This Week in Space – Werner Von Braun Born
This week in 1912, one of history’s most controversial figures, Werner Von Braun, was born into minor nobility in the small town of Wirsitz in Posen province, then part of the German Empire.
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According the 2005 biography “Dr. Space: The Life of Werner von Braun” by Bob Ward, von Braun “learned to play both the cello and the piano at an early age and at one time wanted to become a composer. He took lessons from the composer Paul Hindemith. The few pieces of Werner’s youthful compositions that exist are reminiscent of Hindemith’s style. He could also play piano pieces of Beethoven and Bach from memory.”
Despite his interest in music, von Braun was also fascinated with space from a young age. His mother encouraged von Braun’s curiosity by giving him a telescope upon his confirmation in the Lutheran church. Beginning in 1925, von Braun committed himself to his interest in rocket engineering.
Part of Project Paperclip, the U.S. government program under which 1,600 German scientists were brought to America after World War II in 1945 “under the noses” of the Soviet Union, which was also seeking the rocket scientists. In von Braun’s paperwork, he identified himself as the inventor of the Nazi V-2 rocket, a member of the Nazi party and a member of the SS.
Just a little more than two decades later, von Braun stood in the firing room at Kennedy Spaceflight Center and watched another of his rockets, the Saturn V, take the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon.
According to historian Norman Davies, von Braun was able to pursue a career as a rocket scientist in Germany due to a “curious oversight” in the Treaty of Versailles which did not include rocketry in its list of weapons forbidden to Germany.
Von Braun’s relationship with the Nazi party was often ambivalent and complex. Likely out of necessity over ideology, he applied for membership of the Nazi Party on November 12, 1937, and was issued membership number 5,738,692.
Von Braun perfected his rocket expertise while developing the Nazi V-2 rocket. After the war, von Braun was instrumental in the development of the U.S. space program. On March 22, 1952, von Braun introduced the American public to his vision of space exploration in the pages of Collier’s magazine.
Americans met the man behind this vision on March 9, 1955, when von Braun appeared in the first episode of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland TV series. Viewers saw von Braun’s vision come to life with stunning animation. On April 15, 1955, von Braun became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
According to Ward’s book, “Apollo program director Sam Phillips was quoted as saying that he did not think that the United States would have reached the Moon as quickly as it did without von Braun’s help. Later, after discussing it with colleagues, he amended this to say that he did not believe the United States would have reached the Moon at all.”
Von Braun died on June 16, 1977, of pancreatic cancer in Alexandria, Virginia at the age of 65.