Wernher von Braun developed many of the rockets that launched the early spacecraft of the American space program.
Wernher von Braun was the most famous rocket engineer of his time and a well-known promoter of spaceflight. Teams under his direction designed the V-2 (a rocket built for the Germans during World War II to deliver bombs), Redstone, Jupiter, and Pershing missiles, as well as the Jupiter C, Juno, and Saturn launch vehicles that carried most of the early U.S. satellites and spacecraft beyond Earth's atmosphere and ultimately to the Moon. He became a celebrity and a national hero in the United States, winning numerous awards, including the first Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy in 1958, the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Award (presented by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) in 1959, and the National Medal of Science in 1977. As President Jimmy Carter stated at the time of his death: "To millions of Americans, [his] name was inextricably linked to our exploration of space and to the creative application of technology. He was not only a skillful engineer but also a man of bold vision; his inspirational leadership helped mobilize and maintain the effort we needed to reach the Moon and beyond."
Early interest in rockets and space
Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun was born on March 23, 1912, in the east German town of Wirsitz (now Wyrzysk, Poland). He was the second of the three sons of Baron Magnus Alexander Maximilian von Braun--then the principal magistrate (Landrat) of the governmental district. In 1932 and 1933, Baron von Braun served as the minister of nutrition and agriculture in the last two governments of the Weimar Republic before Nazi leader Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany. The Baron's wife, Emmy (von Quistorp) von Braun, was a well-educated woman from the Swedish-German aristocracy with a strong interest in biology and astronomy. She inspired her son's interest in spaceflight by supplying him with the science fiction works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and by giving him a telescope--instead of the customary watch or camera--as a gift upon his confirmation into the Lutheran church in his early teens.
Despite these influences, the young von Braun was initially a weak student and was held back one year in secondary school because of his poor grades in math and physics. But he was very interested in astronomy and rockets. He obtained a copy of space pioneer Hermann Oberth's book Die Rakete zu den Planeträumen ("Rockets to Planetary Space") in 1925. Disturbed by the fact that he could not understand the book's complicated mathematical formulas, he decided to master his two weakest subjects. Upon completion of secondary school, von Braun entered the Berlin-Charlottenburg Institute of Technology, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering and aircraft construction in 1932.
Begins career in rocketry
In the spring of 1930, von Braun found time to work as part of the German Society for Space Travel--a group founded in part by Hermann Oberth--that experimented with small, liquid-fueled rockets. Although Oberth returned to a teaching position in his native Romania, von Braun continued working with the society. When the group ran short of funds during the troubled economic period of the Depression in the early 1930s, von Braun, then twenty, reluctantly accepted the sponsorship of the German military. In 1932, as the Nazis were consolidating their influence over many aspects of German society, including the military, von Braun went to work for the German army's ordnance (combat equipment and supplies) department at Kummersdorf near Berlin, where he continued to develop liquid-fueled rockets. Entering the University of Berlin about the same time, he used his work at Kummersdorf as the basis for his doctoral dissertation and received his Ph.D. in physics in 1934.
Von Braun's staff at Kummersdorf eventually grew to some eighty people, and in early 1937--after the Nazis had seized power and were enacting ever harsher "racial purity" laws against Jews--the group moved to Peenemünde, a town on the Baltic coast where the German army and air force had constructed new facilities. Before the move, engineers at Kummersdorf had begun developing ever larger rockets, and in 1936 they completed the preliminary design for the A-4, better known as the V-2. This was a very ambitious undertaking, since the missile was to be 45 feet long, deliver a 1-ton warhead (bomb) to a target 160 miles away, and employ a rocket motor that could deliver a 25-ton thrust (an upward push) for 60 seconds, compared to the 1.5 tons of thrust supplied by the largest liquid-fueled rocket motors then available.
Perfects the V-2 rocket
Von Braun's team encountered numerous difficulties--perfecting the injection system for the propellants (fuel), mastering the aerodynamic properties of the missile (so it flies with less drag through the air), and especially developing its guidance system (so the course of the missile can be controlled during flight). Even with the assistance of private industry and universities, the first successful launch of the A-4 did not occur at Peenemünde until October 3, 1942. Despite this success, failed launches continued to plague the project. As a result, the first fully operational V-2s were not fired until September 1944. Between then and the end of the war in 1945, approximately 6,000 rockets were manufactured at an underground production site named Mittelwerk. There, von Braun made use of slave labor obtained from Nazi death camps. Several thousand V-2s struck London, Antwerp, and other targets in the Allied nations (the countries fighting Germany in World War II). Von Braun's rockets were responsible for killing many people, but they were not strategically significant to the Nazi's war effort; the tide had already turned against Germany by that point in the war. The V-2, nonetheless, represented a great technological advance in rocketry.
Defends association with Nazis
The landmark development of the V-2 and von Braun's later importance in the American space program often overshadows the issue of his ethical responsibility for the suffering and loss of life associated with the V-2. Although the youthful, blond-haired, blue-eyed von Braun always gave credit to his whole team for the technical success of the V-2 and other programs, he clearly played a key role in the development of the missile. While he had no direct responsibility for production at Mittelwerk, von Braun was aware of conditions in the concentration camp that provided the factory's slave labor. Moreover, he had joined the Nazi party on May 1, 1937, and had become an officer in the elite Schutzstaffel, or SS, military and intelligence force on May 1, 1940.
Certain American records support von Braun's claim that he had joined both organizations only to further his work on rocketry. He also stated that his motivation in building missiles for the Nazis was to develop them for use in space travel and scientific endeavors; he cited his brief arrest by the Nazis in 1944 as proof that his concern was for the future of rocketry and that he lacked interest in the immediate wartime use of the V-2. All of this makes von Braun's ethical responsibility a difficult issue to resolve.
Moves to the United States
As World War II, drew to a close in Europe in the early months of 1945, von Braun organized the move of hundreds of German military personnel from Peenemünde to Bavaria so they could surrender to the Americans rather than the army of the Soviet Union. After their surrender, about 120 of the rocket team members went to Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, as part of a military operation called Project Paperclip, through which many former Nazis--including outright war criminals like Klaus Barbie--were employed by the American military. There they worked on rocket development and used V-2s that had been captured from the Germans for high altitude research at the nearby White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. In the midst of these efforts, von Braun returned to Germany to marry his second cousin, Maria Louise von Quistorp, on March 1, 1947, returning with her to Texas after the wedding.
Develops Redstone and Jupiter missiles
In 1950, the von Braun team transferred to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, where between April 1950 and February 1956 it developed the Redstone medium-range ballistic missile (a self-propelled missile that is guided as it ascends) under his technical direction. Put into use in 1958, the Redstone was basically an offshoot of the V-2 but featured several modifications including an improved guidance system. The Redstone also served as a launch vehicle for space capsules, placing the first two U.S. astronauts into suborbital flight: Alan B. Shepard in May 1961 and Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom July 1961. In February 1956, von Braun became the director of the development operations division of the newly established Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) in Huntsville. While located there, he and his wife raised three children--Iris Careen (born in 1948), Margrit Cecile (1952), and Peter Constantine (1960). Von Braun became a U.S. citizen on April 14, 1955.
The next missile designed by von Braun and his team was the Jupiter intermediate--range ballistic missile. Unlike the Redstone and the V-2, which used liquid oxygen and an alcohol-water mixture as propellants, the Jupiter employed liquid oxygen and kerosene. Following its development, it was assigned to the Air Force for use after 1958. In the meantime, von Braun's engineers had developed the Jupiter C, which consisted of three parts or "stages." Its first stage was a modified Redstone missile, while the second and third stages were derived from the Sergeant missile, initially developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In its third launch on August 8, 1957, the Jupiter C carried a nose cone that became the first man-made object to be recovered from outer space. It also successfully used a new technique to carry off the excessive heat produced by friction (the rubbing of one piece of matter against another) upon the nose cone of a missile or spacecraft during re-entry into the atmosphere. In addition, the von Braun team developed the Pershing--a two-stage, solid-fuel ballistic missile that had its first test launch in February 1960.
Another group of rockets developed under von Braun was the Juno series. Juno I, a four-stage version of Jupiter C, launched America's first satellite, Explorer I, on January 31, 1958. Juno II, using the Jupiter missile as its first stage and Jupiter C upper stages, launched a number of satellites in the Pioneer and Explorer series of spacecraft, including the Pioneer IV that went past the Moon and entered an orbit around the Sun following its launch on March 3, 1959.
Transfers to NASA
Undoubtedly the greatest claim to fame of von Braun and his team was the powerful Saturn family of rockets, which propelled Americans into orbit around the Moon and landed 12 of them on the lunar surface between July 1969 and January 1971. Development of these launch vehicles began at ABMA and was completed in the 1960s under the management of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), after von Braun and more than 4,000 ABMA employees transferred to NASA on July 1, 1960 to form the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Von Braun directed the Space Flight Center until February 1970. The Saturn I and Ib were developmental rockets leading to the massive Saturn V that actually launched the astronauts of the Apollo program, the space program that attempted to send astronauts to the Moon. Propelled by liquid oxygen and kerosene in its first stage and liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for the two upper stages, the Saturn V stood 363 feet high, six stories above the top of the Statue of Liberty. Its first stage was made of the largest aluminum cylinder ever produced; its valves were as large as barrels, its fuel pumps were larger than refrigerators.
As von Braun repeatedly insisted, he and his team were not the only people responsible for the success of the Saturn and Apollo programs. In fact, the engineers at Marshall often urged more cautious solutions to problems than NASA ultimately adopted. One example involved the debate over "all-up" versus "step-by-step" testing of Saturn V. Having experienced numerous rocket system failures going back to the V-2 and beyond, the German engineers favored testing each stage of the complicated rocket individually to make sure they were operating properly. At NASA headquarters, however, administrator George Mueller preferred the Air Force approach, which relied much more heavily on ground testing. He therefore insisted upon testing Saturn V all at once in order to meet President John F. Kennedy's ambitious goal of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. Von Braun hesitated but finally concurred in the ultimately successful procedure.
Promotes space exploration
Beyond his role as an engineer, scientist, and project manager, von Braun was also an important advocate for spaceflight, publishing numerous books and magazine articles, serving as a consultant for television programs and films, and testifying before Congress. Perhaps most important in this regard were his contributions, with others, to a series of Colliers magazine articles from 1952 to 1953 and to a Walt Disney television series produced by Ward Kimball from 1955 to 1957. Both series were enormously influential and, along with the fears of Americans that the Soviets were winning the space race, his work helped to strengthen American efforts to conquer space. As von Braun said to Kimball in late 1968 after the Apollo 8 orbit of the Moon: "Well, Ward, it looks like they're following our script."
In March 1970, NASA transferred von Braun to its headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he became Deputy Associate Administrator. He had hoped to renew interest in the space program, but a much smaller NASA budget, as he said, "reduced my function in Washington eventually to one of describing programs which I knew could not be funded for the next 10 years anyway." As a result, he resigned from the agency on July 1, 1972, to become vice president for engineering and development with Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland. Besides his work for that aerospace firm, he continued his efforts to promote human spaceflight, helping to found the National Space Institute in 1975 and serving as its first president.
During his life, von Braun displayed a wide range of accomplishments beyond his remarkable role as a space pioneer. A musician who played the piano and cello, he loved the music of Mozart, Chopin, and Puccini. At the same time, he was an ardent outdoorsman who enjoyed scuba diving, fishing, hunting, sailing, and piloting an airplane. He died of cancer on June 16, 1977, at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.
- Biddle, Wayne, "Science, Morality and the V-2," New York Times, October 2, 1992, p. A31.
- Braun, Wernher von, Man on the Moon, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1953.
- Braun, Wernher von, "Man on the Moon--The Journey," Colliers, October 18, 1952, pp. 52-60.
- Braun, Wernher von, The Mars Project, University of Illinois Press, 1953.
- Braun, Wernher von, "The Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno," in The History of Rocket Technology, edited by Eugene M. Emme, Wayne State University Press, 1964, pp. 107-21.
- Braun, Wernher von, with J. Kaplan and others, Across the Space Frontier, Viking, 1952.
- Braun, Wernher von, with Cornelius Ryan, "Baby Space Station," Colliers, June 27, 1953, pp. 33-40.
- Braun, Wernher von, with Cornelius Ryan, "Can We Get to Mars?" Colliers, April 30, 1954, pp. 22-28.
- Braun, Wernher von, with Willy Ley, Exploration of Mars, Viking, 1956.
- Hunt, Linda, Secret Agenda: The United States Government, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip, 1945 to 1990, St. Martin's Press, 1991.
- Huzel, Dieter K., Peenemünde to Canaveral, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1962.
- Kennedy, Gregory P., Vengeance Weapon 2: The V-2 Guided Missile, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.
- Lampton, Christopher, Wernher von Braun, Watts, 1988.
- Neufeld, Michael J., "The Guided Missile and the Third Reich: Peenemünde and the Forging of a Technological Revolution," in Science, Technology and National Socialism, edited by Monika Renneberg and Mark Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- Spangenburg, Ray, and Diane K. Moser, Wernher von Braun: Space Visionary and Rocket Engineer, Facts on File, 1995.
- Stuhlinger, Ernst, and Frederick I. Ordway III, Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space, Volume I, A Biographical Memoir, Krieger, 1994.
- Wilford, John Noble, "Wernher von Braun, Space Pioneer, Dies," New York Times, June 18, 1977, pp. 16-18.