Dark side of the Moon: Irish film tells story of Nazi scientists, crimes and cover-ups behind Moon landing

At the end of World War II, the US recruited 1,600 Nazi scientists, primarily to bolster their rocket power. A new Irish film tells the story of the crimes and cover-ups behind the technology that would take mankind to the Moon, writes Hilary A White

Rocket man: Nasa scientist Arthur Rudolph

Hilary A White

Quite the story: Ape looks at pockmarked orb high in the night sky, decides the pale, slightly shocked face is more than just a totem to fertility, and travels 240,000 miles for a closer look.

In the spaces either side and in between, the story of the Moon and our touching of it incorporates everything from sonatas to satellites, calendars to Kubrick conspiracies, pagan ritual to prog rock.

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 later, on July 20, 1969, 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 from Leitrim-based Bandit Films 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 on the grandest vanity project humanity ever embarked on.

At the end of World War II, 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. The fact that all were anti-communist (or anti-Bolshevik, to use the parlance of the day) didn't hurt as the US was in the early stages of a growing and obsessive suspicion of Russia. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

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 same year that Nasa was established.

"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 because it had been conveying this idea that it was this advanced society and that communism was Neanderthal.

"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. I'm old enough to remember the Moon landings. The images were just so phenomenal, so out-there. Mankind had never seen anything like it before. And just how it informed popular culture at the time, music and the whole zeitgeist, etc."

Gogan's wistfulness is perhaps an illustration of why perhaps nobody speaks much about the subject matter of Prisoners of the Moon, namely the horrors that Rudolph (portrayed in the dramatisations by Jim Norton) and von Braun had walked away from.

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

"They left the scene of the crime," Gogan says of Rudolph and von Braun, "the underground factories in northern central Germany where V2 missiles were being constructed. The slave labour is in itself a war crime, before you even consider the civilian death toll those weapons would go on to inflict."

Jump forward to the late 1970s and the US Democratic Party, along with the mainstream press, are becoming very interested in the fact that there are so many Nazis in the US. Investigations and column inches ensue before a sacrificial cow is needed to make an example of.

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Having retired in 1969 with top Nasa honours to his name, Rudolph becomes the only one of the many Nazi engineers and scientists in the US to be charged with war crimes. He ends up signing a plea bargain with the FBI in 1983, is stripped of his US citizenship, and deported back to Germany. His stunt-ish 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 (as previously unseen court transcripts revealed) that the full story is 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 so that officialdom could be seen to be doing the right thing. 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.

"It was really the pinnacle of America's technological achievement and a symbol of their relevance in the Cold War," Gogan says. "It was a good news story and there were many positive aspects to the whole Nasa project. And how it brought in the whole concept of the Gaia theory of Earth as a living organism, how powerful it was to see the Earth from space. What do I see when I look up at the Moon now, having made this film? The thing that I take out of that image of the Moon is our whole mythological relationship with it throughout cultures, and the wonder of it. This story doesn't overturn any of that."

'Prisoners of the Moon' is in selected cinemas nationwide. www.prisonersofthemoon.com

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