Wernher von Braun, Rocket & Space Pioneer, First Director, Marshall Flight Center (1960-70)

The Rocket Man, Wernher von Braun: The Man Who Took America to the Moon

Wernher von Braun (1912–1977) was one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration during the period between the 1930s and the 1970s. As a youth he became enamored with the possibilities of space exploration by reading the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and from the science fact writings of Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 classic study, Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space), prompted young von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry so he could understand the physics of rocketry. From his teenage years, von Braun had held a keen interest in space flight, becoming involved in the German rocket society, Verein fur Raumschiffarht (VfR), as early as 1929. As a means of furthering his desire to build large and capable rockets, in 1932 he went to work for the German army to develop ballistic missiles. While engaged in this work, von Braun received a Ph.D. in physics on July 27, 1934.

Wernher von Braun quote, "Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing"Von Braun is well known as the leader of what has been called the “rocket team” which developed the V–2 ballistic missile for the Nazis during World War II. The V–2s were manufactured at a forced labor factory called Mittelwerk. Scholars are still reassessing his role in these controversial activities. Click for details.

Picture of Werner von Braun suiting up prior to entering Marshall's neutral buoyancy tank in 1967.

The brainchild of von Braun’s rocket team operating at a secret laboratory at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast, the V–2 rocket was the immediate antecedent of those used in space exploration programs in the United States and the Soviet Union. A liquid propellant missile extending some 46 feet in length and weighing 27,000 pounds, the V-2 flew at speeds in excess of 3,500 miles per hour and delivered a 2,200-pound warhead to a target 500 miles away.

First flown in October 1942, it was employed against targets in Europe beginning in September 1944. By the beginning of 1945, it was obvious to von Braun that Germany would not achieve victory against the Allies, and he began planning for the postwar era.

Before the Allied capture of the V–2 rocket complex, von Braun engineered the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans. For fifteen years after World War II, von Braun worked with the U.S. Army in the development of ballistic missiles. As part of a military operation called Project Paperclip, he and his rocket team were scooped up from defeated Germany and sent to America where they were installed at Fort Bliss, Texas.

There they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army, launching them at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. In 1950 von Braun’s team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala., where they built the Army’s Jupiter ballistic missile.

Wernher Von Braun: The Man Who Conquered Space Documentary

Wernher_von_Braun_-_ABMA_BadgeIn 1960, his rocket development center transferred from the Army to the newly established NASA and received a mandate to build the giant Saturn rockets. Accordingly, von Braun became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that would propel Americans to the Moon.

Von Braun also became one of the most prominent spokesmen of space exploration in the United States during the 1950s. In 1970, NASA leadership asked von Braun to move to Washington, D.C., to head up the strategic planning effort for the agency. He left his home in Huntsville, Ala., but in 1972 he decided to retire from NASA and work for Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Md. He died in Alexandria, Va., on June 16, 1977.

Marshall Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

Marshall Flight Center, Huntsville, AlabamaFor more than 50 years, the unique capabilities and expertise at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been used to design and build the engines, vehicles, space systems, instruments and science payloads that make possible unprecedented missions of science and discovery throughout our solar system.

Marshall minds designed, built, tested and helped launch the giant Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts on the Apollo missions to the moon. Marshall developed new rocket engines and tanks for the fleet of space shuttles, built sections of the International Space Station and now manages all the science work of the astronauts aboard the ISS from a 24/7 Payload Operations and Integration Center.

“The Saturn Propulsion System” Project Apollo Rocket Engines
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, 1962

George C. Marshall Space Flight Center Today, Marshall is home to development of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever designed to carry human explorers, their equipment and science payloads deeper into space than ever before, to an asteroid and to Mars. Marshall also manages the Michoud Assembly Facility, where the core stage of SLS is under construction with a unique set of leading-edge tools, including the largest spacecraft welding tool in the world, the 170-foot-tall, 78-foot-wide Vertical Assembly Center.

Wernher von Braun Bust MFCMarshall enables scientific discovery through development and testing of hardware and instruments for projects including the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Japanese-led mission Hinode studying the sun, and the James Webb Space Telescopethe premier observatory of the next decade, able to study every phase in the history of the universe.

President Kennedy & Wernher von Braun. Engineers and technologists at the Marshall Center consistently deliver highly skilled, crosscutting engineering services—the backbone to mission success and the center’s powerful capabilities—in support of Marshall programs and projects and throughout NASA. Their work serves both the current and near-term planned agency missions as well as efforts still on the drawing board, awaiting the necessary development and maturation to support NASA’s future exploration goals.

Marshall’s history reaches back to the 1950s, before NASA was created in 1958, partially in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, the previous year. A group of Army employees working then on rocket and missile programs at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, included the team of German scientists led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, who was largely responsible for the successful launch of the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1958. In 1960, NASA established the Marshall Center with the transfer from the Army of more than 4,500 civil service employees and nearly 2,000 acres of Redstone Arsenal property. Von Braun became the Marshall Center’s first director.

Redstone Arsenal 002Marshall’s location makes it a key player in a “community of capabilities,” located among dozens of federal agencies on Redstone Arsenal, including the Army Materiel Command; Army Aviation and Missile Command; Army Space and Missile Defense Command; Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center; the Missile Defense Agency; and the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Missiles and Space Intelligence Center. Marshall and Redstone are adjacent to Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research and development park in the nation.

The Marshall Center has a critical role in moving the nation forward, offering unique expertise in science and engineering, forging partnerships with industry, academia and other government organizations, and continuing to help the United States lead the world in space exploration and discovery. Marshall’s strengths and proven capabilities support NASA’s goal of integrating science and exploration in innovative ways for maximum return on the nation’s investment.

Story courtesy of Marshall Flight Center, NASA