by Robin Williams
May 2, 2001
Wernher von Braun is, without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history. His crowning achievement, as head of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969.
Wernher von Braun was born in 1912 in Wirsitz, Germany (now part of Poland), into an aristocratic Prussian family. His father was Baron Magnus von Braun and his mother was a direct descendent of Valdemar I of Denmark (1131-1182). At an early age Wernher developed a fascination for rockets, inspired by the ancient Chinese who invented fireworks. At the age of 12 he tried his first practical rocket experiment. He strapped six rockets to a small wagon, and lit them up. The wagon performed beyond his wildest dreams and careened about crazily, trailing a tail of fire like a comet. When the rockets finally burned out, ending their sparkling performance with a magnificent thunderclap, the wagon rolled majestically to a halt. The police, who arrived late for the beginning of his experiment, but in time for the grand finale, were unappreciative. They took young Wernher into custody. Fortunately, no one was injured and he was released to the Minister of Agriculture, his father. So began a career in rocketry that changed human history.
Von Braun attended the French Gymnasium School in Berlin, but was not a star pupil. He spent much of his time building an automobile in his father's garage instead of studying books. Von Braun's grades improved after his father transferred him to a boarding school. Part of his education there involved working in small groups to develop technical skills. He would draw upon these lessons many times later in his career when working in teams. Before bedtime he was permitted to examine the stars with a small telescope that his mother bought him. Thus began his interest in astronomy.
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Top: A portrait of Wernher von Braun. (Drawing by Roger Kammerer)
One day in 1925, von Braun saw an ad in an astronomy magazine about a book called "The Rocket to the Interplanetary Spaces," by Professor Hermann Oberth. He ordered the book at once and, when it arrived, opened it breathlessly. To his consternation, he couldn't understand a wordits pages were a baffling conglomeration of mathematical symbols and formulae. Rushing to his teacher, he cried, "How can I understand what this man is saying?" To von Braun's dismay, his teacher told him to study mathematics and physics, but with the glamorous prospect of a life devoted to space travel, these subjects took on a new meaning. Von Braun was determined to master them and he began to bury himself in their mysteries and, after a few years, he succeeded in graduating a year ahead of his class.
After graduating from school, von Braun became a student at the Berlin Institute of Technology and worked in his spare time as an assistant for Professor Oberth at the German Society for Space Travel. Oberth was trying to prove that liquid fuels, instead of solids, offered the best approach to powering rockets for space vehicles. Oberth's other two assistants were Klaus Riedel and Rudolf Nebel. Their equipment was crude and the ignition system was perilous. Riedel would toss a flaming gasoline-soaked rag over the gas-spitting motor and duck for cover before Oberth opened the fuel valves, and then the motor would start with a roar!
Oberth and his assistants were allowed to conduct experiments as guests on the proving grounds of the Chemical and Technical Institute, the German equivalent of the U.S. Bureau of Standards. In August 1930, Oberth's little rocket engine succeeded in producing a thrust of seven kilograms for 90 seconds, burning gasoline and liquid oxygen. An official of the Institute certified the demonstration and the liquid-fueled rocket motor was thus recognized for the first time in Germany as a respectable member of the family of internal-combustion engines. This was a tremendous step forward but, because he had to support a large family, Oberth was forced to return to his teaching job in Romania.
After Oberth's departure, the team's guest status at the proving grounds expired and a new place to conduct the experiments had to be found. Nebel secured a lease on an abandoned 300-acre ammunition storage depot on the outskirts of Berlin. He persuaded the city fathers to let them use the site free-of-charge and for an indefinite period. One of the blockhouses was used as the laboratory and on this building was hung the sign "Raketenflugplatz Berlin" (Berlin Rocket Field).
Nebel did an amazing job of scrounging free materials, which were swapped for skilled labor, such as tin bending or welding. Riedel sketched out a design for a "Minimum Rocket," which they started to build. The motor was located in the nose, not for any scientific reason, but simply because Nebel had scrounged a truckload of aluminum tubing which could only be used if the motor dragged the tanks by the fuel lines.
In 1931, von Braun interrupted his studies at the Institute of Technology in Berlin to study for a semester at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He returned to Berlin in October for the first public firing of Riedel's rocket. Several local industrialists had been persuaded by Nebel and Riedel to pay one mark each to witness the demonstration. When the moment of truth came, the rocket moved halfway up the launcher tracks, then settled peacefully back on the pad. What an embarrassment, but the admission fees were not returned! The pressurization of the rocket's fuel tanks was unreliable and this problem was soon corrected. Within a few weeks, successful launchings became commonplace and the rocket reached an altitude of 1,000 feet. A small parachute carried the tail section gently back to Earth. Riedel would dash across the field in an old car, jump out, and sometimes catch the rocket before it struck the ground. After such a lucky "hand recovery," they could fire the rocket again immediately.
While taking part in these exciting activities in his spare time, von Braun continued with his formal studies, and graduated from the Berlin Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1932. During vacation periods between 1931 and 1933 he took flying lessons and gained a private pilot's license.
Von Braun's exposure to rocketry convinced him that the exploration of space would require far more than just applications of the current engineering technology. To this end he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Berlin and gained his Ph.D. in physics in 1934. His thesis was about liquid rocket propulsion. Solid propellant rockets had been used for centuries, but liquid propulsion was new. Only miniature motors had been built and tested that used a liquid oxygen/alcohol propellant combination. Von Braun wanted to analyze some of the puzzling phenomena that take place in a rocket engine, such as atomization, combustion, and expansion of gases. Experimentation would be costly and von Braun considered himself fortunate when the research department of the German Army Ordnance Corps sponsored his research and permitted him to conduct dangerous experiments at the Kummersdorf Army Proving Ground.
After gaining his Ph.D., von Braun became a civilian employee of the Army and continued with this work. He designed the V-2 rocket that was used so effectively against Britain during World War II. At the end of the war, the von Braun team at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea headed south and surrendered to U.S. forces rather than risk capture by the Soviet army.
With 120 of his associates, von Braun was brought to the U.S. as part of "Operation Paperclip" in order to demonstrate their achievements with V-2 rockets. He arrived in the U.S. in September 1945 under contract to the U.S. Army. During the following five years, he directed high-altitude firings of V-2 rockets at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and was project director of the guided missile development unit at Fort Bliss, Texas.
In 1950, the Fort Bliss rocket development group was transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, where the Army centered its rocket development activities. In Huntsville, the von Braun team worked on the ballistic rockets called Redstone, Jupiter C, Juno, and the Saturn 1B.
After the Soviets' Sputnik went into orbit in 1957 and the Navy's Vanguard rocket blew up on its pad, a version of von Braun's Redstone rocket, called Jupiter-C, put Explorer 1 into orbit in 1958, and another version carried Alan Shepard on the first U.S. sub-orbital flight in 1961.
Von Braun and his team were transferred from the Army's control to NASA's when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established in 1958. Von Braun became director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, which was dedicated on July 1, 1960. The von Braun team members were given a choice whether to go to NASA or stay with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. All elected to be transferred to MSFC on this same date.
Von Braun's management style was to let everybody on the team know that they were important to its success and that any work they did was a reflection on the team. The result was that every team member did his best.
When President Kennedy called for a Moon landing within the decade, von Braun was asked to lead the effort to design and build the rocket. The Saturn V, developed by MSFC, won the race with the Soviet Union to put the first men on the Moon in 1969. After the Moon landings, at the insistence of the NASA Administrator, von Braun, in 1970, went to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to serve as Deputy Associate Administrator and to promote space activities. But public interest and support had declined, and von Braun resigned in May 1972 to become vice president for engineering and development at Fairchild Industries, Inc.
In 1975, he founded and became the first president of the National Space Institute, a private group designed to increase public understanding and support of space activities.
Von Braun died on June 16, 1977, and was buried in Washington, D.C.
Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space, A Biographical Memoir, by Ernst Stuhlinger and Fred Ordway, Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida, 1996.
Otha (Skeet) Vaughan, Marshall Space Flight Center (retired).
Michael Wright, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center's historian.
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center's Web site on Wernher von Braun:
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