By Mike Darwin
A Flash of Insight
One of the most fundamental insights I’ve ever had came when I was in Rome, and also reading a very good biography of Leonardo da Vinci,1 in preparation for a visit to Florence. Da Vinci spent most of his career designing war machines, and trying to reroute the Arno River for military advantage. As I looked at the remains of the awesome Ancient Roman engineering around me, and thought of da Vinci, it occurred to me that one of the most powerful and off putting military advantages that could have been deployed, in either Ancient, or Renaissance times, would have been hot air balloons.
Hot Air Balloons in Ancient Rome?
Lighter than air craft are very easy to build, and both the Ancient Romans and the Renaissance Italians had the materials, the wealth, and the technology. The Colosseum was covered with canvas awnings, the Velarium,2 that were operated by a complex series of ropes and pulleys, and the Roman’s were superb canvas makers and produced the material in copious amounts to use for ships’ sails. Why didn’t they develop lighter than air flight – and why didn’t Leonardo? The Montgolfier brothers came up with the idea while lying beside a fire and watching hot ash and embers float upwards – and they thought about this in a military context – namely how to take Gibraltar from the British.
Selection Bias and the Arc of Technology
That got me thinking about all sorts of technologies, and why they were not developed far earlier, given that the minds, the tools, and the ancillary technologies were often all clearly in place. It was then that I realized that to a great extent we are, all of us humans, optimists and technological prophets of the most lunatic sort; in no small measure because all we know, by experience, is that we have survived, and that we have triumphed (so far). Similarly, most people in the West (and especially cryonicists) see human history as relentlessly and inevitably progressing, in large measure because we ourselves are the product of a civilization that has survived and progressed – and that has done so to an astonishing degree – in an equally astonishingly short period of time.
The Antikythera Mechanism (above).
Unfortunately, there is nothing in our current understanding of human history, let alone physical law, which mandates technological advance, let alone specific kinds of technological advance, as inevitable. To understand this, it is only necessary to look to the past, to the long history of scientific and technological advance that was, and wasn’t to be. To do that is to understand that there is a fundamental difference between technological possibility, and practical inevitability. By looking at the past, and applying the expectations we have of the present, it is possible to perceive a more sobering and cautionary reality.
In 1901, in the remains of a sunken ship just off the coast of Antikythera, an island between Crete and the Greek mainland, divers harvesting sponges recovered the remains of what had once been a wooden box, containing what appeared to be a complex clock-work mechanism.3 The shipwreck has been unequivocally dated to ~80 BCE. For nearly 60 years the artifact was largely unappreciated; it was encrusted in a hard calcareous mass, and what little remained of the metal parts of which it was once comprised, had been converted into what might reasonably be described as metal-doped casts, or ‘fossils’ of the original mechanism. Thus, it was not until the advent of sophisticated examination techniques, such gamma ray imaging in the 1970s, and more recently, gamma ray tomography, that the structure of the original mechanism could be determined.
As it turns out, the artifact recovered from that ship just over a century ago, and now called the Antikythera Mechanism, was about as incredible as if a 16th century pocket watch were to be found today in a sealed Pharaonic tomb from Ancient Egypt. The Antikythera Mechanism has forced a complete re-evaluation of the technology of the ancient world. The device contained 32 gears, assembled into a mechanism that accurately reproduced the motion of the sun and the moon against the background of fixed stars, with a differential drive giving their relative position, and thus the phases of the moon.4 More recently, it has been discovered that device also integrates eclipse prediction with cycles of human institutions, most notably the Olympics!5
The technology used to produce the Antikythera Mechanism rivals that used in the best 16th century clocks, and the understanding of planetary motions embodied in the workings of the device suggest that some form of the calculus may have been in use by its makers. It is also clear from the complexity and precision of the device that it was not a prototype, but rather represents a well developed, and arguably a mature technology, which must have had other applications. In short, its elegant mechanism whispers across the millennia about what could have been and what, from our perspective and experience, seemingly should have been the follow-on to such scientific insights and technological capabilities. Why didn’t the Ancient Greeks invent timekeeping devices – why did the mechanical clock take centuries more to be born?
Hero of Alexandria and his inventions; (clockwise) the wind-wheel, the aeolipile, and complex automata used in temples and as public monuments. Images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons
That the technological revolution, ‘our’ technological revolution, did not proceed from the Antikythera Mechanism might seem more reasonable if there were no other similarly remarkable developments occurring at the same time. However, Hero of Alexandria (10–70 CE) was well known for constructing complex automata, had powered a pipe organ using his wind-wheel (windmill) and developed a variety of steam driven devices using his aeolipile; a primitive turbine type steam engine with surprising motive capacity.6 From our vantage, it would seem not only reasonable, but prudent, to speculate with confidence about the technological capabilities that would (seemingly inevitably) flow out of these insights, coupled with the robust base of engineering skill that made them possible in the first place. And yet, the industrial and the technological revolutions did not proceed from these insights, and while many reasons have been put forth, the truth is that all technological advances are dependent upon a complex mix of social, political and environmental factors which we still do not understand, and thus cannot predict.
The ‘mundane’ observation that caused Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740 –1810 CE) to invent the hot air balloon7 was just as accessible to the Romans of ~400 BCE, as were the materials and technologies required to construct human carrying hot air balloons. Certainly, the same motivations were present in both cultures at both times: Joseph Montgolfier was contemplating how to successfully assault the British fortress of Gibraltar, which had proved impregnable to the French by both sea and land, when he noticed how floating embers from a fire he was laying next to were carried aloft and over great distances; giving him the idea of lighter than air flight.8 The Romans, a military people with similar problems, as well as a love of spectacle and a penchant for technological innovation in war, could just as easily have developed lighter than air manned flight – and yet they did not. There are no Roman frescoes of hot air balloons, whether for war or celebration, drifting over the Empire’s capital.
How would the technological arc of the ancient world have been changed if Archimedes, and not Edison, had invented the phonograph? Image adapted by the author from Sir Alma Tadema’s ‘A Reading from Homer,’ courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.
For that matter, either Hero, or Archimedes of Syracuse (287- 212 BCE)9 before him, could quite conceivably have invented the phonograph. It is a simple analog mechanical device which requires the same kinds of recording media; wax or metal foil wrapped cylinders or plates (wax tablets were then in universal use by the Greeks as reusable writing slates, and gold foil was commonplace, if expensive). To complete it, all that was needed were a needle stylus, a deformable diaphragm of thin metal, or tanned hide, a sound concentrating horn, and the almost ridiculously simple cranking mechanism used by Edison for his prototype model. Edison’s invention of the phonograph in 1878, and all the subtle and yet profound social and technological effects that emanated from that discovery, could have come at almost any time in human history, from ~400 BCE on. It is not difficult to envision Archimedes, the inventor of the water pump that bears his name (the Archimedes screw), the designer of the mammoth ship the Syracusia, and the discoverer of hydrostatics, sitting amongst a group of lazy ‘Greeks’ on Syracuse, while declaiming the wonders of his latest invention, the phonograph.
Debased Social Choices as an Obstacle to Adoption of a Transformative Technologies
The past century, so recently closed, is rich with examples, both poignant and tragic, of technological possibilities not realized. On 1 September 1939, a decision was (in effect) taken by our species to spend five trillion dollars and expend ~72 million human lives. This decision was followed in 1947, and repeated at intervals until 1991, to expend an additional ~12 trillion dollars, and perhaps another 1-2 million human lives. These ventures are known today as World War II, and the Cold War, respectively. In the midst of the first of these costly escapades, on 15 March, 1944, the architect of the German V-2 rocket, Wernher von Braun, was arrested by the Gestapo on charges of high treason for having privately expressed regret, after dinner at a colleague’s home one evening the previous October, that he and his team were not working on a spaceship, and that von Braun felt the war was not going well.10
Artist’s Chesley Bonestell’s vision of von Braun’s plan to reach and colonize Mars, from Collier’s magazine, 1952.
In fact, von Braun was engaged in designing and building the V-2, and much more sophisticated rockets, solely because he wanted to achieve the exploration of space; both personally and for the human species.11 Throughout the war he had spent what little free time he had laying out the technological basis for a systematic program to reach and colonize the moon and Mars. In 1948, von Braun laid out these detailed specifications and they were subsequently published in his book Das Mars Projekt (The Mars Project),12 in 1952-3. Forty-two million Americans saw beautifully illustrated and highly detailed explanations of this plan on television on the Walt Disney Show, and many millions more saw the same plans in print in Collier’s magazine, beginning in February 1952 and continuing through March of 1954.13
The cover of Collier’s magazine 30 April, 1954 which contained the articles ‘Can We Get to Mars?’ and ‘Is There Life on Mars.’
Von Braun’s proposals also received wide circulation outside the US in a broad range of Western media, and notably, there were no serious scientific or engineering criticisms of the proposals. In hindsight, it seems clear that if humanity had decided in 1939 to colonize space, instead of expending ~$17 trillion and ~74 million human lives on war and destruction, we would have reached the moon in a robust and durable way by no later than the mid-1950s, and would now have well established, and very likely self-sustaining outposts on the moon and Mars. We would thus now be in the position of having substantial insurance against both technological collapse and the possible extinction of civilization (if not the species itself).
The technology required to credibly begin this effort existed in 1939, and the cost in dollars (and certainly in human lives) for its realization would have been vastly lower than those that were suffered prosecuting WWII and the Cold War.
And yet, none of these things happened. It is, of course, possible to speculate endlessly in this manner, asking, “what if,” in countless situations where a technology was developed and not exploited, or was not developed when it easily could have been. It has been argued that our position in the opening decade of the 21st Century is unique: that having let the technological genie out of the lamp by discovering the scientific method and developing the printing press and mass production, we are now assured of relentless progress towards human suspended animation, practical biological immortality, and a mature and highly capable nanotechnology.
Perhaps this is the case. However, the examples of our past, particularly of our recent past – of chance and choice frustrating our expectations of technological advance – should instruct us that inevitable does necessarily mean immediate or even foreseeable, advance. Fifty-seven years later, we are still waiting for our tickets to the moon and Mars.
The Future That Wasn’t: Failure to Perceive Hidden Costs and Risks
Two other entangled obstacles to technological inevitability must also be considered: unappreciated psychosocial reservations and genuine, but unappreciated hazards that either slow, or virtually inhibit the adoption of what would otherwise be hugely transforming technological advances.
As a child, I was told about what my future would be like and how much better it would be in almost every way, technologically, from the world I then inhabited. I was, literally, a child of the atomic age, and the molecules in the DNA of my brain still bear the 14Carbon isotope signature of the open-air nuclear testing era, just as surely as my bones, made radioactive in my infancy and childhood by the Strontium 90 (90Sr) in the milk I drank are still, ever so slightly, more radioactive today, than are those of people born before, or after, the era of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.14,15
But beyond these physical stigmata of the atomic age, my mind bears the stigmata of a world promised, but never delivered. Scientists and laymen alike were quick to understand the truly staggering potential benefits of what we now call nuclear power. Countless pronouncements were made that the arrival of an era of cheap, clean, safe, and virtually unlimited electric power was at hand. Electricity generated by ‘atomic power’ and nuclear fusion, we were told, would be so inexpensive to produce that it would not even be worth the expense of metering its use to bill the customer for. People would simply play a flat rate for the service, as is the case for long distance or computer telephony today. In a speech given by Lewis L. Strauss (1896-1974), Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission to the National Association of Science Writers, in New York City on September 16th, 1954, Strauss commented on how scientific research then underway would transform life for the next generation of Americans, the generation that would be born in then and in the coming decade, my generation:
“Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter…will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.”16
At about the same time as Strauss made this pronouncement, the Ford Motor Company developed a concept car called the Ford Nucleon. The Nucleon was to use an ‘atomic power capsule,’ in effect an atomic battery, located in the rear of the car which charging stations would switch out for a fresh one every ~ 5,000 miles of driving time.17
The Santa Fe Railroad, then as commercially important and as technologically credible as Apple or Microsoft are today, anticipated fission reactor powered trains within 20 years, and ran ads in national magazines featuring a youngster only a few years older than me, asking to buy a ticket on an atomic powered version of the Super Chief which was then the preeminent way to travel across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles, in both speed and comfort.
So what went wrong? Were these predictions based on erroneous assumptions about was both possible and economical? The answer to that question depends a great deal upon what kinds of risks and responsibilities you are willing to accept as a society. In 1974, Medtronic, the world’s leading manufacturer of cardiac pacemakers, then and now, released the Laurens-Alcatel Model 9000 pacemaker.18 It was a nuclear powered device that used a tiny thermopile powered by 2 to 4 curies of plutonium-238 (with an 88 year half-life). As the term “thermopile” implies, heat from the decaying plutonium was used to generate the electricity that powered the device. There are an estimated 40-50 people in the US still alive with an implanted Laurens pacemaker. Thirty years later, these devices continue to operate flawlessly in those patients who remain alive with them. No doubt, those few of the devices that have escaped destruction will outlast their owners by many decades, if not a century or more. A prototype power supply for a total artificial heart, containing 50 grams of plutonium, was also demonstrated at around this time.20
Soviet-era RTGs that have been vandalized by thieves looking for valuable, non-ferrous metals resulting in the release of radioactive 90Sr into the environment.
In the former Soviet Union, compact nuclear ‘batteries,’ Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs), typically powered by 90Sr, were in moderately wide use to provide electric power and heat for a wide range of applications – including serving as the electricity source for remote lighthouses in the arctic.20 Well over a thousand of these devices were deployed. So, there can be no doubt that this technology was not only feasible – it was a demonstrated reality. Had it been pursued as aggressively as the development of say, the transistor or the lithium battery, it would be omnipresent in our daily lives. Laptops, flashlights, and other portable electronic devices would effectively never run out of power, with their lead and titanium encased ‘nuclear batteries’ being handed from one generation to the next. Arguably, most electronic devices would now have self-contained RTGs, freeing us of the frustrating nuisance of cords, cables and the infuriating lack of a power point where and when we need one. And of course, former Vice President Cheney would not now be tethered to the cumbersome and short-lived battery pack (~5 hours) to power his left ventricular assist device (LVAD)21 – nor would he face the near certain (and likely eventually fatal) risk of infection from the power cable that connects the vest-worn external batteries to the centrifugal pump implanted in his chest.
What a wonderful world it would be – except for one small problem: the fundamental inability of most humans to handle such technology responsibly. There can be no doubt that had these nuclear technologies been so universally applied, we would currently be awash in uncontained and highly lethal radioactive material. Humans are simply not diligent enough, smart enough, and above all long lived enough, to be trusted with such dangerous materials, even though the benefits are both enormous, and abundantly clear. Even in the case of large, well designed nuclear power generating facilities, a major (and all too legitimate concern) is the deliberate compromise of the reactor containment structure to facilitate the release of radioactive materials for purposes of war or terror. Or what is worse, the diversion or deliberate use of the reactor fuel, or byproducts, to produce nuclear weapons. Crazy and irresponsible civilizations have no business using such technologies, and that is the primary reason why their use has been restricted, or prohibited altogether, in ours.
Where their use it is deemed worth the risk, or there is no alternative, the precautions required to make such use tolerable have proved staggeringly expensive. Atomic trains, planes and automobiles, as well as plutonium powered artificial hearts, and low cost and highly reliable electricity generated from nuclear fission, are all eminently doable – and would be highly cost effective if people handled these technologies with the high degree of responsibility they demand. If only we could change our natures such that our most powerful insights could not be deliberately perverted to do harm and wage war. Alas, that is clearly not in the cards any time soon.
But the pace of technological advance has not been slowed solely as a result of the actual (but unforeseen) risks inherent in novel technologies such as nuclear energy. Indeed, in the case of fission reactor generated electricity a significant cause of delay, or even abandonment of the technology, has been psychosocial. France has long been known for its aggressive nuclear power program and they have derived upwards of 75% of their utility
C. Walton Lillehei and his beer tubing and industrial finger pump heart-lung machine.
Nowhere have psychosocial factors been more of a problem in slowing technological progress than has been the case in the life sciences. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a few daring surgeons in the US made the decision to develop cardiac surgery. A necessary element of such an undertaking was the development of the heart-lung machine to pinch hit for the patient’s heart and lungs during while the heart was being operated upon. The first such heart-lung machines were fabricated from industrial items, such as finger pumps and plastic PVC tubing used in the beer making industry.23 The DeWall-Lillehei oxygenator was just such a device – it was tested in dogs and then more or less immediately applied to humans. Twenty years earlier Willem Kolff had done exactly the same sort of thing with the artificial kidney machine – using an automotive fuel pump and sausage casing tubing to cleanse the blood of patients with acute kidney failure.24 Such rapid and direct application of biomedical advances to humans is now inconceivable, not only in the US, but virtually anywhere in the world.25,26
Research into stem cell therapies, cloning, and gene therapy technology have also been greatly slowed by psychosocial concerns. Clinical progress in these areas is a mere shadow of what it could have been, and arguably should have been, absent the widespread resistance on the part of a broad cross section of the public on moral and ethical grounds – grounds which have no basis in any rational framework of risks versus benefits evaluations. One can only wonder what the rate of progress in the life sciences would have been like had there been no Asilomar Conference and the creative energies of the brightest young minds in the West had been applied to engineering biology with even a fraction of the focus and vigor that engineering in computing and microelectronics have been pursued.
The enabling technologies that will be required for vast life span extension, recovery of cryopreserved patients, space colonization, and personal biophysical redesign and transformation are unarguably many times more mischievous and dangerous than was (or is) nuclear energy. Mature genetic engineering, nanotechnology, strong artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, to name but a few, each hold many times the potential for systemic harm to, or destruction of our civilization; and they do so absent the inherent check on their proliferation that was present in the case of nuclear energy, by virtue of the extreme scarcity of the necessary isotopes, and the even rarer and more exotic expertise and massively expensive hardware required to transform them into weapons grade materials. A likely consequence of this will be that the cost of these technologies will be much higher than anticipated and their development will also likely be slowed, as well as being rendered unpredictable and erratic.
We must also confront the possibility that the civilization we are embedded in will, just as have all those that have come before it, fail and fail catastrophically. The very technology cryonicists venerate offers not only the prospect of immortality, but also of oblivion. History has been defined in many ways, but perhaps one of the best and most applicable here is that, “history is that period of time which has passed out of living memory.” To achieve practical biological immortality is, then, by that definition, to put an end to history. If we want to end history, then we must come to understand that where our personal survival is concerned, historical trends, and even historical certainties, will have no relevance if they do not occur in time to save our lives.
Finally, any study of history from a cryonics perspective leads to the inevitable conclusion that civilizations rise and fall based upon their core values, their commitment to the long-term versus the short-term, and of course, upon factors beyond their control, such as climate change, epidemic disease and military conquest.14 Cryonicists and Transhumanists must come to realize that in order to control history, and thus their own destinies, they must leverage their way into a position of control over the ideology, morality and direction of this civilization. To fail to do so at this juncture in time is to accede to the end of our history – not by the practical abolition of death, but rather by its universal application to humankind, and perhaps to all life on earth.
1) Nicholl, C. Leonardo da Vinci: Flights of the Mind. Viking Penguin, (2004). ISBN 0670033456.
2) Leacroft, R. The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press, (1969). ASIN: B000Z4DOUO.
3) de Solla Price, D. An Ancient Greek Computer, Scientific American. June 1959 pp. 60-67.
4) de Solla, D. Price, D. Gears from the Greeks – The Antikythera Mechanism, A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B.C., Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 64, part 7 1974.
5) Freeth,T, Jones, A, Steele, JM, Bitsakis Y. Calendars with Olympiad display and eclipse prediction on the Antikythera Mechanism. Nature. 2008;(454):614-617.
6) Gillispie, C. The Montgolfier brothers and the invention of aviation 1783-1784. Princeton University Press, (1983).
7) Gillispie, C. The Montgolfier brothers and the invention of aviation 1783-1784. Princeton University Press, (1983).
8) Boas, M. Hero’s pneumatica: a study of its transmission and influence,” Isis. 40(1);1949: p. 38 and supra
9) Archimedes Homepage: http://www.cs.drexel.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/contents.html.
10) Neufeld, MJ. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Harvard University Press, (1996). ISBN-10: 067477650X. Jaroff, Leon (2002-03-26). ‘The Rocket Man’s Dark Side.’ Time. onhttp://www.time.com/time/columnist/jaroff/article/0,9565,220201,00.html Retrieved: 05-23-2009.
11) Das Marsprojekt; Werner von Braun, Studie einer interplanetrischen Expedition. Sonderheft der ZeitschriftWeltraumfahrt. Frankfurt: Umschau Verlag 1952; English language edition: Werner vonBraun with Henry J. White, translator The Mars Project, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, (1953).
12) von Braun, W. The Collier’s Space Flight Series:
March 22, 1952: Man Will Conquer Space Soon, a collection of eight articles .
October 18, 1952: Man on the Moon, The Journey, and Inside the Moon Ship
October 25, 1952: Man on the Moon, Inside the Lunar Base
February 28, 1953: World’s First Space Suit
March 7, 1953: Testing the Men in Space
March 14, 1953: How Man Will Meet Emergency in Space
June 27, 1953: Baby Space Station
April 30, 1954: Can We Get to Mars? and Is There Life on Mars
13) Bhardwaj, RA, Curtis ,MA, Spalding , KA, et al. Neocortical neurogenesis in humans is restricted to development. PNAS. 2006;103(33):12564-12568: http://www.pnas.org/content/103/33/12564.full.
14) Mangano, JJ, Sherman, JD. Elevated In Vivo Strontium-90 From Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout Among Cancer Decedents: A Case-control Study Of Deciduous Teeth. International Journal of Health Science. 2011;41(1):137-158.
15) Too cheap to meter: the great nuclear quote debate: http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2009/09/too-cheap-to-meter-nuclear-quote-debate.html.
17) Smyth NP, Millette ML. The isotopic cardiac pacer: a ten-year experience. Pacing Clin Electrophysiol. 1984;7(1):82-9.
18) Kallfelz FA, Comar CL, Casarett AP, and Craig PH. Radiobiological Effects of Simulated Nuclear Power Sources for Artificial Hearts: A Preliminary Report
Transactions of the American Nuclear Society 1970;13 (2):499.
19) Alimov, R. Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, Bellonas Working Paper, 01/04-2005: http://www.bellona.no/bellona.org/english_import_area/international/russia/navy/northern_fleet/incidents/37598.
22) Miller, W. King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery. Three Rivers Press; 2nd edition (2000). ISBN-10: 0609807242.
23) Cameron, JS. A History of Dialysis. Oxford University Press, (2002). ISBN: 0198515472.
24) Higgs, R. Wrecking ball: FDA regulation of medical devices. Cato Policy Analysis #235. August 7, 1995. http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-235.html. Retrieved 2011-01-30.
25) DiMasi, JA, et al. The price of innovation: new estimates of drug development costs. Journal of Health Economics. 2003;(22):151–185. http://cryoeuro.eu:8080/download/attachments/425990/CostOfNewDrugDevelop2003.pdf. Retrieved 2011-01-30.
26) Diamond J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Adult, (2004). ISBN 1-586-63863-7.
It would be difficult to find a better example than Wernher von Braun of the impact of a civilization’s choices on the moral behavior of an individual. Von Braun repeatedly visited the Dora-Mittelwerk facility in the Harz Mountains near Nordhausen, where concentration camp laborers were forced to assemble V-2s under deplorable conditions that resulted in staggering mortality.(1) It has been estimated that ~20,000 workers died in V-2 production, as contrasted with the comparatively miniscule 2,541 (documented) people who died from the use of the V-2 as a weapon during the war.(2) Von Braun acknowledged, in writing, that he personally selected workers for Mittelwerk from camp inmates at Buchenwald, who he described as in ‘pitiful shape,’ and he acknowledged that by 1944 he was aware that many of the slave laborers at Mittelwerk had been executed, that many others had succumbed to malnourishment and dysentery, and that the environment at Mittelwerk was “repulsive.”(3) Under the strict definition of the term, von Braun was not a war criminal, per se, (4) but it is hard to argue that he was not a party to ‘crimes against humanity’ as defined today by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum. (5)
After immigrating to the US under the auspices of Operation Paperclip, von Braun became a US citizen and led a life that might best be described as mirroring the morality of his new masters. Aside from modest amounts of work on the exploitation of space as a (thermonuclear) weapons delivery platform, the vast body of his career was focused on efforts to colonize space. (6) Arguably, not unlike most men (consider the Milgram Experiment) von Braun was a moral chameleon who behaved as was needed to advance his own interests and survival; in his case the conquest of space. While there is evidence that he was not indifferent to the human suffering and murderous exploitation he observed at Mittelwerk (7), there is even more evidence that he was unwilling to take any action, direct or indirect, to change the status quo, or even to withdraw from participation in the Nazi rocket development program (incapacitating illness is always a viable excuse).
Throughout his long career his only recorded incidents of insubordination or disobedience to orders are those that occurred when the interests of his prime directive, the exploration of space, conflicted with those of his masters. Notable examples are his disobedience of direct orders to destroy remaining V-2s as well as all drawings and documentation pertaining to the German rocketry program in the closing days of WWII, his forging of (contrary) orders to move him and his team into Allied hands (8), and his collaboration with Army General John Medaris who headed the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, AL (again in direct violation of orders) to assemble and secrete a Redstone launch vehicle and its satellite payload (the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone intercontinental ballistic missile that launched America’s first satellite, the Explorer probe) in anticipation of the failure of the US Vanguard effort to orbit an ‘artificial moon.’(9) In short, he appears to have been committed to the realization of space flight at any cost. This may rightly be considered as unforgiveable, but it should be remembered that countless others in human history have participated in such atrocities with nothing more grandiose at stake than the prospect of a better job, a little more money, higher standing in the community, or simply because they enjoyed the power and authority that accompanied their execrably inhumane jobs. Had humanity chosen to pursue space flight, instead of war and genocide, von Braun would almost certainly have been the man for the job; and a model citizen and untarnished hero in the bargain.
References for Notes
1) Jaroff, Leon (2002-03-26). ‘The Rocket Man’s Dark Side.’ Time. onhttp://www.time.com/time/columnist/jaroff/article/0,9565,220201,00.html Retrieved: 05-23-2009.
2) Neufeld, MJ. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era, The Free Press, (1995). ISBN-10: 067477650X
3) “Excerpts from “Power to Explore“”. MSFC History Office. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/excerpts.html. Retrieved: 05-23-2009.
4) Fourth Geneva Convention “relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War” (first adopted in 1949, based on parts of the 1907 Hague Convention IV)
5) Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, opened for signature 17 July 1998,  ATS 15 (entered into force 1 July 2002), UN Doc A/CONF 183/9: <http://www.un.org/law/icc/statute/romefra.htm>
6) Neufeld, MJ. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Alfred A. Knopf, (2007). ISBN 978-0-307-26292-9
7) ‘Biography of Wernher Von Braun.’ MSFC History Office. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/Giants/vonBraun/. Retrieved: 05-23-2009.
8) Cadbury, Deborah (2005). “Space Race,” BBC Worldwide Limited. ISBN 0-00-721299-2.
9) Brzezinski, M. Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age, Times Books, (2007). ISBN-10: 080508858X
 288 billion 1945 US dollars in 2000 US dollars = 5 trillion dollars
 I include the Korean and Viet Nam wars, as well as other related conflicts as part of the Cold War.
 The devices were to be removed upon the death of the patient and returned to Los Alamos Laboratories for safe disposal of the plutonium power source. However some are unaccounted for and were interred or cremated with the patient they were implanted in.