When it comes to the field of rocket science and space exploration, the name Wernher von Braun is one of great esteem. It was in the 1930s-1970s when he made significant contributions to rocket science and space exploration and these contributions made him an important man in history. So much was the importance of his contributions that the German scientist is often called as the “Father of Rocket Science.” First, his works were only noted in Germany, but after the World War II, he also began to be a prominent figure in the United States as well.
Early Life and Educational Background
Wernher von Braun was a part of an aristocratic family. His place of birth Wirsitz, and was the middle child in the brood of three. Magnus Freiherr von Braun, his father, was from an affluent family, and because of this, he and his father both had the title “Freiherr” which is equivalent to being a Baron. Magnus Freiherr von Braun was a conservative civil servant, and he was the Minister of Agriculture in the Federal Cabinet. Emmy von Quistorp, Wernher’s mother, can trace her family’s ancestry back to the medieval European royalties. It was his mother who had started his curiosity for knowing more about outer space.
After Wernher von Braun’s Lutheran confirmation, he received a telescope as a gift from his mother and it was then when he began to love astronomy. When his family transferred residence to Berlin, he had caused a great disruption in one of the crowded streets after having attached and set fire to fireworks on his toy wagon. He drew his inspiration from the speed records made by Fritz von Opel and Max Valier. Apart from his curiosity with fireworks, he was a talented musician who played pieces by masters such as Bach and Beethoven from his memory. He learned how to play both the piano and cello while he was young and though he originally wanted to be a composer, he was destined for greatness in another field.
In 1925 he began to attend a boarding school which was in Ettersburg Castle. During the early years, he wasn’t excelling in mathematics or physics but because of Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen or the book called By Rocket into Interplanetary Space which he acquired back then, he honed his skills in mathematics and physics because space travel was something which has always fascinated him.
He then joined the “Spaceflight Society” or Verein für Raumschiffahrt when he went attended Technische Hochschule Berlin. There he was able to have a hand in assisting Willy Ley in the tests he was conducting for liquid-fueled rockets. Because of this exposure, he believed that so much more would be needed to make space exploration come true and it prompted him to further his studies by entering Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in 1934 to have his post-graduate courses which earned him a degree in physics. While in the following years his work had been focused on military rockets, his real interest was for space travel.
His career can be divided into two main timelines; one where he worked for the Nazis, and the other when he was working for the United States. While working for the Nazis, Wernher von Braun became known as the leader of the “rocket team” who had developed the V-2 missile used by the Nazis in the World War II. Scholars still have discussions about his involvement in the manufacturing of these ballistic missiles which were supposedly products of forced labor in the factory known as Mittelwerk.
The V-2 first flew in October of 1942. However, in 1945, it became clear to Wernher von Braun how Germany wouldn’t win against the Allied forces and this made him begin his plans for where he would be after the war. Before the Allies captured their V-2 rocket complex, it was von Braun who had planned his surrender along with 500 rocket scientists he had been working with on the project. He had also surrendered test vehicles as well as plans for other rockets to the Americans.
Despite his involvement with the Nazis and the manufacturing of ballistic missiles used in the World War II, Wernher von Braun along with the other rocket specialists he had made to surrender had careers when they worked for the United States. It was in June 1945 when he along with this other specialists was transferred to America, but it was only in October of the same year when they were announced in public. The U.S. Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency had first made sure to bleach their records of involvement with the Nazis before allowing them to work for the United States.
He worked in alliance with the United States army for 15 years for the country’s development of ballistic missiles. He was a major part of a military operation which was known as the Project Paperclip, and along with other members of what used to be his “rocket team,” they worked in Fort Bliss, Texas. The rockets they built for the United States army were launched at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, and in 1950, this same team of rocket scientists moved somewhere near Alabama to the Redstone Arsenal.
Around ten years later, the rocket development team lead by Wernher von Braun was transferred to what was then the just established NASA. There, they had received the mandate to create giant Saturn rockets. He then became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center of NASA.
Other than being the brains behind the development of rockets which had helped the Americans reach the Moon, he was also the leading spokesman of the United States for space exploration matters in the 1950s. Twenty years later, NASA then asked him to transfer to Washington, DC for planning efforts for their agency. He did so, leaving his home which was in Alabama but his time there in Washington had been short as he retired two years later. He then spent his last years working for the Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland. In June 16, 1977 he died at the age of 65 in Alexandria, Virginia.