Lewis Bush unmasks the dark history of space exploration

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In his upcoming book, Depravity’s Rainbow, the British photographer pieces together the life of Werhner Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun; a Nazi rocket developer whose story still resonates against today’s billion-dollar space obsession

Our mainstream conception of space exploration is overwhelmingly aspirational: mankind harnessing meticulous technological aptitude to achieve otherworldly accomplishments, steered by scientists tirelessly punching in equations while seated at their futuristic workspaces, solely driven by the desire to benefit humanity. Intertwined with this progressive narrative is the medium of photography, providing visuals of space as early as the 1940s, well before humans were able to blast through layers of atmosphere without the expectation of death.

Like many lovers of photography, British artist Lewis Bush was charmed by this history. One day, while reading about space imagery, he came across a satellite image made in 1947. Surprised by its early creation date, he read on, and found that the image was made using a V-2 ballistic missile launched from the United States – the same missile developed in Nazi Germany for attacking civilians. Bush soon discovered that Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, developer of the V-2 and member of the Nazi Party, actually lived a second life of relocation in the United States after the war as a rocket developer, never facing retribution for his crimes against humanity.

00 00 1934. 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 back. From the series Depravity's Rainbow © Lewis Bush.

While the images we immediately call to mind regarding space exploration contain smiling astronauts, professionals in lab coats, and shiny technological advancements, its history is fraught with political and military narratives that remain out of sight. “People tend to think of the Space Shuttle as a civilian space project, but it was also completely compromised by military and intelligence priorities, and was used extensively to carry out secret missions that remain classified today,” Bush reflects. “We have to have these things out in the open, so we can understand the ways that civilian projects are perhaps twisted away from their original intentions by those military aims.”

Bush’s method for laying this history bare is a new book titled Depravity’s Rainbow. A collection of images made by the artist at various rocket development sites in Germany is re-envisioned alongside archival documents and photographs from scientific archives related to the V-2. In order to present the images cohesively, he recreated them as cyanotypes – a medium both conceptual and pragmatic. “It was invented by an astronomer,” Bush explains, “then used extensively by engineers as the ‘blueprint’ process” – both intimately tied to the project’s subject matter. What’s more: hydrogen cyanide can also be found within cyanotype chemistry, and is the same gas that was used for exterminating people during the Holocaust.

“We have profound problems here on Earth, from the legacies of centuries of injustice, to the burgeoning threat of climate change. Space exploration is at best a distraction, and at worst a contributor to many of these problems.”

Throughout the book, gritty archival shadows appear in a riveting narrative, telling the story of Von Braun’s life in two sequences: his time before 1945, designing military rockets for Nazi Germany, and his life post-1945, working for US government agencies such as Nasa. “An event like Von Braun meeting President John F Kennedy in 1962 can be juxtaposed against an event like him meeting Adolf Hitler in 1936,” Bush explains. “The aim is not to say these two events or people are the same, but it is to marvel at the possibility that Von Braun could have met them both in his life, showing the connections and links between these two halves.”

While the selfless ambition of space exploration that Bush hopes to subvert has permeated our collective consciousness for decades, many have started to sense cracks in the veneer. Last year, Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos famously jetted into space while civilians dealing with the social and financial ravages of the pandemic looked on, perplexed. Additionally, Bezos’ fellow billionaire Elon Musk talks about space travel with a fanboy vigour that feels equally out of touch. When asked why it is important to share the story of Von Braun with others, Bush alludes to these strange cultural moments, but connects it back to the greater history of mankind.

“We have profound problems here on Earth, from the legacies of centuries of injustice to the burgeoning threat of climate change. Space exploration is at best a distraction and at worst a contributor to many of these problems, and if we want to gradually change it into a project which truly is ‘for all mankind’, we need to recognise these problems and this history.”

lewisbush.com

You can support the publication of Depravity’s Rainbow by pledging the artist’s Kickstarter here.

Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.