“As you walk deeper, you retrace the Rocket's becoming: superchargers, center sections, nose assemblies, power units, controls, tail sections . . .”
The above quotation (you guessed?) is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Tyrone Slothrop is walking through the factory where they made V2 rockets, the Vergeltungswaffe 2, Nazi Germany’s super sonic “revenge weapon,” subsequently seized by the Russians and Americans.
I was a little surprised, as I was walking down Tooley Street, in London earlier this year to find that this thing was still in place on the wall above what used to be, and perhaps still is (though their website seems to be in hibernation) a museum called Britain at War.
That rocket (let’s call it that) has been in place for 20 odd years, but I really don’t know what it is. It’s obviously not a “real” V2.
There are quite a few of the real things around, though they tend to be in serious aeronautical museums rather than on the wall of tourist attractions. The nearest I’ve been to one was at the White Sands Missile Range, outside of Alamogordo in New Mexico. I walked around it, stood beside it, and could probably have reached out and touched it, but since but I was standing on the property of the American military industrial complex I decided against that.
There’s a kind of “rocket garden” at the White Sands Missile Range where you can walk around and look at scary hardware. Most of the stuff is out in the open air, but the V2 is in a solid substantial building, because it needs protection and preservation.
Not many miles down the road from the missile range is the entirely separate White Sands National Monument, a fabulous, two hundred plus square miles of white desert that are a wonder even to a skeptical old desert rat like me.
White Sands has been on mind lately since I was looking for something else in the Nicholsonian archive and found this photograph taken of me – oh good god – probably 25 years ago.
The thing I’m holding that looks like a bit like a clipboard is in fact some kind of rocket debris that must have found its way into the dunes from the missile range next door, after some kind of explosion or jettisoning operating.
It’s one of the smaller regrets of my life that I didn’t stick this piece of detritus in my hand luggage and take it home, though conceivably it was drenched in rocket fuel and evil chemicals and would have done awful things to me. And maybe I wouldn’t have got it through airport security – though this was obviously well before 9/11.
I know I’ve bleated on elsewhere about gardens of subversion, places that are less than Edenic, and possibly all the better for that. And without having more than the average interest in rocketry or space or ballistics I seem to have walked among quite a few flying objects, some identified, some not. This one in Essex for instance:
The most recent one I went to was in Utah, actually called the Thiokol Rocket Garden, belonging to ATK Thiokol, “Supplier of aerospace and defense products. Munitions, smart weapons, propulsion and composite structures.” It’s a place designed so that you can walk and sit and have a snack – all of which I did.
Depending on your finer feelings you can regard this place as a garden of death, or a tribute to man’s greatest achievement, or a piece of accidental “land art.” But my favorite thing about it was this:
Sure, a standard rocket is good enough for me – who needs anything too fancy?
And finally a last word from one of White Sands’ most famous inhabitants, begetter of the V2, and therefore of much else besides, Herr Wernher von Braun, words that form the epigraph to the first section of Gravity’s Rainbow, from an article he wrote titled “Why I Believe in Immortality.”
“Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.”
This is him in later life, with a very nice display of model rockets behind him:
And this is him earlier, working on his Dr. Strangelove impersonation.