Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Braun, Wernher von (1912–1977)

Title: Wernher von Braun
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German physicist and rocket scientist who led in establishing the foundations of the U.S. guided missile program. Born in Wirsitz, Posen, on 23 March 1912, Wernher von Braun graduated from the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1932. He then 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 he headed a team of engineers building and testing rockets first at Kummersdorf and then at Peenemünde in the Baltic. Von Braun made no secret of his interest in sending rockets to explore space rather than using them as weapons, leading to his arrest for frivolous indulgence. In 1943 Adolf Hitler ordered von Braun's group to develop a rocket as a "weapon of vengeance" to shower explosives on London. Von Braun's colleagues argued that without him they could not accomplish this, so he was freed. The first operational V-2 ("Vengeance") rocket was launched in September 1944.

Fearing for his group's personal safety and the program's future, in early 1945 von Braun 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 Peenemünde 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, and in 1950 transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, 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 and to Skylab and the Apollo space program during the 1960s. Von Braun retired in 1972 and died in Alexandria, Virginia, on 16 June 1977.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Piszkiewicz, Dennis. Wernher Von Braun: The Man Who Sold the Moon. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.; Stuhlinger, Frederick I. Ordway, III. Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space: A Biographical Memoir. Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1994.
 

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