Friday, January 30, 2009

What I Didn't Learn in History Class about the Space Program

Do you ever see a movie, go to a play, or read a book about something that happened IN REAL LIFE and you are completely blown away that you had never heard about it?

This happens to me more often than it should, I think. It's usually related to something completely embarassing in history that people have tried to bury...for example, the U.S. involvement in Chile's politics in the 70s, or the way the Japanese treated the survivors of the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki...or the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. I think it's because I had a completely pathetic course of world and U.S. history.

In general, I like to think I had a fairly decent education. I loved social studies and English, and enjoyed studying world civilizations and human relations. I remember getting quite a kick out of developing my own hieroglyphic language in 9th grade.

We studied American history in 8th grade, but I clearly remember that our textbook ended with World War II. This would have been about 1978. No Vietnam war, no Korean war, no civil rights movement, and I don't remember much about the suffragettes either. In fact, even though I was a child of the 60s and 70s, I remember seeing very little about current events on TV. Have I blocked it all out, or was I that clueless?

I was never really drawn to straight-out history, and in high school and college we had a range of electives from which to choose. I vastly preferred other social studies electives to history. I do remember an outstanding class on the Holocaust during our January (interim) elective at Pacific Lutheran University...the term when all the other PLU students were taking underwater basketweaving or something else highly difficult and educational...and not only did I take a class on the holocaust, but I wrote a final paper on Martin Luther and the Jews, and received an "Honors" in a pass/fail class. (Okay, now I'm bragging!)

At any rate, I was inadequately educated in history. What I've learned over the years has been through my own self-education. And what I've discovered about myself is that I love history through the arts. I love historical fiction and interesting documentaries, and I'm drawn to plays and movies about things that happened in the past. They are far more interesting to me than history textbooks.

So back to my subject of this post. Mike and I went to see a great play last weekend called "Apollo" at the Portland Center Stage. It was a play MARATHON, because it was 3-1/2 hours long! But it was completely compelling and the time passed quickly.

Essentially, it was a multimedia extravaganza, chronicling the post-WWII history of the U.S. space program, intersected with the events related to the U.S. civil rights movement. Did you know that many of the top scientists who developed the NASA space program to get Americans to the moon were Nazis? I didn't.

It probably doesn't help matters that I have never been terribly drawn to the space program. I visited the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, but I preferred the American History museum!! Some friends went to Florida a few years ago, and told us how they spent a couple of days at the Kennedy Space Center. When we returned there last year, they were trying to persuade us to take our kids there. Mike and I both knew that they (and we!) would vastly prefer the Disney parks over the space center!!! So perhaps this is why I have been ignorant.

The U.S. government essentially waived its morals to get the Nazi scientists on board and believed that fighting the "red menace" (and getting to the moon before the Russians) was more critical than being concerned about allowing facists to have top-secret security clearance in our government.

Here is a trailer from the play so you can get a look:

The play has a wild array of characters: the Nazi scientists themselves, Jules Verne, Thea von Harbou (who wrote a screenplay about a woman going to the moon), Walt Disney, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the god Apollo, Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Abernathy, George Wallace, and Robert Kennedy. It contains three acts, each one peeling back more layers of the story.
I also found myself wanting to learn a lot more about George Wallace's racism (you know that his daughter voted for Obama?) and Bobby Kennedy.
In the third act, which focused mostly on the civil rights movement and the journey of African-Americans from slavery to the 1960s, I could not help but reflect on the inauguration this month and how far we have come as a country in 40 years. It is truly amazing, given how much racism and segregation were such an acceptable part of our culture. Clearly, they sill exist...but they are hidden beneath the surface now.

If you are interested in learning more about the play, check out Portland Center Stage's excellent study guide. When searching for more information online about the Nazi scientists, I found these two videos on youtube:

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