Wernher von Braun

engineer, b. 23 March 1912 (Wirsitz, Germany, today's Wyrzysk, Poland), d. 16 June 1977 (Alexandria, USA)

Wernher von Braun was the son of the Prussian baron and banking director Magnus Freiherr von Braun. As a high school student he became so interested in rocket technology that he applied himself to the study of mathematics until he moved from well below average to top of his class. He studied engineering at Berlin's Charlottenburg Institute of Technology, graduated in 1932 with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering and joined Berlin University.

The "Verein fr Raumschiffahrt" (Society for Spaceship Travel), an organization of enthusiasts von Braun had helped to form, ran into financial difficulties in 1932. The German military was aware of von Braun's abilities and the potential of rocket propulsion in warfare, and the head of solid-fuel rocket research and development in the Ordnance Department arranged a research grant for him. As a result von Braun had a small research station at his disposal, adjacent to the military's rocket test facility while he was working towards his Ph.D. degree.

In 1934 von Braun successfully launched two rockets that rose vertically for more the than 2.2 kilometres. He graduated with a thesis entitled Konstruktive, theoretische und experimentelle Beiträge zu dem Problem der Flüssigkeitsrakete (Contributions to the problem of construction, theory and experiment of the fluid-fuel rocket) that contained the description of the theory and trial of 300- and 600-pound-thrust rocket engines. The thesis was classified a military secret and its publication suppressed.

Private construction and testing of rockets had already been forbidden by decree, and any work on rockets had to be done through the military, which after Hitler's rise to power in 1933 was not hiding its preparations for war. Von Braun had become a member of the SS (Schutzstaffel), the elite corps of the National Socialists, and in 1937 was appointed Director of the new rocket research station at Peenemünde. With a staff of up to 20,000 he worked for the development of long distance rockets. By 1943, three years into World War II, his model A4 rocket reached Mach 4 (four times the speed of sound).

Following the successful test flight the A4 was re-badged V2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2 or Revenge Weapon 2), and forced labour from the Buchenwald concentration camp was used to put it into mass production. The following year V2 rockets hit targets in the Netherlands, Belgium and London, while development of the A9 and A10 proceeded with the aim to reach the USA.

When the Soviet Red Army advanced on Peenemünde in 1945, von Braun and 500 employees fled to southern Germany and surrendered to the US army. The USA organized the transport of the remaining V2s, spare parts and design plans from Peenemünde to America and evacuated von Braun with 126 others to Fort Bliss in Texas.

In the USA von Braun restarted his career as a rocket engineer for the US military. In 1952 he became technical director of the US Army's Ballistic Missile Agency at Huntsville, Alabama and was chiefly responsible for the manufacture and successful launching of Redstone, Jupiter-C, Juno and Pershing missiles. After 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched its first satellite, Braun concentrated on the development of space rockets and launched Explorer I in January 1958.

In 1960, following the foundation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), von Braun became director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, where he developed the Saturn rocket that helped the United States to the moon in 1969. Other developments under his direction include the construction of the Apollo space ship series and of the first space station Skylab.

A drastic reduction of funding for the national space programme in 1972 caused von Braun to move to private industry. He became Vice-President of Fairchild Industries Inc. in 1972 and established the private National Space Institute in 1975.

For his work in Germany von Braun was decorated by Hitler with the Kriegsverdienstkreuz mit Schwertern (War Cross with Swords) medal. In the USA a statement from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) says: "In 1948 Wernher Von Braun was described as the most important of the German scientists employed by the Department of the Army at Fort Bliss. He was the subject of generally favorable background investigations in 1948 and 1961 in connection with his work in the rocket science field for the United States Government." His application for USA citizenship was accepted in 1955.


Federal Bureau of Investigation (2004) Wernher Von Braun. http://foia.fbi.gov/vonbraun.htm (accessed 25 July 2004)

Fraunhofer Institut für Software- und Systemtechnik (ISST), Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) and Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (2004) LeMO: Lebendiges virtuelles Museum Online Wernher Freiherr von Braun. http://www.dhm.de/lemo/html/biografien/BraunWernher/ (accessed 25 July 2004)