March 23, 2012 marked the 100th Anniversary of Werner Von Braun’s birth. Braun’s early career was marred by controversy that he created weapons of war and used slave labor to accomplish this goal. NASA would later regard him as “without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history”.
His interest in astronomy was developed at a very early age. After Braun was confirmed in the Lutheran church, his mother gave him a telescope as a confirmation gift and his passion for astronomy flourished from there. In 1928, Braun’s parents eventually sent him to Herman-Lietz-Internat boarding school. There he received a copy of “By Rocket in Interplanetary Space” by rocket pioneer Herman Oberth. The book fascinated Braun, and from then on, he diligently studied physics and mathematics so that he could ultimately pursue rocket engineering. By 1930, he attended the Technical University of Berlin and became a member of the “Spaceflight Society” where he worked with Hermann Oberth and Willy Ley in their liquid-fueled rocket tests.
During the 1930’s, Germany’s rocket program was greatly influenced by Robert H. Goddard, an American physicist. Goddard was contacted by many German scientists with technical questions concerning their rocket program. Braun reflected on Goddard influence in rocketry in a 1963 statement: “His rockets…may have been rather crude by present day standards, but they blazed the trail and incorporated many features used in our most modern rockets and space vehicles.”
Braun and other German scientist started developing rockets that would eventually strike London in late 1942. The British and Soviet intelligence were well aware of the German rocket program head by Von Braun and his team at Pennemunde. During the nights of August 17 th and 18 th 1943, RAF Bomber Command’s Operation Hydra and dropped 1,800 tons of explosives. Pennemunde would be salvaged except for the loss of Braun’s engine designer Walter Thiel and Chief Engineer Walther. Braun and his remaining team would eventually launch their V2 rocket toward England on September 7, 1944. He was interested in the application of rockets as it related to space travel. Braun’s remark when he heard that the rocket had stuck London: “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet”.
By Spring 1945, Von Braun and his team knew that the war was lost and decided that it would be best to surrender to the Americans. In April, Allied troops were moving deeper into Germany. Braun and his team were moved to the Bavarian village of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. On May 2, 1945, Von Braun’s brother Magnus approached an American private from the U.S. 44 th Infantry Division on a bicycle and said in broken English: “My name is Magnus Von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender.” After their surrender they were taken to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. While there, Braun and his team trained military and industrial and university personnel in the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles.
In 1950, Von Braun and his team were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, which be their home for the next 20 years. By 1957, the Russians had beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik l. The following year NASA (National Arionotics Science Administration) was established at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Von Braun would become the center’s first director from 1960 to 1970. Marshall Center’s first major program was the development of Saturn rockets to carry heavy payloads into space and beyond earth orbit-some day even to the moon.
The year 1960 would see the election of President John F. Kennedy. During his inaugural address he pledged: “We will land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” Von Braun’s dream and President Kennedy’s pledge would become reality before the end of the decade. In 1969, the United States landed the first man on the moon with the landing of Apollo 11.
Many people wonder how the space program affects their everyday lives on earth? NASA has created over 1,750 “Spinoff” technologies since the creation of the Technology Utilization Program in 1962. A Spinoff is a technology developed by NASA that can be used in the private sector for the development of commercial products and services. Some examples of Spinoff technologies are hydrogen energy, solar panels, and many more. You can learn more about NASA Spinoffs by going to a great web site for more info: spinoff.nasa.gov. NASA will also be happy to supply you with a Spinoff book by contacting: Jennifer.M.Stanfield@nasa.gov .
We can celebrate Werner Von Braun’s (Rocket Man) 100th birthday by exploring how NASA has changed our lives and taking a trip to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. They are having a year-long celebration of the Rocket Man’s life.