Wernher von Braun—Rocket Scientist and Engineer
Wernher von Braun was a German-American aerospace engineer and space architect who was key to the development of 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 founders of the space program in the United States.
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, 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.
Early 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 was not made public until 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 1.4 miles (2.2 km) and 2.2 miles (3.5 km), and they continued their research and experiments 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 could 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 which were superior and more reliable than those of von Braun’s.
World War II
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, yet he was afraid that his refusal to join the party would have taken him away from his work. However, during a memoir article from 1952, von Braun confessed that he had 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).
The new rocket program developed by the regime became a remarkable success but it had a shortage of workers. SS General Hans Kammler, the engineer behind many concentration camps, 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. Although Von Braun visited the Mittelwerk site several times and he agreed that the work conditions at the plant were harsh, he claimed to have never 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.
From October 1942, Von Braun was put under surveillance, 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. 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. Accused of treason, von Braun was in danger of receiving the death penalty.
On March 14, 1944, von Braun was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to a cell in Stettin, Poland. He spent two weeks in the cell, not even aware of the charges held upon him. 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 and Von Braun returned to work on the rocket program.
Career in the United States
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. After a forced relocation in central Germany and an ambiguous order from an army chief who asked him to join the army and fight against the Soviets, von Braun falsified some documents and took his affiliates back to Mittelwerk to resume his work on the rockets. 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. Shortly after, von Braun and many others from his engineering team run off to Austria. Von Braun, his brother, who was also a rocket engineer, and their teammates approached an American soldier and told him they want to surrender.
They were all taken into the custody of the U.S. Army, who 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. 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.
Von Braun and a part of his staff were transferred to Fort Bliss, an Army installation near El Paso, Texas. The hot desert conditions of south Texas were no comparable to those he experienced Peenemunde. Von Braun spent his time there training military and industrial personnel in rocketry and guided missiles technology, but he continued to expand his research on rockets, especially for military applications. In 1950, the team was transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, where von Braun lived for the next twenty years. Although he 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. It was the beginning of a new era for the United States as the event marked the birth of the space program.
Birth of the Space Program
While in the United States, Von Braun was still dreaming about the possibility to use rockets for space exploration. He published a series of articles about a manned space station for which he had prepared the design and engineering plan. The space station that he envisioned was to become an assembly platform for a future manned lunar expedition. He also developed concepts for manned missions to Mars. To popularize his ideas, von Braun started to work with Walt Disney as a technical director for Disney Studios which produced three films about space exploration that gathered a massive audience. Von Braun also published a booklet in 1959 describing his concepts of manned lunar landing.
In 1957, after the launch of Sputnik 1, the United States chose to assign von Bran and his German team the task of building an orbital launch vehicle. On July 29, 1958, NASA was officially established, and two years later, the Marshall Space Flight Center in 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. After a series of disappointing tests and experiments, the Marshall Center’s first important success was the development of Saturn rockets able to carry heavy loads into Earth orbit. The next step was the manned Moon flights program, named Apollo. Von Braun’s dream of helping humankind reach the Moon became real on July 16, 1969. The Saturn V rocket of the Marshall Center sent the crew of Apollo 11 to the Moon.
After a series of internal conflicts and budget cuts, Von Braun decided to retire, considering his mission at NASA complete. Shortly after, he became Vice President for Engineering and Development at Fairchild Industries, an aerospace company from Germantown, Maryland. Although a year later he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, he continued to work and to speak publicly about spaceflight and rocketry. He also founded and developed the National Space Institute. As his health began to deteriorate, von Braun was forced to retire completely in 1976.
As a young man, Von Braun was popular with the ladies. 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 close to his family. In 1947, he flew to Germany and married Maria Louise in a Lutheran church in Germany. The couple had three children.
Von Braun became increasingly religious during his time in the United States, and he underwent a conversion from Lutheranism to evangelical Christianity. In his later years, he became an advocate of his religious beliefs, writing and giving public speeches about the relation between science, religion, and afterlife.
Wernher von Braun died of pancreatic cancer on June 16, 1977, at his home in Alexandria, Virginia.
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Neufeld, M.J. Von Braun : Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. Vintage Books. 2007.
Ward, B. Dr. Space – The Life of Wernher von Braun. Naval institute Press. 2005.
West, Doug. Dr. Wernher von Braun: A Short Biography: Pioneer of Rocketry and Space Exploration. C&D Publications. 2017.