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Wernher von Braun was a German engineer who worked on rocket technology, first for Germany and then for the United States.
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Wernher von Braun was one of the most important German weapons specialists to work on rocketry and jet propulsion in the U.S. after WWII. He disapproved of military use of the rocket and surrendered willingly to American troops in 1945, eventually becoming technical director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Guided Missile Project in Alabama. He was also chiefly responsible for rocketry for the nation's space program.
Engineer and rocket expert Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany (now Wyrzysk, Poland) on March 23, 1912, to a wealthy family. After receiving a telescope from his mother at a young age, von Braun developed a passion for astronomy. In 1925, now living with his family in Berlin, von Braun began reading Hermann Oberth's Die Rakete zu den Planetenrumen ("The Rocket into Interplanetary Space"), which spurred his desire to better understand science and math, as the subjects related to space exploration. With his new dedication to his studies, von Braun became a top student.
Von Braun enrolled at the Berlin Institute of Technology in the late 1920s, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1932. He then enrolled at the University of Berlin to study physics. While completing his graduate studies, von Braun conducted in-depth research on rocketry, for which he received a grant from the Ordnance Department of Germany. The grant financed von Braun's research at a research station not far from Berlin, next to the solid-fuel rocket facility of then-Captain Walter Dornberger, a department head for the Ordnance Department's armed forces. In 1934, he obtained a doctorate degree in physics from the University of Berlin. That same year, von Braun led a group that successfully launched two liquid-fueled rockets more than 1.5 miles.
Moving to a new facility in the early 1940s in Peenemünde, a village in northeastern Germany, von Braun worked with Dornberger and the rest of his crew to again successfully launch rockets, as well as develop the supersonic anti-aircraft missile Wasserfall and the ballistic missile A-4. The A-4 became known as the "V-2," meaning "Vengeance Weapon 2." Adolf Hitler soon became interested in using the V-2 for military purposes (Germany had started World War II in 1939 by invading Poland), and when von Braun refused to cooperate with Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler's attempted takeover of the V-2 project, he was imprisoned on espionage charges. Not long after, however, Hitler personally released von Braun. Despite never receiving approval from von Braun, German forces deployed the V-2 flying bomb against Britain in 1944.
In 1945, von Braun—as well as his brother, Magnus, and von Braun's entire rocketry team—surrendered willingly to American troops. Signing a one-year contract with the U.S. Army, von Braun was flown to America, where he eventually became technical director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Guided Missile Project in Alabama. There, he was chiefly responsible for manufacturing and launching the first American artificial earth satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. At that time, von Braun was living in Alabama (he moved there in 1952), and had become a legal U.S. citizen.
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