Wernher von Braun (1912–77)

Wernher von Braun was one of the outstanding pioneers of rocket propulsion of the 20th century, and designed the rockets that enabled astronauts to reach the moon. He was born in Wirsitz (now Wyrzysk) in the province of Posen in what was then the kingdom of Prussia. When the area became part of Poland under the Treaty of Versaille after the First World War, his family moved to Berlin, where his father, Magnus Freiherr von Braun (1877-1972) held cabinet office under the Weimar Republic.

Wernher von Braun’s consuming lifelong interest in astronomy was supposedly stimulated by a telescope that was given to him when he was confirmed into the Lutheran church. From 1930 he attended the Technical University of Berlin where he was a member of the Verein fur Raumschiffart, the spaceflight society. After graduating he embarked on research on rocketry, which he regarded principally as a means of adding to astronomical knowledge, and received his doctorate in 1934.

He subsequently became technical director of the Third Reich’s new rocket and jet propulsion research centre at Peenemunde in East Prussia, where he developed the A4/V2 rocket from drawings published by the American, Robert H Goddard (1882-1945). Series production of the rocket was authorised in December 1942, and the first rockets were launched towards the United Kingdom in September 1944. Production was delayed by a large-scale RAF bombing raid on Peenemunde on 17/18 August 1943, which killed several of his colleagues. The production of the rockets was moved to the underground facility 'Mittelbau' north of Nordhausen in the Harz mountains. At all research and production facilities prisoners from concentration camps were forced to work under inhumane working and living conditions, tens of thousands of them met their death. As the war neared its end von Braun came under increasing suspicion from the government, particularly from Heinrich Himmler and the SS, and was detained for a time at Stettin (Szczecin). After his release he organised the movement of plant and research staff from Peenemunde to the area around the potash mines at Bleicherode in the spring of 1945. He moved with colleagues to Oberammagau in the Bavarian Alps, where the group surrendered to United States forces on 2 May 1945.

He was quickly transported to the United States under Operation Paperclip, and was subsequently involved with the development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, becoming an American citizen in 1955. His primary interest was always in astronomy, and he published books detailing the possibilities of space travel. In 1960 he and his team began to work for NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and in due course he designed the Saturn V rocket that carried into orbit the craft that took American astronauts to the moon.