Examining The Dark History of Space Exploration Through Photos

Space exploration cyanotypes

Photographer Lewis Bush has put the dark history of space research under the microscope, revisiting key sites in the history of rocketry and documenting them with the cyanotype process.

Book About Space, History, and Politics

Bush, based in London, United Kingdom, is also a writer and researcher who has investigated a range of social and political issues, which include the systemic inequalities of the art world, the damaging effects of international property development, and more.

His most recent project is titled “Depravity’s Rainbow” and is a photo book that he has launched through Kickstarter. It unravels the story of Wernher von Braun, the scientists who designed the Saturn V rockets that carried men to the moon between 1969 and 1972. But von Braun’s past holds more insidious secrets — he also designed weapons for the military of Nazi Germany, including the first ballistic missile, the V-2.

Adolf Hitler, and other senior members of the Nazi government pose for a photograph at the Kummersdorf proving grounds after observing rocket test launches. Von Braun dressed in a black suit, stands in the second row from the back.
Saturn V rocket number SA-506 launches from Kennedy Space Center, Florida marking the start of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission.
A V-2 falls back to earth shortly after launch. Despite a first successful test flight in 1942, the V-2 remains highly unreliable and testing remains hazardous. As one of the engineers writes ‘our goal it to make the target area more dangerous than the launch area.’
A British police officer inspects the remains of a V-2 engine following a rocket attack on London.

The missile was a terror weapon that killed thousands of civilians across European cities. Among casualties are thousands of slave laborers who died under unbearable conditions in an underground factory in central Germany.

Examining von Braun’s past, Bush’s photobook project raises the question of how was it possible for a man who had designed weapons intended to safeguard Nazi rule to end up at NASA in the United States, where he build rockets intended for peaceful scientific space exploration.

Revisiting Sites With Historical Importance

Bush has worked on the project since 2018 during which time put together how von Braun’s story interlinks with the politics of the Cold War and the militarization of Earth’s orbit even today. He traveled to and photographed early rocket development sites across Europe in addition to collecting archival material from state and historical archives.

Site of ‘Rocket Port Berlin’, from this site early German space enthusiasts including von Braun conducted tests of basic rockets in the 1920s. The noise could be heard across the city, earning them the local nickname ‘the fools of Tegel’.
Von Braun receives sponsorship from the German army to develop bigger rockets, moving to attest range south of Berlin. He continues to work on developing military rockets after the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933.
The Nazi government invest increasingly massive sums of money into rocket development, and von Braun and his team move to a new purpose-built development facility at a remote location on Germany’s Baltic coast.
As the V-2 rocket reaches production, slave labor is increasingly used to manufacture it. One of the camps is located at Trassenheide, close to the Peenemünde development site.
A surviving section of the underground factory where the V-2 was built. The complex was dynamited by the Red Army at the end of the war, and later re-opened as a memorial site.

He explains that the photographs in his book are reprinted as cyanotypes, which is an early photographic method intended for astronomy and later widely used for engineering blueprints.

“However, also latent within the chemistry of the cyanotype process are the elements of the hydrogen cyanide gas used in the holocaust, and the vivid ‘Prussian blue’ of the prints still stains the gas chambers at extermination camps like Majdanek in Poland,” Bush says.

Looking Back to the Past for Better Future

“Like von Braun, I believe that travel beyond the earth has the potential to completely change human society,” Bush tells PetaPixel. “But perhaps unlike him, I also believe that technologies are political things and that our choices about them have long-lasting moral consequences.”

An unguided and inaccurate weapon, the V-2 caused widespread civilian casualties in the cities it was used against. For example, in March 1945 a V-2 killed 110 people queuing for food at a market.
Imagery from Ranger 7, the first American space probe to successfully transmit close images of the lunar surface back to Earth.
The remains of the primary V-2 test site at Peenemünde. On 20th June 1944, a V-2 built by slave laborers at Mittelwerke and launched from here became the first man-made object to reach space. Today the site is overgrown and abandoned.
The flag of the United States of America stands on the lunar surface, marking the end of the race between the United States and Soviet Union to land men on the moon.

“President John F. Kennedy said that space must be used for the progress of all people,” says Bush. “But as long as so many of us remain unaware of the foundations on which space exploration was built, we run the risk of making the same mistakes that people like von Braun did eighty years ago, and using it only for the benefit of a few.”

“That’s why I think it is important to tell this story,” he adds.

The book is currently scheduled to be published later this year on the eightieth anniversary of the first successful V-2 rocket flight and the fiftieth anniversary of humankind’s last visit to the moon. Full details of the campaing including the backing options can be found on the book’s Kickstarter.

More of Bush’s work can be found on his website and Instagram.

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