Chief Designers 5: Wernher von Braun

von Braun and Nebel, c.1932

Wernher von Braun, right, and VfR compatriot Rudolf Nebel, circa 1932. Image origin unknown, believed to be in the public domain. Please contact the author if you have more information. Click for a larger view.

For many years Wernher von Braun was considered the paramount figure in the history of spaceflight. Certainly he had the unique distinction of being a key figure in two national space programs: the precocious and abortive German one, and the dominant American one. However against this we need to set the fact that he was “only” a rocket designer and was not intimately involved in developing the spacecraft that rode on top of them—one could make the argument that Max Faget was the most important figure in American manned spaceflight history because he was dominant in that role—and he pales in comparison to what we have learned about Sergei Korolev’s role in the Soviet space program since the 1980s. He and Korolev were the two greatest visionaries of the early space program, but then von Braun also suffers from having the most morally problematic career of any leading person in the history of space as well.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany (now Wyrzysk, Poland) on March 23, 1912. From 1915 he and his family lived in Berlin. Reportedly the present of a telescope and later a copy of Herman Oberth’s seminal book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket into Interplanetary Space) fascinated him and drew his attention to space.

A peripatetic school career let him develop his skills in physics and mathematics, ultimately leading to a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin in 1932 and a degree in physics from Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in 1934. It was in 1930, however, that his future was cemented by his joining the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (“Spaceflight Society”, commonly known as VfR), which had been founded three years previously. Their experiments with rocketry drew the attention of the German Army, particularly Walter Dornberger.

Under Dornburger, von Braun became the head of a rocket research program at Kummersdorf—the thesis for his 1934 degree was classified and unpublished until 1960—and civilian testing of rockets was banned. Unfortunately for Germany and the world as a whole, these preliminary steps were taken under the new German government of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. Von Braun’s fortunes and that of German rocketry would rise and fall with them.

After several years of success at Kummersdorf, von Braun’s group was moved to Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. There they developed the A4 rocket, better-known as the V-2. This was the first man-made object to reach space, doing so several times on suborbital test flights, possibly as early as the steep misfire that was the fourth V-2 test flight on October 3, 1942 and certainly no later than the end of 1944. Unfortunately for von Braun’s future legacy it was used to launch conventional warheads at the UK and later the invading Allied armies after D-Day. Both London and Antwerp suffered under his rocket. Perhaps even worse was the fact that from the autumn of 1943 the V-2 was built in the Mittelwerk using slaves taken from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Von Braun managed to distance himself from this during his lifetime by pointing to his imprisonment by the Gestapo for two weeks in the spring of 1943, but the historical consensus since then is that von Braun knew more than he let on during his life and did little to resist the SS (who ran Mittelwerk, and of which von Braun had been an honorary member since 1940) after his release from prison so long as he could continue his rocketry work.

Ultimately his efforts to clandestinely jumpstart a German space program as a side effect of his military research came to a halt with the end of World War II. He and some 500 others of his Peenemünde group surrendered to the American 44th Infantry Division and were eventually sent to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip, a program to transfer as many key German scientists as possible out of Germany and away from the USSR and UK. Upon arriving in the US he and his compatriots had their war careers and Nazi activities hidden by the American government. For the next five years his role was to teach the US Army about the V-2 and its underlying technology while essentially under house arrest at Fort Bliss, Texas.

In 1950 he and what was left of the Peenemünde group were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, where their conditions were relaxed and they were allowed to enter civilian life in the United States. Von Braun became technical director of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, whose purpose was to develop a long-range ballistic missile. This they did, the Redstone. During this time, von Braun also became famous as a public advocate of spaceflight, helping to write a popular series on the future possibilities called “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” for Collier’s magazine in 1952-4; later he was technical director and a spokesperson for a highly rated television special on the same topic for Disney in 1955. He also became an American citizen during this time.

At this point the United States was close to launching its first satellite into space, but the government was loath to have it done by the German expatriates. Only after the launch of Sputnik 1 and the answering failure of the United States’ first Vanguard launch on December 6, 1957 was the Army and von Braun able to overcome this reluctance. On January 31, 1958, the first American satellite, Explorer 1, rode into orbit on top of a Jupiter-C rocket—a Redstone derivative produced by the Huntsville team.

Wernher von Braun's NASA portrait, 1960

Wernher von Braun’s NASA portrait, 1960. At age 48 he had just become director of Marshall Space Flight Center after already being the most important person in Germany’s wartime rocketry program. Public domain image.

For the next two-and-a-half years, von Braun’s responsibilities were slowly transferred from the Army to the US’ new civilian space agency NASA. Project Mercury was begun, and used Redstone derivatives for launches. Hunstville began work on a heavy launcher named Saturn, initially for an Army space program but then that was transferred to NASA too. Finally all Army space activities were passed over to NASA on the order of President Eisenhower. On July 1, 1960 the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville was renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center and put entirely in the hands of the civilian space agency. Von Braun was to be its first director, a position he held until 1970.

Those ten years saw von Braun living his dream, developing the Saturn V and being a key contributor to the Apollo program that landed men on the Moon. His vision of America’s future in space began to diverge from reality post-Apollo 11, however. He was a strong advocate of continuing on to Mars—the Integrated Program Plan’s Mars mission was largely his baby—and after two years in Washington following his transfer from Huntsville he came to realize that it was not going to happen. He resigned from NASA on May 26, 1972.

In 1973 he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which slowly sapped away his life. Before he was done, however, he helped to found the National Space Institute, one of the precursors the National Space Society, a major space advocacy and education group. He served as its first president before his hospitalization and then death on June 16, 1977 at age 65.


7 thoughts on “Chief Designers 5: Wernher von Braun

  1. It’s hard to separate von Braun the man from von Braun the carefully-constructed legend. Quite separately from his skill at rocketry, he seems to have been a master of managing his public image and expectations of him — not surprising given the snake-pit of Nazi politics.

  2. It is a shame that the current generation of Americans seem to have forgotten the vital contributions made by von Braun and the German Rocket Team to the development of missiles for the US Army and the rockets used by NASA to get the first two Americans into space and most famously the mighty Saturn V that successfully carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon. The narrative pushed by revisionists has attempted to portray von Braun as an amoral opportunistic technocrat who was a Nazi. Some claim that he should have been arrested and tried as a war criminal. These critics have obfuscated the historical record to further their agenda and this has been a great disservice to von Braun and his team who chose to bring their elite talent and skills to the US. As historians we need to put the actors of history into the context of their times, the intention of their actions and the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately such evidence-based history has been ignored in favor of promoting a biased narrative critical of von Braun. I feel confident that history over the long-term will present the historical record of von Braun and his team in an accurate and fair manner.

    • It’s a vexed question really, though I think it’s important to note that von Braun could have both “chose[n] to bring their elite talent and skills to the US” and been complicit in the use of slave labour at Mittelwork. One is not evidence against the other, and being terrible or upright doesn’t have a lot to do with what a person can accomplish. I agree that he had to step carefully during the war to avoid being shot, but on the other hand it’s hard to shake the feeling that he had little moral scruple going along with the brutalities imposed by the SS on the concentration camp workers. The regrets he expressed at various times post-war seem perfunctory to me.

      My own take is that only the final four words need to be removed from “amoral opportunistic technocrat who was a Nazi” to produce a good portrait of him in 1945; it’s clear he was a Nazi only to the extent that it was necessary for anyone important in Germany at the time to be a party member. I also think that he grew past the worst sides of his personality during the years that followed in the US. But these are my opinions based on emotional responses to the bald events in question.

      I wish I had better evidence one way or the other — I’m no partisan to either side. It’s going to take a better historian than me to resolve the question, that’s for sure.

  3. Granted, but for my part I remember a curious statistic about his V-2: roughly ten times as many people died building the V-2 as were actually killed when it was used as a weapon. I know of no other weapon that holds such a distinction.

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