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Werner von Braun

(1912—1977) German-born American rocket engineer


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(1912–1977)

German-born US rocket engineer, responsible both for the V-rockets that bombed London in World War II and the Saturn rockets that put Americans on the moon in 1969.

Born in Wirsitz in Germany (now Wyrzysk, Poland), the son of a senior government official, von Braun came from an affluent background. He was educated in Zürich and Berlin, where he gained his doctorate in 1934 with a thesis on liquid-fuelled rockets. An early and enthusiastic member of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) in Berlin, von Braun was recruited by the German Ordnance Department and began to develop for them a series of powerful liquid-fuelled rockets. Barred from developing more orthodox weapons by the Versailles treaty, the German High Command saw rockets as a way around these restrictions and ample funds were available for rocket research. In 1937 von Braun moved to Peenemunde on the Baltic coast as technical director of the newly established experimental weapons research centre. Here he developed a number of powerful weapons including the V-1 (the flying bomb) and the V-2 (the first ballistic missile to carry a warhead). Successfully tested in 1942, some 1200 were launched against London in 1944, each carrying 2000 lbs of high explosive. Yet for von Braun there was more to the V-2 than its destructive power; it was also a powerful rocket that one day might be capable of launching a payload into space.

With the collapse of the Third Reich, von Braun and his team were taken to the US army's White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, where they began the long process of turning the V-2 into an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world. At White Sands, and from 1950 at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, they worked on Redstone, a short-range nuclear missile. The launch of Sputnik I in October 1957 changed the direction of von Braun's work. Within a remarkably short time a Redstone rocket had been sufficiently modified to launch the first American satellite into orbit on 31 January 1958. Thereafter von Braun's main task was to provide the rocket powerful enough to satisfy the presidential call to place an American on the moon during the 1960s. The task was successfully accomplished with a Saturn V rocket in July 1969 at a cost of twenty-four billion dollars.

Shortly after the success of the moon landing, von Braun left Huntsville for Washington to plan new space programmes for NASA. It soon, however, became apparent that the political will for imaginative and costly space ventures no longer existed in Nixon's Washington. Von Braun consequently resigned in 1972 and joined Fairchild Industries. Four years later, after an unsuccessful operation for cancer, he resigned his post, a few months before his death.

Subjects: Warfare and Defence.


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