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Wernher von Braun
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Wernher von Braun

(c. 1912–1977)
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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.

Who Was Wernher von Braun?

Wernher von Braun was one of the most important German weapons specialists to work on rocketry and jet propulsion in the United States after World War II. 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.

Early Years

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.

Last Years in Germany

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.

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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 09: John Major attends the annual Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph on Whitehall on November 9, 2014 in London, United Kingdom. People across the UK gather to pay tribute to service personnel who have died in the two World Wars and subsequent conflicts, with this year taking on added significance as it is the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

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Working in the United States

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 in 1952. There, working alongside Dr. William H. Pickering, former director of JPL, and Dr. James A. van Allen, he was an integral part of the team that successfully launched the first American artificial earth satellite, Explorer I on January 31, 1958. Leading the Army's Redstone Arsenal team, von Braun was responsible for the first stage Redstone Juno-I rocket that launched Explorer I. In addition, under his direction, the Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), and the Pershing missile were developed. During this period, Von Braun also become a legal U.S. citizen in 1955.

As director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Marshall Space Flight Center, from 1960 to 1970, von Braun developed the Saturn IB and Saturn V space vehicles, as well as the Saturn I rocket for the Apollo 8 moon orbit in 1969. Each launch was successful. Because he was good looking and outgoing, von Braun was occasionally the butt of both humorous and serious verbal attacks regarding the notion of former German scientists working for the U.S. space program.

In 1972, von Braun became vice president at the aerospace company Fairchild Industries, Inc. He founded the National Space Institute, aimed at gaining public support for space activities, a few years later.

Death and Legacy

Von Braun died on June 16, 1977. Throughout his long career, von Braun received several U.S. honors, as well as awards from professional societies worldwide. He authored and co-authored various works on rocket science and physics. Today, von Braun is still considered one of the most important weapons specialists in the field of rocketry and jet propulsion in the United States.

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