Wernher von Braun

Biography: Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) – German-American rocket scientist


“The Seer of Space”
Today he is little known in the US, but in the 1950s and ’60s Wernher von Braun was a household name — known to virtually every American as the famous German rocket scientist and advocate of space travel. American astronauts were transported to the moon by rocket engines developed by the former Nazi SS officer.

Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun and part of his rocket team turned themselves over to the Americans in Reutte, Austria on 3 May 1945. In September they flew to the United States in a C-54. Von Braun’s broken arm is in a cast as the result of a serious auto accident a few weeks earlier. PHOTO: T5C Louis Weintraub (US Army)

Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz in the far eastern Prussian province of Posen (now Wyrzysk, Poland) on 23 March 1912. Young Wernher grew up in Wirsitz and later at his family’s Crenzow estate near Anklam and Greifswald in what is today Western Pomerania in northeastern Germany. His family moved to Berlin in 1920, when he was about eight years old.

The Lutheran von Braun family, as the “von” indicates, were members of the German aristocracy. Wernher’s father, Magnus Freiherr (Baron) von Braun (1877-1972), was a Prussian government official who briefly served as the Minister of Agriculture during the Weimar Republic. Wernher’s mother, Emmy von Quistorp (1866-1959), also had noble ancestry going back through several centuries of European royalty. Although Wernher von Braun was never politically active, his conservative, aristocratic upbringing led him to accept the authority of the state and the military. As a young adult, he rarely questioned authority.

Von Braun developed an interest in astronomy, rocketry, and space travel at an early age. He attended two different boarding schools, first the Hermann Lietz school at Ettersburg, and beginning in 1928, the Lietz school on the small East Frisian island of Spiekeroog in the North Sea. While still a high school student at Ettersburg, von Braun obtained a book by the German-Romanian rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth entitled Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (“The Rocket into Interplanetary Space”). Oberth’s book was difficult to read, with many mathematical formulas to explain his rocket theories. Von Braun wanted to better understand Oberth’s calculations, so he was inspired to improve in his two weakest subjects: mathematics and physics.

Pronounce it correctly!
The correct pronunciation of the last name of Wernher von Braun (and also Eva Braun) is BROWN (not BRAWN). Can you say VERN-air FON BROWN?

Disney and von Braun

In January 1954, Walt Disney visited Wernher von Braun (holding XR-1 model) at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where von Braun was the Chief of Guided Missile Development for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). Von Braun appeared in three episodes of Disney’s TV series about space exploration. PHOTO: NASA

Despite his keen passion for rockets and space travel, von Braun was not one-sided in his interests or talents. He was also an accomplished amateur musician and composer. He could play the piano and the cello. But people who knew him mostly remember his childhood experiments with fireworks and rockets. One of his boyhood amateur rocketry attempts to propel a toy wagon led to much excitement and his arrest by the Berlin police.

In April 1930 von Braun graduated from high school at Spiekeroog. Later that same year he began his studies at Berlin’s Technical University. While in Berlin, he also participated in rocket tests with fellow enthusiasts, including his idol Hermann Oberth, at the Raketenflugplatz (rocket port) on the northern fringes of Berlin. In 1931, von Braun began learning to fly gliders, taking private lessons in Grunau, Silesia. He later became a skilled pilot, eventually flying everything from fighters to helicopters, but his goal of one day flying in space eluded him. It was in Grunau where he first met and became friends with Hanna Reitsch, later the famous pioneering female test pilot for the Third Reich.

After only a semester in Berlin, von Braun transfered to the Swiss Technical Institute (ETH) in Zurich, where he also studied for only one semester. In 1932, the 20-year-old von Braun was back in Berlin studying physics and working on a secret doctoral dissertation for the Prussian government. (The Nazis were only months away from coming to power in Germany.) The Raketenflugplatz tests had finally drawn the serious attention of the German military and Walter Dornberger in particular. Dornberger recruited von Braun to head rocket development at an army artillery range in Kummersdorf, south of Berlin. Here he would help engineer the (unsuccessful) A1 and (successful) A2 liquid fuel rockets. In September 1933, Adolf Hitler toured the Kummersdorf facility. In summer 1934 von Braun graduated with a doctorate in physics.

The successful firing of two A2 rockets (nicknamed Max and Moritz) from a North Sea island in December 1934 boosted Dr. von Braun’s career. Soon he was asked to develop a more advanced military rocket, the A3, at what was now known as Versuchstelle West (Test Center West). But Kummersdorf was not big enough for the much larger rockets that the Nazis wanted. Von Braun began looking for a more suitable site. He found it on a Baltic island where his grandfather used to spend time duck hunting.

Next | Wernher von Braun – Peenemünde (Part 2)
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