We (John and Margaret Cooper) enjoyed reading Simon King’s post: “Maxwell Knight mentions the space race in his unpublished manuscript The Frightened Face of Nature and here’s a poignant quote from the same document: Knight’s point was that man should explore; however, why can’t we do these things without destroying”.
We should like to add a few comments.
First, we remember watching the moon landing, as it happened, on a friend’s television at Compton, in Berkshire, 50 years ago (July 1969). It was, indeed, a momentous occasion, which we shall never forget. It was three months after our marriage and five months before we flew to Kenya, where our two children – Vanessa and Maxwell (named after Maxwell Knight) were born in 1971 and 1972.
John wrote in his diary:
“We got up at 1.45 21/7/69 (21st July 1969) to see man’s first steps on the moon. It didn’t actually take place until nearly 4.00 am….it was most exciting and quite unbelievable to think that we were seeing it on television as it actually happened. We retired to bed at 4.15 am …”
John then went on to describe how, on the next day, he examined a tame rook for a medical friend, diagnosed gapeworm (Syngamus trachea infection) and administered treatment. Maxwell Knight would have approved of this juxtaposition of events during the space of only 24 hours!
Our second point is as follows. Maxwell Knight did not live to see the moon landing 50 years ago. He died 18 months before it happened. But he would have been aware that, behind the dramatic and moving moon landing, was some sinister history. This related to events 25 years earlier, in the closing few months of the Second World War – and might well have involved MI5, for whom Maxwell Knight worked at the time. The background is related below; there is also much on the internet.
The achievements by the United States in space exploration owe much to the work of Dr Wernher von Braun. He had been part of the Nazi’s rocket development programme during the Second World War and helped design the V-2 rocket, the first long-range guided ballistic missile. From September 1944, over 3,000 V-2s were launched by the Nazis against Allied targets – first London and later two towns in Belgium. According to a BBC documentary (2011), attacks from V-2s killed approximately 9,000 civilians and military personnel. A further 12,000 labourers and concentration camp prisoners on the continent of Europe died as a result of their forced participation in the production of the V-2.
Following the end of hostilities, von Braun and about 1,600 others were smuggled out of Germany at the end of the War and taken to the USA. Dr von Braun worked for the United
States Army on an intermediate-range ballistic missile programme, and he developed the rockets that launched the United States’ first space satellite Explorer 1. The latter marked the beginning of the space race that led to the successful moon landing 50 years ago
This background to the moon landings that we rightly laud today poses a moral conundrum. Was it right to “rescue” former Nazi Germany employees, who had been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of many people (some of them British civilians) in order to tap their energies and skills?
Or should we be grateful that von Braun and his collaborators fell into Allied/US hands, not those of the USSR?
This will probably continue to be debated for some years to come. And we wonder how Maxwell Knight, who was active in opposing both Nazi Germany and the USSR, viewed the dilemma.
John and Margaret Cooper