How Nazi Scientists and Their Wind Tunnels Ended Up in D.C.’s Suburbs

How Nazi Scientists and Their Wind Tunnels Ended Up in D.C.’s Suburbs
A test section from the original wind tunnel now is on display in wind tunnel 9. (Greg Kahn/GRAIN/for The Washington Post)

What is it? Hanging from the seven-story dome of the largest indoor atrium in federal government hands, the newly installed sculpture is sleek yet weighty, covered in polished metal but seemingly lifelike.

More than 36 feet long, it could be an abstracted sea creature starting a dive. Seen sideways from a few stories up, it brings to mind a huge plunging bird, wings tucked in and about to hit the water. And from ground level looking up, the piece could be a rocket headed your way, caught as it approaches a hard landing.

What makes the sculpture additionally confusing is that it hangs in the most recently finished building on the outer Silver Spring campus that has become the new home to the Food and Drug Administration. The campus has four other ambitious sculpture installations, and all relate closely to the agency’s mission of assessing new drugs, devices, vaccines and biologics. But this one does not.

That’s because the artist, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, set out to lure viewers into a challenging world — to first attract them by the appealing look of the sculpture, then invite them to wrestle with the troubling tale about all that surrounds it.


“Prototype for Re-Entry”

If they take up the challenge, they will find that “Prototype for Re-Entry”  is perhaps most importantly a window into the past. Artistically, it harks back to the day in 1912 when three prominent sculptors and painters visited the Paris Air Show and saw propellers and other soon-to-be military objects that the three concluded were more artistically important than anything they had ever created.

But regarding the FDA site itself, now home to 8,500 scientists, engineers, managers and support staff, the sculpture is a symbolic entryway into a morally uncomfortable and ultimately redemptive history.

It’s a past that includes captured German equipment and scientists from the Nazi era; the development of weaponry from nuclear warheads to intercontinental ballistic missiles (as well as later an array of NASA heat shields); the making — and subsequent cleaning — of a befouled and hazardous site surrounded by homes and businesses; the coming together of a community group that has moved impossibly large mountains and just may have lit the fuse that will allow a long-neglected and diverse far-eastern section of Montgomery County to really take off; and the rise of an art- and architecture-rich, environmentally friendly and scientifically pioneering billion-dollar-plus center dedicated to promoting human health and well-being.

Few grounds outside of battle zones have been contested and transformed with quite the sharp turns as this one, where “Prototype for Re-Entry” approaches but never lands.

It was more than 70 years ago, at the chaotic end of World War II, that the singular fate of the 660 acres that would become the Naval Surface Weapons Center was decided. Five miles from the District line and alongside New Hampshire Avenue in a neighborhood known as White Oak, the land was wooded and the surroundings were country; suburbia was still a decade away. In Germany, as the Nazi regime crumbled, the Allied armies made a dash to both defeat the enemy and seek out the spoils they believed they needed.

The biggest prize was missile and rocket technology, for which the Germans were envied. The V-2 was the world’s first supersonic guided missile and the first rocket to cross into space, and near the end of the war it caused great destruction in London and elsewhere in Europe. Its signature as a weapon of terror was that, because it was flying faster than the speed of sound, it would not be heard until it had delivered its payload.

The V-2 was the culmination of science that the Germans had been perfecting since the early 1930s, first the theoretical physics, aerodynamics and propulsion of rockets and missiles, then their military applications after Adolph Hitler consolidated power. Central to their success was a series of pioneering wind tunnels developed to test how missiles would behave as they rose to the edge of space and fell toward their targets, how fins could make them go farther but become less stable, how the vicious heat of supersonic travel affected missile surfaces. These supersonic wind tunnels — far more sophisticated than any others in the world — were first built at the secret Nazi weapons center at Peenemündeon the Baltic Sea, and after a series of British air raids they were transferred to the Bavarian town of Kochel.

The Kochel facilities were in what was to become the American zone when the war ended. Once American officials understood what they had found in the resort town, they quickly shipped it to the United States, as well as some of the wind tunnel scientists. By early 1946, when the White Oak Naval Ordnance Laboratory was still under construction, two wind tunnels and nine German scientists were on their way. And by mid-1948, the wind tunnels, compact by modern standards, had been rebuilt exactly as they had been in Germany, but on a secluded, wooded area deep within the White Oak site. Twelve former-enemy-but-now-on-contract German scientists and engineers were present to oversee construction and begin testing again.

White Oak was hardly the only military facility to receive former enemy scientists. Under Operation Paperclip,more than 1,600 former Nazi scientists were transferred to the States after the war — a program that was largely hidden when it began and became controversial only decades later when formerly classified information was released. The American military had desperately wanted the German scientists’ expertise, and civilian leaders were equally adamant that they not fall into the hands of our new opponent: the Soviet Union. America’s biggest haul was Wernher von Braun and his much-in-demand team of rocket scientists.

As far as historians can determine, the 12 German scientists at White Oak were the only ones on permanent duty in the Washington area. And except for the men and women who worked with them in highly classified silence, nobody knew they were there.

We can only speculate about how the Americans received these former enemies. It was doubtless complicated at start, but later accounts of those days describe collegial working relationships and even friendships as the years went on. The Germans had a lot to teach about the aerodynamics of V-2s and later intercontinental missiles. Peter Wegener, one of the 12 White Oak Germans, wrote “The Peenemünde Wind Tunnels, A Memoir” and emphasized the pure science, as opposed to the applied military side. If any of them had been members of the Nazi party, he wrote, it was because they could do their work only if they joined.

That may have been true of Wegener, the liberal son of a famous German movie star, but it was not the case for many others, said Michael J. Neufeld, an expert on the Nazi era and senior curator of the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

“I think it would be fair to say that some of the scientists just went along with the Nazi program, but others were doubtless true believers,” he said. “They quickly dropped that once the war ended, but our government’s initial decision to deny entry to former active members of the Nazi Party was generally not enforced. Remember, by the late 1940s, being a former Nazi in America really wasn’t a problem. Being a Communist was.”

The really difficult moral issue, Neufeld and others have argued, is how aware the scientists were that their work on V-2 aerodynamics was implicated in one of the most ghastly chapters of the Holocaust and the war. With Peenemünde largely out of commission, the Germans moved mass production of their V-2s to an abandoned gypsum mine under a mountain in central Germany. The high command forced inmates from a nearby concentration camp to dig tunnels for heavy machinery coming in and out and later to assemble the rockets. Historical accounts of the site, known as Mittelwerk, report that 20,000 inmates were worked to death. It is generally agreed that more people died making V-2s under these brutal conditions than died in the explosions that followed the later missile launches.

Wind tunnel memoirist Wegener wrote that he had seen the hellish scene at the V-2 factory near the very end of the war and that his short visit to retrieve documents there left a permanent scar. If he had been reassigned to Mittelwerk, he wrote with an understatement that speaks volumes, “I do not know what I would have done.”

All of the German scientists who worked at White Oak are deceased, and knowledge about what they may have done and seen during the war years is limited. Many were lauded here for super-charging American missile technology, and many went on to illustrious careers at NASA and in academia and industry. But it’s hard to avoid a moral queasiness about their long-ago presence at White Oak, which is perhaps part of why it has been kept largely hidden for so many years.

Dan Marren, who oversees wind tunnel 9 at White Oak, stands in the now abandoned supersonic tunnel 2 in the Naval Ordinance Laboratory building. The building stopped operation in the ’90s. (Greg Kahn/GRAIN/for the Washington Post)

The Naval Surface Weapons Center at White Oak prospered throughout the Cold War, conducting classified research and development on torpedoes, mines, nuclear triggers and much more. At the supersonic and later hypersonic lab, the two German wind tunnels provided data for creation of ever more sophisticated and longer-traveling missiles. And according to the current site director, DanMarren, the German scientists were instrumental in overseeing the design and construction for seven other wind tunnels later built at White Oak, including tunnel 9, which remains state-of-the-art and in high demand.

But after the Cold War ended, the naval center was on the chopping block, and in 1995 the official order came down to close the base. It didn’t help that in 1992 improperly stored explosives went off, rocking the leafy suburban neighborhoods by then surrounding the site and sending a plume of smoke 500 feet into the air.

The closing of the base was a crisis for the nearby Hillandale and White Oak communities.In the eyes of Hillandale resident Betsy Bretz and some of her neighbors, however, it was also the opportunity of a lifetime. A community organizer who happened to be married to a Navy aviator, she had worked in neighborhood action programs in the South during the 1960s and was head of the Hillandale Citizens Association during the base closing. What she and many of her neighbors gradually came to see as a desired future was the rise of the first-ever consolidated FDA campus on the Navy site and then the birth of a spin-off health and science corridor nearby. The eastern section of Montgomery County — long a stepchild to the likes of Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac — would finally take its place as an economic, residential and commercial magnet.

At the time, the FDA was spread across 48 buildings in 28 locations and was in dire need of consolidation and much-improved facilities. A plan to buy land for a new campus in upper Montgomery County had been killed in Congress. Despite sometimes intense opposition in Congress and from some area residents as well as a lawsuit by the Sierra Club, an agreement for the FDA to move to a General Services Administration-developed White Oak campus was inked in 1997.

But there was a major obstacle: An Environmental Protection Agency report concluded that seven White Oak locations posed significant environmental threats, including a dump with buried chemicals, acids, explosive compounds and kerosene. The report stated that there “may be an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment.” White Oak became the equivalent of a Superfund site.

As Bretz tells it, the Navy balked at cleanup. But she and her Labquest Partnershipcommunity and advocacy group — along with top EPA managers who met in her living room — began a campaign that helped persuade top brass to spend $48 million to bring the site up to the highest environmental standards.

What followed was years of battles — usually spearheaded by Bretz and the Labquest “family” — to secure the permissions and money needed to build the Federal Research Center, which would house the FDA on 130 acres. Ever tenacious, Bretz recruited Maryland’s U.S. senators and representatives, former state senator and Hillandale resident Ida Ruben, county officials and federal agency leaders for the fight. When the most recently finished building was dedicated last year, the dais included many of those officials and Bretz. As then-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg put it, Bretz “has played such an important role in this project from the beginning.” Many others describe that role as “essential.”

What in time became a broadly supported effort resulted in the construction or rehabilitation of 16 LEED-certified, energy-efficient buildings, a power plant to deliver all the site’s electricity needs (and to sell power when unneeded), and the creation of a 21st-century place to work for a fast-growing and ever more important agency. FDA officials say it is now considerably easier to recruit top talent.

But for Labquest, the goal was just half achieved. The group envisioned the rising of an off-campus but FDA-focused “epicenter” with scores of buildings filled with major international and national companies, as well as lively gathering places and construction of a new Washington Adventist Hospital with a close FDA association.

Montgomery County planners were originally highly skeptical, however, and years of Labquest frustration followed. That county skepticism has now disappeared and has been replaced with active involvement in the Viva White Oak development partnership alongside the Gudelsky family, prominent area developers and philanthropists. Bretz and her Labquest colleagues (who number more than 100 and include residents as well as representatives from every level of government) trust that their allies will soon get the final permissions for construction to start.

“We’ve had a vision now for more than 20 years, and we’ve come a very long way,” Bretz said. “A community can be a victim to change, or it can be proactive. We’ve had many, many obstacles, but we’ve played that active role and consider what we have now to be something of a miracle.”

One of Bretz’s biggest fans is Dan Marren, who manages a staff of 30 at wind tunnel 9: “We would have been shut down or moved if it hadn’t been for Betsy — no doubt about it.” Instead, they remain at White Oak under Air Force control now and are busy doing work for the Defense Department, private defense contractors and quite frequently NASA. Tunnel 9, the only one that remains active, was completed in 1976. But with its ability to produce speeds up to Mach 14 in a test cell that is more than five feet in diameter, it remains state-of-the-art and in constant use.

As for the original German wind tunnels, the technological heart of one is on display at the current wind tunnel, and other equipment is in an abandoned building behind it. Ironically, the German government has requested, on behalf of a German museum, the return of the key test sections of the tunnels. Nothing has come of the request.

GSA art commissions start with a decision by a panel of experts about which artist they might approach to gauge interest and ideas. As explained by Christine Ewing, formerly the GSA national capital region fine arts specialist and now GSA campus director, Manglano-Ovalle came to mind. The panel was looking for a hanging sculpture, and the professor of art theory at Northwestern University had created many of them. They were looking for someone interested in the meeting of science and art, and he had a track record there as well.

Under the GSA’s Art in Architecture Program — which collects up to 50 cents toward public art for every $100 spent on a federal building — the artist has a kind of supervised freedom to create what he or she wants. Sensing that the artist would find the wind tunnel most interesting, Ewing brought Manglano-Ovalle over for a look and talk with Marren.

Immediately, the artist was drawn in by the beautiful shapes and surfaces of the missiles, warheads and other military technology on display. He was smitten, rather like the three artists who were so moved by the beautiful propellers at the 1912 Paris Air Show. One of those three artists was Constantin Brancusi, who went on to create a series of highly acclaimed works — all called “Bird in Space.” Re-creating a modified version of that iconic sculpture on a grand scale is precisely what Manglano-Ovalle set out to do.

On the face of it, his idea had little to do with regulating foods and drugs. But it had much to do with the intersection of science and art — in this case the study of aerodynamics for space travel and weapons of war, just as the FDA studies new molecules, devices and biological agents. And to hit that theme harder, Manglano-Ovalle proposed creating a small model of his sculpture for testing in wind tunnel 9 to see if it had the aerodynamics necessary to fly.

Marren didn’t know if the artist was joking when he made the request, but the wind tunnel director decided to make it happen. A small team of student volunteers was brought together to work with the artist, and Marren squeezed in a short time when the model — then still called “Bird in Space” — could be inserted into the wind tunnel without interfering with ongoing testing. The artist nonetheless ended up paying $15,000 out of his commission to learn that, yes, the sculpture could fly — a most satisfying marriage of art and science.

But inevitably, “Prototype for Re-Entry” sheds light on the history of the original wind tunnel complex as well — especially in the hands of an artist who is drawn to “where the beautiful meets the monstrous.”

“Yes, it’s very important that what happened at wind tunnel Number 1 not be forgotten because it came here shrouded in moral ambiguity,” he said. “It’s an important part of our own history.”

And now, as an authentic “swords to plowshares” transformation continues in and around White Oak, it’s a history at last ready to be told.

Marc Kaufman is a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For 16 years, he has lived in Hillandale less than one mile from the wind tunnel site without knowing about its presence or history. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@

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