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Wernher von Braun


Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr1 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. He led Germany's effort to develop a ballistic missile during World War II, and after the war, he successfully planned the U.S. space program from the first satellite launch through the Apollo program's manned flights to the Moon.


Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Province of Posen, in the German Kingdom of Prussia. He was the second of three sons of Magnus Freiherr von Braun (1877-1972), a conservative politician who served as a Minister of Agriculture in the Federal Cabinet during the Weimar Republic. His mother, Emmy von Quistorp (1886-1959) could trace ancestry through both her parents to medieval European royalty. Upon von Braun's Lutheran confirmation, his mother gave him a telescope, and he discovered a passion for astronomy and the realm of outer space. When, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Wirsitz became part of the Poland in 1920, his family, like many other German families, moved. They settled in Berlin, where the 12-year-old von Braun attended the French Gymnasium there. Inspired by speed records established by Max Valier and Fritz von Opel,2 the young von Braun caused a major disruption in a crowded street by firing off a toy wagon to which he had attached a number of fireworks. The youngster was taken into custody by the local police until his father came to collect him.

Early education

Starting in 1925, von Braun attended a boarding school at Ettersburg castle near Weimar where at first he did not do well in physics and mathematics. In 1928 his parents moved him to the Hermann-Lietz-Internat (also a residential school) on the East Frisian North Sea island, Spiekeroog where he acquired a copy of the book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) by rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. The idea of space travel had always fascinated von Braun, and from this point on he applied himself to physics and mathematics in order to pursue his interest in rocketry.

Starting in 1930, he attended the Technical University of Berlin, where he joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR, the "Spaceflight Society") and assisted Hermann Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. Although he worked mainly with military rockets for many of his later years, space travel remained his primary goal.

The Prussian rocketeer

Von Braun was working on his creative doctorate when the National Socialist German Workers Party took over Germany, and rocketry almost immediately became a national agenda. 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 was awarded a doctorate in physics (aerospace engineering) on July 27, 1934 for a thesis titled, About Combustion Tests. However, this was only the public part of von Braun's work. His actual full thesis, Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket (dated April 16, 1934) was kept classified by the Army, and was not published until 1960. Several tests of early rocketry were disasters, but By the end of 1934, his group had successfully launched two rockets that rose to heights of 2.2 and 3.5 kilometers.

The V-2 program

There were no German rocket societies after the collapse of the VfR, and civilian rocket tests were forbidden by the new Nazi regime. Only military development was allowed to conduct such experiments, and to this end, a larger facility was erected in 1937 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 the military commander at Peenemünde, with von Braun as 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 Aggregat 4 A-4 series of rockets, better known as the V-2 ballistic missile, and the supersonic Wasserfall anti-aircraft missile.

At the time, Germany was interested in American physicist Robert H. Goddard's research on rocketry. Before 1939, German scientists occasionally contacted Goddard directly with technical questions. After that, things got rather tense. Von Braun was certainly informed by Goddard's plans from various journals,3 but the extent to which it actually influenced the development of the A-4 is open to question. 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." Although Goddard believed that the Germans had used his technology for their rocket program, the V-2 was a great advance over anything Goddard was able to achieve with his limited funding and lack of support from the American military establishment.

Schematic of the A4/V2

On December 22, 1942, Adolf Hitler signed the order approving the production of the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon" and the group developed it to target London. Following von Braun's July 7, 1943, presentation of a color movie showing an A-4 taking off, Hitler was so enthusiastic that he personally made him a professor shortly thereafter.4 In Germany and at this time, this was an absolutely unusual promotion for an engineer who was only 31 years old.

By now the British and Soviet intelligence agencies were aware of the rocket program and von Braun's team at Peenemünde. Over the nights of 17th and 18th August 1943 the RAF Bomber Command dispatched raids on the Peenemünde camp employing 596 aircraft and dropping 1,800 tons of explosives.5 The facility was salvaged and most of the science team remained unharmed. However, the raids did claim the lives of von Braun's engine designer Walter Thiel and other rocket team personnel, and the rocket program was delayed.67

The first combat A-4, renamed the V-2 ("Vergeltungswaffen 2," "Retaliation/Vengeance Weapon 2") for propaganda purposes, was launched toward England on September 7, 1944, only 21 months after the project had been officially commissioned. Von Braun's interest in rockets was specifically for the application of space travel, and he is said to have expressed dismay over the rocket's military use.

Arrest by the Nazi regime

According to André Sellier, a French historian and survivor of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, Himmler had von Braun come to his Hochwald HQ in East Prussia sometime in February 1944. To increase his power-base within the Nazi régime, Himmler was conspiring 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 those Himmler was closer to, 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. A report stated that he and his colleagues Riedel and Gröttrup 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; this was considered a "defeatist" attitude. A young female dentist had denounced them for their comments. Because of Himmler's false charges that von Braun was a Communist sympathizer and had attempted to sabotage the V-2 program, and considering that von Braun was a qualified pilot who regularly piloted his government-provided airplane that might allow him to escape to England, von Braun was arrested by the Gestapo.

The unsuspecting von Braun was detained on March 14 (or March 15), 1944, and was taken to a Gestapo cell in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where he was imprisoned for two weeks without even knowing the charges 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 reinstate von Braun so that the V-2 program could continue. Citing from the "Führerprotokoll" (the minutes of Hitler's meetings) dated May 13, 1944, in his memoirs, Speer later relayed what Hitler had finally conceded: "In the matter concerning B. I will guarantee you that he will be exempt from persecution as long as he is indispensable for you, in spite of the difficult general consequences this will have." Nevertheless, from this point onward fear ruled in Peenemünde.

Surrender to the Americans

Von Braun (with armcast) immediately after his surrender

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 Soviet cruelty to prisoners of war, von Braun and his staff decided to try to surrender to the Americans. Von Braun's team had been ordered to regroup in central Germany, but a conflicting order from an army chief ordered them to join the army and fight. Deciding that the first of these was their best bet to defect to the Americans, von Braun fabricated documents and transported 500 of his affiliates to the area around Mittelwerk, where they resumed their work. For fear of their documents being destroyed by the SS, von Braun ordered the blueprints to be hidden in an abandoned mine shaft in the Harz mountain range.8

While on an official trip in March, von Braun suffered a complicated fracture of his left arm and shoulder when his driver fell asleep at the wheel. His injuries were serious but he insisted that his arm be set in a cast so he could leave the hospital. Due to this neglect of the injury he had to be hospitalized again a month later where his bones had to be re-broken and re-aligned.

In April, as the allied forces advanced deeper into Germany, the science team was ordered transported by train to the town of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps where they were closely guarded by the SS with orders to execute the team if they were about to fall into enemy hands. However, von Braun managed to convince an SS major to order the dispersion of the group into nearby villages so that they would not be an easy target for U.S. bombers.

On May 2, 1945, upon finding an American private from the U.S. 44th Infantry Division, von Braun's brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, approached the soldier on a bicycle, calling out in broken English, "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender."9

The American high command was well aware of how important their catch was: Von Braun had been at the top of the Black List, the code name for the list of German scientists and engineers targeted for immediate interrogation by U.S. military experts. On June 19, 1945, two days before the scheduled turnover of the area to the Soviets, U.S. Army Major Robert B. Staver, Chief of the Jet Propulsion Section of the Research and Intelligence Branch of the U.S. Army Ordnance in London, and Lt Col R. L. Williams took von Braun and his department chiefs by jeep from Garmisch to Munich. The group was flown to Nordhausen, and was evacuated 40 miles Southwest to Witzenhausen, a small town in the American Zone, the next day.10 Von Braun was subsequently recruited to the U.S. under Operation Overcast.

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; however this was not announced to the public until October 1, 1945. 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 by the U.S. Army.

The first seven technicians arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Air Field, 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 Harbor. 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 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. As part of the Hermes project they 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."

A portrait of Maria von Braun, wife of Wernher von Braun.


During his stay at Fort Bliss, von Braun mailed a marriage proposal to 18 year old Maria Luise von Quistorp, his cousin on his mother's side. 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. He and his bride and his father and mother returned to New York on 26 March 1947. On December 9, 1948, the von Brauns' first daughter, Iris Careen, was born. The von Brauns eventually had two more children, Margrit Cécile on May 8, 1952, and Peter Constantine on June 2, 1960. On April 15, 1955, von Braun became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

In 1950, at the start of the Korean War, 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, which was used for the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests conducted by the United States.

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 of German scientists and engineers 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.

Popular concepts for a human presence in space

Repeating the pattern he had established during his earlier career in Germany, von Braun-while directing military rocket development in the real world-continued to entertain his engineer-scientist's dream of a future world in which rockets would be used for space exploration. However, instead of risking being sacked he now was increasingly in a position to popularize these ideas. The May 14, 1950, headline of The Huntsville Times ("Dr. von Braun Says Rocket Flights Possible to Moon") might have marked the beginning of these efforts. In 1952, von Braun first published his concept of a manned 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. Frequently von Braun worked with fellow German-born space advocate and science writer Willy Ley to publish his concepts which, unsurprisingly, were heavy on the engineering side and anticipated many technical aspects of space flight that later became reality.

The space station (to be constructed using rockets with recoverable and reusable ascent stages) would be a toroid structure, with a diameter of 250 feet (76 meters), would spin around a central docking nave to provide artificial gravity, and would be assembled in a 1,075 miles (1,730 kilometer), two-hour, high-inclination Earth orbit allowing observation of essentially every point on earth on at least a daily basis. The ultimate purpose of the space station would be to provide an assembly platform for manned lunar expeditions.

Von Braun envisaged these expeditions as very large-scale undertakings, with a total of 50 astronauts traveling in three huge spacecraft (two for crew, one primarily for cargo), each 49 meters long and 33 meters in diameter and driven by a rectangular array of 30 jet propulsion engines. Upon arrival, astronauts would establish a permanent lunar base in the Sinus Roris region by using the emptied cargo holds of their craft as shelters, and would explore their surroundings for eight weeks. This would include a 400 kilometer expedition in pressurized rovers to the Harpalus crater and the Mare Imbrium foothills.

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

Colonization of Mars

At this time von Braun also worked out preliminary concepts for a manned Mars mission which used the space station as a staging point. His initial plans, published in The Mars Project (1952), had envisaged a fleet of ten spacecraft (each with a mass of 3,720 metric tons), three of them unmanned and each carrying one 200-ton winged lander in addition to cargo, and nine crew vehicles transporting a total of 70 astronauts. Gigantic as this mission plan was, its engineering and astronautical parameters were thoroughly calculated. A later project was much more modest, using only one purely orbital cargo ship and one crewed craft. In each case, the expedition would use minimum-energy Hohmann transfer orbits for its trips to Mars and back to Earth.

Before technically formalizing his thoughts on human spaceflight to Mars, von Braun had written a science fiction novel, set in 1980, on the subject. According to his biographer Erik Bergaust, the manuscript was rejected by no less than 18 publishers. Von Braun later published small portions of this opus in magazines to illustrate selected aspects of his Mars project popularizations. Only in December 2006 did the complete manuscript appear in print as a book.11

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. The initial broadcast devoted to space exploration was Man in Space which first went on air on March 9, 1955.

Concepts for orbital warfare

Von Braun developed and published his space station concept during the very "coldest" time of the Cold War, when the U.S. government for which he worked put the containment of the Soviet Union above everything else. The fact that his space station-if armed with missiles that could be easily adapted from those already available at this time-would give the United States space superiority in both orbital and orbit-to-ground warfare did not escape him. Although von Braun took care to qualify such military applications as "particularly dreadful" in his popular writings, he elaborated on them in several of his books and articles. This much less peaceful aspect of von Braun's "drive for space" has recently been reviewed by Michael J. Neufeld from the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.12

Wernher von Braun walking with President Kennedy at Redstone Arsenal in 1963.

Sputnik and the beginning of the space race

While von Braun had floated the idea of putting a satellite into orbit as early as 1955, the ballistic capability of rocketry was what had caught the attention of the military. Since the objective of the Redstone and Jupiter C rockets was to carry a nuclear payload, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was reluctant to use the same vehicle to launch a satellite, preferring to rely on the Vanguard research rocket developed by the Navy. On October 4, 1957, the Russian space effort grabbed international headlines with its successful launch of an orbiting satellite they called Sputnik. This accomplishment excited attention worldwide, and caught the U.S. space effort by surprise. Equally startling was the botched American attempt on December 6 of the same year to put its own satellite in orbit atop a Vanguard rocket. The event captured headlines when the spacecraft malfunctioned on takeoff and produced a spectacular explosion on the launch pad. American authorities then chose to utilize von Braun and his German team's experience with missiles to create an orbital launch vehicle. On January 31, 1958, von Braun's team successfully launched the Explorer I satellite atop a Jupiter C rocket.

Wernher von Braun, with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the US Space and Rocket Center.

NASA was established by law on July 29 1958. Two years later, NASA opened the new George C. Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and von Braun was named director. In a face-to-face meeting with Herb York at the Pentagon, von Braun made it clear he would go to NASA only if development of an advanced rocket called the Saturn that his team had been working on was allowed to continue.13 Presiding from July 1960 to February 1970, von Braun became the center's first Director.

Man on the moon

The Marshall Center's first major program was the development of Saturn rockets to carry heavy payloads into and beyond Earth orbit. From this, the Apollo program for manned moon flights was developed. President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Von Braun initially pushed for a flight engineering concept that called for an Earth orbit rendezvous technique, but in 1962 he converted to the more risky lunar orbit rendezvous concept that was subsequently realized. His 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 on its historic eight-day mission. Over the course of the program, Saturn V rockets enabled six teams of astronauts to reach the surface of the Moon.

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 Center in Huntsville. The desk from which he guided America's entry in the Space Race remains on display there.

In 1966/67 antarctic summer, von Braun participated in a U.S. government expedition to Antarctica14 The expedition was one of the first to systematically search the ice surface for meteorites believed to originate from the moon, for later use as a reference material.

The U.S. space program changes course

In an internal memo dated January 16, 1969, von Braun had confirmed to his staff that he would stay on as a Center Director at Huntsville to head the Apollo Applications Program. A few months later, on occasion of the first moon-landing, he publicly expressed his optimism that the Saturn V carrier system would continue to be developed, advocating manned missions to Mars in the 1980s.15

However, on March 1, 1970, von Braun and his family relocated to Washington, D.C., when he was assigned the post of NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA Headquarters. After a series of conflicts associated with the truncation of the Apollo program, and facing severe budget constraints, von Braun retired from NASA on May 26, 1972. Not only had it become evident by this time that his and NASA's visions for future U.S. space flight projects were incompatible; it was perhaps even more frustrating for him to see popular support for a continued presence of man in space wane dramatically once the goal to reach the moon had been accomplished.

Career after NASA

Wernher von Braun and William R. Lucas, the first and third Marshall Space Flight Center Directors, viewing a Space Shuttle model, October 11, 1974.

After leaving NASA, von Braun became Vice President for Engineering and Development at the aerospace company, Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland on July 1, 1972.

In 1973, a routine health check uncovered kidney cancer which during the following years could not be controlled by surgery. (German sources mostly specify the cancer as renal, while American biographies unanimously just mention cancer. The time when von Braun learned about the disease is generally given as between 1973 and 1976. The characteristics of renal cell carcinoma, which has a bad prognosis even today, do not rule out either time limit.) Von Braun continued his work to the degree possible, which included accepting invitations to speak at colleges and universities as he was eager to cultivate interest in human spaceflight and rocketry, particularly with students and a new generation of engineers. On one such visit in the spring of 1974 to Allegheny College, von Braun revealed a more personal, down-to-earth side of himself as a man in his early 60s, 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.

Von Braun helped establish and promote the National Space Institute, a precursor of the present-day National Space Society, in 1975, and became its first president and chairman. In 1976, he became scientific consultant to Lutz Kayser, the CEO of OTRAG, and a member of the Daimler-Benz board of directors. However, his deteriorating condition forced him to retire from Fairchild on December 31, 1976. When the 1975 National Medal of Science was awarded to him in early 1977 he was hospitalized, and unable to attend the White House ceremony. On June 16 1977, Wernher von Braun died in Alexandria, Virginia at the age of 65. He was buried at the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia.16

Nazi connections and forced labor

Von Braun and the SS

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

Von Braun generally insisted that he had been forced to join the SS, and that if he had not done so, his work in the German missile program would have quickly come to an end. That claim has been often disputed because in 1940, the Waffen-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, has 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).

Slave labor

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.17 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.

But in Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space18 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.19


It is hard to reconcile the von Braun of Nazi Germany with the same man who almost singlehandedly led the United States to preeminance in the space age. Walt Disney thoroughly legitimized von Braun in the eyes of the public, whatever aware intellectuals may have thought of him. Certainly his vision for the future of space exploration was as pure as the driven snow, but the means by which he pursued that vision were not always so. The evidence points to a lively cooperation with the Nazi regime, but certainly there must have been remorse as it became apparent that the entire world would focus on his Naxi past.

Still, the man seems to have forgiven himself, and gone on to accomplish in terms of the U.S. space program what nobody else dreamed could be done. Certainly, manned space flight to the moon was his brainchild. Since his departure from NASA, the space program could hardly hold a candle to what that organization accomplished under his leadership.


In February 1970, Huntsville, Alabama, honored Wernher von Braun's years of service with a series of events including a plaque in his honor. Pictured (left to right), his daughter Iris, wife Maria, U.S. Senator John Sparkman, Alabama Governor Albert Bre