Hellenica World

In May 1964, Wernher von Braun stands at his Marshall Space Flight Center desk in Huntsville, Alabama with models of rockets developed and in progress.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr¹ von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German scientist, who later became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the United States. Before and during the Second World War, he worked on Germany's rocket program and made remarkable achievements. He led the development of the V-2. At the end of WW2 he entered the United States through a then-secret effort named Operation Paperclip. There, he worked for the US ICBM program and later for NASA (upon that agency's creation). Today, he is regarded as the "father" of the United States space program.

Early life

Von Braun was born in Wirsitz, East Prussia (now Wyrzysk, Poland). Upon his Lutheran confirmation, his mother gave him a telescope. His interest in astronomy and the realm of space motivated him all his life. When Wirsitz became part of Poland in 1920, because of the Treaty of Versailles, his family, like many other German families, moved. The von Brauns found a new life in Berlin. He did not do well in physics and mathematics until he acquired a copy of the book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) by rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. From then on he applied himself at school in order to understand mathematics, until he excelled. At the age of 16, he caused a major disruption when he fired off a toy wagon to which he had attached a number of firecrackers. The young von Braun was taken into custody by the local police until his father came to collect him.

In 1930, von Braun attended the Berlin Institute of Technology. He also joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR)—"Spaceflight Society"—and assisted Hermann Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. He received his degree there and entered postgraduate studies at Berlin University, earning a doctorate in physics in 1934.

German career

Rocket science; Politics

A young artillery Captain Walter Dornberger had arranged a research grant from the Ordnance Department for von Braun, who then researched adjacent to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test site at Kummersdorf. Von Braun received a doctorate in physics two years later. By the end of 1934, von Braun's group had successfully launched two rockets that rose to 2.2 and 3.5 kilometres.

At that time, however, there was no German rocket society, as the VfR had collapsed and rocket tests had been forbidden by the new regime. Only military development was possible and a larger facility was erected at the village of Peenemünde in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea. The initial choice of this location was based on a recommendation by Von Braun's mother to him, who remembered earlier duck hunting expeditions there by her father, Von Braun's grandfather. At Peenemünde, Dornberger became military commander and von Braun was technical director. In collaboration with the Luftwaffe (German air force), the Peenemünde group developed liquid-fuel rocket engines for aircraft and jet-assisted takeoffs. They developed the long-range ballistic missile A-4 and supersonic anti-aircraft missile named Wasserfall.

In November 1937 von Braun joined the National Socialist Party (NSDAP). An OMGUS (Office of the Military Governor - United States) document dated April 23, 1947 states that von Braun joined the SS (Schutzstaffel) horseback riding school in fall 1933, that he joined the Nazi party on May 1, 1937 and that he was an officer in the SS from May 1940 to the end of the war. Von Braun's comments on those memberships was "I was officially demanded to join the National Socialist Party. At this time (1937) I was already technical director of the Army Rocket Center at Peenemünde ... My refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activities ... in Spring 1940, one SS-Standartenführer (SS Colonel) Mueller ... looked me up in my office at Peenemünde and told me, that Reichsführer SS Himmler had sent him with the order to urge me to join the SS. I called immediately on my military superior ... Major-General Dr. Dornbeger. He informed me that ... if I wanted to continue our mutual work, I had no alternative but to join."

After the war, von Braun claimed he was asked to join the party and pressured to join the SS. In May 1940 he was personally awarded an honorary SS rank by Heinrich Himmler only after conferring with colleagues who agreed that to turn it down would infuriate Himmler and incur his wrath. He began as an Untersturmführer (SS 2nd Lt.) and Himmler promoted him three times, the last time to Sturmbannführer (SS Major) in June 1943.

In November 1942 Adolf Hitler approved the production of the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon," and the group found themselves developing the A-4 to rain explosives on London. Twenty-two months after Hitler ordered it into production, the first combat A-4, now called the V-2 for "Vergeltungswaffe 2" (meaning "retaliation weapon 2", a name invented by Josef Goebbels), was launched toward England on September 7, 1944.

SS General Hans Kammler, who as an engineer had constructed several concentration camps, including Auschwitz, had a reputation for being brutally treacherous, and had originated the idea to use concentration camp prisoners as slave laborers in the rocket program. Arthur Rudolph, chief engineer of the V-2 rocket factory at Peenemünde, endorsed using them in April 1943 when a labor shortage developed. More people died building the V-2 rockets than were killed by it as a weapon.

To increase his power base, Heinrich Himmler conspired to overtake the Peenemünde research facility and used Kammler to wrest control of all German armament programs, including the V-2 program. Kammler, who was highly dedicated to Himmler, was also instrumental in Braun's arrest by the Gestapo. In March 1944, the Gestapo had learned that von Braun had expressed in public a defeatist attitude toward Germany's chances of victory and a desire to design a rocket for space use, rather than for weapons use. Combined with Himmler's false charges that von Braun was a Communist sympathizer and had attempted to sabotage the V-2 program, he was imprisoned for two weeks at a Gestapo cell in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland). Dornberger and Albert Speer, Reichsminister for Munitions and War Production, convinced Hitler to release von Braun because without him there would have been no V-2, otherwise he might have been executed.

Arrest by the Nazi regime

There are three different versions of von Braun's arrest. André Sellier, a survivor of Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp and a French historian, offers as good an explanation as any. It is summarized as follows: Himmler called von Braun, who was already a SS officer, to come to his Hochwald HQ in east Prussia sometime in February 1944. Himmler recommended von Braun work more closely with Krammer to solve the problems of the V-2. Von Braun claimed to have replied that the problems were merely technical and he was confident that Dornberger would help him. Von Braun had apparently been under surveillance since October by the SD, which was creating a report on him and his colleagues Riedel and Grotrupp. They were said to have expressed regret at an engineer's house one evening they were not working on a spaceship, and that they had the feeling that the war was not going well. A young and attractive female dentist denounced them for their comments. Von Braun was arrested and on February 22 taken to Stettin, where he was imprisoned for two weeks, not knowing the charges leveled against him. It was only through the Abwehr in Berlin that Dornberger was able to obtain von Braun's conditional release. Speer apparently intervened on their behalf as well.

Surrender to the Americans

The Soviet army was 100 miles from Peenemünde in the spring of 1945 when von Braun assembled his planning staff and asked them to decide how and to whom they should surrender. Afraid of the rumored Soviet cruelty to prisoners of war, von Braun and his staff realized that they wanted to surrender to the Americans. After stealing a train using forged papers, von Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. The SS were issued orders to kill the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while searching for the Americans. Finally, the team found an American private and surrendered to him. Realizing the importance of these engineers, the Americans immediately went to Peenemünde and Nordhausen and captured all of the remaining V-2s and their parts, then destroyed both places with explosives. The Americans brought over 300 train car loads of spare V-2 parts to the United States. Much of von Braun's production team, however, was captured by the Russians. The V-2 rocket plans were buried near Bad Sachs, Germany and later recovered by members of the 332nd Engineer General Service Regiment.

American career

U.S. Army career

On June 20, 1945, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull approved the transfer of von Braun's German rocket specialists. This transfer was known as Operation Paperclip because of the large number of Germans stationed at Army Ordnance, the paperwork of those selected to come to the United States were indicated by paperclips.

Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun collaborated on a series of three educational films as shown in this 1954 photo.

The first 7 arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Air Base, just south of Wilmington, Delaware on September 20, 1945. Afterwards, they were flown to Boston, and then taken by boat to an Army Intelligence Service post at Fort Strong in Boston Harbor. Later, with the exception of von Braun, the men were transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to sort out the Peenemünde documents. Those documents would enable the scientists to continue their rocketry experiments where they had left off.

Finally, von Braun and the 126 Peenemünders were transferred to their new home at Fort Bliss, Texas, a large Army installation just north of El Paso, under the command of Major James P. Hamill . They found themselves in a strange situation as they began their new lives in America. Because they could not leave Fort Bliss without a military escort, they sometimes referred to themselves as "PoPs", Prisoners of Peace.

While at Fort Bliss, they trained military, industrial, and university personnel in the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles and to help refurbish, assemble, and launch a number of V-2s that had been shipped from Germany to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico. Further, they were to study the future potential of rockets for military and research applications.

Development director von Braun showed President Kennedy around the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1963.

During this time, von Braun mailed a marriage proposal to his first cousin, 18-year-old Maria von Quistorp. On March 1, 1947, he married her in a Lutheran church in Landshut, Germany, after being given permission to go back to Germany to marry her and retrieve his parents. In December 1948, his first daughter, Iris was born at Fort Bliss Army Hospital. In total, von Braun had 3 children: Iris, Magrit and Peter.

In 1950, von Braun and his team were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, his home for the next twenty years. Between 1950 and 1956, von Braun led the Army's development team at Redstone Arsenal, resulting in the Arsenal's namesake: the Redstone rocket.

Still dreaming of a world in which rockets would be used for space exploration and for US military domination over the Soviet Union, in 1952 von Braun published his concept of a space station in a Collier's Weekly magazine series of articles entitled Man Will Conquer Space Soon. These articles were illustrated by the space artist Chesley Bonestell and were influential in spreading his ideas. This station would have a diameter of 250 feet (76 m), orbit in a 1075 mile (1730 km) high orbit, and spin to provide artificial gravity. In his vision, it would be the perfect jumping-off point for lunar expeditions.

In 1955, Von Braun became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He also worked with Disney studios as a technical director for three television films about Space Exploration. Over the years von Braun continued his work with Disney, hoping that Disney's involvement would bring about greater public interest in the future of the space program.

As Director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), von Braun's team then developed the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone rocket. The Jupiter-C successfully launched the West's first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. This event signaled the birth of America's space program.

Despite the work on the Redstone rocket, the twelve years from 1945 to 1957 were probably some of the most frustrating for von Braun and his colleagues. While Sergei Korolev and his team ploughed ahead at an impressive rate with several new rocket designs and the Sputnik program, and had gained great respect with Stalin and the Russians, the American government were not very interested in what von Braun had to say and certainly did not embark on a rocket-building program anything like as large as the Soviets'. The press tended to dwell too much on his past as an SS member and the huge amount of slave labour needed to build his V-2 rockets, damaging his reputation somewhat. It was not until 1957 and the launch of the Sputnik 1 that the Americans noticed how terribly behind they were in the Space Race. After the US Navy's attempt at building a rocket for lifting satellites to orbit resulted in the grossly unreliable Vanguard, American authorities realised they needed von Braun's and his team's valuable experience, and quickly had him transferred to NASA.

NASA career

The F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage dwarf von Braun.

NASA was established by law on July 29, 1958. One day later, the 50th Redstone rocket was successfully fired off Johnston Island in the South Pacific as part of Project Hardtack. Two years later NASA opened the new Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and transferred von Braun and his development team from the ABMA at Redstone Arsenal to NASA. Von Braun was the center's first Director, from July 1960 to February 1970.

The Marshall Center's first major program was development of the Saturn rockets, capable of carrying astronauts to the moon. Von Braun's childhood commitment to "turn the wheel of time," and his later dream to help mankind set foot on the moon became a reality on July 16, 1969 when a Marshall-developed Saturn V rocket launched the crew of Apollo 11. Over the course of the Apollo program, six teams of astronauts explored the surface of Earth's moon.

At the time of the first moon landing Von Braun was publically optimistic that the Saturn rocket would continue to be developed and advocated manned missions to Mars based on the Saturn V in the 1980s.

Von Braun carried his rocket models with him to his new NASA headquarters office in 1970.

In 1970, Dr. von Braun and his family relocated from Huntsville to Washington, DC. when he was assigned duties as NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA Headquarters. After the Apollo space program, von Braun felt that his vision for future spaceflight was different than NASA's, and he retired in June 1972.

He became the vice-president of Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland, where he was active in establishing and promoting the National Space Institute (merged into the National Space Society).

At the peak of his activities, von Braun learned he had cancer. Despite surgery, the cancer progressed, forcing him to retire from Fairchild on December 31, 1976. On June 16, 1977, Wernher von Braun died in Alexandria, Virginia, at the age of 65 and is interred there in the Ivy Hill Cemetery.


Von Braun crater on the Moon was named for Dr. von Braun by the IAU in recognition of his contributions. Von Braun, an excellent scientist, left the world a twofold legacy. Especially in the US, he is considered a pioneer of the exploration of space. His second great achievement was the development of the first American ICBMs. On the other hand, he has been under criticism for his cooperation with the Nazis and the use of slave labor for the assembly of V-2 rockets during the war. He, like Werner Heisenberg, Abram Fedorovich Ioffe, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, has been accused of serving any aims, heedless of their moral acceptability, provided that his research was funded.

Cultural references

On film and television

Wernher von Braun has been featured in a number of movies and television shows/series about the Space Race:

  • I Aim at the Stars (1960) also titled Wernher von Braun and Ich greife nach den Sternen ("I reach for the stars") – v.B. played by Curd Jürgens)
  • The Right Stuff (1983) – The Chief Scientist, played by Scott Beach, was clearly modelled on von Braun
  • From the Earth to the Moon (HBO) (TV, 1998) – v.B. played by Norbert Weisser
  • October Sky (1999) – v.B. played by Joe Digaetano
  • Space Race (TV, 2005) – v.B. played by Richard Dillane, BBC co-production with NDR (Germany), Channel One TV (Russia) and National Geographic TV (US).

In music

  • Wernher von Braun (1965) – a song written and performed by Tom Lehrer for an episode of NBC's American version of the BBC television show That Was The Week That Was; the song was later included in Lehrer's album That Was The Year That Was. It was a satire on what some saw as von Braun's cavalier attitude toward the consequences of his work: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun".
  • Progress vs. Pettiness (2005) – a song written and performed by The Phenomenauts for their newest cd Re-Entry. The song is all about the space race and the song starts our with "In 1942 there was Wernher von Braun" and continues on about the space race.

Wernher von Braun: his story told. "Missile to Moon"


1 Note regarding personal names: Freiherr is a title, equal to the title Baron, not a first or middle name.

See also

  • Sergei Korolev
  • Space Race


Lasby, Clarence G. (1971). Project Paperclip: German Scientists and the Cold War. New York, NY: Atheneum. 338 pp. ISBN B0006CKBHY.

Dunar, Andrew J.; Waring, Stephen P. (1999). Power to Explore: a History of Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960–1990. The NASA History Series. Washington, D.C.: NASA History Office, Office of Policy and Plans (pp. x, 713) ISBN 0-16-058992-4.

Andrè Sellier, Stephen Wright, Susan Taponier, Michael J. Neufeld. (2003). A History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, Inc. 576 pp. ISBN 156663511X.

Ward, Bob. (2005) Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1591149266.

Physics Encyclopedia

Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/"
All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License