Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Braun, Wernher von (1912–1977)

Title: Wernher von Braun
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German physicist and rocket scientist who relocated to the United States and helped develop the U.S. space program. Born in Wirsitz, Posen, Germany (now Poland), on 23 March 1912, Wernher von Braun decided as a teenager to become a physicist and pioneer in space rocketry. After graduating from the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1932, he earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Berlin, concentrating on developing liquid-fueled rocket engines.

In 1932, the German military began funding von Braun's work, and after heading a team of 80 engineers building rockets in Kummersdorf, he took over a new, custom-designed facility at Peenemunde in the Baltic, the remoteness of which allowed long-range rocket testing. By 1943, von Braun's team had successfully developed several rockets—the A-2, A-3, and A-4, the last capable of reaching Britain. Von Braun made no secret of his interest in sending rockets to explore space rather than using them as weapons, leading the German Schutstaffel (SS) and Gestapo to arrest him for frivolous indulgence.

In 1943, as an Allied victory seemed increasingly likely, Adolf Hitler ordered von Braun's group to develop the A-4 as a "weapon of vengeance" to shower explosives on London. Von Braun's colleagues argued that, without him, they could not accomplish this task, so he was freed. The first operational V-2 ("Vengeance") rocket was launched in September 1944.

In early 1945, fearing for his group members' personal safety and the program's future, von Braun stole a train, forged travel documents, and led his production team to surrender to U.S. military representatives in western Germany. The Americans seized V-2s, spare parts, and scientific documents from the Peenemunde and Nordhausen facilities and gave von Braun and 126 of his scientists visas for the United States. The group initially settled at Fort Bliss, Texas, but transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1950, where they shared their knowledge with American scientists and laid the foundations of the U.S. rocketry and space-exploration programs.

Von Braun's well-publicized suggestions that the United States build a space station and launch manned missions to the moon contributed to the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, Skylab, and the Apollo space program during the 1960s. Von Braun retired in 1972, and he died at Alexandria, Virginia, on 16 June 1977.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Bergaust, Erik. Wernher von Braun: The Authoritative and Definitive Biographical Profile of the Father of Modern Space Flight. Washington, DC: National Space Institute, 1976.; Neufeld, Michael J. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.; Piszkiewicz, Dennis. The Nazi Rocketeers: Dreams of Space and Crimes of War. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.; Piszkiewicz, Dennis. Wernher von Braun: The Man Who Sold the Moon. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.; Rival, Michel. Les apprentis sorciers: Haber, von Braun, Teller. Paris: Seuil, 1996.; Stuhlinger, Frederick I. Ordway, III. Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space: A Biographical Memoir. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1994.
 

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