Monday, September 25, 2017


Maybe I should thank Donald Trump. Every time he opens his wastewater pipe mouth, he makes the work of artists committed to social change more relevant and necessary. At his rally at the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Trump praised spending “billions and billions of dollars” on missile defense against North Korea. Hearing Cold War rhetoric coming from “Rocket City” immediately made me think of the phenomenon rocket engineers call “pogo oscillation.”

Pogo oscillation occurs when various parts of a rocket vibrate at the same frequency, amplifying that frequency, causing the rocket to oscillate and potentially burst. It’s basically the same principle as an opera singer breaking a glass or the echo chamber of social media. In other words, it doesn’t turn out well for the glass, the rocket or the culture.

The Von Braun Center is named after Wernher von Braun, the rocket engineer responsible for the Saturn V rocket that got us to the moon. During World War II, von Braun was also responsible for the Nazi’s V2 missile, which was built with the forced labor of 60,000 slaves, 20,000 of whom died. This is precisely the war crime that put Hitler’s Reich Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, in prison for 20 years, escaping execution only by pleading guilty and lying under oath.

But von Braun was considered too valuable to the American missile defense program to be called to justice. Instead, the Joint Chiefs of Staff covered up his record, along with that of one thousand more German scientists, and brought them to New Mexico to build weapons, eventually re-locating them to Huntsville, Alabama. 


Apollo at Portland Center Stage, photo by Owen Carrey
I’ve been haunted by this story since I saw Nancy Keystone’s epic Apollo in 2009.  Nancy’s visuals remain with me still--a stage filled with hundreds of file boxes, a movement sequence in an Alabama cotton field where black workers literally took two steps forward and one step back--but I felt there was more to say about the complex web of connections that made up the conspiracy.

So after eight years of intermittent research, I finally sat down and wrote THE MAN IN THE MOON : AN AMERICAN DREAM in less than four weeks. A commission from EnsembleStudio Theater / Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology, the play examines the ethical quandary of rewarding genocide in the name of national security and the advancement of science. Here are some of the images I looked at while writing the play:

Did von Braun atone for his sins by sending men to the moon and actively integrating NASA in George Wallace’s segregated Alabama? Should the U.S. have denied itself the enrichment of some of the world’s greatest minds? 
Which brings me back to pogo oscillation. On April 4, 1968, the test flight of Apollo 6 was plagued by this very problem, which went largely unreported because of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. a few hours later. Naturally, Von Braun and his team took the steps to minimize the risk of oscillation, resulting in the successful manned missions to the moon.
Trump, whose politics of rage echo those of George Wallace when he called Neo-Nazis “good people” and black protesters “sons of bitches,” stood in an American civic center named for a former officer in Hitler’s SS, baiting a Cold War adversary by igniting the engines of the “Little Rocket Man.” The vibrations of the past are resounding at the same frequency as the present. Will it take us to the breaking point, causing us to burst, or will we roll up our sleeves to fix it?
Fifty years from now I hope we look back at the Trump era and feel the vibrations of how it galvanized Americans toward the common good.

And that, my friends, is The Gospel According to Marc