Wernher von Braun was a German engineer who played a prominent role in all aspects of rocketry and space exploration, first in Germany and after World War II in the United States. He designed and developed the German V-2 rocket and was the Chief Architect of the Saturn V rocket, designed primarily for the Apollo Space Missions.

Dr. WernDr. Wernher von Braun Photo credits: NASAher von Braun
Dr. Wernher von Braun Photo credits: NASA

As a youth, he became enamored with the possibilities of space exploration by reading the work of science fiction authors. Later, von Braun encountered the work of Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 book The Rocket into Planetary Space, prompted von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry so he could understand the physics of rocketry. From his teenage years, von Braun had held a keen interest in space flight, becoming involved in the German Society for Space Travel (VfR) in 1928. As a means of furthering his desire to build large and capable rockets, in late 1932 he went to work for the German army to develop liquid-fuel rockets.

Von Braun with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Von Braun with the F-1 engines of the Saturn V first stage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center

Work in United States

Braun always recognized the value of the work of American rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard. “Until 1936,” said Braun, “Goddard was ahead of us all.” At the end of World War II, Braun, his younger brother Magnus, Dornberger, and the entire German rocket-development team surrendered to U.S. troops. Within a few months, Braun and about 100 members of his group were at the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps test site at White Sands, New Mexico, where they tested, assembled, and supervised the launching of captured V-2s for high-altitude research purposes. Developmental studies were made of advanced ramjet and rocket missiles. At the end of the war, the United States had entered the field of guided missiles with practically no previous experience. The technical competence of Braun’s group was outstanding. “After all,” he said, “if we are good, it’s because we’ve had 15 more years of experience in making mistakes and learning from them!”

Wernher von Braun after surrendering to U.S. forces German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (with arm in cast) and his brother Magnus (second from right) after surrendering to U.S. forces, May 2, 1945. MSFC/NASA
Wernher von Braun after surrendering to U.S. forces German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (with arm in cast) and his brother Magnus (second from right) after surrendering to U.S. forces, May 2, 1945. MSFC/NASA

In 1954 a secret army–navy project to launch an Earth satellite, Project Orbiter, was thwarted. The situation was changed by the launching of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, followed by Sputnik 2 on November 3. Given leave to proceed on November 8, Braun and his army group launched the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958.

After the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed to carry out the U.S. space program, Braun and his organization were transferred from the army to that agency. As director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Braun led the development of the large space launch vehicles, Saturn I, IB, and V. The engineering success of each rocket in the Saturn class of space boosters, which contained millions of individual parts, remains unparalleled in rocket history. Each was launched successfully and on time and met safe-performance requirements.

Still with his rocket models, von Braun is pictured in his new office at NASA headquarters in 1970
Still with his rocket models, von Braun is pictured in his new office at NASA headquarters in 1970

Awards and Honors

Von Braun received a total of 12 honorary doctorates; among them, on 8 January 1963, one from the Technical University of Berlin, from which he had graduated. Several German cities (Bonn, Neu-Isenburg, Mannheim, Mainz), and dozens of smaller towns have streets named after von Braun. He was also voted into the U.S. Space and Rocket Center Hall of Fame in 2007.

Apollo program director Sam Phillips was quoted as saying that he did not think that the United States would have reached the Moon as quickly as it did without von Braun’s help. Later, after discussing it with colleagues, he amended this to say that he did not believe the United States would have reached the Moon at all.

Famous Quotes of Braun

“I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution.”

“A good engineer gets stale very fast if he doesn’t keep his hands dirty.”

“One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions.”

“Conquering the universe one has to solve two problems: gravity and red tape. We could have mastered gravity.”

“All one can really leave one’s children is what’s inside their heads. Education, in other words, and not earthly possessions, is the ultimate legacy, the only thing that cannot be taken away.”

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