Wernher Von Braun was one of the world's first and foremost rocket engineers and a leading authority on space travel. His will to expand man's knowledge through the exploration of space led to the development of the Explorer satellites, the Jupiter and Jupiter-C rockets, Pershing, the Redstone rocket, Saturn rockets, and Skylab, the world's first space station. Additionally, his determination to "go where no man has gone before" led to mankind setting foot on the moon.
Living in Huntsville, Alabama from 1950 to 1970, Dr. von Braun first directed the technical development of the U.S. Army's ballistic missile program at Redstone Arsenal, and later served as Director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. When he transferred to Washington, D.C., he left Huntsville with a rich legacy: the research institutions at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, and the Von Braun Civic Center.
Von Braun: Germany
In the early 1930's, rocket clubs sprang up all over Germany. One of these clubs, the Verein fur Raumschifffahrt (Rocket Society), had the young engineer Wernher von Braun as a member.
During this same period of time the German military was searching for a weapon which would not violate the Versailles Treaty of World War I, and at the same time defend Germany. Artillery captain Walter Dornberger was assigned to investigate the feasibility of using rockets. Dornberger went to see the VfR and, being impressed with their enthusiasm, gave them $400 to build a rocket. Wernher von Braun worked through the spring and summer of 1932, only to have the rocket fail when tested in front of the military. However, Dornberger was impressed with von Braun and hired him to lead the military's rocket artillery unit.
By 1934 von Braun and Dornberger had a team of 80 engineers building rockets in Kummersdorf, about 60 miles south of Berlin. Von Braun's natural talents as a leader shone, as well as his ability to assimilate great quantities of data while keeping in mind the big picture. With the successful launch of two rockets, Max and Moritz, in 1934, von Braun's proposal to work on a jet-assisted take-off device for heavy bombers and all-rocket fighters was granted. However, Kummersdorf was too small for the task, so a new facility had to be built.
Peenemunde, located on the Baltic coast, was chosen as the new site. Peenemunde was large enough to launch and monitor rockets over ranges up to about 200 miles, with optical and electric observing instruments along the trajectory, with no risk of harming people and property.
By now Hitler had taken over Germany and Herman Goering ruled the Luftwaffe. Dornberger held a public test of the A-2 which was greatly successful. Funding continued to flow to von Braun's team, developing the A-3 and finally the A-4.
In 1943 Hitler decided to use the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon," and the group found themselves developing the A-4 to rain explosives on London. Fourteen months after Hitler ordered it into production, the first combat A-4, now called the V-2, was launched toward western Europe on September 7, 1944. When the first V-2 hit London von Braun remarked to his colleagues, "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet."
The SS and the Gestapo arrested von Braun for crimes against the state because he persisted in talking about building rockets which would go into orbit around the Earth and perhaps go to the Moon. His crime was indulging in frivolous dreams when he should have been concentrating on building bigger rocket bombs for the Nazi war machine. Dornberger convinced the SS and the Gestapo to release von Braun because without him there would be no V-2 and Hitler would have them all shot.
On arriving back at Peenemunde, von Braun immediately assembled his planning staff and asked them to decide how and to whom they should surrender. Most of the scientists were frightened of the Russians, they felt the French would treat them like slaves, and the British did not have enough money to afford a rocket program. That left the Americans. After stealing a train with forged papers, von Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. The SS were issued orders to kill the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while searching for the Americans. Finally, the team found an American private and surrendered to him. Realizing the importance of these engineers, the Americans immediately went to Peenemunde and Nordhausen and captured all of the remaining V-2's and V-2 parts, then destroyed both places with explosives. The Americans brought over 300 train car loads of spare V-2 parts to the United States. Much of von Braun's production team was captured by the Russians.
Dr. Wernher Von Braun
Rocket Design Engineer
Deceased ( 1912- 1977)