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Wernher von Braun (1912 to 1977)

Wernher von Braun Public Domain Wenher von Braun (1960)

The Rocket Man

Wernher von Braun was born on March 23, 1912 in Wirsitz (today Wyrzysk, Poland) as the son of a bank director and Reich Minister.

After graduating from high school, von Braun studied at the Technische Hochschule Berlin. Already in his youth von Braun had experimented with rockets and various other missiles. He achieved spectacular success so that the military began to take an interest in his work. In 1937 he became technical director of the rocket research center in Peenemünde. The Nazis supported Wernher von Braun with gigantic sums of money and so he developed the liquid rocket A 4, which was the forerunner of the infamous V2 rocket and thus one of Hitler's "wonder weapons". It was first used on September 8, 1944 during an attack on London and there was no possibility to intercept the rocket.  

After the Second World War in 1945 the importance of a steerable rocket as a weapon became clear, especially to the USA and the Soviet Union. Wernher von Braun was classified by the USA as "unencumbered" with regard to his Nazi past. So he and his team went to America and received massive support for his further rocket projects.

Within the framework of the American rocket program, von Braun became technical advisor at the "White Sands Proving Grounds" in New Mexico. From 1950 he worked in Huntsville Alabama, where he headed the "Redstone Missile Program" and the "Mars Project" until 1960. In 1955 he became an American citizen. In 1958, the Jupiter C rocket was completed under his leadership, and in the same year the "Explorer I.", the first Earth satellite, was launched into space. From 1959 to 1972, he led the development of the Saturn program (NASA space center) in Huntsville. It was here that he provided the decisive impetus for the development of the "Saturn V." launch vehicle.

Wernher von Braun played a key role in the preparation and design of the US "Apollo" lunar flight program. Under US President Lyndon B. Johnson, the "History of rocketry and space travel" project was launched in 1967. In 1969, Braun's three-stage rocket "Saturn V." transported the 41-ton modules, consisting of the mothership "Columbia", the space glider "Apollo 11" and the lunar module "Eagle", to the moon. The company was a complete success: Commander Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon on July 21, 1969.  

In 1970, he was promoted to Deputy Director of NASA and in 1972 he became Vice President of the aerospace company "Fairchild". Wernher von Braun died of cancer on June 16, 1977 in Alexandria (Virginia, USA)...

Rockets were his passion (1912)

Rockets were his passion Fair Use Wernher as child with his brothers

March 23: Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz (today: Wyrzysk, Poland) as the son of the General Director of Deutsche Raiffeisenbank AG Magnus Freiherr von Braun and his wife Emmy. At the age of 16, he joined the "Verein für Raumschiffahrt" in 1928, where he established contacts with rocket engineers like Hermann Oberth (1894-1989). During his studies at the Technical University in Berlin, he assisted Oberth in experiments with liquid rockets.

From 1932 on, financed by a scholarship, Wernher von Braun developed and tested liquid rockets in the rocket test facility of the German Army Ordnance in Kummersdorf, Brandenburg. In the following years, up to 80 people worked there on rocket development.

How the career began under the Nazis (1933)

How the career began under the Nazis Public Domain Wernher von Braun during the Nazi times

The timeline of the first successes soon showed that Werhner von Braun would make history with his rockets.


After the National Socialists came to power, Braun became a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS). A few years later he joined the NSDAP.


July: In his doctoral thesis in physics on "Constructive, theoretical and experimental contributions to the problem of the liquid rocket" he presented the results of his tests. The work was classified as "secret command matter" and was not allowed to be published. Wernher von Braun developed two rocket models called "Max" and "Moritz" and reached an altitude of over 2000 meters.


April: After the successful launch of an A3 rocket, Braun became head of the newly founded Army Experimental Station in Peenemünde (Usedom). The development of missiles for military use was placed under the command of the Air Force under Hermann Göring. Over the next few years, up to 20,000 people worked there on the development of launchers.

The A4 rocket, the precursor of the V2 (1943)

The A4 rocket, the precursor of the V2 Public Domain The A4 rocket which was mass produced as V2

The A4 rocket he developed was the first long-range rocket in the world to reach four times the speed of sound. The technologial development during the Second World War was imense not only in Germany.

July 7: At the Führer's headquarters "Wolfsschanze" (Rastenburg, East Prussia) Wernher von Braun presented Hitler with the latest development status of the A4 rocket, which was later mass-produced as "Retribution Weapon 2" (V2). In the Mittelbau-Dora subcamp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, forced laborers were used to build the rocket parts.

Braun became SS-Sturmbannführer. However polics was not of his interest.

Hitler's last hope the "Wunderwaffe" V2 (1944)

Hitler's last hope the "Wunderwaffe" V2 Public Domain V1 & V2 production

For the first time in human history, rockets were used for military purposes. After the first V2 was fired at the British capital on September 7, 1944, over 3,000 rockets were launched by the end of March 1945 with targets in England, Belgium and France. Silently and without warning, the V2 struck because it could not be located on the radar screens due to its high speed. In total, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 people died in the attacks, mainly in London and Antwerp. The civilian victims were more than 12,000 prisoners who died under miserable working conditions during the construction of the V2.  

Meanwhile, Braun and his employees were already designing the A9 and A10 models, which were to achieve targets in the USA. But this was no longer the case. Hitler awarded him the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit with Swords.

Relocation to the USA (1945)

Relocation to the USA Public Domain Wernher von Braun ready to co-operate with the USA

In April 1945 Wernher von Braun left Peenemünde with about 500 employees to surrender to the Americans in southern Germany. Among other things, they had the remaining V2 rockets, rocket parts and plans collected from Peenemünde and transported to the USA.

June: Braun and 126 other employees moved to the USA and were first stationed in Fort Bliss (Texas). They passed on their rocket engineering know-how to the American military and tested some of the V2 rockets brought from Germany in White Sands (New Mexico).

Marriage with Maria von Quistorp (1947)

Marriage with Maria von Quistorp Public Domain Maria von Quistorp

Wernher von Braun became engaged in writing at the end of 1946 to his cousin Maria von Quistorp, 16 years younger than him. In February 1947, he traveled back to Germany by ship. Throughout his stay, he was under the watchful eye of the Americans, who feared an attempted abduction by the Soviet Union. On March 1, he married in a Lutheran church in Landshut. His daughter Iris Careen was born on December 9, 1948.

NASA was founded (1958)

NASA was founded Public Domain Wernher von Braun meets Dwight D. Eisenhower

With the foundation of the "National Aeronautics and Space Administration" (NASA) Braun becomes director of the "Marshall Space Flight Center" in Huntsville. He designs the rockets of the Saturn program which were the basis for the flight to the moon.

With NASA the civil and military areas were separated. From the predecessor organization NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) about 8000 employees were taken over.

Kennedy's announcement of moon landing fulfilled (1969)

Kennedy's announcement of moon landing fulfilled Public Domain Braun posing in front of S-IC engines

On May 25, 1961, one and a half months after the flight of cosmonaut Gagarin, President John F. Kennedy delivered a famous speech to the U.S. Congress in which he gave his nation the task of landing men on the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth within the same decade.

With the Apollo 11 mission, astronaut Neil Armstong actually became the first man to land on the moon. The launch vehicle is the Braun-designed Saturn V. Unfortunately, John F. Kennedy did not live to see it, as he was murdered in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

In 1971 Wernher von Braun became Deputy Director of the NASA Planning Department in Washington (D.C.).

Departure at Nasa (1972)

Departure at Nasa Public Domain Werner with Mary and daughters Iris and Margrit

The last moon landing took place with Apollo 17 on Dec. 11, 1972. The Apollo program cost the US taxpayer USD 25.4 trillion at that time, which is about USD 156 trillion at today's value of 2019.  

Since the goal of the moon landing was reached, the US Congress cut the funds drastically. Wernher von Braun therefore left NASA and became Vice President of the aerospace company Fairchild Industries Inc. in Germantown (Maryland).

Died of cancer (1977)

Died of cancer Public Domain Gravestone with inscription (Psalm 19.1)

During a medical examination in 1973, an X-ray revealed abnormalities next to his left kidney. At Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, a tumor-affected kidney was taken from him shortly afterwards. He recovered very quickly and was able to resume his work.

A few years later, a colon tumor was removed at a follow-up examination. His health deteriorated to such an extent that he was unable to leave the hospital after November 1976. At the end of the year he retired and died on June 16, 1977 in Alexandria, Virginia.

On his tombstone there is a reference to Psalm 19:1: 

"The heavens tell of the glory of God; and the firmament declareeth the work of his hands." 

Wernher Von Braun was a Protestant Christian. Even though the controversy surrounding him remains. He will hold a place in the timeline of humanity as a great engineer.

Embedded Videos

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