Wernher von Braun
|Wernher von Braun|
Von Braun at his desk at Marshall Space Flight Centre in May 1964, with models of the Saturn rocket family
|Born||Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun
March 23, 1912
Wirsitz, Provinz Posen, German Empire
(modern Wyrzysk, Piła County, Poland)
|Died||June 16, 1977
Alexandria, Virginia, United States
|Cause of death||Pancreatic cancer|
|Resting place||Alexandria, Virginia, United States|
Technical University of BerlinETH Zurich
|Occupation||Rocket engineer and designer|
|Spouse(s)||Maria Luise von Quistorp (m. 1947 – 1977)|
|Children||Iris Careen von Braun
Margrit Cecile von Braun
Peter Constantine von Braun
|Parents||Magnus von Braun (senior) (1877–1972)
Emmy von Quistorp (1886–1959)
|Years of service||1937–1945|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards|| Knights Cross of the War Merit Cross (1944)
War Merit Cross, First Class with Swords (1943)
|Other work||Rocket engineer, NASA, Built the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo manned moon missions|
Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German rocket scientist, aerospace engineer, space architect, and one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Nazi Germany during World War II and, subsequently, in the United States. He is credited as being the "Father of Rocket Science".
In his 20s and early 30s, von Braun was the central figure in Germany's rocket development program, responsible for the design and realization of the V-2 combat rocket during World War II. After the war, he and some select members of his rocket team were taken to the United States as part of the then-secret Operation Paperclip. Von Braun worked on the United States Army intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) program before his group was assimilated by NASA. Under NASA, he served as director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Centre and as the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. According to one NASA source, he is "without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history". His crowning achievement was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969. In 1975 he received the National Medal of Science.
Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Province of Posen, then a part of the German Empire, and was the second of three sons. He belonged to an aristocratic family, inheriting the German title of Freiherr (equivalent to Baron). His father, conservative civil servant Magnus Freiherr von Braun (1878–1972), served as a Minister of Agriculture in the Federal Cabinet during the Weimar Republic. His mother, Emmy von Quistorp (1886–1959), could trace her ancestry through both parents to medieval European royalty, a descendant of Philip III of France, Valdemar I of Denmark, Robert III of Scotland, and Edward III of England. Through Edward III, Von Braun would be a descendant of Mieszko I of Poland and Charlemagne. Von Braun had a younger brother, also named Magnus Freiherr von Braun. After Wernher von Braun's Lutheran confirmation, his mother gave him a telescope, and he developed a passion for astronomy. When Wyrzysk was transferred to Poland at the end of World War I, his family, like many other German families, moved to Germany. They settled in Berlin, where 12-year-old 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 musician who could play Beethoven and Bach from memory. Von Braun learned to play the cello and the piano at an early age and originally wanted to become a composer. He took lessons from composer Paul Hindemith. The few pieces of von Braun’s youthful compositions that exist are reminiscent of Hindemith’s style.
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 Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (1923) (By Rocket into Interplanetary Space) (in German) 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 Berlin Institute of Technology, where he joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR, the "Spaceflight Society") and assisted Willy Ley in his liquid-fueled rocket motor tests in conjunction with Hermann Oberth. In the spring of 1932, he was graduated from the Berlin Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical 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 University of Berlin for graduate study. He was graduated with a Ph.D. in physics in 1934. He also studied at ETH Zurich. Although he worked mainly on military rockets in his later years there, space travel remained his primary interest.
The following episode from the early 1930s is telling in this respect. At this time 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 travelling to the Moon at some time." Piccard is said to have responded with encouraging words.
He was greatly influenced by Oberth, and he said of him:
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 honour should be reserved in the history of science and technology for his ground-breaking contributions in the field of astronautics.
Involvement with the Nazi regime
Von Braun had an ambivalent and complex relationship with the regime of the Third Reich. He officially applied for membership in the NSDAP on November 12, 1937 and was issued membership number 5,738,692.
Ten years later he stated in an affidavit for the U.S. Army:
- "In 1939, I was officially demanded to join the National Socialist Party. At this time I was already Technical Director at the Army Rocket Centre 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].
Michael J. Neufeld, the acclaimed author and chief of the Space History Division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, writes:
- "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."
As for his attitude toward the National Socialist regime in the late 1930s and early 1940s, there can be little doubt that he was a loyal, perhaps mildly enthusiastic subject of Hitler's dictatorship. With the Führer going from success to success—eliminating unemployment, tearing up the Versailles Treaty, rearming, reoccupying the Rhineland, and then in 1938 absorbing Austria and the Czech Sudetenland without war—there is no doubt that the regime, but above all Hitler, had become immensely popular. Von Braun, a German nationalist immersed in a military environment, doubtlessly found much he could like about these accomplishments, and little reason to be disturbed, especially in view of how much money had been poured into his beloved rocketry as a result of rearmament. He admitted in a 1952 memoir article that he "fared relatively rather well under totalitarianism."
Membership in the Allgemeine SS
Von Braun joined the Allgemeine SS, which was not an armed unit. 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 Peenemuende, 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."
Von Braun joined the organization and was issued membership number 185,068.
Michael J. Neufeld writes:
- "As with von Braun's party membership, we have no truly independent account of what happened, but his story is plausible."
Von Braun's feelings for the regime may have changed when he was arrested and accused of being a "communist sympathizer" who had attempted to sabotage or delay the weapons program. These charges could have led to the death penalty for treason. Not helping the matter was that von Braun had skills as a pilot and had access to an aircraft, which might have allowed him to escape to England. (See: Arrest and release by the Nazi regime).
When shown a picture of him behind Himmler, 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 claimed this was a technical promotion received each year regularly by mail.
The Prussian rocketeer and working under the Nazis
Von Braun was working on his creative doctorate when the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, or Nazi party) came to power in a coalition government in Germany; rocketry almost immediately became part of the national agenda. An artillery captain, Walter Dornberger, arranged an Ordnance Department research grant for Von Braun, who then worked next to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test site at Kummersdorf. He was awarded a doctorate in physics ( aerospace engineering) on July 27, 1934 from the University of Berlin for a thesis titled About Combustion Tests; his doctoral advisor was Erich Schumann. However, this thesis was only the public part of von Braun's work. His actual full thesis, Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket (dated April 16, 1934) was kept classified by the army, and was not published until 1960. By the end of 1934, his group had successfully launched two rockets that rose to heights of 2.2 and 3.5 kilometers.
At the time, Germany was highly interested in American physicist Robert H. Goddard's research. Before 1939, German scientists occasionally contacted Goddard directly with technical questions. Wernher von Braun used Goddard's plans from various journals and incorporated them into the building of the Aggregat (A) series of rockets. The A-4 rocket would become well known as the V-2. In 1963, von Braun reflected on the history of rocketry, and said of Goddard's work: "His rockets ... may have been rather crude by present-day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles." Goddard confirmed his work was used by von Braun in 1944, shortly before the Nazis began firing V-2s at England. A V-2 crashed in Sweden and some parts were sent to an Annapolis lab where Goddard was doing research for the Navy. If this was the so-called Bäckebo Bomb, it had been procured by the British in exchange for Spitfires; Annapolis would have received some parts from them. Goddard is reported to have recognized components he had invented, and inferred that his brainchild had been turned into a weapon.
There were no German rocket societies after the collapse of the VfR, and civilian rocket tests were forbidden by the new Nazi regime. Only military development was allowed and to this end, a larger facility was erected at the village of Peenemünde in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea. Dornberger became the military commander at Peenemünde, with von Braun as technical director. In collaboration with the Luftwaffe, the Peenemünde group developed liquid-fuel rocket engines for aircraft and jet-assisted takeoffs. They also developed the long-range A-4 ballistic missile and the supersonic Wasserfall anti-aircraft missile.
On December 22, 1942, Adolf Hitler signed the order approving the production of the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon" and the group developed it to target London. Following von Braun's July 7, 1943 presentation of a colour movie showing an A-4 taking off, Hitler was so enthusiastic that he personally made von Braun a professor shortly thereafter. In Germany at this time, this was an exceptional promotion for an engineer who was only 31 years old.
By that time the British and Soviet intelligence agencies were aware of the rocket program and von Braun's team at Peenemünde. Over the nights of August 17 and 18, 1943 RAF Bomber Command's Operation Hydra dispatched raids on the Peenemünde camp consisting of 596 aircraft and dropped 1,800 tons of explosives. The facility was salvaged and most of the science team remained unharmed; however, the raids killed von Braun's engine designer Walter Thiel and Chief Engineer Walther, and the rocket program was delayed.
The first combat A-4, renamed the V-2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2 "Retaliation/Vengeance Weapon 2") for propaganda purposes, was launched toward England on September 7, 1944, only 21 months after the project had been officially commissioned. Von Braun's interest in rockets was specifically for the application of space travel, which led him to say on hearing the news from London: "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet." He described it as his "darkest day". However, satirist Mort Sahl is often credited with mocking von Braun with the paraphrase "I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London". In fact that line appears in the film I Aim at the Stars, a 1960 biopic on von Braun.
Experiments with rocket aircraft
During 1936 von Braun's rocketry team working at Kummersdorf investigated installing liquid-fuelled rockets in aircraft. Ernst Heinkel enthusiastically supported their efforts, supplying a He 72 and later two He 112s for the experiments. Late in 1936 Erich Warsitz was seconded by the RLM to Wernher von Braun and Ernst Heinkel, because he had been recognized as one of the most experienced test-pilots of the time, and because he also had an extraordinary fund of technical knowledge. After von Braun familiarized Warsitz with a test-stand run, showing him the corresponding apparatus in the aircraft, he asked:
“Are you with us and will you test the rocket in the air? Then, Warsitz, you will be a famous man. And later we will fly to the moon – with you at the helm!”
In June 1937, at Neuhardenberg (a large field about 70 kilometres east of Berlin, listed as a reserve airfield in the event of war), one of these latter aircraft was flown with its piston engine shut down during flight by test pilot Erich Warsitz, at which time it was propelled by von Braun’s rocket power alone. Despite the wheels-up landing and having the fuselage on fire, it proved to official circles that an aircraft could be flown satisfactorily with a back-thrust system through the rear.
At the same time, Hellmuth Walter's experiments into hydrogen peroxide-based rockets were leading towards light and simple rockets that appeared well-suited for aircraft installation. Also the firm of Hellmuth Walter at Kiel had been commissioned by the RLM to build a rocket engine for the He 112, so there were two different new rocket motor designs at Neuhardenberg: whereas von Braun’s engines were powered by alcohol and liquid oxygen, Walter engines had hydrogen peroxide and calcium permanganate as a catalyst. Von Braun’s engines used direct combustion and created fire, the Walter devices used hot vapours from a chemical reaction, but both created thrust and provided high speed. The subsequent flights with the He 112 used the Walter-rocket instead of von Braun's; it was more reliable, simpler to operate and the dangers to test-pilot Erich Warsitz and machine were less.
SS General Hans Kammler, who as an engineer had constructed several concentration camps including Auschwitz, had a reputation for brutality and had originated the idea of using concentration camp prisoners as slave laborers in the rocket program. Arthur Rudolph, chief engineer of the V-2 rocket factory at Peenemünde, endorsed this idea in April 1943 when a labor shortage developed. More people died building the V-2 rockets than were killed by it as a weapon. Von Braun admitted visiting the plant at Mittelwerk on many occasions, and called conditions at the plant "repulsive," but claimed never to have witnessed any deaths or beatings, although it had become clear to him by 1944 that deaths had occurred. He denied ever having visited the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp itself, where 20,000 died from illness, beatings, hangings and intolerable working conditions.
On August 15, 1944, von Braun wrote a letter to Albin Sawatzki, manager of the V-2 production, admitting that he personally picked labor slaves from the Buchenwald concentration camp, who, he admitted 25 years later in an interview, had been in a "pitiful shape".
In Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space, numerous statements by von Braun show he was aware of the conditions but felt completely unable to change them. A friend quotes von Braun speaking of a visit to Mittelwerk:
It is hellish. My spontaneous reaction was to talk to one of the SS guards, only to be told with unmistakable harshness that I should mind my own business, or find myself in the same striped fatigues!... I realized that any attempt of reasoning on humane grounds would be utterly futile.
When asked if von Braun could have protested against the brutal treatment of the slave laborers, von Braun team member Konrad Dannenberg told The Huntsville Times, "If he had done it, in my opinion, he would have been shot on the spot."
Others claim von Braun engaged in brutal treatment or approved of it. Guy Morand, a French resistance fighter who was a prisoner in Dora, testified in 1995 that after an apparent sabotage attempt:
Without even listening to my explanations, [von Braun] ordered the Meister to have me given 25 strokes...Then, judging that the strokes weren't sufficiently hard, he ordered I be flogged more vigorously...von Braun made me translate that I deserved much more, that in fact I deserved to be hanged...I would say his cruelty, of which I was personally a victim, are, I would say, an eloquent testimony to his Nazi fanaticism.
Robert Cazabonne, another French prisoner, testified that von Braun stood by and watched as prisoners were hung by chains from hoists. Von Braun claimed he "never saw any kind of abuse or killing" and only "heard rumors...that some prisoners had been hanged in the underground galleries".
Arrest and release by the Nazi regime
According to André Sellier, a French historian and survivor of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, Himmler had von Braun come to his Hochwald HQ in East Prussia in February 1944. To increase his power-base within the Nazi régime, Heinrich Himmler was conspiring to use Kammler to gain control of all German armament programs, including the V-2 program at Peenemünde. He therefore recommended that von Braun work more closely with Kammler to solve the problems of the V-2. Von Braun claimed to have replied that the problems were merely technical and he was confident that they would be solved with Dornberger's assistance.
Von Braun had been under SD surveillance since October 1943. A report stated that he and his colleagues Riedel and Gröttrup were said to have expressed regret at an engineer's house one evening that they were not working on a spaceship and that they felt the war was not going well; this was considered a "defeatist" attitude. A young female dentist who was an SS spy reported their comments. Combined with Himmler's false charges that von Braun was a communist sympathizer and had attempted to sabotage the V-2 program, and considering that von Braun regularly piloted his government-provided airplane that might allow him to escape to England, this led to his arrest by the Gestapo.
The unsuspecting von Braun was detained on March 14 (or March 15), 1944 and was taken to a Gestapo cell in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where he was held for two weeks without knowing the charges against him. Through the Abwehr in Berlin, Dornberger obtained von Braun's conditional release and Albert Speer, Reichsminister for Munitions and War Production, convinced Hitler to reinstate von Braun so that the V-2 program could continue. Quoting from the "Führerprotokoll" (the minutes of Hitler's meetings) dated May 13, 1944 in his memoirs, Speer later relayed what Hitler had finally conceded: "In the matter concerning B. I will guarantee you that he will be exempt from persecution as long as he is indispensable for you, in spite of the difficult general consequences this will have."
Surrender to the Americans
The Soviet Army was about 160 km from Peenemünde in the spring of 1945 when von Braun assembled his planning staff and asked them to decide how and to whom they should surrender. Afraid of the well known Soviet cruelty to prisoners of war, von Braun and his staff decided to try to surrender to the Americans. Kammler had ordered relocation of von Braun's team to central Germany; however, a conflicting order from an army chief ordered them to join the army and fight. Deciding that Kammler's order was their best bet to defect to the Americans, von Braun fabricated documents and transported 500 of his affiliates to the area around Mittelwerk, where they resumed their work. For fear of their documents being destroyed by the SS, von Braun ordered the blueprints to be hidden in an abandoned mine shaft in the Harz mountain range.
While on an official trip in March, von Braun suffered a complicated fracture of his left arm and shoulder after his driver fell asleep at the wheel. His injuries were serious, but he insisted that his arm be set in a cast so he could leave the hospital. Due to this neglect of the injury he had to be hospitalized again a month later where his bones had to be re-broken and re-aligned.
In April, as the Allied forces advanced deeper into Germany, Kammler ordered the science team to be moved by train into the town of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps where they were closely guarded by the SS with orders to execute the team if they were about to fall into enemy hands. However, von Braun managed to convince SS Major Kummer to order the dispersion of the group into nearby villages so that they would not be an easy target for U.S. bombers.
On May 2, 1945, upon finding an American private from the U.S. 44th Infantry Division, von Braun's brother and fellow rocket engineer, Magnus, approached the soldier on a bicycle, calling out in broken English: "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender." After the surrender, von Braun spoke to the press:
"We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.”
The American high command was well aware of how important their catch was: von Braun had been at the top of the Black List, the code name for the list of German scientists and engineers targeted for immediate interrogation by U.S. military experts. On June 19, 1945, two days before the scheduled handover of the area to the Soviets, US Army Major Robert B. Staver, Chief of the Jet Propulsion Section of the Research and Intelligence Branch of the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps in London, and Lt Col R. L. Williams took von Braun and his department chiefs by jeep from Garmisch to Munich. The group was flown to Nordhausen, and was evacuated 40 miles (64 km) southwest to Witzenhausen, a small town in the American Zone, the next day. Von Braun was briefly detained at the "Dustbin" interrogation centre at Kransberg Castle where the elite of the Third Reich's economy, science and technology were debriefed by U.S. and British intelligence officials. Initially he was recruited to the U.S. under a program called "Operation Overcast," subsequently known as Operation Paperclip.
U.S. Army career
On June 20, 1945, the U.S. Secretary of State approved the transfer of von Braun and his specialists to America; however this was not announced to the public until October 1, 1945. Von Braun was among those scientists for whom the U.S. Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency created false employment histories and expunged Nazi Party memberships and regime affiliations from the public record. Once “bleached” of their Nazism, the US Government granted the scientists security clearance to work in the United States.
The first seven technicians arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Air Field, just south of Wilmington, Delaware, on September 20, 1945. They were then flown to Boston and taken by boat to the Army Intelligence Service post at Fort Strong in Boston Harbour. Later, with the exception of von Braun, the men were transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to sort out the Peenemünde documents, enabling the scientists to continue their rocketry experiments.
Finally, von Braun and his remaining Peenemünde staff (see List of German rocket scientists in the United States) were transferred to their new home at Fort Bliss, a large Army installation just north of El Paso. Von Braun would later write he found it hard to develop a "genuine emotional attachment" to his new surroundings. His chief design engineer Walther Reidel became the subject of a December 1946 article "German Scientist Says American Cooking Tasteless; Dislikes Rubberized Chicken,' exposing the presence of von Braun's team in the country and drawing criticism from Albert Einstein and John Dingell. Requests to improve their living conditions such as laying linoleum over their cracked wood flooring were rejected. Von Braun remarked that "...at Peenemünde we had been coddled, here you were counting pennies..." At the age of 26, von Braun had thousands of engineers who answered to him, but was now answering to "pimply" 26 year-old Major Jim Hamill who possessed an undergraduate degree in engineering. His loyal Germans still addressed him as Herr Professor, but Hamill addressed him as Wernher and never bothered to respond to von Braun's request for more materials, and every proposal for new rocket ideas was dismissed.
While there, they trained military, industrial and university personnel in the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles. As part of the Hermes project, they helped refurbish, assemble, and launch a number of V-2s that had been shipped from Germany to the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico. They also continued to study the future potential of rockets for military and research applications. Since they were not permitted to leave Fort Bliss without military escort, von Braun and his colleagues began to refer to themselves only half-jokingly as "PoPs," "Prisoners of Peace."
In 1950, at the start of the Korean War, von Braun and his team were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, his home for the next 20 years. Between 1950 and 1956, von Braun led the Army's rocket development team at Redstone Arsenal, resulting in the Redstone rocket, which was used for the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests conducted by the United States. This led to development of the first high-precision inertial guidance system on the Redstone rocket.
As director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), von Braun, with his team, then developed the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone rocket. The Jupiter-C successfully launched the West's first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. This event signaled the birth of America's space program.
Despite the work on the Redstone rocket, the twelve years from 1945 to 1957 were probably some of the most frustrating for von Braun and his colleagues. In the Soviet Union, Sergei Korolev and his team of scientists and engineers plowed ahead with several new rocket designs and the Sputnik program, while the American government was not very interested in von Braun's work or views and only embarked on a very modest rocket-building program. In the meantime, the press tended to dwell on von Braun's past as a member of the SS and the slave labor used to build his V-2 rockets.
Popular concepts for a human presence in space
Repeating the pattern he had established during his earlier career in Germany, von Braun – while directing military rocket development in the real world – continued to entertain his engineer-scientist's dream of a future world in which rockets would be used for space exploration. However, instead of risking being sacked, he now was increasingly in a position to popularize these ideas. The May 14, 1950 headline of The Huntsville Times ("Dr. von Braun Says Rocket Flights Possible to Moon") might have marked the beginning of these efforts. These disclosures rode a moonflight publicity wave that was created by the two 1950 U.S. science fiction films, Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M.
In 1952, von Braun first published his concept of a manned space station in a Collier's Weekly magazine series of articles entitled " Man Will Conquer Space Soon!". These articles were illustrated by the space artist Chesley Bonestell and were influential in spreading his ideas. Frequently von Braun worked with fellow German-born space advocate and science writer Willy Ley to publish his concepts, which, unsurprisingly, were heavy on the engineering side and anticipated many technical aspects of space flight that later became reality.
The space station (to be constructed using rockets with recoverable and reusable ascent stages) would be a toroid structure, with a diameter of 250 feet (76 m); this built on the concept of a rotating wheel-shaped station introduced in 1929 by Herman Potočnik in his book The Problem of Space Travel – The Rocket Motor. The space station would spin around a central docking nave to provide artificial gravity, and would be assembled in a 1,075 mile (1,730 km) two-hour, high-inclination Earth orbit allowing observation of essentially every point on earth on at least a daily basis. The ultimate purpose of the space station would be to provide an assembly platform for manned lunar expeditions. More than a decade later, the movie version of 2001: A Space Odyssey would draw heavily on the design concept in its visualization of an orbital space station.
Von Braun envisaged these expeditions as very large-scale undertakings, with a total of 50 astronauts travelling in three huge spacecraft (two for crew, one primarily for cargo), each 49 m (160.76 ft) long and 33 m (108.27 ft) in diameter and driven by a rectangular array of 30 rocket propulsion engines. Upon arrival, astronauts would establish a permanent lunar base in the Sinus Roris region by using the emptied cargo holds of their craft as shelters, and would explore their surroundings for eight weeks. This would include a 400 km expedition in pressurized rovers to the crater Harpalus and the Mare Imbrium foothills.
At this time von Braun also worked out preliminary concepts for a manned mission to Mars that used the space station as a staging point. His initial plans, published in The Mars Project (1952), had envisaged a fleet of ten spacecraft (each with a mass of 3,720 metric tons), three of them unmanned and each carrying one 200-ton winged lander in addition to cargo, and nine crew vehicles transporting a total of 70 astronauts. Gigantic as this mission plan was, its engineering and astronautical parameters were thoroughly calculated. A later project was much more modest, using only one purely orbital cargo ship and one crewed craft. In each case, the expedition would use minimum-energy Hohmann transfer orbits for its trips to Mars and back to Earth.
Before technically formalizing his thoughts on human spaceflight to Mars, von Braun had written a science fiction novel, set in 1980, on the subject. According to his biographer, Erik Bergaust, the manuscript was rejected by no less than 18 publishers. Von Braun later published small portions of this opus in magazines, to illustrate selected aspects of his Mars project popularizations. The complete manuscript, titled Project MARS: A Technical Tale, did not appear as a printed book until December 2006.
In the hope that its involvement would bring about greater public interest in the future of the space program, von Braun also began working with Walt Disney and the Disney studios as a technical director, initially for three television films about space exploration. The initial broadcast devoted to space exploration was Man in Space, which first went on air on March 9, 1955, drawing 42 million viewers and unofficially the second-highest rated television show in American history.
Later (in 1959) von Braun published a short booklet – condensed from episodes that had appeared in This Week Magazine before—describing his updated concept of the first manned lunar landing. The scenario included only a single and relatively small spacecraft—a winged lander with a crew of only two experienced pilots who had already circumnavigated the moon on an earlier mission. The brute-force direct ascent flight schedule used a rocket design with five sequential stages, loosely based on the Nova designs that were under discussion at this time. After a night launch from a Pacific island the first three stages would bring the spacecraft (with the two remaining upper stages attached) to terrestrial escape velocity, with each burn creating an acceleration of 8–9 times standard gravity. Residual propellant in the third stage would be used for the deceleration intended to commence only a few hundred kilometers above the landing site in a crater near the lunar north pole. The fourth stage provided acceleration to lunar escape velocity while the fifth stage would be responsible for a deceleration during return to the Earth to a residual speed that allows aerocapture of the spacecraft ending in a runway landing, much in the way of the Space Shuttle. One remarkable feature of this technical tale is that the engineer Wernher von Braun anticipated a medical phenomenon that would become apparent only years later: being a veteran astronaut with no history of serious adverse reactions to weightlessness offers no protection against becoming unexpectedly and violently spacesick.
Concepts for orbital warfare
Von Braun developed and published his space station concept during the very "coldest" time of the Cold War, when the U.S. government for which he worked put the containment of the Soviet Union above everything else. The fact that his space station – if armed with missiles that could be easily adapted from those already available at this time – would give the United States space superiority in both orbital and orbit-to-ground warfare did not escape him. Although von Braun took care to qualify such military applications as "particularly dreadful" in his popular writings, he elaborated on them in several of his books and articles. This much less peaceful aspect of von Braun's "drive for space" has recently been reviewed by Michael J. Neufeld from the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
The U.S. Navy had been tasked with building a rocket to lift satellites into orbit, but the resulting Vanguard rocket launch system was unreliable. In 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 1, there was a growing belief within the United States that America lagged behind the Soviet Union in the emerging Space Race. American authorities then chose to utilize von Braun and his German team's experience with missiles to create an orbital launch vehicle, something von Braun had originally proposed in 1954 but had been denied.
NASA was established by law on July 29, 1958. One day later, the 50th Redstone rocket was successfully launched from Johnston Atoll in the south Pacific as part of Operation Hardtack I. Two years later, NASA opened the Marshall Space Flight Centre at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, and the ABMA development team led by von Braun was transferred to NASA. In a face-to-face meeting with Herb York at the Pentagon, von Braun made it clear he would go to NASA only if development of the Saturn was allowed to continue. Presiding from July 1960 to February 1970, von Braun became the centre's first Director.
The Marshall Centre's first major program was the development of Saturn rockets to carry heavy payloads into and beyond Earth orbit. From this, the Apollo program for manned moon flights was developed. Wernher von Braun initially pushed for a flight engineering concept that called for an Earth orbit rendezvous technique (the approach he had argued for building his space station), but in 1962 he converted to the more risky lunar orbit rendezvous concept that was subsequently realized. During Apollo, he worked closely with former Peenemünde teammate, Kurt H. Debus, the first director of the Kennedy Space Centre. His dream to help mankind set foot on the Moon became a reality on July 16, 1969 when a Marshall-developed Saturn V rocket launched the crew of Apollo 11 on its historic eight-day mission. Over the course of the program, Saturn V rockets enabled six teams of astronauts to reach the surface of the Moon.
During the late 1960s, von Braun was instrumental in the development of the U.S. Space & Rocket Centre in Huntsville. The desk from which he guided America's entry in the Space Race remains on display there.
During the local summer of 1966–67, von Braun participated in a field trip to Antarctica, organized for him and several other members of top NASA management. The goal of the field trip was to determine whether the experience gained by US scientific and technological community during the exploration of Antarctic wastelands would be useful for the manned exploration of space. Von Braun was mainly interested in management of the scientific effort on Antarctic research stations, logistics, habitation and life support, and in using the barren Antarctic terrain like the glacial dry valleys to test the equipment that one day would be used to look for signs of life on Mars and other worlds.
In an internal memo dated January 16, 1969, von Braun had confirmed to his staff that he would stay on as a centre director at Huntsville to head the Apollo Applications Program. A few months later, on occasion of the first moon-landing, he publicly expressed his optimism that the Saturn V carrier system would continue to be developed, advocating manned missions to Mars in the 1980s.
However, on March 1, 1970, von Braun and his family relocated to Washington, D.C., when he was assigned the post of NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA Headquarters. After a series of conflicts associated with the truncation of the Apollo program, and facing severe budget constraints, von Braun retired from NASA on May 26, 1972. Not only had it become evident by this time that his and NASA's visions for future U.S. space flight projects were incompatible; it was perhaps even more frustrating for him to see popular support for a continued presence of man in space wane dramatically once the goal to reach the moon had been accomplished.
Dr. von Braun also developed the idea of a Space Camp that would train children in fields of science and space technologies as well as help their mental development much the same way sports camps aim at improving physical development.
Career after NASA
After leaving NASA, von Braun became Vice President for Engineering and Development at the aerospace company, Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland on July 1, 1972.
In 1973 a routine health check revealed kidney cancer, which during the following years could not be controlled by surgery. Von Braun continued his work to the extent possible, which included accepting invitations to speak at colleges and universities as he was eager to cultivate interest in human spaceflight and rocketry, particularly with students and a new generation of engineers. On one such visit in the spring of 1974 to Allegheny College, von Braun revealed a more personal side, including an allergy to feather pillows and a disdain for some rock music of the era.
Von Braun helped establish and promote the National Space Institute, a precursor of the present-day National Space Society, in 1975, and became its first president and chairman. In 1976, he became scientific consultant to Lutz Kayser, the CEO of OTRAG, and a member of the Daimler-Benz board of directors. However, his deteriorating health forced him to retire from Fairchild on December 31, 1976. When the 1975 National Medal of Science was awarded to him in early 1977 he was hospitalized, and unable to attend the White House ceremony.
During his stay at Fort Bliss, von Braun mailed a marriage proposal to 18-year-old German heiress Maria Luise von Quistorp (bornJune 10, 1928), his cousin on his mother's side. On March 1, 1947, having received permission to go back to Germany and return with his bride, he married her in a Lutheran church in Landshut, Germany. He and his bride, as well as his father and mother, returned to New York on March 26, 1947.
On December 9, 1948, the von Brauns' first daughter, Iris Careen, was born at Fort Bliss Army Hospital. The von Brauns had two more children, Margrit Cécile in 1952 and Peter Constantine in 1960. On April 15, 1955, von Braun became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
On June 16, 1977, Wernher von Braun died of pancreatic cancer in Alexandria, Virginia, at the age of 65. He was buried at the Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia.
- Proposal for a Workable Fighter with Rocket Drive. July 6, 1939.
- The proposed vertical take-off interceptor for climbing to 35,000 ft in 60 seconds was rejected by the Luftwaffe in the autumn of 1941 for the Me 163 Komet and never produced. (The differing Bachem Ba 349 was produced during the 1944 Emergency Fighter Program.)
- 'Survey' of Previous Liquid Rocket Development in Germany and Future Prospects. May 1945.
- A Minimum Satellite Vehicle Based on Components Available from Developments of the Army Ordnance Corps. September 15, 1954. "It would be a blow to U.S. prestige if we did not [launch a satellite] first."
- The Mars Project, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, (1953). With Henry J. White, translator.
- German Rocketry, The Coming of the Space Age. New York: Meredith Press. 1967.
- First Men to the Moon, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York (1958). Portions of work first appeared in This Week Magazine.
- Daily Journals of Werner von Braun, May 1958 – March 1970. March 1970.
- History of Rocketry & Space Travel, New York, Crowell (1975). With Frederick I. Ordway III.
- 2nd Edition:, Estate of Wernher von Braun; Ordway III, Frederick I & Dooling, David Jr. (1985) . Space Travel: A History. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-181898-4.
- The Rocket's Red Glare, Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, (1976). With Frederick I. Ordway III.
- Project Mars: A Technical Tale, Apogee Books, Toronto (2006). A previously unpublished science fiction story by von Braun. Accompanied by paintings from Chesley Bonestell and von Braun's own technical papers on the proposed project.
- The Voice of Dr. Wernher von Braun, Apogee Books, Toronto (2007). A collection of speeches delivered by von Braun over the course of his career.
Recognition and critique
- Apollo space program director Sam Phillips was quoted as saying that he did not think that America would have reached the moon as quickly as it did without von Braun's help. Later, after discussing it with colleagues, he amended this to say that he did not believe America would have reached the moon at all.
- The crater von Braun on the Moon is named after him.
- Von Braun received a total of 12 honorary doctorates, among them, on January 8, 1963, one from the Technical University of Berlin from which he had graduated.
- Von Braun was responsible for the creation of the Research Institute at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. As a result of his vision, the university is one of the leading universities in the nation for NASA-sponsored research. The building housing the university's Research Institute was named in his honour, Von Braun Research Hall, in 2000.
- Several German cities ( Bonn, Neu-Isenburg, Mannheim, Mainz), and dozens of smaller towns have named streets after Wernher von Braun.
- The Von Braun Center (built 1975) in Huntsville is named in von Braun's honour.
- Scrutiny of von Braun's use of forced labor at the Mittelwerk intensified again in 1984 when Arthur Rudolph, one of his top affiliates from the A-4/V2 through to the Apollo projects, left the United States and was forced to renounce his citizenship in place of the alternative of being tried for war crimes.
- A science- and engineering-oriented Gymnasium in Friedberg, Bavaria was named after Wernher von Braun in 1979. In response to rising criticism, a school committee decided in 1995, after lengthy deliberations, to keep the name but "to address von Braun's ambiguity in the advanced history classes."
- An avenue in the Annadale section of Staten Island, New York was named for him in 1977.
- Von Braun's engineering approach was very conservative, building in additional strength to structure designs, a point of contention with other engineers who struggled to keep vehicle weight down. Von Braun's insistence on further tests after Mercury-Redstone 2 flew higher than planned has been identified as contributing to the Soviet Union's success in launching the first human in space.
- Von Braun also was voted into US Space Camp hall of fame, 2007
Summary of SS career
- SS number: 185,068
- Nazi Party number: 5,738,692
Dates of rank
- SS- Anwärter: November 1, 1933 (received rank upon joining SS Riding School) (Candidate)
- SS- Mann: July 1934 (Private)
(left SS after graduation from the school; commissioned in 1940 with date of entry backdated to 1934)
- SS- Untersturmführer: May 1, 1940 (Second Lieutenant)
- SS- Obersturmführer: November 9, 1941 (First Lieutenant)
- SS- Hauptsturmführer: November 9, 1942 (Captain)
- SS- Sturmbannführer: June 28, 1943 (Major)
In popular culture
- Film and television
- Von Braun has been featured in a number of movies and television shows or series about the space race:
- I Aim at the Stars (1960), also titled Wernher von Braun and Ich greife nach den Sternen ("I Reach for the Stars"); von Braun played by Curd Jürgens, his wife Maria played by Victoria Shaw. Satirist Mort Sahl suggested the subtitle "But Sometimes I Hit London".
- From the Earth to the Moon (TV, 1998): von Braun played by Norbert Weisser.
- October Sky (1999): this film portrays U.S. rocket scientist Homer Hickam, who as a teenager admired von Braun (played by Joe Digaetano). The film's title, October Sky, is an anagram of the autobiography it was based on: Rocket Boys.
- Space Race (TV, BBC co-production with NDR (Germany), Channel One TV (Russia) and National Geographic TV (USA), 2005): von Braun played by Richard Dillane.
- The Lost Von Braun, a documentary by Aron Ranen. Interviews with Ernst Stuhlinger, Konrad Dannenberg, Karl Sendler, Alex Baum, Eli Rosenbaum (DOJ) and Von Braun's NASA secretary Bonnie Holmes.
- Wernher von Braun – Rocket Man for War and Peace A three part ( part1, part 2, part 3) documentary – in English – from the German International channel DW-TV. Original German version Wernher von Braun – Der Mann für die Wunderwaffen by the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk.
- The episode "Pursuit" of the 1982 television series " Voyagers!" involves the lead characters, Bogg and Jeffrey, attempting to connect Wernher von Braun with American army forces as the German regime crumbles between Hitler's death and the surrender. Jeffrey had discovered an altered history in which the Soviets reached the moon while American rockets exploded on the launch pad, and learned that von Braun's team had been captured by the Soviet forces due to a traitor in their midst. David Olivier portrayed von Braun.
- Several fictional characters have been modeled on von Braun:
- The Right Stuff (1983): The Chief Scientist, played by Scott Beach, was clearly modeled on von Braun.
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): Dr Strangelove is usually held to be based at least partly on von Braun.
- Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965, directed by Jean-Luc Godard): Howard Vernon plays Professor von Braun (also known as Leonard Nosferatu), the inventor of the "Alpha 60" super-computer that rules Alphaville.
- In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the seventh James Bond film, the supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld employs a German scientist resembling von Braun, named Professor Dr. Metz, a pacifist who is duped by Blofeld's rhetoric, who works in a NASA-style research lab in the Nevada desert. The lab is ambiguously depicted as being involved in faking the moon landings (an apparent joking nod to conspiracy theorists, and which figures in some versions of their theories).
- There are other references to von Braun in film and on television:
- Mobile Suit Gundam (1979): The largest Lunar city in the Universal Century era is called 'Von Braun City'. The city is the home of Anaheim Electronics, is a strategic point in space, and is built around Neil Armstrong's footprint in the Apollo missions.
- Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) (1977): Director and star Kidlat Tahimik is president of a Wernher von Braun club and is fascinated with "First World" progress, particularly von Braun's efforts in the U.S. space program.
- Planetes (TV, 2004): There is an upcoming exploratory mission to Jupiter on a new fusion powered ship, the Von Braun.
- Alien Planet (TV, 2005): A spacecraft, named Von Braun, is named after him.
- Babylon 5 (1994): Captain Sheridan's sister Anna returns home on the Earth cruiser Von Braun in the second season episode Revelations.
- In the film Back to the Future (1985) Emmett 'Doc' Brown mentions that his family changed their surname from Von Braun when they arrived in America.
- Print media
- In "Werner von Braun—Space Wizard," a four-panel comic strip in Mad Magazine in the late 1950s, artist Wallace Wood depicted von Braun at the launch of a rocket, ready to listen to a radio transmitting the rocket's signals. Suddenly he says, "HIMMEL! Vas ist los?" and then explains, "Vat iss wrong is vit der RADIO! It iss AC...und der control room iss DC!"
- In Warren Ellis' graphic novel Ministry of Space, von Braun is a supporting character, settling in Britain after World War II, and being essential for the realization of the British Space Program.
- In Jonathan Hickman's comic book series The Manhattan Projects, von Braun is a major character, joining the Manhattan Projects following his killing of his Nazi brethren. He is also depicted with a robotic arm that he received from Hitler for his good work with the Nazis.
- The Good German by Joseph Kanon. Von Braun and other scientists are said to have been implicated in the use of slave labour at Peenemünde; their transfer to the US forms part of the narrative.
- Space by James Michener. Von Braun and other German scientists are brought to the US and form a vital part of the US efforts to reach space.
- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The highly notable novel involved British intelligence attempting to avert and predict V-2 rocket attacks. The work even includes a gyroscopic equation for the V2. The first portion of the novel, "Beyond The Zero", begins with a quote from von Braun: "Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death."
- New Dictionary, a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in his collection Welcome to the Monkey House, notes Von Braun as one of the things an old dictionary does not mention.
- Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut, has a scene in which a character reads a Life magazine with von Braun on the cover.
- Dora by Jean Michel. This is not a novel, but a memoir referring to the Mittelbau-Dora V-2 slave labour camps, by Jean Michel and Louis Nucéra.
- Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, Jr. The movie October Sky was based on this memoir about a boy, Sonny (in the movie, he's called Homer) Hickam, who lives in a small West Virginia coal town and builds rockets and greatly admires von Braun. Although not directly concerned with von Braun, it is a vivid picture of popular attitudes toward rocket science and von Braun during the early days of the U.S. space program.
- Wernher von Braun (1965): A song written and performed by Tom Lehrer for an episode of NBC's American version of the BBC TV show That Was The Week That Was; the song was later included in Lehrer's album That Was The Year That Was. It was a satire on what some saw as von Braun's cavalier attitude toward the consequences of his work in Nazi Germany: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun." Contrary to popular belief, Wernher von Braun did not sue Tom Lehrer for defamation, nor has Lehrer been forced to relinquish all of his royalty income to Von Braun. Lehrer firmly denied those claims in a 2003 interview.
- The Last Days of Pompeii (1991): A rock opera by Grant Hart's post- Hüsker Dü alternative rock group Nova Mob, in which von Braun features as a character. The album includes a song called Wernher von Braun.
- Progress vs. Pettiness (2005): A song about the Space Race written and performed by The Phenomenauts for their CD Re-Entry. The song begins: "In 1942 there was Wernher von Braun..."
- Oh Carolina (aka Carolina) (1960): written by John Folkes and recorded by the Folkes Brothers and made famous by a cover from Jamaican born singer Shaggy mentions Wernher von Braun without any context.
- John D. Loudermilk's song He's Just A Scientist (That's All) contains the lyric "Everybody's flippin' over Fabian or Frankie Avalon, but nobody ever seems to give a flip over Dr Werner Von Braun."
- The song "Apollo XI/V1/V2/Aggregat 4" from German Electro band Welle: Erdball deals with his inventions.
- Blues metal artists Clutch make reference to von Braun in the 2009 song "Struck Down" on the album Strange Cousins From The West.
- Computer games
- In the 1999 PC game System Shock 2, the main starship is named the Von Braun.
- Wernher von Kerman is a character in the computer game Kerbal Space Program