Scientist. His work on rockets and missiles helped NASA land a man on the moon. His involvement with the German Nazi Party during his early career and in World War II cast a shadow on his legacy. He is considered by many as the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century, serving as the Director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and was the chief architect of the Saturn V launch missile that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. Born Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, in Wirsitz, Germany (now Wyrzysk, Poland) to a minor aristocratic family, he inherited the title Freiherr (Baron) from his father, Magnus Freiherr von Braun, who had served as Minister of Agriculture in the Weimar Republic between the two World Wars. His mother, Emmy von Quistorp, could trace her family history to medieval European royalty. When Poland became independent in 1918, the von Braun family moved to Berlin, where young Wernher learned to play the cello and piano, wanting to become a music composer. After reading books on rocketry, he applied himself to his studies in physics and mathematics, in order to pursue a career in rocketry. In 1930, he entered the Technical University of Berlin, and joined the Eerein fur Raumschiffahrt (VFR, the Space Flight Society), building on his dream of space flight. Von Braun was working on his doctorate in rocketry when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, and rocketry soon became a national agenda item. He earned his doctorate in Physics and Aerospace Engineering in July 1934, writing his doctoral thesis on the propulsion systems of liquid fuel rockets. By the end of 1934, his group in the VFR had launched rockets that went as high as 3.5 kilometers (2 miles). Shortly after these successful launchings, the VFR (a civilian society) was ordered disbanded by the Nazi Government, but VFR members were allowed to join in the military development of rockets at the newly established Peenemünde Missile Base. It was here Von Braun helped to develop the V-1 and V-2 rockets, as well as other military rocket applications. In November 1937, Von Braun joined the Nazi Party, since Party membership was mandatory if one aspired to higher positions of authority. When offered a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Waffen-SS in 1939, Von Braun thought it wise to accept the commission, stating that he was only interested in working on rocketry. Towards the end of the war, he worked on a multistage V-4 missile, which Hitler planned to use to target New York City and other American cities, but which Von Braun saw as the means to travel into deep outer space; the missile was never constructed, but its design served as part of the future post-war ICBMs later built by the United States. At the end of the war, Von Braun and his rocket staff decided to defect to the Americans, rather than be captured by one of the other allied armies then invading Germany. Von Braun orchestrated his staff's transfer to Oberammergau, in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich, where they were captured by the 44th US Infantry Division. Von Braun would later explain why he surrendered his team to the American Army: "We knew we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict, and that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance be secured." Von Braun and his entire staff of engineers and scientists were recruited to work for the United States, eventually settling at Fort Bliss, Texas (outside El Paso, Texas). In 1947, von Braun obtained permission to return to Germany long enough to marry his cousin, Maria Luise von Quistorp, and to return with her and his parents to the United States. In 1955, Wernher von Braun became an American citizen. Between 1950 and 1956, Von Braun led the Army's rocket development team at Redstone Arsenel, resulting in the Redstone rocket, the first rocket developed to carry a nuclear warhead. Over the next twenty years, von Braun would go on to develop missiles as the Jupiter-C (which launched the first American satellite, Explorer I), plan a manned space flight to Mars (in 1952), and design a space station that would orbit the earth. When the NASA was established in 1958, Von Braun was soon made the first Director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Alabama. There, von Braun developed the Saturn and Saturn V missile systems, which would play critical roles in manned space flight programs. In 1970, Von Braun was promoted to NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning. When his favored Apollo program was cut in funds after several successful moon landings, Von Braun decided to retire, leaving NASA in May 1972. Upon leaving NASA, Von Braun became Vice President for Engineering and Development of Fairchild Industries. But in 1973, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and was forced to retire again in December 1976. While hospitalized, he was awarded the 1975 National Medal of Science and died of kidney cancer in June 1977. Over the years, Von Braun has been awarded numerous honors, including 12 honorary doctorates, NASA's Distinguished Service Medal (1969), the Civilian International World Citizenship Award (1970), and the German Federal Service Cross (1959).
Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson