Or has he actually achieved ethical contact with these people? Whatever the reason, he looks both pleased and relieved, and moves on to his conclusion: “Years ago at the Cape, over his favorite breakfast of grits and hashbrowns, before the launch of a Surveyor mission, I asked von Braun what he considered the strongest argument for space exploration. He turned pensive, and looking more like the man who played the cello and wrote poetry than the manager of vast technical enterprises, he said to me, ‘Jack, the human experience of Creation is like a bitter fruit that we digest into sweetest knowledge. And like birds that swallow fruit, wherever we alight, we excrete the pits along with something to nourish them. But now our old earth is filling up with these wondrous turds of civilization, and the time has come to begin dropping them on other worlds. This is the vision that calls me forth as a scientist.’ 

So what will it be, my friends, Star Wars or Mars? Science fiction or science fact? What would Dr. Wernher von Braun have done, given this choice? I think you all know the answer to that question as well as I do.”

When the applause finally dies down, Solomon announces that he will be happy to take a few questions. A dozen student hosts in red blazers identify themselves around the auditorium, waving wireless microphones over their heads. Hands go up and Solomon takes his first question, an obvious softball, from a teenage boy who asks whether the Mars expedition would use nuclear or chemical propellants. Next, a tall, florid-faced man with black hair lacquered into a wave like President Reagan’s asks how America can co-operate with a socialist slave system which in the early years of space exploration abandoned dozens of cosmonauts to circle the earth forever in their ghost Vostoks. Another questioner, a large woman in an Army-green pants suit, brings up the Trilateral Commission.

Realizing that he has been favoring one side of the hall, Solomon wheels around and points to someone seated just a few rows up from the podium. He is a balding man in his sixties dressed in an off-white linen suit and an unfashionably wide tie displaying the red and white logo of a popular college football team. A smattering of applause erupts as some members of the audience recognize the owner of the fist which had earlier handed them the article about Solomon’s personal life. Dr. Nathan Bedford Royal can hardly believe his good fortune in having been called upon. He stands up, arms akimbo, holding back the sides of his jacket. His mouth moves, but at first, no words come out. His jaw seems to be snapping open and shut involuntarily, like a turtle in extremis, but soon he regains his composure. “With all due respect to the good professor from Long Island,” he begins, snarling out the name of Solomon’s birthplace in a rather poor imitation of a New York accent, “I think you’re just whiffling piffle when it comes to collaboration with the Soviets. Lenin, Stalin, Beria, Kruschev, Brezhnev, Chernenko, Andropov, Gorbachev—the names change, but the holocausting of innocent people remains the same. Dr. von Braun and his colleagues have nothing to apologize for, ever. Dread ambiguity? I don’t think so. The decision in 1932 was between Judeo-Christian freedom and atheistic communism, and I think they chose well. Things might have turned out better if we in America and Britain had listened to what the German people and their leaders were saying in the 1930s, but we held their crusade to defend Western civilization hostage to a small but powerful lobby in Washington, and by 1941 it was too late. Hitler, the popularly-elected, legal head of the German state was backed into a corner where he had no choice but to negotiate with Stalin in the hope that it would delay the coming Armageddon. Or do you, a member of the liberal establishment, coming down here to bring a little Aufklärung to us benighted crackers, subscribe instead to the Franklin Delano Morgenthau view of history? But my question tonight has less to do with history than with simple common sense. An analogy: a man points a gun at you. You can stand there unprotected and wait for him to fire, or you can put on a bullet-proof vest to defend yourself. What do you do? Or do you think this is a matter for situational ethics to resolve? By the way, I would also like the professor to state his position on world government gun control, a.k.a. the nuclear freeze. Or for that matter, on gun control, period.”

Solomon, standing directly in front of the podium, listens to Royal, gradually adopting the same akimbo posture as his questioner. As Royal finishes, Solomon smiles and pulls back the left lapel of his jacket to reveal a leather holster. He reaches over with his right hand, unfastens the snap, and removes a huge polished-metal Luger, which he points straight up in the air, and against all expectation, fires. Simultaneous with the report of the gun there is a loud hollow popping sound as the bullet takes out one of the spotlights suspended from the ceiling. A small shower of debris falls upon the Provost and his vice-presidents.

Meanwhile, Royal has toppled over backward, screaming in pain, although it’s obvious to everyone that Solomon has merely fired into the ceiling. Above the buzz of the crowd, Solomon, not missing a beat, says, “I support the right of every American citizen to bear arms, within the confines of the law, as guaranteed under the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. You’d be amazed at the number of crank calls and death threats I receive each week,” he goes on, returning the Luger to its holster. As he does so, von Braun’s former colleagues spring almost miraculously to life. They stand up and cheer at the top of their wheezy old-man lungs, several of them waving handkerchiefs above their heads. A few segments of the audience join in, but most people sit there in a kind of stunned silence, unsure whether to be impressed at the learned astronomer’s bravado or disgusted with his bad manners. The President obviously seems to be enjoying the moment, laughing and making funny faces, as he gestures first to Solomon and then to the audience in a manner reminiscent of Harpo Marx. The Provost, on the other hand, is finding it difficult to maintain dignity as he furtively tries to shake bits of glass and metal out of one of his trouser legs.

Soon, however, a woman’s voice is coming over the loudspeakers, asking a question which gets swallowed up in the commotion. Everyone’s attention is now drawn to a group of men in short-sleeve shirts with pocket protectors who, standing shoulder to shoulder, sway gently from side to side, clapping their hands and chanting, though the hall devours their words. Their passionate intensity recalls civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s. A minute later, Royal is on his feet again, picking up the chant, which can now be understood as “Star Wars! Star Wars! Star Wars!” In his cheesy white suit he is an unlikely protester, but he takes to his role like a duck to water, clapping with hands held high, and occasionally gesturing for others to join in. A few people do, but below him and toward the middle of the hall, another group has taken up a different call. They scream at the top of their lungs, “Mars! Mars! Mars!” From a distance, the one group seems hardly distinguishable from the other.

Solomon has been trying to ignore the disruption, but the noise reaches a point where it drowns out all attempts at rational discourse. He pauses and looks back at the President, who is still happy to see that Solomon is drawing such an enthusiastic response, convinced that it can only enhance his institution’s nerdy image. The Provost, however, senses real trouble. He gestures for Solomon to step back from the podium. Royal and a band of supporters who have gathered around him now throw small objects toward the Mars faction. These are plastic replicas of the Hermes, Jupiter and Saturn missiles designed by von Braun which were being sold as souvenirs in the lobby before the lecture. Soon the air is filled with missiles being thrown back and forth, and when the supply of these is exhausted, bigger objects, like folding chairs and pieces of bleacher seats, become airborne. The whole auditorium has been sucked into the vortex of a brawl the likes of which the Peenemünders have not seen since the latter days of Weimar.

By now the Provost and his Vice President for Faculty Management, drawing upon their specialized training, have pulled out their own concealed weapons, and use their bodies Secret Service-style to shield Solomon from the bombardment aimed at the stage, though from the way they hold him down, it is unclear whether their objective is to protect Solomon or to prevent him from slipping out. It has finally dawned on the President that something like an old-style putsch is going on here, and he stands off to the side with a Greek-chorus look of horror on his face, too deeply in shock to fend off the occasional Jupiter or Saturn that comes his way.

Royal now takes the offensive in earnest, and crying out “Chancellorsville! Chickamauga! Let’s get ‘em, boys!” he leads his band hop-scotching down the bleachers toward the nearest Mars cadre. Within a couple of minutes, a whole scrum of bodies rolls onto the gymnasium floor. Amid the confusion, someone has inadvertently hit the switch to start the laser light show again, and the first V-2 on film renews its holographic path across the Baltic sky of a long lost world. The campus police at last arrive and immediately deploy themselves to create a cordon sanitaire between the VIP section and the nearest door so that the Peenemünders can leave safely. They hardly need the assistance. Invigorated by the evening’s events, they have already formed themselves into a line of march, four abreast with arms linked, which rolls over bodies and debris as it forces its way to the exit.


©2000 Daniel Schenker

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