Wernher von Braun
After reading Hermann Oberth’s Rocket into Interplanetary Space and receiving a telescope from his mother, von Braun decided to become a space pioneer and physicist. At the age of 13, von Braun got himself into trouble when he obtained six skyrockets, strapped them to a toy red wagon, and set them off. Streaming flames and a long trail of smoke, the wagon roared five blocks into the center of town, where the rockets then exploded.
- Known as “the father of space travel”.
- In 1937, he became Technical Director of the Rocket Center in Pennemunde, Germany and his team developed the V-2 rocket that von Braun envisioned for space travel not war.
- In April 1960, he became director of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville for NASA.
- His team developed the Saturn V that launched Apollo 5 to travel to the moon in 1968.
- He helped found the National Space Institute in 1975 and served as its first president.
18-year-old Wernher von Braun first became involved in rocketry through his association with the Society for Space Travel in Berlin. It was the beginning of a dream that he would pursue for the rest of his life. The society made a major advancement in 1930 by developing Germany’s first liquid propellant rocket motor. Soon afterwards, von Braun helped it to establish rocket proving grounds in Berlin. After earning his engineering degree, von Braun participated in the launching of the group’s Mirak-1 rocket.
The society’s successes soon attracted the attention of the German Army, for rocketry offered a weapon that the Treaty of Versailles did not prohibit. However, when the group demonstrated its rocket at the Army’s Kummersdorf Ordnance Station, it failed to perform satisfactorily and the Army lost interest. The enthusiastic von Braun, however, still believed that rockets would take men into space. Consequently, the Army hired him as a civilian to develop rockets. Von Braun was at the same time working on his doctorate at the University of Berlin. For von Braun, his new work was a golden opportunity to develop the rockets needed for the exploration of space.
By 1933, von Braun had developed the A-1 rocket using liquid fuel. From the lessons this project taught him sprung the improved A-2 rocket. Two successful launches rewarded von Braun’s perseverance and hard work, and boosted his confidence. He subsequently began development of the steerable A-3. Meanwhile, he received his Ph.d. from the University of Berlin.
In 1936, the German Army approved the creation of a major new rocket center at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast, and named von Braun as its technical director. But while he had great enthusiasm for the new facility, he had none for military rockets. Soon afterwards, von Braun’s first three A-3 rockets failed at their launches. At that point military authorities demanded that he concentrate on a rocket carrying a one-ton warhead to a target 200 miles away, not on useless spaceships.
In 1939, when German leader Adolf Hitler first visited Kummersdorf, von Braun briefed him on plans for the A-4 military rocket. But the villanous Hitler was preoccupied and failed to comprehend the rocket’s enormous potential. He instead nurtured a mad obssession with world conquest. By September 1939, when World War II erupted in Europe, Pennemunde had turned into Germany’s major rocket center. There, the first A-4s were flight tested in 1942, and von Braun glimpsed one lift off with a great roar. Accelerating rapidly upward, it eventually arched over and landed far out in the Baltic Sea. Jubilantly, General Dornberger cried, “Today the spaceship is born!” and von Braun replied, “Oh yes, we shall go to the moon, but of course I dare not tell Hitler yet!”
In January, 1943, the A-4 was slated for production. Soon afterwards, Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded Nazi SS secret police, visited Pennemunde. He was trying to gain control of the facility, because he knew that its scientists had little regard for Nazi doctrine, and were intent instead on creating space rockets. Later he would jail von Braun for this. Meanwhile, von Braun was summoned to Hitler’s headquarters in July 1943 to give a progress report on the A-4. His presentation visibly moved Hitler, especially when he learned that the rocket could not be detected or intercepted in striking at the heart of England. Hitler now fell head over heels for the A-4, authorizing huge production facilities and hardened launch sites aimed at England. Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels gave the rocket the name “Vengeance Weapon-2,” or simply “V-2.” Germany already possessed the V-1 “Buzz Bomb,” which was also nearly ready to supposedly assure a German victory. But by mid-1943, the Allies had already learned of the secret new weapons. Reconnaissance photos of Peenemunde revealed objects later identified as the V-1 and V-2, both major threats to the planned invasion of Europe. As a counter move, Allied bombers struck Pennemunde, but they failed to knock out key installations. However, the raid convinced Hitler that the Allies intended to deny him use of the new weapons. He quickly ordered V-2 production underground.
In 1944, the Germans launched their first V-1 “Buzz Bomb” against England but when Allied invasion forces poured across the English Channel into France, they soon begin overrunning their launch sites and by September the Allies has essentially won the battle against the V-1. But it was not quite over. On September 8th, 1944, a new terror rained down from the skies when the first V-2 hurtled down on London without warning and exploded with devastating effect. During the next two months, 850 more fell on England. The British, had no defense except the ceaseless bombardment of their suspected launch sites and production facilities. But the V-2 fortunately arrived too late and when its onslaught ended Nazi leaders began to face the realities of crushing defeat. With the war’s conclusion certain and Allied troops closing in on Berlin, the Pennemunde group elected to surrender to advancing Americans, rather than waiting to be captured by the Soviets. Von Braun knew that his great dream would come to a halt for a few years, but he had faith in it and wrote: “It was the space station we sought and we still seek it wherever we may be. We desire to open the planetary world to mankind.”
Soon afterwards, von Braun and 126 other key German rocket scientists, including Eberhard Rees and Ernest Stuhlinger, accepted an offer to work on rocket developments in the United States. They were sent to Fort Bliss, where he became a named technical advisor to the White Sands Proving Grounds. There the group assembled rockets from parts brought from Germany, and in 1946 the first successful V-2 launch took place. Soon others followed with instruments to study the upper atmosphere. Shortly after von Braun married Maria von Quistorp, he became project director of guided missile development at Fort Bliss. There his work led to “Project Bumper” that gave the V-2 its greatest achievement when it boosted a “WAC Corporal” missile’s instrument package payload 224 miles into space. To provide improved rocket development facilities, the Army moved the Fort Bliss group to the Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama and established the Army Ordnance Guided Missile Development Division there with von Braun as its technical director. Meanwhile, von Braun continued his intense interest in manned space travel.
The three-stage “Hermes” was the first postwar rocket that von Braun proposed. It was designed to enable a winged cargo glider to attain a range of 500 miles. But with the outbreak of war in Korea, von Braun had to focus his efforts on developing the medium range “Redstone” ballistic missile, which was later produced in quantity for the Army. In 1954, von Braun became involved in plans for an Earth satellite. Soon afterwards, President Eisenhower introduced the “Vanguard” Earth satellite program as part of the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year. Meanwhile, after von Braun became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955, the United States placed its highest priority on ballistic missile development, and the “Jupiter” intermediate range missile began under von Braun’s direction. Afterwards, he was named director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, with direct responsibility for the Jupiter. After it was perfected, it became operational under Air Force control and NATO deployed it in Europe.
The Soviet Union’s groundbreaking Sputnik-1, the world’s first artificial satellite finally shook America out of its apathy regarding space. Quickly, the government authorized von Braun to develop the four-stage “Juno-1″ satellite launcher. Now the race is on between the Vanguard and the Juno-1 to launch the first American satellite. But when the Vanguard explodes at launch, President Eisenhower quickly approved von Braun’s group to use a Jupiter to put the Explorer-1 satellite into Earth orbit on January 31st, 1958. Von Braun had put America into the space age.
Fortunately, the government established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, with a mandate for the vigorous pursuit of the nation’s space activities. While the development of the “Saturn” clustered rocket got underway in 1958 under Army control, in 1959 President Eisenhower transferred it and its personnel to NASA. Consequently, in July 1960, von Braun became director of NASA’s newly named George C. Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, and thus became directly involved in charting America’s course in landing men on the moon. A particularly proud moment was when von Braun showed President Eisenhower models of the Saturn rocket by which such a landing would be achieved. Meanwhile, von Braun and his group concentrated on perfecting the huge three-stage Saturn rocket for launching men into lunar orbit.
America’s first step to space comes in its Project Mercury program to put men into Earth orbit when von Braun’s Redstone rocket launches astronaut Alan Shepard into a suborbital flight. With this successful beginning, President Kennedy announced in May 1961, that America would land men on the moon before the end of the decade. Soon afterwards, Mercury astronaut John Glenn thrilled the nation by orbiting the Earth three times in his Friendship-7 spacecraft in 1962. In the next few years, the Gemini Program to place two men in extended Earth orbit was completed. By this time, American astronauts had spent nearly 1,000 hours in Earth orbit perfecting spacecraft rendezvousing, docking and space walking.
von Braun’s huge three-stage Saturn-5 launch vehicle brought a new era to rocketry when it completed its maiden flight in 1967. No one had ever seen or heard anything like it before. The Saturn-5 was a mighty force befitting sending men into space. The first launch of the Saturn-5 came in the Apollo-7 Earth-orbiting mission. This was soon followed by the historic flight of Apollo-8, under astronaut Frank Borman’s command, which orbited around the moon. Finally, the Apollo-11 mission achieved the dream of lunar landing. Astronaut Neil Armstrong conveyed this in his famous quote: “One small step for a man, One giant leap for mankind.” It was the ultimate expression of von Braun’s dream that he had begun nearly 40 years before.
In 1970, von Braun became NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning in Washington. There his new space dreams included a nuclear engine to place a shuttle in orbit around the moon and shuttles to place a space station in orbit around Mars so that men could descend and explore its surface. In 1972, von Braun finally left NASA to become Vice President of Engineering and Development with Fairchild Industries. But his dreams continued to become reality. Among them was his concept of the reusable space shuttle that successfully launched in the 1980s and enabled the vigorous exploration on space to continue.
During his lifetime Wernher von Braun had the good fortune to see his youthful dreams come true. But he did far more than dream. His hard work, dedication, and research paved the way for the peaceful exploration of space, landings on the moon, and the sending of inquisitive spacecraft out into the cosmos.
Wernher von Braun died on June 16th, 1977.
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