The life and accomplishments of Wernher von Braun are pretty interesting, as his early dreams of space exploration met an historical glitch. Starting out in Germany, von Braun would find a niche in the United States. How did he get there? In this article, you will learn the path that von Braun took to become a leading rocket developer and space exploration pioneer.
The Early Years
Wernher von Braun was born into a relatively prosperous family in what was known as Wirsitz, Germany at the time. Today, his birthplace is called Wyrzysk, Poland. His father was a civil servant turned Minister of Nutrition and Agriculture. His mother belonged to the minor aristocracy. At a young age, von Braun became interested in math and physic after gaining inspiration from one of the fathers of rocketry , Hermann Oberth. As a teen, he joined the German “Society for Space Travel” and in 1930, enrolled at the Technical University of Berlin. It was there that he assisted Oberth with his experiments regarding liquid-fueled rockets.
In 1932, von Braun earned a bachelor’s degree and went on to work for the Ordnance Department of the German Army. One of the subjects that he researched was the development of ballistic missiles. At the same time, he continued to work on his PhD from the University of Berlin until he earned it in 1934.
A Great Change
The Nazi Party had taken over Germany and von Braun had been working on things that showed potential for the German army. Even his doctoral thesis was kept classified by the army. von Braun was assigned to work on the Aggregat series of rockets, which incorporated design elements from the first attempt at rocket science. von Braun started working on creating a larger rocket than previously constructed.
Putting Talents to Work
With impressive academic credentials in his pocket, von Braun also possessed the ability to assimilate and analyze data. Pair those skills with the makings of a leader and in 1937, von Braun was given the position of technical director of the Peenemunde Rocket Center on the Baltic coast , founded on the order of Hitler. Germany was not allowed to develop or possess certain kinds of weapons because of the Treaty of Versailles. However, rockets had not been mentioned as forbidden. von Braun experimented with guiding systems and other technology to create the V-2 rocket, which Hitler planned to use as an answer for Allied bombings in Germany.
While the huge flying bombs were the first missiles to reach space flight, they were constructed with the help of forced labor at a factory. In the process, about 20,000 people died of maltreatment, malnutrition, and execution for acts of sabotage.
About 3,000 V-2 rockets were launched- taking more than 7,000 lives in Belgium and London. When it was clear that Germany was not going to win the war, von Braun took his team of more than 100 engineers ahead of the advancing Russian troops. He planned on surrendering to the Americans , the only Allied nation at the time that he believed would have a space program. The United States gladly transported von Braun, his team, 100 V-2 rockets, and 300 train carloads of V-2 spare parts to Fort Bliss in Texas. It was there that they received a mandate to continue their research.
His Contribution to NASA
von Braun spent more than 20 years contributing to the United States , from military ballistic missile development to serving as NASA’s director of the Marshall Space Flight Center. He also played a role in directing the development of the Saturn V multistage liquid-fuel rocket that the Americans used to reach the Moon.