WASHINGTON -- As the 747 carrying the retired space shuttle Discovery circled the capital last week, my mind flashed back to the sole encounter I ever had as a reporter with the space program.
An editor at the old Buffalo Courier-Express assigned me to interview a fellow named Walter Dornberger, whom he described as a German space visionary who had fled from the Iron Curtain.
It was the late 1950s, and so-called refugees from Germany, like Wernher von Braun, who was guiding America's struggling manned flight program, were in vogue.
They were refugees, all right; but as researchers who dug into the archives learned decades later, they fled not just the Soviet Union, but also the upcoming war crimes trials in Nuremberg.
The Dornberger interview was a venture by the public relations people at Buffalo's Bell Aircraft, the World War II producer of warplanes in plants in Buffalo and Wheatfield.
They presented him as Dr. Dornberger, an engineer. Certainly not as Maj. Gen. Dornberger, a top artillery officer at the launching sites of rockets that terrorized London and Brussels, killing thousands of civilians.
Not long after my interview, which was a wooden flop, Dornberger's military record was gently broached. The PR people claimed he was nothing more than a professional soldier after all; not a war criminal. Bell made him a vice president and nominal head of research. But he was really hired as part of Bell's attempts to get its hooks into the money being spent on the space race with Russia.
After Bell folded as a space company and Dornberger returned to Germany, researchers began to link him and von Braun to the infamous underground rocket factory called Dora in the German Hartz Mountains. Here, inmates from the concentration camps at Dachau, Flossenberg and Sachsenhausen were literally worked to death.
Gretchen Engle Schafft of American University, in "The Public Memory of Mittelbau-Dora," quotes Hitler production chief Albert Speer calling conditions there "barbarous." In all, more than 30,000 starved souls died in that place.
Dornberger was much more than a professional soldier, according to author Arch B. Taylor Jr. Dornberger was a personal aide to Hitler, the liaison between the Fuhrer and von Braun. In his book, "Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Beyond," Taylor reported that Dornberger and von Braun met with Hitler "many times" to lobby for money and more slave labor for Dora -- replacement "recruits" from France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the death camps. The two entertained Hitler with films of rocket launchings.
So disinfected was Dornberger's reputation into the 1960s, he was named to a committee to ensure that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration answered to the Pentagon.
Professor John Q. Barrett of St. John's University, an expert on the Nuremberg trials, told me he knows of no reference to Dornberger in its proceedings.
How Dornberger got away with it is another story with a tie to Buffalo. The war records of Dornberger, von Braun and other dubious Germans were sanitized in "Operation Paperclip." It was a covert campaign to spirit scientists out of Germany as the Iron Curtain was being readied. Running the operation was Gen. William J. Donovan, the Buffalo born and raised head of the wartime Office of Strategic Services. British intelligence reports that Dornberger and von Braun were dangerous got scrubbed by Operation Paperclip, Taylor wrote.
Many of these scientists helped the United States overtake Russia in manned space flight. But at what moral cost? It turns out Donovan's name won't be on Buffalo's new federal courthouse; Nuremberg prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson's will. And that's a good thing.