New Play Ad Astra Plumbs the Mystery of Wernher von Braun

The story of a visionary who turned a blind eye to human suffering.

Wernher von Braun at his desk at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, where he was director throughout the 1960s. (NASA)

At Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Monday night, in a rehearsal room just a mile north of NASA headquarters, an audience of about 100 people were among the first to experience playwright James Wallert’s attempt to decode the enigma of pioneering rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

Wallert’s play Ad Astra, which was read by four actors from New York’s Epic Theatre Ensemble—a group co-founded by Wallert and Ron Russell, who directed the reading—begins with the launch of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 before flashing back to occupied Paris, circa 1943. Its structure recalls that of the 2001 mystery film Memento, wherein scenes proceeding forward in time alternate with those running backward.

In the case of Ad Astra, the early ’40s scenes follow von Braun’s romance with a (fictional) French actress who insists on keeping their affair secret, lest she be ostracized or worse for sleeping with the enemy. The scenes set in the ’50s and ’60s cover von Braun’s resttlement in Texas after World War II, and his increasing fame as a key member of the American space program as it struggles to catch up with that of the Soviets. “Are their Germans better than our Germans?” President Lyndon Baines Johnson asks him, in one of Wallert’s spicier one-liners. 

The play finds its drama in the irreconcilable tension between the two von Brauns: the genius who helped humankind attain its long-held dream of space travel and the man who made weapons—specifically, the V-2 rocket—that the Nazis used to kill thousands. Worse, these weapons were manufactured by slave laborers in concentration camps, a compound evil of which von Braun was at best willfully ignorant and at worst, knowingly complicit. Wallert’s play asks if, by offering von Braun sanctuary and benefitting from his work, the United States is culpable, too. The government’s efforts to rehabilitate von Braun’s image—including participation in the Columbia Pictures feature I Aim at the Stars: The Wernher von Braun Story, a whitewashed biopic that failed at the box office upon its release in 1960—are part of Ad Astra’s expansive story.

A lively post-show dicussion chaired by Russell featured comments from Wallert and a panel of historians, all of whom have authored books on subjects germane to the play. The participants were:

Roger Launius, author of Exploring the Solar System: The History and Science of Planetary Probes and other books, and a former curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama and the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution.

Michael J. Neufeld, author of Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War and a curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

Gretchen Schafft, author of From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology and the Third Reich.

The experts were decidedly mixed on whether Wallert’s use of artistic license was appropriate. Several took the view that the real von Braun was far less conflicted about his role as a weapons maker than was his fictional analogue. Neufeld thought it very unlikely von Braun would have discussed his work for the Nazis with a woman with whom he was involved romantically, though he understood that these conversations were necessary for storytelling purposes. McWhorter pointed out than von Braun’s social life during his Nazi years included relationships with many women rather than a strong devotion to just one. And Schafft seemed actually offended by Wallert’s use of a romantic relationship to try to humanize von Braun, pointing out that she had traveled to the former site of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp where prisoners were forced to build V-2s. The play should have made more prominent mention of the 20,000 prisoners who died there, she said.

During the post-show discussion Wallert said that Epic considers adolescents to be one of its key constituencies. He was moved to write Ad Astra in part because on a survey he conducted of 250 high school students, not one of them knew who Wernher von Braun was.

While no full production of Ad Astra has yet been announced, the play seems likely to appear again soon. In the audience Monday night was Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, whose company is no stranger to plays about famous scientists: It staged Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which dramatizes a 1941 meeting of physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, earlier this year.

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