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Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun was one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration during the period between the 1930s and the 1970s. The son of a German noble, Magnus Maximilian von Braun, the young spaceflight enthusiast was born in Wilintz, Germany, on March 23, 1912. As a youth he became fascinated with the possibilities of space exploration by reading the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and from the scientific writings of Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 classic study, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space), prompted young von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry so he could understand the physics of rocketry.

Even as a teenager, von Braun had held a keen interest in spaceflight, becoming involved in the German rocket society, Verein fur Raumschiffarht (VfR), as early as 1929. As a means of furthering his desire to build large and capable rockets, in 1932 he went to work for the German army to develop ballistic missiles. When Hitler came to power in 1933, von Braun remained in Germany and continued to work for the army.

Dr. Von Braun among a famous group of rocket experimenters in Germany in the 1930s. He is shown second from right.

While engaged in this work, on July 27, 1934 von Braun received a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. Throughout the 1930s von Braun continued to develop rockets for the German army, and by 1941 designs had been developed for the ballistic missile that eventually became the V-2. The brainchild of Wernher von Braun's rocket team operating at a secret laboratory at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast, this rocket was the immediate antecedent of those used in space exploration programs in the United States and the Soviet Union. A liquid propellant missile extending some 46 feet (14 meters) in length and weighing 27,000 pounds (12,247 kilograms), the V-2 flew at speeds in excess of 3,500 miles per hour (5,633 kilometres per hour) and delivered a 2,200-pound (998-kilogram) warhead to a target 500 miles (805 kilometres) away. First flown in October 1942, it was used against targets in Europe beginning in September 1944. On September 6, for instance, more than 6,000 Germans deployed to Holland and northern Germany to bomb Belgium, France, and London with those newly developed V-2s.

Young Dr. Von Braun holding a model of a V-2 rocket

Beginning on September 8, 1944, these forces began launching V-2s against Allied cities, especially Antwerp, Belgium, and London, England. Manufactured by concentration camp labor—a fact that tarnished the reputation of von Braun and his rocket team ever after-by the end of the war 1,155 V-2s had been fired against England and another 1,675 had been launched against Antwerp and other continental targets. The guidance system for these missiles was imperfect and many did not reach their targets, but they struck without warning and there was no defence against them. As a result the V-2s had a terror factor far beyond their capabilities.

By the beginning of 1945, it was obvious to von Braun that Germany would not achieve victory against the Allies, and he began planning for the post-war era. Before the Allied capture of the V-2 rocket complex, von Braun arranged the surrender of 500 of his best rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans. For 15 years after World War II, von Braun would work with the U.S. Army in the development of ballistic missiles.

Dr. Von Braun (with arm in cast) surrendering to the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Personnel in Europe, April 1945.

Because of the intriguing nature of the V-2 technology, von Braun and his chief assistants achieved near-celebrity status inside the American military establishment. As part of a military operation called Project Paperclip, he and his “rocket team” were transported from defeated Germany to America where they were installed at Fort Bliss, Texas. There they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army, launching them at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. In 1950, von Braun's team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, where they built the army's Jupiter ballistic missile, and before that the Redstone, used by NASA to launch the first Mercury capsules. In 1960, von Braun's rocket development centre was transferred from the Army to the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and received a mandate to build the giant Saturn rocket. Accordingly, von Braun became director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled Americans to the Moon in the 1960s and early 1970s.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Dr. Von Braun during the president's tour of the Marshall Space Flight Centre on September 28, 1960. The president spoke at the dedication ceremony for the Marshall centre.

Von Braun also became one of the most prominent spokesmen of space exploration in the United States in the 1950s. In 1952, he gained note as a participant in a major symposium dedicated to the subject, and burst on the Nation's stage in the fall of 1952 with a series of articles in Collier's, a popular weekly periodical of the era. He also became a household name with his appearance on three Disney television shows dedicated to space exploration in the mid-1950s.

Dr. Von Braun, right, holds the coveted Hermann Oberth award, presented to him by Dr. Oberth on October 19, 1961, during an Alabama Section Meeting of the American Rocket Society. Early in his career, Von Braun was a student of Oberth, one of the world's foremost theorists on space propulsion.

In 1970, the NASA leadership asked von Braun to move to Washington, D.C., to head the strategic planning effort for the agency. He left his home in Huntsville, Alabama, but in less than two years he decided to retire from NASA and work for Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland. He died in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 16, 1977.

Dr. Von Braun, right, worked directly with America's first seven astronauts. This photo is believed to have been taken about 1959 in the Fabrication Laboratory of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville. The astronauts are, from left, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton.