Dear Dr. von Braun: Eccentrics, Crack Pots, & the Moon, Part II

Today’s post is by Shane Bell, Archivist at the National Archives at Atlanta.

This is the second of two posts regarding correspondence found in Dr. Wernher von Braun’s Personal Files, 1968 – 1970 (National Archives ID 2827681), Public Affairs Office, George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Record Group 255: Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Archives at Atlanta.

While the Apollo program certainly had it detractors, many letters sent to Dr. Wernher von Braun at NASA reflect the general hopefulness people felt about the effort. This squares with the “aura of competency” NASA forged even after its budget peaked in 1966. As a key weapon of Cold War ideology, NASA needed the public to see their program, designed and built in the free and decidedly non-atheistic West, as more competent and further reaching than the Soviet space program. Aside from the tragic launch pad fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White in January, 1967, there were no other major fatal incidents that impinged the progress of Apollo. The only one that came close was the failed attempt at the moon by Apollo 13. Even that, however, was turned into triumph as the world celebrated the safe return of the crew following the “successful failure.”[1] 

Throughout the correspondence are religious tracts, newspapers, newsletters, pamphlets, and even a book or two. These are mostly from small religious communities expressing their thoughts on Christianity and their interpretation of Biblical scripture. Unanimously Protestant, these writers also fall on both sides of the debate about going to the moon. An October 1969 letter from Pennsylvania even compared Dr. von Braun to the mythical Roman god Saturn. As the creator of the Saturn V rocket, Dr. von Braun was “a giver of gifts to mankind via good mechanical agriculture” (Saturn was also the god of agriculture) and he must “have a beautiful thinking mind and a wonderful understanding of God-Christ to create a rocket that is like the root of the spaceships of the universe.”[2] On a more practical level, one church choir in Florida staged a “moon show” to raise money for new robes. They wrote and performed a song about a woman on the dark side of the moon, nagging at her husband, the man on the moon. This religious organization praised the Apollo missions. Part of the song lyrics read: “So y’all come back en see us again, en if ya can’t stop to see me, just drop me one of them red, white, en blues. I’ll wave it proudly for Apollo 13.”[3] Combined with the landmark achievement of Project Apollo, Dr. von Braun’s writings, discussions, and presentations on spaceflight during the previous two decades gave him an aura of technical knowledge unparalleled during his life with that of any other proponent of spaceflight. As a symbol of American progress and technological prowess, Dr. von Braun had become as American as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and George Washington Carver. 

Almost as frequent as the patriotic and religious themed letters were the outlandish. The juxtaposition of the belief in fantastical beings from other worlds and the inherent belief in Christianity is interesting to consider. Nearly every letter writer professing some belief in extraterrestrial life also mentions their strong religious ties. In a 1969 letter from Tennessee the writer states: “I have made some predictions. I wanted you to have a copy.” Among these predictions was the belief that “Uranus has a more favorable climate than earth” and that “intelligent life on Uranus is far more advanced than life on Earth. They have travelled to other planets in the solar system and attempted to make contact with humans.” A writer from Oregon claims that should humans ever reach the Moon, they would find it inhabited by thousands of beings.[4] The letters generally do not provide much basis or specifics for why the writers believe these claims. One is left to surmise they may partly result from the enormous strides taken by American engineering and technology in the post-war decades, along with a healthy dose of imagination from the golden age of science fiction. Combined with the momentous firsts of the Apollo program, these factors must have played a role in the expanding belief of extraterrestrial life existing closer than was previously thought by the general public. 

Some letter writers quoted scripture at length and waxed poetically with their own complex interpretations of scripture, religion, philosophy, or science. In other cases, they were more succinct. In June 1969, a single postcard from Florida, addressed simply to “Dr. Wernher von Braun, Huntsville, Alabama” read in full: “if the men who land on the moon ever come back it will be a miracle and a waste of billions 4-23-98 HHB.” One might assume the date was merely miswritten and that the “HHB” are the writer’s initials. Without more context, it is impossible to know. A testament to Dr. von Braun’s fame, the postcard needed no number, street, or zip code to find its way via the U.S. Postal Service. Another short undated letter sent after Apollo 11 praises the moon landing as “brushing elbows with God” but at the same time describes the moon as a “worthless ashtray in the sky” which “looks better I’m sure from down here on Earth especially to romantically inclined Love Birds.”[5] While recognizing the technological achievement, these letter writers apparently saw little other value in the effort. Another writer in a March 1970 letter from Ohio was much more disparaging of the moon effort. In part, the letter reads: “Frightened scientist frankly warn of possible death of planet Earth through pollution. Moon shots are a part of pollution, plus freak storms youth has turned to drugs because they fear the giant space center. Sick Sick. Mankind when will you stop von Braun go home retire just go.”[6] The prospect of humans exploring another body in the universe clearly had significant negative implications for some.

A particularly well-articulated but vitriolic letter from July 1969 states:

“You [Dr. von Braun], like so many other men are drunk with your own power.   You criticized Britain because she turned all her energies toward social reform; well, her aims had the interests of her people at heart but that’s more than I can say for you and all those who think as you do.  Your attitude is ‘to tell with the poor middle class working people and the underprivileged – full speed ahead to the moon!’”

The writer compares the moon shot to the Tower of Babel and proclaims that God will take care of it in a similar manner. The writer claims to be praying for the failure of the Apollo missions, saying that “I, as well as many others are praying hourly & daily that He will do the same thing regarding the moonshot.” The letter later states:

“You are German and I daresay you surrendered to the U.S. instead of Russia because you knew that she would keep the Russian boot on the back of your neck in retaliation for what you had done (V-2 rocket). The same rocket was also used by Hitler against London; you were a Nazi until the tide turned and I daresay you still are, so don’t be casting aspersions at the state of Alabama.”

Claiming that humankind is living in the last days, the writer says that “Satan is running like a lion in the streets seeking whom he may devour. Anti-Christs are on every hand.” [7] 

While not prevalent in the surviving letters from this collection to Dr. von Braun, some writers are representative of the xenophobia and racial tensions of the time. In a July 1970 letter sent to Marshall Space Flight Center as well as to President Nixon and several senators and NASA administrators, one writer claims that there is too much factionalism in the federal government (a fair statement in any era to be sure). He also claims that there are those “who are working to woo the negro; those who are intent upon winning the female vote by supporting the militant woman; those who are for the so-called “minorities”, e.g. the Indian, the Spanish, the Italians, etc.; and those who are for the recalcitrant leftist student factions across the nation.” [8] These proponents, the writer suggests, are “kept” individuals who help left leaning politicians remain in power. Again, the letter does not make explicitly clear whether the writer supports the aims of Project Apollo or not. It is perhaps a testament to Dr. von Braun’s stature and fame with the public that the writer felt the need to include him in his correspondence with high profile government leaders.

On the more fantastical side, some letter writers claim to have secret knowledge that would be valuable to NASA. Some claimed to possess special technical expertise on spacecraft propulsion, metaphysical know-how that would help astronauts better communicate with earth, or unique insights into brain activity that could benefit medical research. In a June 1969 letter from Indiana, a writer claims to have “invented a gravity defying device that is so powerful I myself cannot figure its limitations…it will exceed the speed of light. The power plant uses the same fuel over and over continuously without ever refueling.” As in other letters making similar claims, the writer also says that he could “not dare go into detail through the mail or on the phone, or ordinary channels.” Defending the legitimacy of his suggestion, the writer also adds that “this is not a fanatics letter or a person who just thinks he has something.”[9] Other letters making similar claims are sprinkled throughout the correspondence. A common refrain in these types of letters is that the information can only be communicated in full in person. Often, the detailed information also comes with (naturally) a price.

There are enough letters making fantastic claims about “secret technology,” “special knowledge,” and “privileged insight” as to make one wonder about what sort of mania developed to coincide with humans landing on the moon. Was this simply a product of the age or has this type of thought always persisted in humans? Many writers claiming to have special knowledge seemed to genuinely believe they were trying to help humankind. One individual, writing from California in November, 1969, made some particularly fanciful claims about the moon, technology, and space travel. The writer stated that they were making their case “because I think the time has come to call a halt to it all and get back on the road to sanity and peace, the rightness of things again, for the sake of the whole world.”[10] This is undoubtedly the statement of someone who believes they were on the right side of history.

There are much these letters do not reveal. The Marshall Space Flight Center Public Affairs Office included no documents or annotations indicating if some letters were omitted from the permanent file. The office did not respond, so far as is indicated, to the great majority of these letters. Often, at the top of the letters is written the initials “CP” which stood for “crack pot.”  Aside from a couple of internal forms occasionally indicating that a letter was forwarded to another office, there is also no documentation by Public Affairs staff on what they actually thought of this correspondence; the “CP” is the best clue. From the arrangement of these documents and other incoming correspondence, it is clear these letters were gathered together and separated from ordinary requests for autographs, photos, personal appearances, and other routine inquiries made of Dr. von Braun and his office. One may safely assume that none of these “CP” letters actually made it to his desk. We are left to surmise that since the correspondence was read, cataloged, and maintained, the dutiful government clerks in the MSFC Public Affairs Office did their job and took it all in stride, knowing they were also a part of the monumental Apollo Project.

There are hundreds of letters in the small section of correspondence addressed to Dr. von Braun that earned the “CP” label. This article has attempted to highlight some of the more noteworthy in the group and give a fair representation of the correspondence. By the time these letters were written from 1968 to 1970, Dr. von Braun was coming to the end of his career in federal service. NASA’s budget reached its zenith in money and personnel in 1966, before the launch of even the first unmanned Saturn V. Whatever the future of the agency’s efforts in space exploration, Dr. von Braun’s efforts with NASA were almost over. Similarly, the letters, in their own way, are representative of the zenith of the public’s fascination with the space race and perhaps Dr. von Braun himself. With the design and testing of the Saturn V complete by the latter half of the 1960s, the process shifted to production and away from the management of a large engineering research and development team that Dr. von Braun knew so well. There would be no next generation Saturn V, no immediate successor to the most powerful rocket the U.S. had ever flown. Despite years of striving, Dr. von Braun would not convince NASA, or the American public, to push the boundaries of space exploration past the moon. These letters serve as examples of the hopes, fears, jealousies, and wonder of a small segment of the American population during the momentous years of Project Apollo. They provide a glimpse of the awe felt by so many about the accomplishments of the program, whether one believed they were for good or ill. They may even serve as a microcosm for the hopes and fears of the American people as millions watched Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in July 1969 as they embarked on the next momentous steps for humankind exploring the final frontier.

[1] Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 99-104.

[2] Folder 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Folder 6 – both letters.

[5] Folder 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Folder 10.

[8] Folder 5.

[9] Folder 5.

[10] Folder 6.