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VON BRAUN, Wernher (1912-77)

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VON BRAUN, Wernher (1912-77), German-American engineer, known for his development of the liquid-fuel rocket.

The German-born engineer Wernher von Braun, born Mar. 23, 1912 in Wirsitz (now Wyrzysk, Poland), died June 23, 1977, was a driving force in the development of manned space flight and directed the development of the rockets that put humans on the Moon.

His interest in astronomy was stimulated from an early age by his mother. As a mathematical prodigy, von Braun was profoundly impressed by Hermann Oberth's book "Rockets to Interplanetary Space" published in 1923. Von Braun received his bachelor's degree at the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1932 and his doctorate in physics at the University of Berlin in 1934. Prior to graduating, however, his work on rocketry had won him a research grant from the German Ordnance Department. His rocket research group was reorganized (1937) at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast.

Von Braun and a select team of engineers and technicians there developed the A-4 ballistic missile, later designated V-2 (second vengeance weapon; see V-2) and used against Great Britain in World War II. After the fall of the Third Reich, von Braun and more than 100 top engineers surrendered to the U.S. Army. After interrogation they were offered (1945) contracts to continue their research in the United States. This research was done first at Fort Bliss, TX, near the White Sands Missile Range, NM, and then at Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, AL. Under von Braun the army produced the Redstone battlefield rocket and the Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missile.

Von Braun married his cousin Marie Louise von Quistorp in 1947 while still in Germany. The move to Huntsville, AL took place in 1950, where the neighbors talked about Sauerkraut Hill.

In 1953, the first short-distance rocket, the Redstone, came into being. In 1955 von Braun became US citizen. The launch of the Sputnik I on October 4, 1957 caused great excitement, and von Braun promised to put an earth satellite into orbit within a few month. On January 31, 1958 the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, was launched into orbit with a modified Redstone (Jupiter C).

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 1, 1960, acquired von Braun's army team to form the nucleus of the Marshall Space Flight Center, also located in Huntsville. At Marshall he continued development of larger rockets started by the army: the Saturn I, then the largest U.S. rocket; the Saturn IB, used to launch the Apollo spacecraft on Earth-orbit missions; and the Saturn V rocket (shown left), which put humans on the Moon. In 1970, von Braun became NASA deputy associate administrator for planning. Two years later he left NASA to become vice-president for engineering and development at Fairchild Industries in Germantown, MD. He received high commendations from the American government and from scientific societies and was awarded twenty honorary doctorates.

Von Braun's books include Across the Space Frontier (1952), Conquest of the Moon (1953), and History of Rocketry and Space Travel (1966), coauthored with Frederick I. Ordway III.


We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming, in Chicago Sun Times


David Dooling Bibliography: Bergaust, Erik, Reaching for the Stars (1960);
David, Heather M., Wernher von Braun (1967);
Goodrum, John C., Wernher von Braun: Space Pioneer (1969);
Lampton, Christopher, Wernher von Braun (1988);
Ordway, Frederick I., and Sharpe, Mitchell R., The Rocket Team (1979).

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