Dr. Wernher von Braun (1912-1977)


Wernher von Braun first became interested in space exploration as a youth when he read science fiction novels by authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. His interest in space flight spurred him on to master the subjects of calculus and trigonometry so he could better understand the physics space exploration. He was so fascinated by rocketry that he joined the German rocket society before the age of 20. In 1932, von Braun began working on developing ballistic missiles for the German army. Within three years, he had earned his Ph.D. in physics.

Perhaps von Braun's most famous achievement was developing the V-2 missile for the Nazis during World War II. After it had been developed, prisoners of war (POW's) from concentration camps were forced to contribute their labor to the production of these missiles. Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the SS, wanted to expand his power base and sought control of the V-2 missile program. Von Braun refused to relinquish his control of the operation, and in turn was arrested by the SS on Himmler's orders. Himmler accused von Braun of developing the missiles for space travel after the war, rather than dedicating his attention to the army. However, one of von Braun's counterparts interceded, and won von Braun's release. Beginning in September of 1944, the Nazis began using the missiles on European targets. But by early 1945, von Braun saw that an Allied victory was imminent, and began planning for postwar times.

Von Braun directed the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists along with test plans and equipment to the Americans in late 1945. For von Braun, it was a moral decision to give his brainchild to a nation that was "guided by the Bible" (Arts & Entertainment, Biography). Von Braun continued developing ballistic missiles for the Americans for fifteen years. In 1960, he was transferred to NASA and was commissioned to build the Saturn rockets. He became chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the rocket that sent Americans to the moon.

(Luke R. ('12)
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