German-American rocket engineer who developed the first practical space rockets and launchers and became known as the father of the space age.
As a young man, Wernher von Braun became intrigued with the possibilities for space exploration, joining the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) in the spring of 1930. In 1932, he went to work for the German army to develop rockets and missiles. After earning his doctorate in physics in 1934, von Braun was appointed the director of Germany’s military rocket development program. Under pressure from German chancellor Adolf Hitler, Wernher subjugated his dreams of space travel to Germany’s demand for weapons. Operating at a secret laboratory along the Baltic Coast, von Braun and other German scientists built and tested the V-1 cruise missile and the V-2 ballistic missile. When the German war machine collapsed in 1945, von Braun hid all of the classified rocket documents in an abandoned mine in Germany’s Harz Mountains.
On May 2, 1945, the German rocket team surrendered to American forces. Von Braun and his research team were transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas, along with the German rocket documents and approximately 150 captured V-2 missiles. At the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, during the 1950’s, von Braun and his team built the Jupiter ballistic missile. Between 1952 and 1954, von Braun developed one of the first comprehensive space exploration programs in the world. He led the team that put the Explorer 1, the first American satellite, into orbit on January 31, 1958. After being transferred to the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1960, von Braun was given the mandate to build the giant Saturn rockets.
Von Braun was appointed the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, serving in that capacity from July, 1960, until February, 1970. In that position, he designed and oversaw the development of the Saturn I, Saturn IB, and Saturn V rockets. On July 16, 1969, a Saturn V launched the crew of Apollo 11 to their successful landing on the Moon.
In 1970, von Braun moved to Washington, D.C., to oversee the strategic planning effort of NASA. He was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford in early 1977. Von Braun was one of the world’s first and foremost rocket engineers and a leading authority on space travel. His intense desire to expand man’s knowledge through the exploration of space led to humans’ setting foot on the Moon.
Bergaust, Erik. Wernher von Braun: The Authoritative and Definitive Biographical Profile of the Father of Modern Space Flight. Washington, D.C.: National Space Institute, 1976. An authoritative, definitive biographical profile. Lampton, Christopher. Wernher von Braun. New York: Watts, 1988. Traces the life and achievements of von Braun as the father of modern rocketry. Piszkiewicz, Dennis. The Nazi Rocketeers: Dreams of Space and Crimes of War. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995. An excellent account of the history of rocket development and the role von Braun played in it.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
World War II
Wernher von Braun stands in front of the Saturn IB launch vehicle, designed by his team of expatriate German scientists, at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in 1968.