Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) was a German-born rocket engineer who headed up the U.S. space program in Huntsville, Madison County. He led the team that developed the Jupiter C and then the Saturn V rockets that carried Americans into space and to the Moon. Von Braun's work in the United States was pioneering, but he was a controversial figure. He had been instrumental in developing the V-2 missiles for Nazi Germany that were built with forced labor and used as terror weapons against civilian targets in London, England; Antwerp, Belgium; Paris, France, and other locales late in World War II. For this he was considered by many to be a war criminal. He was also a member of the Nazi Party and the Schustzstaffel (SS, which was the paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party); historians largely believe that he joined those organizations out of expediency and was not a supporter of Nazi policies. His main goal, from childhood, had been to build rockets to take humans into space.
Von Braun (pronounced fon brown) was born into a military and aristocratic family on March 23, 1912, in Wirsitz, a small town in Prussia that was at the time part of Germany but is now in present-day Poland. His father, Baron Magnus Alexander Maximilian von Braun, served as the equivalent of county commissioner at the time, and his mother was the Baroness Emmy von Quistorp von Braun. The family owned several estates, and Wernher and his two brothers, Sigismund and Magnus, inherited the title of baron at birth. Magnus Jr. would earn an advanced degree in chemistry and also work on rockets.
The family moved several times in Wernher's youth as his father took on various civil service jobs. During World War I, the elder Magnus served as a press secretary to the chancellor but resigned from that office and public life after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. Young Wernher was an accomplished pianist and wrote his own compositions. He also showed an early interest in jet propulsion and at age 12 built a wagon powered by skyrockets that reportedly blazed down a street in Berlin and landed him in the local police office. His mother, who was an amateur astronomer, nurtured his interest in the heavens with a telescope. Not initially a good student, Wernher later applied himself to his studies at boarding school and excelled at math and physics while reading articles and books on rockets and space travel.
In his latter teen years, von Braun studied mechanical and aircraft engineering at the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology; he received his degree in 1932 at age 20. While a student, he also joined other Berlin rocket enthusiasts in building small liquid-fueled rockets. Von Braun would later work with some of these men to develop the V-2 rocket and some would join him in the United States. The group, known as the Society for Space Travel, was approached by German Army officers who offered funding to further their work. Von Braun thus became involved with designing and building weaponized rockets as a civilian employee of the army's ordnance department at Kummersdorf, just south of Berlin. Although his personal goal was to build rockets for space travel, he was able to rationalize the arrangement because the group needed money for research and development and had no inkling that the nation was heading to war. Meanwhile, he continued his studies and received a doctorate in physics from the Friedrich-Wilhelms University of Berlin in 1934 at age 22.
Von Braun and his colleagues were successful launching liquid-fueled rockets and were approached by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) with an offer of 5 million marks (about $1.2 million) to develop a rocket-powered fighter plane. The army countered by increasing its commitment to the group, with funding rarely being a problem thereafter. To fulfill his compulsory military service, von Braun became a Luftwaffe cadet in 1936 and trained to fly military aircraft. As the German military refitted and expanded, von Braun and his colleagues were moved in 1937 to Peenemünde on the island of Usedom on the Baltic coast. This secret facility eventually gained high military priority and used thousands of forced laborers to build the V-2 rocket (Vergeltungswaffe 2 or Vengeance Weapon 2). At Peenemünde, the engineers devoted their time to building rockets as weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles and aircraft jets, and were largely forbidden to speak about the peaceful uses of their creations, such as space travel.
The team's most notable effort resulted in the 46-foot-tall V-2, the world's first ballistic missile. With a range of about 200 miles, it was guided by gyroscopes and later by radio and carried a 2,200-pound warhead. Beginning in late summer 1944, the missiles were launched against Paris, London, and other high-profile targets. Because the guidance system was still very basic, it was not useful against hard military targets, but Hitler hoped to use it as a weapon to cause terror and at the same time to boost the morale of German citizens who had been subjected to Allied air raids since early in the war. More than 7,000 individuals, mostly civilians, died from the approximately 3,100 V-2 launches.
Though his rockets were being used to kill civilians instead of reaching the Moon, von Braun, who had himself survived an air raid on Peenemünde in 1943, later justified his work for the military with the argument that his country was at war and he was bound to help defend it. Von Braun was jailed in March 1944 by the German secret police (Gestapo) for treason, based upon off-hand comments he made about his desire to work on space travel. His release the following May was facilitated by architect and Nazi official Albert Speer, who was in charge of war production and saw von Braun's usefulness.
Having been moved into central Germany for safety in April 1945, von Braun, his brother Magnus, and dozens of other rocket engineers surrendered to U.S. forces on May 2, 1945. They reasoned that the United States would be better able to support their work than either Great Britain or the Soviet Union and found willing partners in U.S. military leaders, who were eager to prevent von Braun and the others from falling into Soviet hands and to exploit their knowledge. Von Braun and several dozen German engineers and scientists were moved to the United States in 1945 to work under contract. The group (along with trainloads of rocket parts) was later taken to Fort Bliss, Texas, to resume its work, train Americans in rocket science, and study English. Von Braun served as director from 1945 to 1950. Throughout much of his time and work in the United States, he was often under the surveillance of military police and later the Central Intelligence Agency to prevent his being kidnapped by either the Soviet Union or China. His travel would be restricted until he became a U.S. citizen in 1955.
In 1947, von Braun returned to German to marry a first cousin on his mother's side, Maria Luise von Quistorp, with whom he would have two daughters and a son. The couple, along with his parents, settled in Fort Bliss. Some of his accomplishments there included the development of the WAC Corporal rocket, which set an altitude record of 250 miles and a speed record of 5,000 miles per hour.
Von Braun was transferred to Huntsville in 1950 to work at the Redstone Arsenal. The Germans at first were hesitant to associate with the Americans, but von Braun urged his fellow countrymen to assimilate, and soon there were church functions featuring such German recipes as sauerbraten and apfelkuchen, invitations to dinner parties, and German-made goods in local grocery stores. During his 20 years in Huntsville, von Braun also helped form the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, physically helped construct the Rocket City Astronomical Observatory and Planetarium, spoke out against the state's Jim Crow laws, and advocated for hiring blacks and other minorities.
At Redstone, he headed the Guided Missile Division of the U.S. Rocket Research Center from 1952 to 1956. One of the first projects at Redstone consisted of its namesake, the Redstone rocket, a larger and more powerful, reliable, and accurate version of the V-2. Von Braun then became the director of development of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, established in 1956 at Redstone. In 1957, the Soviet Union delivered the world's first satellites into orbit, Sputnik I in October and Sputnik II in November, beginning the "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Department of the Army then pushed the Redstone agency to launch a satellite. Von Braun and his team worked on the Jupiter C rocket, a three-stage launch vehicle that carried the first U.S. satellite, the Explorer I, into orbit on January 31, 1958. Although it was a joyful day for von Braun and others, privately he was upset that Department of Defense constraints on his work had prevented the Jupiter rocket from pre-empting Sputnik in 1956. Throughout the Cold War, though, von Braun was often worried about the threats posed by the Soviet Union and its missile and nuclear weapons programs, which he expressed to U.S. military and civilian officials. He knew what German military secrets the Soviet Union had recovered at Peenemünde, including those for a missile that was designed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and assisted Army intelligence officials in analyzing spy-plane photographs for several years. During the 1950s, von Braun also gained fame from a series of articles in Collier's magazine that resulted in his consulting with Walt Disney on a television show about space as well as attractions at Disneyland and Disney World. These contributions in particular helped push space travel into the American consciousness, according to some scholars.
With the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, portions of Redstone Arsenal morphed into the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), a NASA satellite center. Von Braun was transferred to NASA as the first director of MSFC, beginning in 1960. At Marshall, von Braun and his team focused on propulsion systems and launch vehicles to take satellites and other payloads into space. The program was pushed by the success of the Soviet Union, which had launched a man into space before the United States. Facing competition for funding from various groups and individuals within the space program in other states, von Braun often enlisted the help of Alabama senator John Sparkman for funding and support in Huntsville.
On May 5, 1961, a Redstone rocket sent astronaut Alan Sheppard into a suborbital flight, three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth one revolution. Later that month, Pres. John F. Kennedy, with the prompting of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, challenged the NASA program to land a man on the moon before 1970. That October, von Braun and his NASA team successfully launched its Saturn I, an eight-engine rocket with 1.3 million pounds of thrust. Throughout the early 1960s, the engineers tested their Saturn propulsion systems and worked out flaws. Between 1968 and 1972, the Apollo program successfully orbited one mission around the Earth, three missions around the Moon, and landed six missions on the Moon. The 1969 Apollo 11 mission, the first landing on the Moon, finally made von Braun's vision a reality. He and his engineers were treated to a hero's welcome in Huntsville. Later, von Braun and other top Marshall officials were guests at a state dinner hosted by Pres. Richard M. Nixon.
In March 1970, von Braun and his family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, after he was appointed NASA's deputy associate administrator in Washington, D.C. There, he had much less influence on the space program and left NASA in 1972 to join Fairchild Industries as vice president of engineering and development in Germantown, Maryland. He also founded the National Space Institute in 1975. He retired from Fairchild in 1977 owing to health problems related to earlier incidents of cancer.
Throughout his long career, the light-hearted and outgoing von Braun wrote articles, authored books, and gave speeches for
which he was well compensated. He also received numerous awards and accolades and met with the upper echelons of the U.S. government to
ardently and effectively explain and promote the U.S. space program and his vision for space travel. He died on June 16, 1977,
and was buried the next day at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria.
Neufeld, Michael J. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Stuhlinger, Ernst and Frederick I. Ordway III. Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space. Malabar, Fla.: Kreiger Publishing Company, 1994.
Von Braun, Wernher, and Frederick I. Ordway, III. History of Rocketry & Space Travel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.
Ward, Robert J. Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005.
Published July 20, 2009
Last updated August 1, 2012