Von Braun, Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr
VON BRAUN, WERNHER MAGNUS MAXIMILIAN FREIHERR
(b. Wirsitz, East Prussia, Germany [now Poland], 23 March 1912; d. Alexandria, Virginia, 16 June 1977), rocket engineering, spaceflight promotion.
Although his doctorate was in physics, von Braun was one of the most important rocket engineers of the twentieth century. He played a leading role in four achievements: (1) the development of the A-4/V-2 ballistic missile, the world’s first large rocket, in Nazi Germany; (2) a 1950s campaign for spaceflight in the United States, which changed public attitudes in America and the West; (3) the launching of the first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, in early 1958; and (4) the development of the gigantic Saturn V launch vehicle that sent the first human landing expedition, Apollo 11, to the Moon. But in recent years he is increasingly remembered as well for his compromises with the Nazis, in particular his SS (Schutzstaffel) membership and his participation in the exploitation of concentration-camp labor in V-2 production.
Childhood and Career in Germany. Wernher was the second son of the Prussian civil servant, banker, and right-wing cabinet minister Magnus Freiherr (Baron) von Braun, and his wife Emmy von Quistorp. From 1920 to 1934 the family resided primarily in Berlin. Wernher, although very bright, was sent to boarding school in fall 1925 because of poor grades and lack of motivation. Soon thereafter, through his enthusiasm for amateur astronomy, he discovered the seminal work of German-Romanian spaceflight theorist Hermann Oberth, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The rocket into interplanetary space, 1923), and became a fervent believer in space travel. As a result, he also found his talent for mathematics and science. He graduated in spring 1930 and enrolled in mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg; he spent one semester, summer 1931, in Zürich.
After the founding of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) in 1927, von Braun became a member, and in 1930 he helped found the Raketenflugplatz (Rocketport) Berlin, an amateur rocket group. In June 1932, as a result of a failed Raketenflugplatz demonstration for Army Ordnance, he met Colonel Karl Becker, who arranged his transfer to the University of Berlin. He matriculated in physics, and completed his doctorate in July 1934 under the direction of Erich Schumann, based on secret rocket work at the Kummersdorf army proving ground. His dissertation had a theoretical section on the physics of rocket motor combustion, but it was primarily an engineering report on his liquid-fuel rocket development.
After he successfully launched two A–2 (Aggregat 2) rockets in December 1934, Army Ordnance increased its investment in liquid-fuel rocketry as a propulsion system for long-range missiles; in mid-1935, the new Luftwaffe also became intrigued with his work. The result was a joint agreement to fund a secret rocket development center at Peenemünde on the Baltic-coast island of Usedom; it opened in 1937. The two services soon went their separate ways, but funding had dramatically increased.
Although only twenty-five years old, von Braun was named technical director of the army side of Peenemünde; his chief and mentor was Major, later General, Walter Dornberger. In late 1937 the Nazi Party pushed von Braun into joining; previously he had briefly been a member of an SS horse cavalry unit in 1933 and 1934, but showed no particular ideological commitment to National Socialism. In 1940 the SS pressured him to become an officer, and in order to avoid political troubles for his career and the rocket program, he accepted the rank of Untersturmführer (second lieutenant); by 1943 he reached Sturmbannführer (major).
Despite technical setbacks, including the failure of four A-3 test rockets in 1937, von Braun’s charismatic leadership enabled the army center to develop the revolutionary A-4 ballistic missile, with a range of 270 kilometers; the first successful launch took place on 3 October 1942. Although he made contributions to rocket-engine and guidance development in the early years, his true importance lay in the management of huge and complex missile projects. The organizational tools of systems and project management that would be developed in the United States in the 1950s did not yet exist. A-4 systems integration depended on von Braun’s personal leadership and mastery of detail in all subsystems and structures, and his ability to inspire large groups of engineers, scientists, and skilled workers to work together for a common goal.
As Adolf Hitler began to take more interest in the A-4, leading to his late-1942 decision to mass produce it as a weapon against Britain, political intervention by Albert Speer’s Armaments Ministry and Heinrich Himmler’s SS became a greater and greater problem for von Braun and Dornberger. In spring 1943 the first SS concentration-camp workers were deployed on the program; after Allied air raids, A-4 assembly was moved to an underground, slave-labor plant outside Nordhausen. As a result of a conspiracy by Himmler to try to install SS construction chief Hans Kammler as the chief of the program, the Gestapo arrested von Braun in March 1944 for drunken remarks doubting the war’s outcome and stating his preference for spaceships over weapons. He was released only after the strenuous lobbying of Dornberger and Speer, who argued his indispensability for the program.
After further technical problems and delays, and the deaths of thousands of camp prisoners from disease, starvation, and beatings in the underground rocket factory, the A-4 was finally launched against Allied cities in September 1944. The Propaganda Ministry dubbed it Vengeance Weapon 2 (V-2), as it followed the Luftwaffe’s cruise missile, the V-1. Ultimately, the A-4/V-2 was a military failure because of its inaccuracy. Vast resources were wasted on an ineffective weapon. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable technological achievement of great potential for the arms race and space exploration.
Early American Career and Space Advocacy in the 1950s. Seeing that the war was lost, von Braun prepared in the winter 1944–1945 to bring his rocket group over to the Americans if possible, but in the end luck as much as anything led to that result. Kammler sent the Peenemünde group to the Nordhausen area in February and March 1945, and then in April further ordered von Braun and 500 top engineers to evacuate to southern Bavaria. On 2 May, von Braun, Dornberger, and several others surrendered to the U.S. Army in the Alps. They were able to convince American officers and scientists of the value of transferring the core of the Peenemünde group to America for further guided-missile development. This project became the heart of Operation Overcast, soon renamed Project Paperclip, which brought hundreds of German scientists and engineers to the United States. Von Braun arrived in September, and over the winter about 120 Peenemünders followed him to Fort Bliss, Texas, outside El Paso, and next to the new White Sands, New Mexico, test range. In 1947 he returned briefly to Germany to marry his first cousin, Maria von Quistorp, with whom he subsequently had three children: Iris Careen, Margrit Cecile, and Peter Constantine. During the late 1940s von Braun’s group worked at Fort Bliss for U.S. Army Ordnance, but only on an experimental cruise missile. No priority was placed on ballistic-missile development by an American military riven by interservice rivalries.
The intensification of America’s Cold War with the U.S.S.R. eventually permitted the army to found a new rocket center at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, in spring 1950, with the Germans as the core leadership. As technical director, von Braun led the development of the 320-kilometer-range Redstone missile, essentially an enlarged, nuclear-armed V-2. In 1955 and 1956, a further escalation of the arms race resulted in an order to develop a 2,500-kilometer-range nuclear missile, the Jupiter. Wernher von Braun’s missile development group became the heart of the new Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). Several months earlier, on 14 April 1955, he had been sworn in as an American citizen.
Meanwhile, von Braun had become famous as a popularizer of spaceflight through a series of articles, books, and television appearances. While one might not normally equate his space propaganda with his technical accomplishments, his publications, speeches, and television appearances laid the groundwork for public support of space exploration and also set the agenda for future American space planners. Frustrated in the late 1940s by the slow pace of rocket development, von Braun had returned to his old enthusiasm for spaceflight. In his spare time he began writing a science-fiction novel, The Mars Project, with a detailed mathematical appendix laying out the feasibility of a Mars expedition based on contemporary liquid-fuel rocket technology. His novel was a flop, but the appendix was published in German in 1952, and in English in 1953. That was not the public breakthrough, however. In late 1951 he met a Collier's magazine editor and convinced him that spaceflight was feasible. The result was the spectacularly illustrated 22 March 1952 issue, with articles from prominent pro-spaceflight scientists, notably Fred Whipple and Joseph Kaplan. Featured was von Braun’s space station, promoted as a nuclear-armed battle station for dominating the Soviet Union through “space superiority.” The station would also serve as a stepping-stone to the Moon and Mars. Von Braun’s hypothetical expeditions to those places were featured in later issues through 1954. The Collier's articles were enlarged into a series of books, and led directly to three Walt Disney television specials in 1955 through 1957 that further spread von Braun’s fame and influence.
Polling data show that this campaign was influential in making the American public believe in space travel’s feasibility, something most had dismissed as a distant dream in 1950. In popularizing a certain “logical” path for space exploration—reusable rocket planes, a space station, Moon expeditions, Moon bases, and Mars expeditions— von Braun also set the agenda for future U.S. spaceflight advocates. The history of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shows its leading engineers and managers repeatedly attempting to return to what one historian has called the “von Braun paradigm,” in spite of political diversions like the Apollo program—hence the later space shuttle and space station. This fixation on an expensive human spaceflight program and a certain “logical” path has not necessarily been a wise use of the American taxpayers’ money, but it certainly shows the lasting influence of von Braun’s space advocacy of the 1950s.
From Orbiter to Explorer. While selling space travel made him famous, von Braun’s job was to lead the development of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles for the army, in competition with the much-better-funded air force. The only significant U.S. space project of the mid-1950s was a scientific satellite for the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved in mid-1955. In one of the greatest disappointments of von Braun’s career, his Orbiter proposal for a Redstone topped by small, solid-fuel rockets lost out to the navy Vanguard. That more ambitious project quickly fell behind schedule, but ABMA’s appeals to Washington to beat the Soviets into space by reviving Orbiter were rebuffed several times.
During these two years the ABMA carefully preserved its satellite-launching capability by diverting the Redstone-based design into reentry testing for the Jupiter program; the rocket was designated the Jupiter C to take advantage of the larger missile’s priority. At the same time, Huntsville’s research into ablative reentry heat shields of fiberglass composites was of great importance for ballistic missile warheads, and was much more cost-effective than the air force approach. Von Braun made specific suggestions that contributed to these developments, but as in Peenemünde, his real importance was his virtuoso engineering management in an environment of largely in-house development.
The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik changed everything on 4 October 1957. The public outcry in America broke down the barriers to a parallel project to Vanguard. After Sputnik 2 was launched a month later carrying a dog, the Eisenhower administration could no longer resist. Following the spectacular failure of the first Vanguard satellite attempt on 6 December, von Braun’s group succeeded on 31 January 1958; the army dubbed the satellite Explorer 1. Though the second Explorer failed to orbit, Explorer 3 in March 1958 put another cosmic-ray instrument devised by James Van Allen into space, and together the two satellites made the epochal discovery of the radiation belts around Earth.
Saturn, Apollo, and Aftermath. The Sputnik shock only magnified interservice battles over missile and space policy. It took two years for the Eisenhower administration and Congress to create a coherent space program, with the new NASA dominating civilian space exploration, and the U.S. Air Force taking the lead role in national security space activities. With ABMA having no future in long-range missiles after Jupiter, Huntsville increasingly pinned its hopes on Saturn, a new, very large launch vehicle. In fall 1958 von Braun rebuffed NASA’s first attempt to take over his team, however, because the agency could afford to take only half of his 5,000 workers. A year later, however, the army was finished in the space business, and the administration was willing to give NASA the money to fully support Saturn as a way to catch up with the Soviet Union’s lead in large boosters. President Eisenhower approved the transfer in October 1959. On 1 July 1960 von Braun became director of the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), which remained at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
Von Braun’s group became the main rocket development center for the agency, and Saturn a launch vehicle for the Apollo Moon program. President John F. Kennedy’s decision in May 1961 to make landing a man on the Moon
“before this decade is out” the central goal of Apollo then gave MSFC its overriding purpose: the development of the gigantic, 110-meter-tall Saturn V launch vehicle needed for this mission, along with the original vehicle, now called Saturn I, and a derivative, the Saturn IB, for launching manned Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit.
Three of von Braun’s management and leadership contributions to Apollo can be singled out as critical. First, in 1961 and 1962 NASA and its various centers were divided as to what method should be chosen to reach the Moon. MSFC studied Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR), whereby the lunar landing vehicle would be assembled or fueled near Earth. In June 1962 von Braun surprised his subordinates by supporting Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR), which required only a single Saturn V, instead of two. A small, separate lander would descend to the Moon from lunar orbit. Without LOR, the United States would never have achieved Kennedy’s goal. Von Braun’s decision was essential to settling the issue.
Secondly, in November 1963 von Braun led his German-dominated MSFC leadership to accept “all-up testing” of the Saturn V, an idea pushed by the new chief of the NASA manned space program, Dr. George Mueller. MSFC’s original, cautious schedule required multiple launches to test all three stages, which threatened to derail landing by 1969. Instead, astronauts would fly the vehicle as soon as the third launch attempt. Mueller’s idea appalled von Braun’s subordinates, and his charismatic leadership was again needed to get them to accept the necessity of this somewhat risky approach.
Finally, von Braun was instrumental in revamping the management structure of MSFC to master the challenges of Apollo-Saturn. In-house development could not cope with a project so large; much more contracting out to aerospace firms was needed, as well as the further adaptation of the air-force- and navy-developed tools of systems management. Although credit for Apollo’s success in 1969 must be distributed widely among NASA centers and aerospace corporations, there is little doubt that the excellence of von Braun’s engineering management was one of the program’s foundations. The ultimate sign of MSFC’s competence is this remarkable fact: not one Saturn I, IB, or V failed catastrophically in all their launches from 1961 to 1975—in marked contrast to 1950s rocket programs.
During the late 1960s von Braun fought to bring a greater diversity to the engineering projects of MSFC, as Saturn development passed its peak. He succeeded in winning a place in astronomy programs and a prototype space station that later became the Skylab of 1973 and 1974. Yet the post-Apollo decline of MSFC already began in 1966, and accelerated after he left for Washington, D.C., in March 1970. He accepted the job of deputy associate administrator of NASA for advanced planning, a position created in the short-lived optimism following the first Moon landings. Cutbacks in the civilian space program soon completely undercut his position. In mid-1972 he quit to become a vice president at Fairchild Aircraft Corporation in nearby Germantown, Maryland. He was responsible for Fairchild’s engineering planning and space endeavors, but his last years were marred not only by his loss of a central position in American space programs, but above all by cancer. After an operation in 1973 the disease went into remission, only to return in 1975. He retired at the end of 1976 and died in June 1977 at the age of 65. He will be remembered for his profound impact on rocketry and spaceflight in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but also for his compromises with the Nazi regime.
WORKS BY VON BRAUN
With Joseph Kaplan, Heinz Haber, Willy Ley, et al. Across the Space Frontier. Edited by Cornelius Ryan. New York: Viking, 1952.
Das Marsprojekt [The Mars project]. Frankfurt am Main: Umschau-Verlag, 1952. Translated by Henry J. White. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1953.
With Fred L. Whipple and Willy Ley. Conquest of the Moon. Edited by Cornelius Ryan. New York: Viking, 1953. With Willy Ley. The Exploration of Mars. New York: Viking, 1956.
“Reminiscences of German Rocketry.” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 15 (1956): 125–145.
Bilstein, Roger E. Stages to Saturn. Washington, DC: NASA, 1980.
Eisfeld, Rainer. Mondsüchtig: Werner von Braun und die Geburt der Raumfahrt aus dem Geist der Barbarei. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt, 1996.
McCurdy, Howard E. Space and the American Imagination. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
Neufeld, Michael J. The Rocket and the Reich. New York: Free Press, 1995.
———. “Wernher von Braun, the SS, and Concentration Camp Labor: Questions of Moral, Political, and Criminal Responsibility.” German Studies Review 25 (2002): 57–78.
Oberth, Hermann. Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen [The rocket into interplanetary space]. Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1923.
Stuhlinger, Ernst, and Frederick I. Ordway III. Wernher von Braun. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1994.
Weyer, Johannes. Wernher von Braun. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt, 1999.
Wilford, John Noble. “Wernher von Braun, Rocket Pioneer, Dies.” New York Times, 18 June 1977. A celebratory obituary.
Michael J. Neufeld