Braun was born into a prosperous aristocratic family. His mother encouraged
young Wernher's curiosity by giving him a telescope upon his confirmation in
the Lutheran church. Braun's early interest in astronomy and the realm of
space never left him thereafter. In 1920 his family moved to the seat of
government in Berlin. He did not do well in school, particularly in physics
and mathematics. A turning point in his life occurred in 1925 when he
acquired a copy of Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ("The Rocket into
Interplanetary Space") by a rocket pioneer, Hermann Oberth. Frustrated by his
inability to understand the mathematics, he applied himself at school until
he led his class.
In the spring of 1930, while enrolled in the Berlin Institute of Technology,
Braun joined the German Society for Space Travel. In his spare time he
assisted Oberth in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. In 1932 he was graduated
from the Technical Institute with a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering and
entered Berlin University.
By the fall of 1932 the rocket society was experiencing grave financial
difficulties. At that time Capt. Walter R. Dornberger (later major general)
was in charge of solid-fuel rocket research and development in the Ordnance
Department of Germany's 100,000-man armed forces, the Reichswehr. He
recognized the military potential of liquid-fueled rockets and the ability of
Braun. Dornberger arranged a research grant from the Ordnance Department for
Braun, who then did research at a small development station that was set up
adjacent to Dornberger's existing solid-fuel rocket test facility at the
Kummersdorf Army Proving Grounds near Berlin. Two years later Braun received
a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Berlin. His thesis, which, for
reasons of military security, bore the nondescript title "About Combustion
Tests," contained the theoretical investigation and developmental experiments
on 300- and 660-pound-thrust rocket engines.
By December 1934 Braun's group, which then included one additional engineer
and three mechanics, had successfully launched two rockets that rose
vertically to more than 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometres). But by this time there
was no longer a German rocket society; rocket tests had been forbidden by
decree, and the only way open to such research was through the military forces
Since the test grounds near Berlin had become too small, a large military
development facility was erected at the village of Peenemünde in northeastern
Germany on the Baltic Sea, with Dornberger as the military commander and
Braun as the technical director. Liquid-fueled rocket aircraft and jet-
assisted takeoffs were successfully demonstrated, and the long-range
ballistic missile A-4 and the supersonic anti-aircraft missile Wasserfall
were developed. The A-4 was designated by the Propaganda Ministry as V-2,
meaning Vengeance Weapon 2. By 1944 the level of technology of the rockets
and missiles being tested at Peenemünde was many years ahead of that
available in any other country.
Work in the United States.
Braun always recognized the value of the work of U.S. rocket pioneer Robert H
. Goddard. "Until 1936," said Braun, "Goddard was ahead of us all." At the
end of World War II, Braun, his younger brother Magnus, Dornberger, and the
entire German rocket development team surrendered to U.S. troops. Within a
few months Braun and about 100 members of his group were at the U.S. Army
Ordnance Corps test site at White Sands, N.M., where they tested, assembled,
and supervised the launching of captured V-2s for high-altitude research
purposes. Developmental studies were made of advanced ramjet and rocket
missiles. At the end of the war the United States had entered the field of
guided missiles with practically no previous experience. The technical
competence of Braun's group was outstanding. "After all," he said, "if we are
good, it's because we've had 15 more years of experience in making mistakes
and learning from them!"
Moving to Huntsville, Ala., in 1952, Braun became technical director (later
chief) of the U.S. Army ballistic-weapon program. Under his leadership, the
Redstone, Jupiter-C, Juno, and Pershing missiles were developed. In 1955 he
became a U.S. citizen and, characteristically, accepted citizenship
wholeheartedly. During the 1950s Braun became a national and international
focal point for the promotion of space flight. He was the author or coauthor
of popular articles and books and made addresses on the subject.
In 1954 a secret army-navy project to launch an Earth satellite, Project
Orbiter, was thwarted. The situation was changed by the launching of Sputnik
1 by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, followed by Sputnik 2 on November 3.
Given leave to proceed on November 8, Braun and his army group launched the
first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1, on Jan. 31, 1958.
After the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed to
carry out the U.S. space program, Braun and his organization were transferred
from the army to that agency. As director of the NASA George C. Marshall
Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Braun led the development of the large
space launch vehicles, Saturn I, IB, and V. The engineering success of each
of the Saturn class of space boosters, which contained millions of individual
parts, remains unparalleled in rocket history. Each was launched successfully
and on time and met safe performance requirements.
In March 1970 Braun was transferred to NASA headquarters in Washington as
deputy associate administrator for planning. He resigned from the agency in
1972 to become vice president at Fairchild Industries Inc., an aerospace
company. In 1975 he founded the National Space Institute, a private
organization whose objective was to gain public support and understanding of
In attempting to justify his involvement in the development of the German V-2
rocket, Braun stated that patriotic motives outweighed whatever qualms he had
about the moral implications of his nation's policies under Hitler. He also
emphasized the innate impartiality of scientific research, which in itself
has no moral dimensions until its products are put to use by the larger
society. During his later career Braun received numerous high awards from U.S
. government agencies and from professional societies in the United States
and other countries.