Wernher von Braun was born in 1912. Braun is most associated with the V2 rocket programme in World War Two and in later years Braun was also associated with the American space programme which culminated in the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969.
Werner von Braun was educated at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Institute of Technology where he studied engineering. While at this college, he developed an interest in rockets and the technology surrounding them. Braun helped to found the German Society for Space Travel and in 1932, just a year before Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor, von Braun was identified by Walter Dornberger as a man with ability in rocket technology. Dornberger was the head of solid rocket research and development for the German Army. He recruited von Braun into his department. In 1934, von Braun developed two rockets that were successfully fired and reached a vertical height of 1.5 miles.
In 1937, Dornberger was appointed military head of the rocket research centre based at Pennemünde on the German Baltic coast. Braun was made the technical director of this highly secret base. Here he worked on his dream of building a rocket that would leave the Earth’s atmosphere at supersonic speed. While Braun may have been thinking in terms of space travel, his work would develop into the V2 rocket – a weapon of awesome power.
On paper such a weapon would have been unstoppable once it had been successfully launched. Such was the importance of this work on the V2 that the control of the Pennemünde base was taken over by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS. He was concerned that Braun was more interested in space travel than in developing a weapon that could have a devastating impact on the Allies. In March 1944, the Gestapo arrested Braun and he was only released when they became convinced that he would use all his energy and ability in developing the rocket that Himmler believed would alter the balance of power in World War Two. Ironically, it may well have been this arrest and the delay this may have had on the development of the V2, that meant that the new weapon was not first used until well after D-Day.
The first V2 fired in anger was launched in September 1944. Over 5,000 V2’s were fired at Britain though only 1,100 reached their target. 2,724 people were killed and nearly 6,000 were injured. The successful invasion of Europe – D-Day – meant that the Allies could take out the launch sites as they advanced across Western Europe. Rather than surrender to the Russians, Braun and his team fled west and surrendered to the American Army. Braun and forty of his colleagues were taken to America where they continued their work on rockets. Their work led to the development of the ballistic missile and in this sense, von Braun played his part in the Cold War.
Between 1945 and 1957, von Braun concentrated his work on ballistic missiles. However, when Russia sent Sputnik into orbit in October 1957, he changed tack and put his efforts into America’s space exploration programme. In this he was extremely successful. In 1960, von Braun became head of the Marshall Space Flight Centre and it was here that he developed the Saturn rocket that ended with the Apollo series of Moon missions with Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969.
The world was transfixed by the success of this mission and by the near tragedy of Apollo 13. However, subsequent Apollo missions failed to grab the public’s attention and in 1972, with the race to the Moon won, President Richard Nixon cut the federal budget given over to space research. In protest at this Braun resigned his position. He died of cancer in June 1977.