Wernher von Braun (r) and Walt Disney (l) in 1954
He was born on in Wirsitz, Posen, Germany and his mother gave him a telescope upon his Lutheran confirmation. His interest in astronomy and the realm of space motivated him all his life. When Wirsitz was given to Poland in 1920, due to the Treaty of Versailles, his family, like many other German families, moved. The von Brauns found a new life in Berlin, Brandenburg. He did not do well in physics and mathematics until he acquired a copy of the book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) by rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth. From then on he applied himself at school in order to understand mathematics, until he excelled. At the age of 13, he caused a major disruption when he fired off a toy wagon to which he had attached a number of firecrackers. The wagon travelled several blocks into the centre of town and caught fire. The young von Braun was taken into custody by the local police until his father came to collect him.
In 1930 he attended the Berlin Institute of Technology. He also joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR - "Spaceflight Society") and assisted Hermann Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. He received a B.S. degree and entered Berlin University.
Under Captain Walter Dornberger a research grant from the Ordnance Department was arranged for von Braun, who then researched adjacent to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test site at Kummersdorf. Von Braun received a doctorate in physics two years later. By the end of 1934, Braun's group had successfully launched two rockets that rose to more than 2.4 kilometres or 1.5 miles. At that time, however, there was no German rocket society, as the VfR had collapsed and rocket tests had been forbidden by the new regime. Only military development was possible and a larger facility was erected at the village of Peenemünde in northeastern Germany on the Baltic Sea. Dornberger became military commander and von Braun was technical director. They undertook successful liquid-fueled aircraft and jet-assisted takeoffs. They developed the long-range ballistic missile A-4 and supersonic anti-aircraft missile named Wasserfall.
In 1943 Hitler decided to use the A-4 as a "vengeance weapon," and the group found themselves developing the A-4 to rain explosives on London. Fourteen months after Hitler ordered it into production, the first combat A-4, now called the V-2 (a name invented by Heinrich Himmler), was launched toward western Europe on September 7, 1944. When the first V-2 hit London von Braun remarked to his colleagues, "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet."
The SS and the Gestapo arrested von Braun for crimes against the state because he persisted in talking about building rockets which would go into orbit around the Earth and perhaps go to the Moon. His crime was indulging in frivolous dreams when he should have been concentrating on building bigger rocket bombs for the Nazi war machine. Dornberger convinced the SS and the Gestapo to release von Braun because without him there would be no V-2 and Hitler would have them all shot.
On arriving back at Peenemünde, von Braun immediately assembled his planning staff and asked them to decide how and to whom they should surrender. Most of the scientists were frightened of the Russians, they felt the French would treat them like slaves, and the British did not have enough money to afford a rocket program. That left the Americans. After stealing a train with forged papers, von Braun led 500 people through war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. The SS were issued orders to kill the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army while searching for the Americans. Finally, the team found an American private and surrendered to him. Realizing the importance of these engineers, the Americans immediately went to Peenemünde and Nordhausen and captured all of the remaining V-2's and V-2 parts, then destroyed both places with explosives. The Americans brought over 300 train car loads of spare V-2 parts to the United States. Much of von Braun's production team was captured by the Russians.
On June 20, 1945, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull approved the transfer of von Braun's German rocket specialists. This transfer was known as Operation Paperclip because of the large number of Germans stationed at Army Ordnance, the paperwork of those selected to come to the United States were indicated by paperclips.
They arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Air Base, just south of Wilmington, Delaware. Afterwards, they were flown to Boston, and then taken by boat to an Army Intelligence Service post at Fort Strong in Boston Harbor. Later, with the exception of von Braun, the men were transferred to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland to sort out the Peenemünde documents. Those documents would enable the scientists to continue their rocketry experiments where they had left off.
Finally, von Braun and the 126 Peenemünders were transferred to their new home at Fort Bliss, Texas, a large Army installation just north of El Paso, under the command of Major James P. Hamill. They found themselves in a strange situation as they began their new lives in America. Because they could not leave Fort Bliss without a military escort, they sometimes referred to themselves as "PoPs", Prisoners of Peace.
While at Fort Bliss, they trained military, industrial, and university personnel in the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles and to help refurbish, assemble, and launch a number of V-2s that had been shipped from Germany to the White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico. Further, they were to study the future potential of rockets for military and research applications.
During this time, von Braun mailed a marriage proposal to his first cousin, 18-year-old Maria von Quirstorp. On March 1, 1947, he married her in a local Lutheran church. In December 1948, his first daughter, Iris was born at Fort Bliss Army Hospital.
In 1950, von Braun and his team were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, his home for the next twenty years. Between 1950 and 1956, von Braun led the Army's development team at Redstone Arsenal, resulting in the Arsenal's namesake: the Redstone rocket.
Still dreaming of a world in which rockets would be used for peaceful exploration, in 1952 von Braun published his concept of a space station in Collier's magazine. This station would have a diameter of 250 feet, orbit in a 1075 mile-high orbit, and spin to provide artificial gravity. In his vision, it would be the perfect jumping-off point for lunar expeditions. Von Braun also worked with Disney studios as a technical director for three television films about Space Exploration. Over the years von Braun continued his work with Disney, hoping that Disney's involvement would bring about greater public interest in the future of the space program.
As Director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA), von Braun's team then developed the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone rocket. The Jupiter-C successfully launched the West's first satellite, Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. This event signaled the birth of America's space program.
NASA was established by law on July 29, 1958. One day later, the 50th Redstone rocket was successfully fired off Johnston Island in the South Pacific as part of Project Hardtack. Two years later NASA opened the new Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama and transferred von Braun and his development team from the ABMA at Redstone Arsenal to NASA. Von Braun was the center's first Director, from July 1960 to February 1970.
The Marshall Center's first major program was development of the Saturn rockets, capable of carrying astronauts to the moon. Von Braun's childhood commitment to "turn the wheel of time," and his later dream to help mankind set foot on the moon became a reality on July 16, 1969 when a Marshall-developed Saturn V rocket launched the crew of Apollo 11. Over the course of the Apollo program, six teams of astronauts explored the surface of our moon.
In 1970, Dr. von Braun and his family relocated from Huntsville to Washington, DC. when he was assigned duties as NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning at NASA Headquarters. After the Apollo space program, von Braun felt that his vision for future spaceflight was different than NASA's, and he retired in June 1972. He became the vice-present of Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland, where he was active in establishing and promoting the National Space Institute (merged into the National Space Society).
At the peak of his activities, von Braun learned he had cancer. Despite surgery, the cancer progressed, forcing him to retire from Fairchild on December 31, 1976. On June 16, 1977, Wernher von Braun died in Alexandria, Virginia and is interred there in the Ivy Hillside Cemetery.