Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German and later American aerospace engineer and space architect. He was the leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Germany and a pioneer of rocket technology and space science in the United States.
While in his twenties and early thirties, von Braun worked in Germany’s rocket development program. He helped design and develop the V-2 rocket at Peenemünde during World War II. Following the war, he was secretly moved to the United States, along with about 1,600 other German scientists, engineers, and technicians, as part of Operation Paperclip. He worked for the United States Army on an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) program, and he developed the rockets that launched the United States’ first space satellite Explorer 1.
His group was assimilated into NASA, where he served as director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center and as the chief architect of the Saturn V super heavy-lift launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. In 1975, von Braun received the National Medal of Science. He advocated a human mission to Mars.
Wernher von Braun was born on March 23, 1912, in the small town of Wyrzysk, in the Posen Province, in what was then the German Empire and is now Poland. He was the second of three sons. He belonged to a noble Lutheran family, and from birth he held the title of Freiherr (equivalent to Baron). The German nobility‘s legal privileges were abolished in 1919, although noble titles could still be used as part of the family name.
His father, Magnus Freiherr von Braun (1878–1972), was a civil servant and conservative politician; he served as Minister of Agriculture in the federal government during the Weimar Republic. His mother, Emmy von Quistorp (1886–1959), traced her ancestry through both parents to medieval European royalty and was a descendant of Philip III of France, Valdemar I of Denmark, Robert III of Scotland, and Edward III of England. Wernher had an older brother, the West German diplomat Sigismund von Braun, who served as Secretary of State in the Foreign Office in the 1970s, and a younger brother, also named Magnus von Braun, who was a rocket scientist and later a senior executive with Chrysler.
After Wernher’s confirmation, his mother gave him a telescope, and he developed a passion for astronomy. The family moved to Berlin in 1915, where his father worked at the Ministry of the Interior. Here in 1924, the 12-year-old Wernher, inspired by speed records established by Max Valier and Fritz von Opel in rocket-propelled cars, caused a major disruption in a crowded street by detonating a toy wagon to which he had attached fireworks. He was taken into custody by the local police until his father came to get him.
Wernher learned to play both the cello and the piano at an early age and at one time wanted to become a composer. He took lessons from the composer Paul Hindemith. The few pieces of Wernher’s youthful compositions that exist are reminiscent of Hindemith’s style. He could play piano pieces of Beethoven and Bach from memory.
Beginning in 1925, Wernher attended a boarding school at Ettersburg Castle near Weimar, where he did not do well in physics and mathematics. There he acquired a copy of By Rocket into Planetary Space (Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen, 1923) by rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. In 1928, his parents moved him to the Hermann-Lietz-Internat (also a residential school) on the East Frisian North Sea island of Spiekeroog. Space travel had always fascinated Wernher, and from then on he applied himself to physics and mathematics to pursue his interest in rocket engineering.
In 1930, von Braun attended the Technische Hochschule Berlin, where he joined the Spaceflight Society (Verein für Raumschiffahrt or “VfR”) and assisted Willy Ley in his liquid-fueled rocket motor tests in conjunction with Hermann Oberth. In spring 1932, he graduated with a Diplom in mechanical engineering. His early exposure to rocketry convinced him that the exploration of space would require far more than applications of the current engineering technology. Wanting to learn more about physics, chemistry, and astronomy, von Braun entered the Friedrich-Wilhelm University of Berlin for post-graduate studies and graduated with a doctorate in physics in 1934. He also studied at ETH Zürich for a term from June to October 1931. Although he worked mainly on military rockets in his later years there, space travel remained his primary interest.
In 1930, von Braun attended a presentation given by Auguste Piccard. After the talk, the young student approached the famous pioneer of high-altitude balloon flight, and stated to him: “You know, I plan on traveling to the Moon at some time.” Piccard is said to have responded with encouraging words.
Von Braun was greatly influenced by Oberth, of whom he said:
Hermann Oberth was the first who, when thinking about the possibility of spaceships, grabbed a slide-rule and presented mathematically analyzed concepts and designs … I, myself, owe to him not only the guiding-star of my life, but also my first contact with the theoretical and practical aspects of rocketry and space travel. A place of honor should be reserved in the history of science and technology for his ground-breaking contributions in the field of astronautics.
According to historian Norman Davies, von Braun was able to pursue a career as a rocket scientist in Germany due to a “curious oversight” in the Treaty of Versailles which did not include rocketry in its list of weapons forbidden to Germany.
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Walt Disney and von Braun, seen in 1954 holding a model of his passenger ship, collaborated on a series of three educational films.
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