The German-born American space scientist Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), the "father of space travel," developed the first practical space rockets and launch vehicles.
Born March 23, 1912, in Wirsitz, Posen (Germany), his father, Baron Magnus von Braun, was a founder of the German Savings Bank, a member of the Weimar Republic Cabinet and minister of agriculture. His mother, the former Emmy von Quistorp, an excellent musician and outstanding amateur astronomer, exerted a strong influence on her son.
At the French Gymnasium, Wernher excelled in languages but failed physics and mathematics. He then attended the Hermann Lietz School at Ettersburg Castle, a school famous for its advanced teaching methods and emphasis on practical trades. He soon developed an intense interest in astronomy. Fascination with the theories of space flight then prompted him to study mathematics and physics with renewed interest. Before he graduated, he was teaching mathematics and tutoring deficient students.
Von Braun enrolled in the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology in Berlin. He became an active member of the VfR (Verein für Raumschiffahrt, or Society for Space Travel) and an associate of Hermann Oberth, Willy Ley and other leading German rocket enthusiasts.
Soon afterward Oberth came to Berlin at the request of the VfR, and von Braun became his student assistant. Together they developed a small rocket engine which was a technical success. Funding for the project, however, ended and Oberth returned to his native Romania. Von Braun and his associates continued their work at an abandoned field outside Berlin and used the old buildings for laboratories and living quarters.
For a time von Braun attended the Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. There he began the study of the physiological effects of space flight, conducting crude experiments with mice in a centrifuge. The experiments convinced him that man could withstand the rapid acceleration and deceleration of space flight. He then returned to reenter Charlottenburg Institute and work at the rocket field.
German Army Rocket Program
Adolf Hitler manipulated his way to power during the Weimar Republic and became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. He then maneuvered a parliamentary coup, suspended the constitution and began rule by decree. Still smarting from the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, the German army yearned to rebuild. The treaty had forbidden Germany to have any gun, cannon, or weapon with a bore exceeding three inches. But the Nazis saw a loophole. The treaty did not envision rockets and made no mention of them. So German military planners hoped to develop rockets as weapons. German army ordnance experts then began frequent visits to the rocket field and monitored the rocket development work. Impressed with the knowledge and scope of von Braun's imagination, they invited him to continue his research at the army's new Kummersdorf facilities. On Oct. 1, 1932, he officially joined the German Army Ordnance Office rocket program. He subsequently received his doctorate in physics from the University of Berlin in 1934. By that time, he was technical director at Kummersdorf with a staff of 80 scientists and technicians.
Rocket Development at Peenemünde
The Nazis moved the rocket center to Peenemünde, on Germany's Baltic coast, in 1937 and made von Braun technical director. When World War II began, Germany gave rocket development assumed highest priority. Work was well under way on a rocket 46 feet long with a thrust of 55,000 pounds, the largest in the world at that time. (By contrast, Oberth's first rocket had a thrust of 20 pounds; the Saturn V booster stage generated a thrust of 7.5 million pounds.) This rocket, later to be known as the V-2, was an enormous technical challenge. It required significant advances in aerodynamics, propulsion and guidance. Von Braun's team attacked the problems, and despite initial setbacks, persevered. They successfully produced V-2. The Nazis wanted it as a weapon of war. Von Braun had a different vision: space travel.
His interest in space exploration rather than military application led to his arrest and imprisonment by the German secret police. The Nazis released him only after they realized the implication of jailing their lead rocket scientist. The program lurched backward without his leadership. It disrupted Hitler's timetable for the war.
By 1943 the rocket complex at Peenemünde was a priority Allied target. When Germany was near collapse, von Braun evacuated his staff to an area where they might be captured by the Americans. He reasoned that the United States was the nation most likely to use its resources for space exploration. He led more than 5,000 of his associates and their families to the southwest just before the Russians advanced into the abandoned rocket development center. The rocket team surrendered to U.S. Forces on May 2, 1945.
Early U.S. Rocket Experiments
During interrogation by Allied intelligence officers, von Braun prepared a report on rocket development and applications in which he forecast trips to the moon, orbiting satellites and space stations. Recognizing the scope of von Braun's work, the U.S. Army authorized the transfer of von Braun, 112 of his engineers and scientists, 100 V-2 rockets and the rocket technical data to the United States.
Von Braun and his advance group arrived in the United States as "wards of the Army" on Sept. 29, 1945. They arrived at Ft. Bliss, Tex. with a mandate to re-assemble and further develop A-4 rockets, the German successor to the V-2. There they taught what they knew to what was then a limited audience. The team moved what is now White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico in 1946 and then to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950 where von Braun remained for the next twenty years. He used his free time to write about space travel and to correspond with his family and his cousin, Maria von Quistorp. In early 1947 he obtained permission to return to Germany to marry Maria. They had three children.
Von Braun continued work on V-2 launchings, conducting some of the earliest experiments in recording atmospheric conditions, photographing the earth from high altitudes, perfecting guidance systems, and conducting medical experiments with animals in space. He also completed his book, The Mars Project, an account of planetary exploration, but he was unable to interest a publisher until much later.
The U.S. Army gave von Braun the job of developing the Redstone rocket, which was to play a significant role in America's early space program. On April 15, 1955, von Braun and 40 of his associates became naturalized citizens.
The Russian space program outstripped that of the United States in the 1950s. Von Braun warned American officials of this repeatedly, in official communications and in public speeches, but his numerous requests for permission to orbit a satellite were denied. When the Russians successfully orbited Sputnik I and the U.S. Navy's Vanguard program failed, the United States finally unleased von Braun's group. Within 90 days, using a modified Redstone rocket (the Jupiter C), and with the cooperation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, the team launched into orbit the free world's first satellite Explorer I on January 31, 1958.
U.S. Space Program
After creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they appointed von Braun director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville on July 1, 1960. For the first time, von Braun found his efforts directed to the development of launch vehicles solely to explore space. The space agency sought his advice about techniques later used in the landing on the moon. On Oct. 27, 1961, agency launched the first Saturn I vehicle. It was 162 feet long, weighed 460 tons at lift-off, and rose to a height of 85 miles. On Nov. 9, 1967, the newer Saturn V made its debut. It was more than twice as long as the Saturn I. Just before Christmas, 1968, a Saturn V launch vehicle, developed under von Braun's direction, launched Apollo 8, the world's first spacecraft to travel to the moon. In March 1970, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) transferred von Braun to its headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he became Deputy Associate Administrator.
Von Braun resigned from NASA in July, 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 space flight, helping to found the National Space Institute in 1975 and serving as its first president. On June 16, 1977, he died of cancer at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.
Von Braun was always a firm believer in personal experience as a teacher, and often took part in experiments conducted to determine the physiological aspects of space flight. Long before the acceptance of the feasibility of space flight, he subjected himself to experiments in weightlessness and high acceleration.
Considered one of the world's great scientists, von Braun was a profoundly religious man. On one occasion he remarked: "We should remember that science exists only because there are people, and its concepts exist only in the minds of men. Behind these concepts lies the reality which is being revealed to us, but only by the grace of God."
Further Reading on Wernher von Braun
Erik Bergaust, Reaching for the Stars (1960); Helen B. Walters, Wernher von Braun: Rocket Engineer (1964); Heather M. David, Wernher von Braun (1967); and John Goodrum, Wernher von Braun: Space Pioneer (1969). The most detailed accounts of German rocket development under Von Braun and the experiences of the German rocket team are in Walter Dornberger, V-2 (1952; trans. 1954), and Dieter K. Huzel, Peenemünde to Canaveral (1962). An excellent account of the U.S. Army's rocket development efforts under Von Braun and the launching of Explorer I is given in John B. Medaris, Countdown for Decision (1960). For additional background see Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway, History of Rocketry and Space Travel (1967); Edward O. Buckbee, Biographical Data: Wernher von Braun (1983); Hunt, Linda, Secret Agenda: The United States Government, Nazi Scientists, and Project Paperclip (1991); and Ernst Stulinger and Frederick Ordway, Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space (1994).