Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun (March 23, 1912 – June 16, 1977) was a German engineer who worked on rocket technology, first for the Nazi Germany and later on for the United States, when he also became an American citizen.
Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany in a wealthy family. In his childhood Braun received as a gift from his mother a telescope which made him interested in astronomy. An interest that became a passion later on. During 1925, while he was living with his family in Berlin, another moment marked his future development as a scientist. He read Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen by Hermann Oberth (“The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space”) which considerably raised his interest for math and science, as both subjects were directly related to space exploration.
In the late 1920s, Wernher entered the Berlin Institute of Technology, in short time becoming a top student. In 1932, he graduated obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and his next move was related to the University of Berlin, where he studied physics.
During his graduate studies, he conducted serious research on rocketry, managing to receive a grant from the Ordnance Department of Germany. The grant was meant to sustain von Braun’s studies, and it was now directly related to German armed forces. In 1934, von Braun received his doctorate degree in physics, from the University of Berlin. During the same year, he organized a group that had successfully tested and launched two liquid-fueled rockets, which had covered a range of more than 1.5 miles.
Braun refused to involve his science in the army
Von Braun’s last years in Germany (early 1940s), were spent in Peenemünde, a village in northeastern Germany, where he worked together with Dornberger in order to set a standard related to successfully rocket launches. While he was there another project took form, the one initially named A-4, but later on got a another name, the V-2 or “Vengeance Weapon 2”.
Hitler immediately saw the potential of the V-2 ballistic missile, wanting to deploy it in a military context (also considering that Germany was already at war, since 1939). Von Braun refused to involve his science for military purposes, pushing this situation until he reported a direct conflict with Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler. Because he refused to leave the V-2 project in Himmler’s hands, von Braun was incarcerated on espionage charges, but soon after, Hitler gave a direct order for von Braun’s release. Even without von Braun’s approval, the V-2 flying bombs were deployed during 1944, targeting Britain and producing a wave of terror.
Braun worked for NASA
In 1945, Wernher von Braun, Magnus von Braun (Wernher’s brother) and the entire team involved in the rocketry studies, surrendered to American troops. After signing a one-year contract, von Braun’s science was officially at the disposal of the American army. In America, during 1952, became technical director of the US Army Ordnance Guided Missile Project in Alabama. Afterwards, he played a very important role in the team that successfully launched the first American artificial earth satellite, the Explorer I, on January 31, 1958.
The former German scientist had become a full time American scientist, receiving his American citizenship in 1955. His career went even further, if we take in consideration that he was the director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Marshall Space Flight Center, from 1960 to 1970. Then, he developed the Saturn IV and the Saturn V, both vehicles, and the Saturn I rocket, to be used for the Apollo 8 moon orbit from 1969.
In 1972, von Braun became vice president at the aerospace company Fairchild Industries, continuing his incredible and almost unstoppable career. Few years later, he founded the National Space Institute, aimed at gaining public support for space activities.
Von Braun’s legacy can be spotted through his career, among the numerous US honors received. He authored and co-authored several works related to rocket science or physics. Today, von Braun is still considered one of the most important weapons specialists in the field of rocketry and jet propulsion in the United States.
(Article written with references from: Wikipedia.com, Biography.com)