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Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun was a German-American rocket scientist and aerospace engineer who spent most of his career developing ballistic missiles for Germany and the Unites States. Von Braun has worked for the German army, the United States army, Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland, and NASA.

As a child, Wernher von Braun admired science-fiction writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. He also looked up to science-fact writer Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 essay Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (By Rocket to Space), encouraged von Braun to “master calculus and trigonometry so he could understand the physics of rocketry.”

In 1929, when von Braun was a teenager, he became involved in the German Rocket Society, Verein für Raumschiffarht (VfR). He started developing ballistic missiles for the German army in 1932, and on July 27, 1934, received a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. While working for the German army in the 1930’s, von Braun and his “rocket team” finished their work on the top secret V-2 rocket.

The V-2 was one of the most powerful rockets of its time. Its massive 46-foot length and 27,000-lb weight didn’t slow it from reaching speeds greater than 3500 miles-per-hour. The V-2 rocket was the “immediate [pioneer] of those used in space exploration programs in the United States and the Soviet Union.” Unfortunately for Germany, however, during World War II the Allied Forces took capture of the V-2 rocket complex, and von Braun surrendered 500 of his top scientists.

For 15 years after World War II, von Braun aided the US army in developing ballistic missiles. Then, during the military operation Project Paperclip, von Braun and his rocket team were sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, where they continued working on rockets for the United States army.

In 1950, von Braun and his team moved again, this time to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, where they built the Army’s Jupiter ballistic missile. During this time, he became one of the most outstanding spokespeople for space exploration in the United States in the 1950’s. He then transferred from the Army to NASA in 1960, where he became the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and was authorized to build the giant Saturn rockets that took Americans to the Moon.

Several years before von Braun’s death, he left his home in Huntsville, Alabama to go to Washington DC to head up the strategic planning effort for NASA. Less than two years later, though, he retired from NASA and moved to Germantown, Maryland to work for Fairchild Industries. The new job was short-lived, however, as he died in Alexandria, Virginia on June 16, 1977.

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