Los Angeles Times:
In early days of America’s space program, two men met over a bottle of Jack Daniel’s at the Hay-Adams hotel across the street from the White House.
It was roughly 1959, when the future of America’s young space program was clouded by technological disagreements.
On one side of the bottle was Wernher von Braun, the engineering genius who had developed the world’s first ballistic missile for Adolf Hitler during World War II. He had once been a member of Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, or SS, but now ran NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
On the other side was Abraham Silverstein, who had grown up in a poor Jewish family in Indiana. He was NASA’s space flight chief and later became director at NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland.
One former Nazi, one American Jew. Little more than a decade separated them from the Holocaust.
Looming before two of America’s top rocket engineers were many critical decisions, including what kind of fuel would be needed to blast off astronauts to the moon.
Von Braun wanted the second and third stages of the mighty Saturn V rocket to be powered by kerosene, a fuel he understood from his days in Germany. There, he led development of the alcohol-fueled V-2 missile that bombed London.
Silverstein had guided research at Lewis in liquid hydrogen, a much more powerful fuel that had never been used in a rocket before. He was certain such a technological leap was necessary for the long lunar journey.
An observer later recalled the men sizing each other up like “spiders.” Two of the nation’s most important rocket experts were locked in a technical dispute of enormous importance that revolved around a cautious versus bold engineering approach to future space travel. Their vast personal differences were swept aside.
When the first Saturn with hydrogen-powered stages was tested on Nov. 9, 1967, Von Braun sent a photograph of the launch with a handwritten note: “To Dr. Abe Silverstein whose pioneering work in liquid hydrogen technology paved the way to today’s success — Wernher von Braun.”
The collaboration between Von Braun and Silverstein was not unique. During the Apollo program, which landed Americans on the moon six times between 1969 and 1972, NASA was filled with both Jewish scientists and a large group of Germans who had worked for Hitler before and during World War II. The Nazi regime had been dedicated to the extermination of Jews. That the two groups were able to work side by side suggests a level of reconciliation, or at least acceptance, that would seem a near impossibility in today’s fractious social and political climate.
Apollo-era engineers, space historians, the engineers’ children, religious leaders and political analysts say the quiet collaboration was based on intellectual respect, a belief in redemption and a partnership forged for the nation’s benefit.
It was an era when moral judgments took a back seat to a deeply held commitment to the future of space travel and support of national goals.
The children of both the Germans and the Jews say there was never any talk at home about resentments or bigotry. Instead, their parents were laser-focused on the monumental challenge of the lunar mission. NASA historical records tell the same story.