Wernher von Braun

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Engineers and inventors

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

Dr. Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun ( March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the United States. The German scientist who led Germany's rocket development program ( V-2) before and during World War II, entered the United States at the end of the war through the then-secret Operation Paperclip. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen and worked on the American ICBM program before joining NASA, where he served as director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the United States to the Moon. He is generally regarded as the father of the United States space program while also remembered as head of the team that designed the Nazi V-2 rockets that killed more than 7,000 people in Britain in 1944 and 1945.

Early life

Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Province of Posen (now Poland), second of 3 sons with an impressive pedigree. His father, the conservative politician Lord Magnus von Braun (1877-1972), served as a Minister of Agriculture in the Federal Cabinet during the Weimar Republic. His mother, Emmy von Quistorp (1876?-1959) through both her parents could trace ancestry to medieval European royalty, including King Philip III of France, King Valdemar I of Denmark, King Robert III of Scotland and King Edward III of England. Upon Wernher von Braun's Lutheran confirmation, his mother gave him a telescope, and he discovered a passion for astronomy and the realm of space. When, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Wirsitz became part of Poland in 1920, his family, like many other German families, moved. They settled in Berlin where at first von Braun 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 physics and mathematics. One anecdote from this period is the time the 12-year-old von Braun, when inspired by speed records established by Max Valier and Fritz von Opel, caused a major disruption by firing 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 where he joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR, the "Spaceflight Society") and assisted Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. After receiving his degree he commenced postgraduate studies at Technical University of Berlin, earning a doctorate in physics ( aerospace engineering) on July 27, 1934.

German career

The rocketeer

While von Braun was working on his doctorate, an artillery captain, Walter Dornberger, arranged an Ordnance Department research grant for him, and von Braun then worked next to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test site at Kummersdorf. He received his doctorate two years later and by the end of 1934 his group had successfully launched two rockets that rose to heights of 2.2 and 3.5 kilometres.

At the time, Nazi Germany was highly interested in American physicist Robert H. Goddard's research. Before 1939, German scientists occasionally directly contacted Goddard with technical questions. After that, things got kind of tense. Wernher von Braun used Goddard's plans from various journals and incorporated them into building the A-4 series of rockets--better known as the V-2.. In 1963, von Braun reflected on the history of rocketry, and said of Goddard's work: "His rockets ... may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles" . Goddard confirmed his work was used by von Braun when, after the war ended, Goddard inspected captured German V-2s, and recognized many components which he invented.

There were no German rocket societies since the collapse of the VfR, and civilian rocket tests had been forbidden by the new Nazi regime. Only military development was possible and to this end a larger facility was erected at the village of Peenemünde in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea. This location was chosen partly on the recommendation of von Braun's mother, who recalled her father's duck-hunting expeditions there. Dornberger became military commander at Peenemünde and von Braun was technical director. In collaboration with the Luftwaffe, the Peenemünde group developed liquid-fuel rocket engines for aircraft and jet-assisted takeoffs. They also developed the long-range A-4 ballistic missile (later renamed the V-2) and the supersonic Wasserfall anti-aircraft missile.

In November 1937 (other sources: December 1, 1932) von Braun joined the Nazi Party. An OMGUS (Office of the Military Government - United States) document dated April 23, 1947 states that von Braun joined the SS ( Schutzstaffel) horseback riding school in 1933, then the Nazi Party on May 1, 1937 and became an officer in the SS from May 1940 to the end of the war.

Amongst his comments about his Nazi membership von Braun has said:

"I was officially demanded to join the National Socialist Party. At this time (1937) I was already technical director of the Army Rocket Centre 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) Müller ... looked me up in my office at Peenemünde and told me that Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had sent him with the order to urge me to join the SS. I called immediately on my military superior ... Major-General W. Dornberger. He informed me that ... if I wanted to continue our mutual work, I had no alternative but to join."

That claim has been often disputed because in 1940 the SS had shown no interest in Peenemünde yet. Also, the assertion that persons in von Braun's position were pressured to join the Nazi party, let alone the SS, have been disputed. Braun claimed to have worn the SS uniform only once . He began as an Untersturmführer (Second Lieutenant) and was promoted three times by Himmler, the last time in June 1943 to SS- Sturmbannführer ( Wehrmacht Major).

A4 production in the Mittelwerk 1945.
A4 production in the Mittelwerk 1945.

In November 1942 Adolf Hitler approved the production of the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon" and the group developed the A-4 to rain explosives on London. Twenty-two months after Hitler ordered it into production, the first combat A-4, now renamed the V-2 ("Vergeltungswaffe 2", "Retaliation/Vengeance Weapon 2"), 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 brutality and had originated the idea of using concentration camp prisoners as slave laborers in the rocket program. Arthur Rudolph, chief engineer of the V-2 rocket factory at Peenemünde, endorsed this idea in April 1943 when a labor shortage developed. More people died building the V-2 rockets than were killed by it as a weapon. Von Braun admitted visiting the plant at Mittelwerk on many occasions, and called conditions at the plant "repulsive", but claimed never to have witnessed firsthand any deaths or beatings, although it became clear to him that deaths had occurred by 1944 . He denied ever visiting the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp itself.

Adam Cabala reported:

"[...] the German scientists led by Prof. Wernher von Braun also saw everything that went on every day. When they walked along the corridors, they saw the prisoners' drudgery, their exhausting work and their ordeal. During his frequent attendance in Dora, Prof. Wernher von Braun never once protested against this cruelty and brutality."


"On a little area beside the clinic shack you could see piles of prisoners every day who had not survived the workload and had been tortured to death by the vindictive guards. [...] But Prof. Wernher von Braun just walked past them, so close that he almost touched the bodies." (Ref 6)

On August 15, 1944, von Braun wrote a letter (Ref 7) to Albin Sawatzki, manager of the V-2 production, admitting that he personally picked labor slaves from the Buchenwald concentration camp, who, he admitted 25 years later in an interview, had been in a "pitiful shape".

In Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space numerous quotes from von Braun show he was aware of the conditions, but felt completely unable to change them. From a visit to Mittelwerk, von Braun is quoted by a friend:

"It is hellish. My spontaneous reaction was to talk to one of the SS guards, only to be told with unmistakable harshness that I should mind my own business, or find myself in the same striped fatigues!... I realized that any attempt of reasoning on humane grounds would be utterly futile." (Page 44)

Arrest by the Nazi regime

There are three different versions of von Braun's arrest. André Sellier, a French historian and survivor of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, offers as good an explanation as any. Himmler called von Braun, an SS officer, to come to his Hochwald HQ in East Prussia sometime in February 1944. To increase his power-base within the Nazi régime, Heinrich Himmler was conspiring to use Kammler to wrest control of all German armament programs, including the V-2 program at Peenemünde. He therefore recommended that von Braun work more closely with Kammler to solve the problems of the V-2, but von Braun claimed to have replied that the problems were merely technical and he was confident that they would be solved with Dornberger's assistance.

Apparently von Braun had been under SD surveillance since October 1943 and a report on him and his colleagues Riedel and Gröttrup was being prepared. In it von Braun and his colleagues were said to have expressed regret at an engineer's house one evening that they were not working on a spaceship and that they felt the war was not going well (a 'defeatist' attitude). A young female dentist later denounced them for their comments and, combined with Himmler's false charges that von Braun was a Communist sympathizer and had attempted to sabotage the V-2 program, this led to his arrest. Kammler, highly dedicated to Himmler, was also instrumental in von Braun's arrest by the Gestapo.

The unsuspecting von Braun was arrested on March 22 (or March 14 ) 1944 and was taken to a Gestapo cell in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where he was imprisoned for two weeks without 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 and Albert Speer, Reichsminister for Munitions and War Production, convinced Hitler to release von Braun so that the V-2 program could continue.

Surrender to the Americans

The Soviet Army was about 160 km 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 Soviet cruelty to prisoners of war, von Braun and his staff decided to try to surrender to the Americans. After using forged papers to steal a train, von Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany toward the American lines. The SS had meanwhile been issued with orders to kill the German engineers and destroy their records. The engineers, however, had hidden these in a mineshaft and continued to evade their own troops. Upon finding an American private, von Braun's brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, greeted him with the words "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender." Following the surrender, the American command realized the importance of the engineers and immediately went to Peenemünde and Nordhausen to capture the remaining V-2s and their parts before destroying both sites with explosives. Over 300 train-car loads of spare V-2 parts ultimately found their way to America. Much of von Braun's production team, however, was captured by the Russians. The V-2 rocket plans that had been hidden near Bad Sachsa in Germany were later recovered by members of the US 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 and his specialists to America. Since the paperwork of those Germans selected for transfer to the United States was indicated by paperclips, von Braun and his colleagues became part of the mission known as Operation Paperclip, an operation that resulted in the employment of many German scientists who were formerly considered as war criminals or security threats (like von Braun) by the U.S. Army

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

The first seven technicians arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Air Base, just south of Wilmington, Delaware, on September 20, 1945. They were then flown to Boston and taken by boat to the Army Intelligence Service post at Fort Strong in Boston Harbour. Later, with the exception of von Braun, the men were transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to sort out the Peenemünde documents. These would be the documents that would enable the scientists to continue their rocketry experiments.

Finally, von Braun and his remaining Peenemünde staff were transferred to their new home at Fort Bliss, Texas, a large Army installation just north of El Paso. While there they trained military, industrial and university personnel in the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles and helped to refurbish, assemble and launch a number of V-2s that had been shipped from Germany to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico. They also continued to study the future potential of rockets for military and research applications. Since they were not permitted to leave Fort Bliss without military escort, von Braun and his colleagues began to refer to themselves only half-jokingly as "PoPs", "Prisoners of Peace".

During his stay at Fort Bliss von Braun mailed a marriage proposal to 18-year-old Maria von Quistorp. On March 1, 1947, having received permission to go back to Germany and return with his bride, he married her in a Lutheran church in Landshut, Germany. In December 1948, the von Brauns' first daughter, Iris, was born at Fort Bliss Army Hospital. In total, the von Brauns had three children: Iris, Margrit 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 rocket development team at Redstone Arsenal, resulting in the Redstone rocket. In 1955 von Braun became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Still dreaming of a world in which rockets would be used for space exploration, 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. The space-station would have a diameter of 250 feet (76 m), orbit at a height of 1075 miles (1730 km), spin to provide artificial gravity and provide a platform for lunar expeditions. In the hope that its involvement would bring about greater public interest in the future of the space program, von Braun also began working with the Disney studios as a technical director, initially for three television films about space exploration.

Director Wernher von Braun shows President Kennedy around the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1963.
Director Wernher von Braun shows President Kennedy around the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1963.

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. In the Soviet Union Sergei Korolev and his team plowed ahead with several new rocket designs and the Sputnik program, while the American government was not very interested in von Braun's work or views and only embarked on a very modest rocket-building program. In the meantime the press tended to dwell on von Braun's past as a member of the SS and the slave labor used to build his V-2 rockets. It was not until 1957 and the launch of Sputnik 1 that America realized how far it lagged behind the Soviet Union in the emerging Space Race. After the U.S. Navy's attempt at building a rocket to lift satellites into orbit resulted in the very unreliable Vanguard, American authorities recognized they needed von Braun and his team's experience, so quickly had them transferred to NASA.

NASA career

Wernher von Braun, with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage.
Wernher von Braun, with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage.

NASA was established by law on July 29, 1958. One day later, the 50th Redstone rocket was successfully launched from Johnston Atoll in the south Pacific as part of Operation Hardtack. Two years later NASA opened the new Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama and transferred von Braun and his development team there from the ABMA at Redstone Arsenal. Presiding from July 1960 to February 1970, von Braun became the Centre's first Director.

The Marshall Centre's first major program was development of the Saturn rockets to carry heavy payloads into and beyond Earth orbit. Wernher von Braun's 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 at the start of its historic eight-day mission. Over the course of the Apollo program Saturn V rockets enabled six teams of astronauts to reach the surface of the Moon. At the time of the first moon-landing von Braun publicly expressed his optimism that the Saturn rocket would continue to be developed, advocating manned missions to Mars in the 1980s based on the Saturn V.

Still with his rocket models, von Braun is pictured in his new office at NASA headquarters in 1970.
Still with his rocket models, von Braun is pictured in his new office at NASA headquarters in 1970.

During the late 1960s, von Braun played an instrumental role in the development of the U.S. Space & Rocket Centre in Huntsville. The desk from which he enabled America's entry in the Space Race remains on display there.

In 1970, von Braun and his family relocated from Huntsville to Washington, D.C. when he was assigned the post of NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA Headquarters. However, with the truncation of the Apollo program, von Braun retired from NASA in June 1972, as it became evident that his and NASA's visions for future U.S. space flight projects were different.

Career after NASA

After leaving NASA, von Braun became a vice-president of Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland, where he helped establish and promote the National Space Institute, a precursor of the present-day National Space Society. In 1976 he became scientific consultant to Lutz Kayser; the CEO of OTRAG; and a member of the Daimler-Benz board of directors. He was frequently asked to speak at universities and colleges. Von Braun was eager to cultivate interest in human spaceflight and rocketry, particularly with students and a new generation of engineers. On one such visit to a small college in Pennsylvania in 1974, Von Braun revealed a more personal, down-to-earth side of himself as a man in his early 60's, beyond the public persona most saw, including an all-too-human allergy to feather pillows and a subtle, if not humorous disdain for some rock music of the era.

In 1976 von Braun learned he had cancer. Despite surgery, the cancer progressed, forcing him to retire from Fairchild on December 31, 1976. Von Braun sustained an injury from a crash and unknown to him started to bleed internally. By the time his family convinced him to go to the hospital it was too late to stop the bleeding. On June 16, 1977, Wernher von Braun died in Alexandria, Virginia at the age of 65. He is buried there in the Ivy Hill Cemetery .


  • National Medal of Science in 1975

Posthumous recognition

  • Apollo space program director Sam Phillips was quoted as saying that he did not think that America would have reached the moon as quickly as it did without von Braun's help. Later, after discussing it with colleagues, he amended this to say that he did not believe America would have reached the moon at all.
  • The von Braun crater on the moon was so named by the IAU in recognition of von Braun's contribution to space exploration and technology.
  • The Von Braun Civic Centre (built 1975) is named in von Braun's honour.
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