Wernher von Braun

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Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun

Von Braun in 1960
Born Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun
(1912-03-23)March 23, 1912
Wirsitz (today Wyrzysk), Posen Province, Prussia, Germany
Died June 16, 1977(1977-06-16) (aged 65)
Alexandria, Virginia, US
Resting place Ivy Hill Cemetery (Alexandria, Virginia)
Citizenship Germany, United States (after 1955)
Alma mater Technical University of Berlin
Occupation Rocket engineer and designer, aerospace project manager
Spouse(s) Maria Luise von Quistorp (m. 1947–77)
Children 3
Military career
Allegiance  Nazi Germany
Service/branch SS
Years of service 1937–45
Rank  SS-Sturmbannführer (major)
Other work Rocket engineer, NASA, Chief Architect of the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo manned lunar missions, engineering program manager

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German, later American, aerospace engineer and space architect credited with inventing the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany and the Saturn V for the United States. He was the leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the father of rocket technology and space science in the United States.

Following World War II, he was secretly moved to the United States, along with about 1,600 other scientists, engineers, and technicians, as part of Operation Paperclip, where he developed the rockets that launched the United States' first space satellite Explorer 1, and the Apollo program manned lunar landings.

In his twenties and early thirties, von Braun worked in Nazi Germany's rocket development program, where he helped design and develop the V-2 rocket at Peenemünde during World War II. Following the war, von Braun worked for the United States Army on an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) program before his group was assimilated into NASA. Under NASA, he served as director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center and as the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. In 1975, he received the National Medal of Science. He continued insisting on the human mission to Mars throughout his life.

Early life

Wernher von Braun was born on March 23, 1912 in the small town of Wirsitz, in the Posen Province, of the former German Empire. He was the second of three sons. He belonged to a noble family, his father bearing the German title of Freiherr (equivalent to Baron; the title was abolished in 1919, while his father was still alive, and converted into the surname "Freiherr von Braun").

His father, conservative civil servant Magnus Freiherr von Braun (1878–1972), served as a Minister of Agriculture in the Reich Cabinet during the Weimar Republic. His mother, Emmy von Quistorp (1886–1959), could trace 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. Von Braun had an older brother, Sigismund, and a younger brother, also named Magnus.

After Wernher von Braun's Lutheran 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 12-year-old Wernher von Braun, 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 a number of fireworks. He was taken into custody by the local police until his father came to collect him.

Wernher von Braun was an accomplished amateur pianist who could play Beethoven and Bach from memory. He 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 von Braun’s youthful compositions that exist are reminiscent of Hindemith's style.:11

Beginning in 1925, von Braun 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 von Braun, and from then on he applied himself to physics and mathematics to pursue his interest in rocket engineering.

In 1930, he 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 from the Technische Hochschule Berlin (now Technical University of Berlin), with a diploma 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.

He 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.

German career

According to historian Norman Davies, von Braun was only 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.

Involvement with the Nazi regime

Party membership

Von Braun had an ambivalent and complex relationship with the Nazi regime of the Third Reich. He officially applied for membership in the Nazi Party on November 12, 1937 and was issued with membership number 5,738,692.:96

Michael J. Neufeld, the widely published author of aerospace history and the chief of the Space History Division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, wrote that ten years after von Braun obtained his Nazi Party membership, he produced an affidavit for the U.S. Army misrepresenting the year of his membership, saying incorrectly::96

In 1939, I was officially demanded to join the National Socialist Party. At this time I was already Technical Director at the Army Rocket Center at Peenemünde (Baltic Sea). The technical work carried out there had, in the meantime, attracted more and more attention in higher levels. Thus, my refusal to join the party would have meant that I would have to abandon the work of my life. Therefore, I decided to join. My membership in the party did not involve any political activity.

Whether von Braun's error with regard to the year was deliberate or a simple mistake has never been ascertained, although Neufeld stated that he might have lied on the affidavit.:96 Neufeld further wrote:

Von Braun, like other Peenemünders, was assigned to the local group in Karlshagen; there is no evidence that he did more than send in his monthly dues. But he is seen in some photographs with the party's swastika pin in his lapel – it was politically useful to demonstrate his membership.:96

His attitude toward the National Socialist regime in the late 1930s and early 1940s is difficult to understand. By his own account, he had been so influenced by the early Nazi promise of release from the post–World War I economic effects, that his patriotic feelings had increased. In a 1952 memoir article he admitted that, at that time, he "fared relatively rather well under totalitarianism".:96–97 Yet, he also wrote that "to us, Hitler was still only a pompous fool with a Charlie Chaplin moustache" and that he perceived him as "another Napoleon" who was "wholly without scruples, a godless man who thought himself the only god".

Membership in the Allgemeine SS

Von Braun joined the SS horseback riding school on 1 November 1933 as an SS-Anwärter. He left the following year.:63 In 1940, he joined the SS:47 and was given the rank of Untersturmführer in the Allgemeine SS and issued with membership number 185,068.:121 In 1947, he gave the U.S. War Department this explanation:

In spring 1940, one SS-Standartenfuehrer (SS-colonel) Mueller from Greifswald, a bigger town in the vicinity of Peenemünde, looked me up in my office ... and told me, that Reichsfuehrer SS Himmler had sent him with the order to urge me to join the SS. I told him I was so busy with my rocket work that I had no time to spare for any political activity. He then told me, that ... the SS would cost me no time at all. I would be awarded the rank of a[n] "Untersturmfuehrer" (lieutenant) and it were [sic] a very definite desire of Himmler that I attend his invitation to join.

I asked Mueller to give me some time for reflection. He agreed.

Realizing that the matter was of highly political significance for the relation between the SS and the Army, I called immediately on my military superior ..., Dr. Dornberger. He informed me that the SS had for a long time been trying to get their "finger in the pie" of the rocket work. I asked him what to do. He replied on the spot that if I wanted to continue our mutual work, I had no alternative but to join.

When shown a picture of himself standing behind Himmler, von Braun claimed to have worn the SS uniform only that one time, but in 2002 a former SS officer at Peenemünde told the BBC that von Braun had regularly worn the SS uniform to official meetings. He began as an Untersturmführer (Second lieutenant) and was promoted three times by Himmler, the last time in June 1943 to SS-Sturmbannführer (Major). Von Braun later claimed that these were simply technical promotions received each year regularly by mail.

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