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Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun was a German-American aerospace engineer and space architect who invented the V-2 rocket in Germany and the Saturn V in the United States. He is known as a world-leading figure in the development of rocket science and technology and one of the main founders of space science in the United States.

1. Early life

2. Career in Germany

3. The Nazi Affiliation

4. Surrender

5. Career in the United States

6. NASA

7. Personal life

1. Early life

Wernher Magnus Maximiliam Freiherr von Braun was born on March 23, 1912, in a noble family from Wirsitz, Posen Province, in the former German Empire. Von Braun’s father, Magnus Freiherr von Braun, was an influential conservative politician, serving as a Minister of Agriculture during the Weimar Republic while von Braun’s mother, Emmy von Quistorp, was the descendant of a medieval European royal family. Philip III of France, Robert III of Scotland, and Edward III of England were her ancestors. The von Braun family had three sons.

As a child, von Braun developed a passionate interest in astronomy after his mother bought him a telescope. In 1915, the family moved to Berlin as Magnus was appointed Ministry of the Interior, and there, von Braun found a new fascination in the rocket-propelled cars driven with speed records by distinguished drivers at that time. His knack for engineering became obvious at the young age of 12 when he managed to detonate a toy wagon in a crowded street of Berlin, by using fireworks. Besides his interest in science, von Braun was also a great pianist with the ability to play Bach or Beethoven. After learning to play several instruments from an early age, he was so immersed in music that he expressed his desire to become a composer.

In 1925, von Braun enrolled at a boarding school at Ettersburg Castle near Weimar. Despite the family’s expectations, he had mediocre results as a student, particularly in physics and mathematics. During his time there, he became familiar with the work By Rocket into Planetary Space of pioneer rocket scientist Hermann Oberth. In 1928, von Braun changed schools, moving to the North Sea island of Spiekeroog. His interest in rocket engineering became his main focus and he decided to advance his knowledge of physics and mathematics.

2. Career in Germany

In 1930, von Braun enrolled at Technische Hochschule Berlin, where he became a member of the Spaceflight Society. The university offered him tremendous opportunities when it came to his childhood dream of working on rocketry and spaceflight, as he assisted in the testing of the liquid-fueled rocket motor under the supervision of scientist Willy Ley.

Von Braun graduated in 1932, with a degree in mechanical engineering, convinced, however, that the applications of engineering technology were not enough to make space exploration a reality. He decided to continue his studies at the University of Berlin, where he took advanced courses in physics, chemistry, and astronomy. In 1934, he obtained his doctorate in physics. His concentration had been aerospace engineering and his innovative thesis was classified by the German military and published only after von Braun’s death in 1960. Although most of his work focused on military rockets, von Braun remained primarily interested in space travel throughout his studies. He was a keen admirer of Hermann Oberth and Auguste Piccard, the pioneer of high-altitude balloon flight.

In 1933, while von Braun was still working on his doctorate, the National Socialist Germany Party came to power in Germany, and rocketry became a main interest on the national agenda, being sponsored through generous research grants. Von Braun began to work at a solid-fuel rocket test site in Kummersdorf. At the end of 1937, von Braun and his fellow research partners successfully launched two liquid fuel rockets that reached 2.2 and 3.5 km. They continued their research during the following years, investigating different types of liquid-fueled rockets in aircraft. Von Braun started to work with pilot Ernest Heinkel, telling him during a flight test that he would not only become a famous man but that von Braun will help him fly to the Moon. In June 1937, a flight test at Neuhardenberg proved that an aircraft can fly propelled by rocket power alone. Von Braun’s engines were powered by liquid oxygen and alcohol and used direct combustion. Around the same time, Hellmuth Walter began experimenting with hydrogen peroxide based rockets who were superior and more reliable than those of von Braun’s. As a rocketry researcher and engineer, Von Braun was a keen admirer of Robert H. Goddard and his innovative work in rocket science. German engineers were occasionally contacting Goddard to ask for advice regarding technical issues. Von Braun himself was inspired by some of Goddard’s technical plans.

When the Nazi regime opened a military development facility at Peenemunde, in northern Germany, von Braun was appointed technical director. Together with a large team of engineers and scientists, von Braun began to work on developing liquid-fuel rocket engines specifically designed for aircraft. In 1942, von Braun showed to Adolf Hitler a movie with the takeoff of an A-4 rocket and Hitler, delighted by the work of the young engineer, promoted him to professor, an exceptional honor as von Braun was only 31 years old. The first A-4 was fired toward England on September 7, 1944. Despite the success of the rocket, von Braun was disillusioned that his work was used for warfare instead of space travel. He was heard saying that he would have preferred to see his rockets land on another planet, not kill people.

3. The Nazi Affiliation

As the technical director at the Army Rocket Center at Peenemunde, von Braun’s work was of great interest to the high level officials of the Nazi regime. His refusal to join the Party would have been the end of his career and von Braun was unwilling to give up his work. In an article from 1952, von Braun admitted that by playing by the rules, his life under the totalitarianism rule of the Nazis had been rather good.  

In November 1937, von Braun became an official member of the National Socialist Party, although his relationship with the Nazi regime was very complex and ambivalent throughout time. He did not engage in political activity, but in a memoir article from 1952, von Braun confessed that he had strong patriotic feelings and was influenced by the promises of the Nazis to restore Germany’s greatness. He also admitted that he did not respect Hitler and considered him a pompous man with no scruples.

In 1940, von Braun joined the Allgemeine SS, the major paramilitary organization of the Nazi Party, where he was given the rank of Untersturmfuhrer (Second Lieutenant). He later explained that SS leader Himmler sent him a firm invitation to join the SS, promising him that he did not have to fulfill any tasks that would take him away from his rocketry work. However, von Braun was still promoted three times and in June 1943, he became a SS-Sturmbannfuhrer (Major). Numerous photographs from that period show von Braun in the company of SS members, wearing the SS uniform. However, he repeatedly claimed that he did not have any direct involvement in politics. Moreover, his promotions had been simply technical, as he received the news each year by mail.

The Nazi regime was very interested in military advancement, which was a great opportunity for von Braun to put his ambitions in rocketry to practice. The rocket program developed by the Nazis at Peenemunde, with von Braun as a technical director, became rapidly a remarkable success but it had a shortage of workers. SS General Hans Kammler, the engineer behind many of the concentration camps built by the Nazis, suggested using camp prisoners as slave laborers in the program. The chief engineer of the V-2 rocket factory, Arthur Rudolph, agreed to the proposal.

Many people died in conditions of torture, extreme brutality, and exhaustion during the construction of the V-2 rockets. There is now evidence that 20,000 people died because of the intolerable working conditions at the camp. Although Von Braun visited the Mittelwerk site several times and agreed that the work conditions at the plant were harsh, he never seemed to have understood the magnitude of the atrocities. In 1944, he realized that deaths had indeed occurred on multiple occasions. A Buchenwald inmate later claimed that von Bran went to the concentration camp to choose slave laborers and that he passed by the corpses of people tortured to death on his frequent visits to the camp, yet that he never seemed to notice. In his writings, von Braun confessed that he was aware of the work conditions, but felt unable to change something. Friends of von Braun admitted hearing him talk about Mittelwerk and describing the place as hellish. He had also told his friends that when he tried to talk to an SS guard about his treatment of the laborers, the guard threatened him. Von Braun’s team member Konrad Dannenberg was convinced that if von Braun had protested against the brutality of the SS, he would have been shot.

In February 1944, due to pressure from Heinrich Himmler, who wanted to gain control over the most important armament programs, the V-2 program run by von Braun and his staff at Peenemunde was moved to a new headquarters in East Prussia. At that point, von Braun was already under surveillance since October 1942, after he and two of his colleagues were heard expressing regret about not working on a spaceship and talking about the possibility to lose the war. The discussions between von Braun and his colleagues suggested a defeatist attitude, which was not regarded well by the regime. The SS grew increasingly suspicious of von Braun. Since von Braun had access to airplanes, the Gestapo worried that he could easily escape the country. In a report issued about him, von Braun was also falsely accused by Himmler himself of being a communist sympathizer who tried to sabotage the rocket program. Von Braun’s relationship with the Nazi regime took thus an unexpected turn.

On March 14, 1944, von Braun was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to a cell in Stettin, Poland. He had no information of the conspiracy that Himmler set against him and spent two weeks in a cell without knowing the charges against him. Accused of treason, von Braun was in danger of receiving the death penalty, but Albert Speer, Minister for Munitions and War Production, tried to convince Hitler that it was impossible to continue the rocket program without von Braun’s leadership. Hitler conceded after long negotiations and decided to approve von Braun’s release and exempt him from prosecution only as long as he would be useful to the rocket program.

4. Surrender

In the spring of 1945, von Braun and his planning staff were in Peenemunde, only a few tens of miles away from the Soviet Army. While the Soviet Army was getting closer, von Braun and his staff realized that they had no other escape than to surrender, preferably deciding in advance how and to whom to surrender to make sure they would receive protection. Since going to the Soviets was not a pleasant perspective for von Braun, he and his staff decided that surrendering to the Americans would be the best thing to do.

The perfect moment to put their plans into action presented itself when Kammler ordered the team to relocate to central Germany, where they were even closer to the Allied forces. Although he also received a conflicting order from an army chief who asked him to join the army and fight against the Soviets, von Braun Von Braun chose to respond to Kammler’s order which was in his team’s best interests if they were to surrender to the Americans. He falsified some documents and took five hundred affiliates back to Mittelwerk, where they were free to resume their work on the rockets. However, as the Allied forces reached central parts of Germany, the engineering team was moved again, guarded by SS members ready to kill them rather than seeing them taken as prisoners by the enemy.

During this difficult times, von Braun was slowed down by severe health problems. He had been through a car accident that fractured his left arm. As he was unwilling to spent time in the hospital, the neglected injury caused him complications as he had to break and realign his bones. Eventually, despite all the obstacles, the perfect moment to put the plan of surrender into action presented itself. In April 1944, the team had to move once more as the Allied forces were occupying more and more of the German territories. They were resettled in a small town in the Bavarian Alps, where they were under the strict surveillance of SS guards. Von Braun decided that the best thing for his team was to be dispersed into nearby villages, otherwise they would be the target of the American bombers. From there, escaping the SS guards, von Braun and many others from his engineering team run off to Austria. On May 2, 1945, von Braun’s brother and a fellow engineer found an American private and using their limited English, they told the soldier about their desire to surrender to the U.S. Army.

In a public speech held shortly after the surrender, von Braun talked about his fears that the knowledge he and his team possessed could be used by a possible host country to gain advantage in warfare, which put a heavy moral weight on their decision to surrender.

5. Career in the United States

The U.S. Army was instantly aware of what a valuable, yet unexpected catch von Braun and his fellow engineers were. The Army had already had von Braun at the top of the Black List, a list of German top scientists and engineers whom the U.S. military experts wanted to interrogate.

Von Braun and the rest of his staff were thus immediately taken in the U.S. Army’s custody and evacuated to a small town in the American Zone. As the leader of the team, von Braun was interrogated by British and American intelligence officials. The first to interview von Braun were British scientists, including Britain’s leading rocket engineer L.S. Snell who would later invent the Concorde engines. The British officials were eager to talk to von Braun as they were aware that the U.S. would later deny them access to him. The transcripts of the interviews remained top secret, inaccessible to the other allies.

The U.S. Secretary of State approved the relocation of von Braun and his team to the United States, yet the news reached the public months later, after the U.S. intelligence agencies created false biographies for them, removing affiliations to the Nazi Party from their records. The U.S. government proceeded to grant them permission to work in the country. A part of the Peenemunde staff was settled in Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, while von Braun and the remaining members of the team were transferred to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, where the Army had a large installation.

The German engineers found the living conditions at Fort Bliss to be rough and von Braun later admitted that he found it difficult to develop any sort of emotional attachment to his new home. After having thousands of engineers working for him at Peenemunde, von Braun was now working with the American Jim Hammil, a 26-year-old Major with an undergraduate degree in engineering, who refused to call him Professor and never complied with von Braun’s requests for new materials. Because of their political status, von Braun and his colleagues could only leave For Bliss with a military escort.

At Ford Bliss, von Braun and his team took the mission of training military and industrial personnel in the field of rocketry and military applications, such as guided missiles. They became involved in the Hermes project, where they had the task of helping an American team to refurbish and prepare V-2 rockets shipped from Germany for re-launching. However, their main interest was, as always, to study the potential of rockets in the development of military or research applications.

6. NASA

While in the United States, Von Braun’s major interest was the same as in Germany, as his primary goal as a scientist was the possibility to use rockets for space exploration. Although busy with leading military rocket development, von Braun continued to hope that he could one day use the rockets for achieving humankind’s dream of conquering space.

When his work became more popular in the United States, von Braun realized that his position allowed him to popularize his ideas successfully. The headline of The Huntsville Times from May 14, 1950, “Dr. von Braun Says Rocket Flights Possible to Moon” was the daring beginning of a new adventure. Two years later, von Braun made public his concept of a manned space station in a series of articles, “Man Will Conquer Space Soon”, published in Collier’s Weekly. Illustrated by artist Chesley Bonestell, the articles were instrumental in putting von Braun’s ideas into public circulation. Von Braun sought the help of fellow scientist Willy Ley, whom he had meet at the University of Berlin. In the United States, Ley was an accomplished science writer and space advocate and he helped von Braun publish his concepts. Highly technical, von Braun’s concepts were an example of fine innovative engineering and even anticipated technical aspects of space flight that became real many years later. Von Braun wanted his space station to work, most importantly, as an assembly platform for manned lunar missions. He was aware that his space station could be armed with missiles and adapted for warfare, yet he expressed in his writings that he considered military applications dreadful and worrying.

Von Braun had covered every detail of a possible lunar expedition, not leaving anything to chance. He saw these expeditions as massive undertakings, with 50 astronauts travelling in two spacecraft and a third spacecraft carrying the cargo, each spacecraft propelled by a rectangular array of 30 engines. According to von Braun’s strategy, astronauts had to establish a permanent base in the Sinus Roris area of the Moon and explore the surroundings in pressurized rovers, for at least eight weeks, making sure to reach the crater Harpalus and the Mare Imbrium hills.

Von Braun’s visions did not stop here as he also worked on developing concepts for a more complex manned mission to Mars. He published The Mars Project in 1952, with concepts as detailed as those for the lunar mission. Although his plans involved gigantic undertakings, von Braun calculated everything with precision. Before his technical plans for a human mission to Mars became a reality, von Braun had already written a science fiction novel covering the topic, but his manuscript was massively rejected. He did not give up on it, however. He was aware that a greater public interest could help him negotiate better opportunities in his attempt to make his projects a reality. Later, he started to publish small chapters of the novel in magazines, in an attempt to popularize his Mars Project, by illustrating key aspects and bringing them to the attention of the public. The book was eventually published in print in 2006 with the title Project MARS: A Technical Tale.

Open to any opportunities that could help him advance his work, von Braun started to work with Walt Disney as a technical director for Disney Studios, producing three films about space exploration. As the first television film to talk about the topic, Man in Space gathered an audience of 40 million viewers on his debut on March 9, 1955. The series continued with two other successful films that also gathered a massive audience. In 1959, von Braun’s efforts concentrated in publishing a short booklet on an updated concept for a manned lunar mission with only one small spacecraft piloted by two astronauts.

More than anything, during this times, for von Braun and his colleagues went through the humiliating experience of witnessing how the Soviet Union launched several successful rocket designs, but also how the Soviet Union accomplished, through the Sputnik program, the goals they were aspiring to. Von Braun was disappointed to realize that the American government was not interested in his work and had very modest goals when it came to rocketry. Moreover, accounts of the press about his past in Nazi Germany were taking the focus away from his scientific pursuits.

Everything changed in 1957 when, after the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviets, the United States, worried about lagging behind the Soviet Union, chose to assign von Bran and his German team the task of building an orbital launch vehicle. Their experience in working with missiles made them the perfect candidates to undertake such a daring mission. On July 29, 1958, NASA was officially established and two years later, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville was opened. Von Braun and his team were transferred to NASA, and he was assigned the center’s first director, a position he held for ten years.

For four years, von Braun was the leader of the Army’s rocket development team, stationed at Redstone Arsenal. Together with his team, he developed the Redstone rocket, which became rapidly popular after being used for the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests run in the United States. The historic launch and detonation of the rocket was supervised by von Braun himself. After the impressive success of the Redstone rocket, the team started to work on the Jupiter-C. Although von Braun worked on several projects during this period, the most important is the development of Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone rocket, which on January 31, 1958, launched the first satellite of the western world, Explorer 1. The event marked the beginning of a new era for the United States and it is considered the birth of the space program.

Besides the success of the Redstone rocket, von Braun’s career went through a series of frustrating moments during the next following years. Despite all the efforts, his early years at NASA were marked by a series of disappointments. The first unmanned Mercury-Redstone rocket only managed to rise four inch before falling back on the launch pad, an incident which affected the team’s morale. While working on the Mercury Redstone 2, a string of problems convinced von Braun to insist on multiple tests. This decision caused a series of clashes with members of his team who insisted on launching the rocket as soon as possible. On March 1961, MR-2 was launched successfully, yet many of von Braun’s fellow engineers were frustrated by von Braun’s excessive caution. Despite his knack for innovation, he was very conservative, always making sure to comply with ample safety concerns. Von Braun always preferred to take his time and calculate every risk. While this approach was responsible for his staggering success, it also caused a delay in his progress, which eventually led the United States to lose the race to launching the first human in space, which was accomplished instead by the Soviet Union.

The development of the Saturn rockets, the Marshall Center’s first major mission, took von Braun a step closer to his dream of manned Moon flights. After a series of disappointing tests and experiments, the Marshall Center’s first important success was the development of Saturn rockets able to transfer heavy loads beyond Earth orbit. Once the Saturn rockets were developed successfully, the team of scientists and engineers moved forward to the Apollo program. In 1962, von Braun developed the lunar orbit rendezvous concept, working closely with former Peenemunde teammate, Kurt H. Debus, who was the first director of the Kennedy Space Center.

In the summer of 1966, von Braun traveled to Antarctica, together with other members of NASA’s top management, to meet the U.S. scientific and technological community who had the mission of exploring the Antarctic wastelands. Von Braun believed that the insights provided by the researchers in Antarctica could be useful for his missions of manned space exploration. He was interested in understanding the management of the research stations, and wanted detailed accounts about logistics, habitation, and life support. He also wanted to test essential equipment on the barren Antarctic terrain such as glacial dry valleys, making sure that the equipment was adequate for extreme conditions, similar to those from other planets.

Von Braun’s childhood dream of helping humankind set foot on the Moon was accomplished on July 16, 1969. The Saturn V rocket launched the Apollo 11 crew on an historic eight-day mission that took the astronauts to the Moon. Six other teams of astronauts reached the surface on the Moon with the help of Saturn V rockets during the entire course of the Apollo program. Von Braun confessed after the success of the Apollo flights that before and during those crucial moments he would pray a lot. After the first Moon landing, he talked optimistically to the public about the possibility to launch manned missions to Mars in the next decade. Personally, he had already decided to give up his position at Marshall Center.

Von Braun’s merits in the development of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville were recognized by the entire scientific community. His contribution was essential also for the launching of the Applications Technology Satellite, a program that von Braun wanted to expand in India with the purpose of launching an education television project for the poorest communities of the country.

On March 1, 1970, von Braun and his family moved to Washington D.C., where he was appointed NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning. Only two years later, after a series of internal conflicts and severe budget cuts, von Braun retired from NASA, disappointed that his visions for the future of space flight were incompatible with NASA’s agenda. Once the goal of reaching the Moon had been accomplished, the interest for manned space exploration dropped dramatically. Shortly after, von Braun became Vice President for Engineering and Development at Fairchild Industries, an aerospace company from Germantown, Maryland.  In 1976,  he joined the Daimler-Benz board of directors and became the personal consultant in scientific matters of Lutz Kayser, CEO of OTRAG. As his health began to deteriorate, von Braun was forced to retire completely in 1976.

Besides his work as a scientist and engineer, von Braun was also an advocate for space technologies and science. He was the mind behind the development of Space Camp, the program that engaged generations of children by providing them training in the fields of space exploration technologies. Von Braun was a firm believer that children needed mental development as much as they needed physical development. He also founded and developed the National Space Institute.

Von Braun has received worldwide recognition for his work in the Apollo program. Sam Philips, the director of the Apollo mission declared that without von Braun, the United States would most probably have never reached the moon. To honor von Braun’s memory, the main crater on the Moon was named after him.

7. Personal life

As a charismatic man, von Braun was known for having many affairs with different women, sometimes even with two at a time. In 1943, he decided to marry Dorothee Brill, a teacher in Berlin, but his mother opposed the marriage. At the end of 1943, he got into an affair with a Frenchwoman, but their relationship became impossible when she was imprisoned for collaboration at the end of the war. While residing in Ford Bliss, von Braun sent a marriage proposal letter to Maria Luise von Quistorp, a woman in intimate relations with his family. Moreover, Maria Luise was his maternal first cousin. In 1947, von Braun flew back to his country and married her in a Lutheran church in Germany. He returned to the United States with his wife and his parents. He and Maria Luise had two daughters and a son.

Von Braun became increasingly religious during his time in the United States and he underwent a conversion from Lutheranism to evangelical Christianity. While living in Germany, von Braun had been a non-practicing Lutheran, who never took religion seriously. During his younger years, he never showed interest in religious matters. In 1946, invited by a neighbor, he attended a church in El Paso, Texas, where he was living at the time. Although he accepted the invitation by mere curiosity, he discovered a lively community that impressed him, making him realize that religion included discipline and effort, two things he valued greatly. In his later years, von Braun became an advocate of his religious beliefs, especially by writing and public speeches. He became an active member in an Episcopal congregation and often spoke publicly about the need to reconcile science and religion.

Although in 1973, von Braun was diagnosed with kidney cancer during a routine medical examination, he continued his work unrestraint, traveling all over the country to speak at colleges and universities. Above all, he wanted to cultivate an interest in spaceflight and rocketry among children and students, hoping to encourage them to become the next successful generation of aerospace engineers.  In early 1977, when he was awarded the 1975 National Medal of Science, his deteriorating health stopped him from attending the White House ceremony in his honor.

Wernher von Braun died of pancreatic cancer on June 16, 1977, at his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

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