Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany, (now Wyrzysk, Poland) on March 23, 1912. His father, Baron Magnus von Braun, was Minister of Agriculture in the Weimar Republic of the early 1930s. In 1920, his family moved to Berlin when their hometown became part of Poland after World War I. Wernher von Braun earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1932 from the Berlin Institute of Technology. He received a Ph. D. in Physics two years later from the University of Berlin.
Von Braun did not excel in school until he was thirteen when he read The Rocket into Interplanetary Space by rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. The next year his mother gave him his first telescope and he soon decided to devote his life to rocketry and the exploration of space. In September 1929, seventeen-year-old von Braun joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (the VfR or German Rocket Society), assisting his mentor Oberth in tests of liquid-fuelled rocket engines.
By the 1930s, the German government became highly interested in the military development of rockets, and in pursuit of his dream to build rockets capable of taking a man into space, Wernher von Braun began working for the army in 1932. Soon the Nazi government built a large facility for secret rocket development on the Baltic Sea at Peenemünde, a location chosen partly on von Braun’s recommendation.
In 1936, Wernher von Braun was named technical director at Peenemünde. At first, he helped the German Air Force develop liquid-fuel rocket engines for aircraft and jet-assisted takeoffs. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, he began to develop a long-range ballistic missile, the A-4 (later renamed the V-2 for “Retaliation/Vengeance Weapon 2”). As von Braun freely admitted after the war, much of the V-2 design was directly borrowed from the writings of the American rocket scientist Robert Goddard.
On October 3, 1942, an experimental A-4 became the first manmade object to reach “technical” outer space, rocketing to an altitude of 50 miles. A liquid propellant missile 46 feet in length, and weighing 27,000 pounds, the V-2 could exceed 3,500 miles per hour, and deliver 2,200-pound warheads up to 500 miles away. The military potential of the V-2 was enthusiastically embraced by Adolf Hitler, who hoped to use rockets against the Allies to retaliate for British and American bombing of Germany’s cities.
The V-2 was employed primarily as a terror weapon against civilian targets in England and the newly liberated countries of Western Europe. On September 7, 1944, the first V-2s landed in London and Paris. By March 27, 1945, when the last rocket was fired, over 3000 V-2s had hit Allied targets in five countries (hundreds more blew up enroute). Belgium received the most V-2 attacks (over 1660) but another 1400 rockets hit England. In London alone, at least 2,750 people, almost all civilians, were killed by V-2s. It is estimated another seven thousand people were killed in attacks on the Continent. Thousands more of the Nazi’s slave laborers are thought to have perished in the production of the V-2 rockets than were actually killed by the weapons.
Ironically, Wernher von Braun had been arrested by the Gestapo for “defeatism” in March 1944 and was imprisoned for two weeks until Hitler released him to continue producing V-2s. As Nazi Germany collapsed in the spring of 1945, von Braun was ordered to destroy all documents relating to the rocketry program. He disobeyed, hiding the papers in an abandoned mine in the Harz Mountains, where he later retrieved them. Terrified by tales of what the Soviet Red Army did to German prisoners, von Braun and his staff fled westward to the advancing American army. The Nazi SS pursued the German scientists and engineers with orders to kill them and destroy their records. On May 2, 1945, von Braun was able to surrender his entire group to the U.S. Army.
The United States government was very interested in German rocket technology, and in June 1945, sent von Braun and most of his rocket team to Fort Bliss, Texas, along with 150 captured V-2 rockets in “Operation Paperclip” (the files of those Germans selected to go to America were marked with paperclips). Von Braun and his team taught rocketry to the U.S. Army and were soon moved to White Sands Proving Grounds (now White Sands Missile Range), New Mexico to conduct live firings. On January 16, 1946, V-2 flight tests began there; despite some targeting problems (one V-2 landed south of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico), launches continued until 1949, when all usable rockets had been fired.
In 1950, Wernher von Braun’s team was transferred to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. In addition to directing the construction of new rockets there, he also used his skills in public relations to raise the interest of the American people in space exploration. He helped organize the First Symposium on Space Flight on October 12, 1951, in New York City, which was attended by many distinguished scientists and writers. Papers from the conference were published in 1952 by Collier’s magazine under the title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon.” Von Braun further expanded the public’s awareness of the promise of space exploration by appearing on three Walt Disney television shows on the subject in the mid-1950s.
In less than three years, Dr. von Braun’s rocket team produced America’s first ballistic missile, the Redstone, by expanding on the basic design of the V-2, and on August 1953, the first Redstone rocket was tested at Cape Canaveral, Florida. On January 31, 1958, a modified Redstone rocket (the Jupiter C) fired the first American satellite, Explorer 1, into outer space. Unlike the simple Sputnik satellite launched by the Soviets in October 1957, Explorer 1 contained scientific experiments (devised by Dr. James A. Van Allen). These resulted in the discovery of the “Van Allen” radiation belts that circle the earth. In May and July of 1961, von Braun’s Redstone rockets launched the first two Americans astronauts into space during Project Mercury.
On July 1, 1960, Dr. von Braun’s Army team was transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as the core of the new Marshall Space Center in Huntsville. As the center’s first director, von Braun continued to oversee the development of ever-larger rockets for the Apollo program, America’s mission to land a man on the moon. Beginning in 1961, his team built the Saturn I, the largest rocket ever built at the time, in 1966, the Saturn IB, the rocket that launched the Apollo spacecraft into earth orbit, and finally, the massive Saturn V, the rocket that in 1969 landed Apollo 11 on the Moon.
On March 13, 1970, Wernher von Braun became NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning. In June 1972, after NASA’s budget had been greatly reduced, he retired to become vice-present of Fairchild Industries. In 1975 he helped establish the National Space Institute. The author of two popular books, Conquest of the Moon (1953), and Space Frontier (1967), Dr. Wernher von Braun died of cancer in Alexandria, Virginia on June 16, 1977. Though his important role in Hitler’s war machine will forever cloud his legacy, many believe that, without Wernher von Braun, America would have landed men on the Moon much later, if at all. The von Braun crater on the moon is named for him.