On the morning of July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 left Earth’s atmosphere on their way to the moon.
The day was tense. The moon landing was (and remains) possibly the greatest feat of engineering in human history, but success was by no means a guarantee. In the Command Room at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, NASA’s best and brightest were a ball of nerves, mainlining coffee and chewing their fingernails.
All except for Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun was the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket, the engine that propelled the Apollo 11 mission. At 57 years old, the German scientist remained a physically dominating man—6’1″ and built like a brick house. He was also an unabashed charmer. On the morning of the liftoff, as the rest of NASA’s brain trust worried and tittered, von Braun sat at the center of the room, smiled, and calmed the troops.
But while those who worked with von Braun in person universally attest to his charisma, his warmth, and his unparalleled genius, he remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of science. He’s considered by many to be the father of modern rocketry—but just 25 years before his moment in the sun at the head of America’s greatest triumph, Wernher von Braun was fighting for the enemy.
Wernher von Braun’s life had the same trajectory as one of his rockets: it was a flat-out, high-speed burn.
As a young boy living in Germany, he read books by masters of science fiction like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, who depicted fantastic scenes of rockets, astronauts, and travel to other worlds. By 13, von Braun was reading Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space) a mathematical treatise on the possibility of man-made objects capable of reaching orbit. By the time he was in university, he was already quite possibly one of the world’s leading experts in the science of building rockets.
But while von Braun dreamed of the applications his work might have for the future of space exploration, officials in the increasingly powerful National Socialist German Workers Party saw things differently. Before the end of his time in school, von Braun’s research had been classified by the German army, and he’d been tasked with leading a new, 100-man rocket development team.
Years later, von Braun would maintain that he was little more than a small cog in Germany’s war machine. After all, in the totalitarian state that was quickly forming, there was little room for dissent. Anyone who wished to secure a successful future, particularly an ambitious research scientist, had to make their devotion to the tenets of National Socialism public.
As von Braun himself would later tell US Army officials:
“In 1939, I was officially demanded to join the National Socialist Party. At this time I was already Technical Director at the Army Rocket Center at Peenemünde (Baltic Sea). The technical work carried out there had, in the meantime, attracted more and more attention in higher levels. Thus, my refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activity.”
The statement was false. Official party records (as well as the testimony of those who worked alongside him) demonstrate that Wernher von Braun voluntarily applied for party membership in 1937—before the war began.
Is it important?
Von Braun would claim that his party membership was, at worst, the mistake of a hot-headed young man caught up in the patriotic fervor of the nationalist movement. He was never political—simply a scientist with a dream, who perhaps saw loyalty to the German cause as the only route to achieving his goals.
It’s a powerful and believable argument. One sympathizes, perhaps, with the pressure any typical German would have felt in the face of the nation’s horrific political tidal wave. And yet, von Braun’s involvement in German atrocities must be accounted for.
The first V-2 rocket hit London in September 1944.
It was months after D-Day. Allied forces were making ground throughout Europe. The German Reich was beginning to crumble. V-2 rockets were never going to turn the tide of a war which was now quickly being lost. Named by German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, the “V” stood for vengeance. V-2s were loud, shock-inspiring weapons. Their purpose was to wreak havoc in Europe as Germany fell apart. They were weapons of terror and revenge.
Wernher von Braun was the architect of those horrible weapons. Now 32 years old, he’d quickly become the most influential member of the German rocket program—quite possibly the most important scientist in Germany. His social status had increased in kind. He was now Sturmbannführer (Major) Wernher von Braun of the Schutzstaffel. In title and function, he was a ranking member of the Nazi elite.
Still, though, as high powered V-2s rained on civilian targets in Britain and France, it would appear von Braun was morally conflicted. As he told a colleague at the time, “The rocket worked perfectly…except for landing on the wrong planet.”
Those seeking to reinforce the enduring theme of von Braun’s legacy often cite this line. The idea that he was a dreamer, an innovator, a noble scientist with a mind for exploration. That this drive got him caught up in his era’s proclivity for war.
However, when it comes to the V-2, we also encounter the most damning allegations against von Braun. The claim that the genius engineer of mankind’s greatest machines was also complicit in the Holocaust.
What Did He Know?
V-2s were manufactured at Mittelwerk, an underground German production facility designed to avoid detection from Allied bombers. In 1944, it was quite possibly the most sophisticated arms manufacturing plant in the world. It was also staffed almost entirely by forced slave labor: jews, homosexuals, and other “enemies of the state” interned at the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp.
It’s been said that Wernher von Braun could not have known how deeply embedded the SS’s genocidal infrastructure had become in the German war machine. And yet there is no doubt that on at least one occasion, the wealthy and successful von Braun toured facilities at Mittelwerk, and witnessed first-hand the conditions of work there.
To quote one post-war report on Mittelwerk:
“Everything was ruthlessly executed with utter disregard for humanitarian considerations. We were told that 250 of the slave workers perished every day, due to overwork and malnutrition. We saw many of the wretched inmates, who were in an appalling state, although receiving every medical attention now.”
Margaret and Roumania Peters: Forgotten Champions
On the Court
Today, women tennis champions like Venus and Serena Williams get paid millions of dollars in endorsement deals, prize winnings, and celebrity appearances. But for a long time, the sport was not only an amateur pastime—leaving even its top athletes unable to make a living from their talent—it was also heavily segregated by race.
In America, black athletes were effectively barred from playing against white athletes, and thus barred from competing in the most publicized matches, until 1950—when Althea Gibson (a tennis player herself) competed against a white player. As a result, the world never saw what many of the top athletes of the 1930s and 1940s were truly capable of. In fact, it almost never saw them at all.
If it had, maybe we would more easily remember the great tennis sisters who came before Venus and Serena: Margaret and Roumania Peters.
Tennis Stars Are Born
Margaret Peters was born in 1915, and in 1917, her little sister Matilda Roumania followed. The two girls were almost inseparable growing up in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, so when Margaret began playing tennis at around 10 years old, it was only natural that Roumania (as she was known) joined too.
Their beginnings were humble: the two girls often played in Rose Park, located near their house, on terrain that was hardly Wimbledon-worthy. As Roumania later recalled, the court had “sand, dirt, rocks, everything. We would have to get out there in the morning and pick up the rocks, and sweep the line and put some dry lime on there.”
Nonetheless, their hard work paid off, and soon they were playing with the American Tennis Association. As this was still a segregated, Jim Crow-era America, the ATA was an exclusively African American league. In 1936, Margaret and Roumania attended the annual ATA tournament; Roumania made it all the way up the brackets, losing only in the finals.
And that was just the beginning.
Pete and Repeat
At that ATA tournament in 1936, both girls were scouted and then recruited as tennis players for Tuskegee University, a historically black college. At the time, Margaret was 21 years old and Roumania was only 19—and not yet finished high school. When they were both offered full, four-year scholarships, Margaret agreed to the deal only if she could wait until Roumania was old enough to enroll in Tuskegee. They entered the school together the next year.
Margaret and Roumania attended Tuskegee from 1937 to 1941, honing their skills and rising up in the ATA ranks. Most good athletes have signature moves, and the Peters sisters became particularly known for their slice serves, which used an underspin to keep the ball low, as well as their chop shots, which used a now-rare technique that returns a serve with an underspin.
Yet while both girls were talented singles players, they really shone together—earning them the nicknames “Pete” and “Repeat.” They won no less than 14 doubles titles in their tenure as world-class athletes, a record for the time. This understandably gained them fame, and the girls performed for luminaries like Gene Kelly, as well as members of the British royal family. Black theater owners would even show the Peters’ matches in cinemas.
But there was a big problem.
For all their fame, the Peters siblings were stymied by the state of both tennis and American culture in their prime years of the 1940s. For one, tennis only entered the professionally-oriented Open Era in 1968. Before this, players competing in most large tournaments had to be amateurs, and thus had to pay for their own equipment, transportation, and miscellaneous fees, all while getting no remuneration. For another, most of the prestige of tennis competition in the era was centered in whites-only clubs, leaving the Peters sisters out in the cold.
Times were changing, but far too slowly. In the late 1940s, African American superstar Althea Gibson rocketed through the tennis world, and after persistent lobbying the powers that be caved and invited Gibson to the Nationals in 1950, effectively breaking segregation. Gibson, however, was a full decade younger than Roumania Peters; by the time tennis opened up, the Peters girls were no longer at their full strengths.
This is not to say that they finished their careers unaccomplished. Aside from their 14 ATA doubles titles, Roumania also won multiple singles titles on her own individual steam. In fact, the youngest Peters sister won one of those titles against none other than Gibson herself; Roumania is still the only African American woman to have ever defeated the Grand Slam champion.
In 1977, the Peters were rightly inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame—but by then, life was much different for the sisters.
The Retired Life
With the odds stacked against them, Margaret and Roumania simply couldn’t support themselves on tennis alone, but this didn’t mean they floundered. The two sisters got masters degrees—Margaret actually got two—and became teachers later in life, with Roumania even teaching at Howard University. Margaret remained unmarried, but in 1957, Roumania wed a man named James Walker, giving birth to two children, Frances Della and James George.
In 2003, while Venus and Serena Williams were dominating tennis, Roumania died at the age of 86. Never one to be too far apart from her little sister, Margaret died a year later, in 2004.
Gone and Not Forgotten
Just after the peak of their athletic careers ended, the Peters witnessed some of the biggest upheavals of the 20th century, inside the tennis world and beyond—from the desegregation of the sport to the wholesale Civil Rights Movement. Though many may not remember their names today, Margaret and Roumania Peters were an essential foundation of this history—not just for women’s tennis or African American players, but for tennis as a whole.
How Did Bob Marley Die?
Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain. Jimi Hendrix. Many talented musicians have died tragically young from the self-destructive habits of their superstar lifestyle. But while we often place reggae singer Bob Marley in the ranks of these rock gods gone too soon, few people know the truth about Marley’s early death. So how did Bob Marley die?
RIP Bob Marley
Bob Marley wasn’t necessarily known for fast and reckless living; a Rastafarian icon, Marley infused reggae music with his spiritual beliefs of gentle love and beautiful harmony. Yet on May 11, 1981, he died at just 36 years old. It felt sudden, but those who knew him had actually spent years preparing for his death.
That’s because back in 1977, the legendary singer was diagnosed with a malignant, and eventually fatal melanoma just underneath one of his toenails. When he died fewer than five years after his diagnosis, Marley was deeply mourned in both his home country of Jamaica and around the world.
His death was tragic, but there’s much more to the story than that.
Death Comes for Marley
You see, many people believe that Marley could have been saved.
When the cancer was first diagnosed, Marley’s doctors suggested amputating the toe to give him a better chance for survival. However, the singer refused. Although this might seem irrational, he actually had a good reason: his religious beliefs prevented him from amputating, as Rastafarian tenets state that the body is a temple and that no part of it should be cut off.
Instead, Marley went with a less invasive but ultimately less effective procedure. He simply had the nail and nail bed removed with the help of a skin graft from his thigh. Ever the trooper, Marley and his band continued planning the world tour for the album Uprising, even after finding out about the cancer. The tour saw Marley reach new heights, playing his biggest-ever crowd in Milan and even playing the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York. For now, it seemed like the storm had passed.
But dark days were coming.
Die Another Day
Near the end of the Uprising tour, Marley’s illness had taken a toll on his body, and it began to show. Just two days before a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September 1980, Marley suddenly collapsed while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors performed a series of tests—and the results were devastating.
The tests revealed that the small melanoma from his toe had spread over the past three years, and was now infecting his brain. In an incredible feat, Marley still made it out to his scheduled Pennsylvania show, but this appearance would be the last concert of his world tour. His team canceled the rest of legs, and Marley—again partly in accordance with his religious beliefs—began to seek out alternative medicines to fight for his last scraps of life rather than submit to chemotherapy.
It was a radical, peaceful choice in keeping with his religion, but it did not delay his death.
Although Marley tried to keep the cancer at bay by eschewing certain food and drinks, after eight months it became clear that the end was near for the cultural icon. The alternative methods had not stymied the cancer. Bravely facing up to his fate, Marley made a heartbreaking decision to go back to Jamaica to live out his days.
But in a cruel twist of fate, he was denied the chance to die in his beloved homeland.
In May 1981, a very sick Marley was traveling home from Germany to Jamaica. In the middle of the flight, his vitals plummeted. When the plane landed in Miami, Florida, he was rushed to the hospital so doctors could try to save his life.
This time, however, there was no hope to be had: Bob Marley died in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami. Before he left this world, though, Marley had one last act to finish.
Gone But Not Forgotten
Just before he died, with the melanoma rapidly spreading into his lungs and deeper into his brain, Marley gave his son Ziggy some final advice, father to son: “Money can’t buy life.” They were fitting words for a man who lived by his own harmonious principles and died on his own terms.
After his death, the world felt robbed of one of its brightest stars. There was one consolation: in the end, Marley made it to Jamaica. The country gave him a state funeral on May 21, 1981, following Rastafarian traditions for the ceremony. He was buried alongside his guitar in a chapel near where he was born.
During the funeral, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Edward Seaga gave the eulogy, saying that, “Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”
To Die, to Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The story of how Bob Marley died is not one of partying and excess, but of a principled man unwilling to compromise for modern medicine. In many ways, this makes him an even more tragic figure than some of his fellow fallen rock stars. The melanoma that killed him at the age of 36 might have been managed and eventually defeated, had he only wanted it.
This, however, was not the way that Marley chose to go. Instead, he fought the cancer in his own way, and succumbed when it was his time. It was his life, and he chose how to leave it. Though he is still dearly missed, we have his many albums and inedible songs to help remember him by.
Rest in peace, Bob Marley.
The King Who Fell To Earth: The Life And Mysterious Death Of Albert I Of Belgium
Albert I was King of the Belgians at a very tumultuous time in the country’s history. He ruled through World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, and oversaw his nation’s reconstruction after the War ended. Despite such an eventful reign, it’s not this that he’s remembered for—it’s his sudden and tragic demise in a mountaineering accident. The circumstances surrounding his death immediately drew suspicion, leading to the rampant spread of rumors and conspiracy theories about the monarch’s tragic end. So what really happened to King Albert of Belgium on that fateful day?
A Death in the Family
Albert I was born on April 8, 1875, the grandson of the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, and the nephew of the reigning king, Leopold II. At that point, he was third in the line of succession, following his father and his older brother, but when Albert was just 16, tragedy struck. His brother, Prince Baudouin, died after a bout of the flu. He was only 21 years old. Prince Baudouin’s sudden death sparked many rumors and conspiracy theories—notably, one that said the Prince had died in a situation remarkably similar to the mysterious suicide of Prince Rudolf of Austria just two years earlier.
With the death of his older brother, Albert found himself in a position where he would inevitably become King of the Belgians. His father, Prince Philippe, although next in line for the throne, was already 54 at the time of the Prince Baudouin’s death. Prince Philippe would go on to pass away in 1905, while his older brother Leopold II was still on the throne. When Leopold II died in 1909, it was time for Albert to take his place as King.
By that time Albert had already married, to a Bavarian Duchess named Elisabeth, and the couple had had three children. The first few years of his reign went relatively smoothly, especially since his subjects regarded his stable home life favorably. In the final years of Leopold II’s reign, a public scandal had erupted over human rights abuses in the Congo, Belgium’s only colonial property. The Belgian government had wrested control of the colony from the monarch shortly before his death. Albert’s first few years of rule must have seemed like a fresh start after all the public disgrace that had been heaped on Leopold II over the episode. But all the goodwill in the world couldn’t make up for what would befall Albert—and Belgium itself—in the ensuing years.
At the outset of World War I, Belgium found itself stuck between Germany and France—and not just geographically. German forces demanded safe passage through to France, claiming that France planned to invade Belgium to get through to Germany anyway. Belgium refused Germany, leading the Germans to invade Belgium on August 3, 1914. As a result, Britain was then forced to declare war on Germany the next day.
Albert became commander of the Belgian Army and led numerous campaigns to drive the German forces back, but ultimately, his army wound up pushed back into a small area, where they remained entrenched for years. Albert fought alongside his men while his wife worked as a nurse, but the entire time, he tried to encourage other diplomats to negotiate peace with Germany, seeing the damage that the occupation was doing to his kingdom. The forces at war ignored his pleas, however, and eventually, Albert led the drive that liberated Belgium.
When the War ended, Albert and his family returned triumphantly to Brussels, where he spoke to his subjects about the future of the kingdom. He assisted in the Paris Peace Conference in April 1919, but his advice—to not punish Germany too harshly, in an attempt to quell future hostile behavior—was largely ignored, despite Belgium’s heavy losses during the War. He also did what he could to help rebuild his realm, working with the Belgian Ministry of Internal Affairs to create the King Albert Housing Fund for communities that had been destroyed, among other initiatives.
Tragedy in the Mountains
Albert was known to have a strong interest in mountaineering, so when he asked his driver to pull over so that he could go for a short climb on the afternoon of February 17, 1934, it wasn’t seen as an unusual request—although later, everything that led up to that moment would come into question. He was climbing the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu in a Namurois village called Marche-les-Dames. Albert’s driver watched him navigate the rocks from where they’d parked. The moment the King went out of sight was the last time that he was seen alive.
As minutes turned into hours, the driver knew something was wrong—after all, the King had an engagement in Brussels to get to that night. He went to the nearby village to ask for help, and soon enough, a search party was formed. At around 2 AM, one of the volunteers stumbled across Albert’s body. He looked to have died of a massive head wound. Albert’s involved role in WWI had made him a name around the world, and when news broke of his tragic death, both his subjects and the rest of the world mourned.
Almost immediately after Albert’s death, whispers about foul play began to circulate. Yes, the king was aging—58 years old at the time he died—and his eyesight wasn’t perfect, but he was also an expert climber with many years of experience, including in solo climbs, under his belt. Many of those closest to him claimed that Albert had told them he planned to stop climbing—so why would he have undertaken such a dangerous climb alone?
One First World War hero-turned-fascist activist gave a speech in which he alleged that despite Albert’s actions during the war, the King’s push to negotiate peace during WWI had angered the wrong people, and that was the reason he’d been targeted for assassination. Others claimed that he must have been killed in another location and had his body dumped in the mountains as a convenient cover-up.
Beloved among his subjects, the area where Albert died became a place of pilgrimage, with many taking souvenirs from the site—rocks, leaves, other debris. A century later, one of these souvenirs would finally provide some insight into that fateful day, finally shutting down some of the more insidious conspiracy theories about the king’s death. A journalist found one souvenir hunter who had taken some blood-stained tree leaves from the site. He purchased the foliage, then had it sent for DNA testing. In 2016, the blood was compared to samples from some of Albert’s descendants, and it came back a match—meaning that the King had, in fact, died at the scene of the climbing accident.
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