In the Soviet Union’s Catherine Palace, located near Saint Petersburg, is rumored to have been a beautiful chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. The elaborately designed hall was a gift to Peter the Great from Germany. Constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, the room was dismantled and eventually disappeared during World War II. In the days before World War II started, Hitler had worked an “alliance agreement” with Stalin. Hitler really had no intention of keeping the agreement, but rather wanted to take control of Poland without Soviet interference. That didn’t make the Soviet Union safe either. When Germany made their move, the Soviets did not have enough time to prepare.
It was 1941, when the Germans advanced. The job of removing the panels to safety would take time…time they didn’t have. The panels were quickly taken by the Germans and transported to Konigsberg, East Prussia. They were confiscating anything of value. Initially, the Amber Room was placed on public display at the Konigsberg Castle, but was hidden in anticipation of the 1945 Soviet advance. Before its loss, it was considered an “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
In 1701, the Amber Room was intended for the Charlottenburg Palace, in Berlin, Prussia, but was eventually installed at the Berlin City Palace. Designed by German baroque sculptor Andreas Schlüter and Danish amber craftsman Gottfried Wolfram, who worked on the room until 1707, at which time the work was continued by amber masters Gottfried Turau and Ernst Schacht from Danzig (Gdansk). The masterpiece remained in Berlin until 1716, when it was given by the Prussian King Frederick William I to his ally Tsar Peter the Great of the Russian Empire. In Russia, the beautiful room was installed in the Catherine Palace. In the castle, the room was further expanded and several renovations where performed, making it an even more stunning chamber than it had been before. In the end, it covered more than 590 square feet and contained over 13,000 pounds of amber.
When the Army Group North of Nazi Germany took possession of the Amber Room during World War II, it was taken to Königsberg for reconstruction and display. Like many stolen treasures, the Germans hid the Amber Rooms panels, and its eventual fate and current whereabouts, if it has survived, remain a mystery. While most experts believed it was obliterated during the intense shelling that destroyed the Konigsberg Castle, I don’t believe that is true, because surely some evidence of that much amber would have been found after a bombing, but none was ever found at the site.
Persistent rumors about the current location of the Amber Room have never panned out, and after years of searching, it was decided in 1979, to create a reconstructed Amber Room at the Catherine Palace. After decades of work by Russian craftsmen and donations from Germany, the reconstructed Amber Room was finally inaugurated in 2003.
With the arrival of the 50th anniversary of the landing on the moon, on July 20, 2019, many people have been reviewing old footage and books about the event. I came across a book that caught my eye on Audible. The book, The Man Who Knew The Way To The Moon, by Todd Zwillich wasn’t exactly about the moon landing, but rather how it became possible. The book begins with Russia beating the United States to the punch when they sent a man Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961. As short as the flight was…just 89 minutes…it was still an embarrassment to the United States who felt they should have been first.
In answer to the Soviet space flight, President Kennedy challenged NASA to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. NASA sort of panicked. Yes, they had been thinking about a moon landing…and some remote point down the road, but they were nowhere near ready to go them by the end of the decade. Nevertheless, they began to explore ideas to make it happen. One of those people who had been considering a way to make the landing possible. By this time, no one doubted the ability to go into space, and to safely return to earth. Landing on the moon was a different story.
The widely accepted method of landing on the moon was to have the original rocket back onto the moon, carrying enough fuel to take off again and return to Earth. A man named John Houbolt thought that was…well, simply impossible. Now, I’m no aeronautical engineer, like Houbolt was, and maybe I have the advantage of knowing about the past space exploration victories, but when I think about three astronauts backing a 90 foot high, fully fueled rocket onto the moon…all I can say is, “That’s ludicrous!!” People often say that an idea doesn’t take a rocket scientist, and it this case, maybe it shouldn’t be a rocket scientist, but rather an aeronautical engineer.
John Houbolt, kept saying and trying to be heard, that it wouldn’t work, but he had a plan that would…Lunar Orbit Rendezvous or LOR. In Houbolt’s design, a smaller lunar module would land on the moon while the command module waited above. Then the Lunar module would take of and dock with the command module for the trip back to Earth. It is the way we know did work, because we have the advantage of time, but the scientists and engineers at NASA would not listen. One man, Max Faget, an immigrant from British Honduras, who designed the Mercury module, actually stood up at a meeting where Houbolt was presenting his idea, and yelled at the group, saying, “His figures lie! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Houbolt was horribly humiliated, and he never forgot the incident. He didn’t let it stop him either. In the end, as Faget spent many hours trying desperately to make his own figures work, so that a rocket could back onto the moon, he finally had to admit defeat. He called John Houbolt, and conceded the lunar landing design to Houbolt’s design, which was, as we all know, completely successful, because after all, his figures did not lie, and he did know what he was talking about. It was a great moment in history, and in Houbolt’s life, except for the fact that no one knew that the successful landing was his design. While the Lunar landing, 50 years ago was an amazing accomplishment, I find it quite sad that it took so many years for the world to know about how one man’s refusal to give up, actually made Lunar landing possible. We owe John Houbolt a great debt of gratitude, and it is more than 50 years overdue. Now that’s ludicrous!!
Americans don’t really like to think that our military is out spying on other countries, but like it or not, we spy on them, and they spy on us. We know it and they know it. So, spying is not really the problem…it’s getting caught that causes a problem. Getting caught is the ultimate faux pas, and that is what happened on May 1, 1960, when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union while conducting espionage. The plane was being operated by Central Intelligence Agency pilot Francis Powers, under the order of the CIA. The U-2 spy plane was the brainchild of the CIA, and it was in all reality, a sophisticated technological marvel. It could travel at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, and it was equipped with state-of-the-art photography equipment that could, according to the CIA, take “high-resolution pictures of headlines in Russian newspapers as it flew overhead.” The flights over the Soviet Union began in mid-1956, and the CIA assured President Eisenhower that the Soviets did not possess anti-aircraft weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down the high-altitude planes. How wrong they were.
On May 1, 1960, over Russia, a U-2 flight piloted by Francis Gary Powers disappeared, while doing reconnaissance. The CIA reassured the president that, even if the plane had been shot down, it was equipped with self-destruct mechanisms that would render any wreckage unrecognizable and the pilot was instructed to kill himself in such a situation. Looking at the wreckage, I suppose it was unrecognizable…to a degree, at least in the picture, but how can a pilot be ordered to kill himself. I don’t know about you, but I would have to disobey that order. Apparently Powers felt the same way, because he parachuted out, rather than crash with the plane. Still, based on this information, the United States government issued a statement indicating that a weather plane had veered off course and supposedly crashed somewhere in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev took great pleasure in embarrassing the United States when he produced not only the mostly-intact wreckage of the U-2, but also the captured pilot…very much alive.
It was at this point that President Eisenhower had to publicly admit that it was indeed a United States spy plane. On May 16, a major summit between the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France began in Paris. Issues to be discussed included the status of Berlin and nuclear arms control, but as the meeting opened, Khrushchev launched into a tirade against the United States and Eisenhower and then stormed out of the summit. The meeting collapsed immediately and the summit was called off. Eisenhower considered the “stupid U-2 mess” one of the worst debacles of his presidency. The summit was supposed to solve some things, but it ended up making matters much worse.