Wernher von Braun Biography (1912-1977)


The son of a German nobleman and his wife, an amateur astronomer, von Braun was fascinated early on with astronomy and the idea of interplanetary travel.Upon graduating from high school, von Braun joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), a group of talented amateur scientists who built several experimental rockets that achieved heights of up to a mile (1.6 km).

When Adolf Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, the German military tookcontrol of the group and banned further private research in rocket technology. In 1932 von Braun became a civilian employee of the German army while he worked on his doctorate in physics from the University of Berlin, which he earned in 1934. Although he dreamed of using rockets for space exploration, von Braun worked with indefatigable energy throughout World War II at Peenemünde, an army research center on the Baltic coast, developing the long range missiles needed by Germany to achieve air superiority. At one point the Gestapo arrested and jailed von Braun for allegedly focusing on exploratory spaceflight to the detriment of Germany's war effort.

The most important achievement of von Braun and his colleagues was the A-4 rocket. Successfully launched in 1942, the A-4 weighed 5.5 tons (4.9 metric tons) and travelled at a speed 3,000 miles per hour (4,800 kph) and a height of60 miles (96.5 km). The rocket was later renamed the V-2 (Vengeance Weapon 2)and used against Great Britain, beginning on September 7, 1944. "When I heard about this," von Braun later recounted, "it was the darkest hour of my life." By the end of the war, over 1,000 rockets carrying 2,500 pounds (1,130 kg)of explosives were fired at Great Britain. However, the V-2 had been developed too late in the war and did little to reverse the tide against Nazi Germany. Near the end of the war von Braun was ordered to move to a camp in Bavaria. Because he suspected that he and his co-workers would be killed rather thanallowed to surrender, they hid in small villages until they were able to turn themselves--and their equipment--over to American forces.

Von Braun and 126 other German scientists were hired and brought to the United States under the code name Project Paperclip. They continued their rocket research at the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico and soon transferredto the U.S. Army base in Huntsville, Alabama, where they constructed a new rocket called the Redstone. Twice as large as the V-2, it stood 70 feet (21.35m) tall and was capable of a thrust of 78,000 pounds (35,412 kg). In addition to his research, von Braun wrote articles for periodicals and spoke with missionary zeal about future space travel. In 1954 he suggested using the new rocket to launch a satellite into orbit, but the government decided to go instead with a Navy proposal, called Project Vanguard.

Undeterred, von Braun developed the Jupiter-C, a four-stage jet capable of flights 700 miles (1,126 km) high and 3,300 miles (5,309 km) in distance. Whenthe Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. space program shifted into high gear. The Vanguard had one miserable failure after another, so the Americans turned to von Braun and his Jupiter-C. On January 31, 1958, it launched Explorer 1 into orbit.

With this success and enthusiastic public support, von Braun pursued more projects for his rockets. He proposed boosting a small capsule with a human passenger into a short flight through outer space. It would be only a suborbitalflight since the Redstone did not have the thrust to boost such a large object into orbit. Von Braun's Redstone was used for two of these short flights: Alan Shepard, Jr. (1923- ) went up for 15 minutes in May, 1961; Virgil ("Gus")Grissom (1926-1967) made a similar flight the following July. When von Braunmoved to NASA (National Aeronautical and Space Administration), he worked onthe Saturn rocket. This rocket was to be America's answer to the giant boosters used by the Russians. The Saturn was a monster: it was 150 feet (45.75 m)tall and 21 feet (6.4 m) thick at the base. A variation, called Saturn 5, was used to send the first men to the moon, starting with the Apollo 8 , launched in December, 1968.

Von Braun stayed with NASA until the Apollo missions halted in the early 1970s. He wanted to work on a manned mission to Mars, but the public had lost interest in the space program. He did, however, help in the early stages of thespace shuttle program before retiring in 1972.

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