Happy Birthday, Wernher von Braun

One hundred years ago today — March 23, 1912 — Dr. Wernher von Braun was born in Wirsitz, Germany.

(Wernher von Braun in front of Apollo-11’s Saturn-V launch vehicle. NASA image.)

Dr. von Braun was responsible for some of the best and some of the worst of space history.

As a youth he became enamored with the possibilities of space exploration by reading the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and from the science fact writings of Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 classic study, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space), prompted young von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry so he could understand the physics of rocketry.

His V-2 ballistic missiles pounded Britain and other countries during World War II, and were notorious as much for the slave labor that went into them as for the damage they inflicted. After being brought to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip, he developed U.S. ballistic missiles.

Before the Allied capture of the V–2 rocket complex, von Braun engineered the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans. [von Braun] and his rocket team were scooped up from defeated Germany and … installed at Fort Bliss, Texas. There they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army, launching them at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. In 1950 von Braun’s team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala, where they built the Army’s Jupiter ballistic missile.

When NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center was established at Huntsville, von Braun was named its first director. In this capacity he was able to build new rockets — including the mighty Saturn-V — that allowed for peaceful exploration of the heavens and took the first explorers to the Moon.

(Wernher von Braun in front of a Saturn vehicle and its F-1 rocket engines. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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