Wernher von Braun: America’s Rocket Man

People are fond of pointing out that we are a nation of immigrants. It is a point of pride that some of the most upstanding and prominent Americans in our history came from other lands. This nation’s promise of upward mobility and free enterprise allowed these newcomers to take full advantage of their ideas and their energy.

Take Wernher von Braun for instance. A smart, motivated young scientist who emigrated to the United States from Europe and used his expertise to build the rockets that would put man on the Moon. It is a classic American story. But the details are a little more complex.

Wernher von Braun began his rocket career running with a bad crowd. Image: NASA History Office.

Wernher von Braun (in the dark suit) began his rocket career running with a bad crowd.
Image: NASA History Office

Von Braun wasn’t just any immigrant. He was a civilian German scientist who happened to be technical director at Peenemünde, a top Nazi rocket facility during World War II.

Von Braun was the brains behind the V-2 rocket, Adolf Hitler’s vengeance weapon. The V-2 rocket attacks were so successful that they were responsible for inflicting more damage on Allied civilian targets during the final months of the war than anything the German Army could do in the field.

When the war ended, American troops literally raced the Soviets to the center of Germany to get their hands on the Nazi rocket program. It was unclear at the time how long the uneasy peace between the two allies would last, but both sides were certain that when things heated up again, they would both want the German technology on their side.

The American program to gather all the Nazi rocket information and materials was called Project Paperclip. The job was made easier when Von Braun and his fellow Germans surrendered to U.S. forces. They did not want to end up in Soviet hands, particularly after hearing about the brutal treatment of German prisoners of war in Soviet camps.

The Americans succeeded in removing much of the material from Peenemünde by the time the Soviets arrived on May 5, 1945. The U.S. government approved the transfer of von Braun and 126 members of his team on June 20, and they were promptly transferred to the U.S. along with 100 disassembled V-2s.

Even before becoming president, John Kennedy was a supporter of manned space exploration. Image: NASA History Office

Even before becoming president, John Kennedy was a supporter of manned space exploration.
Image: NASA History Office

Von Braun’s knowledge rapidly earned him the respect of some members of the civilian scientific community in the United States, but the stigma of his Nazi past prohibited his ability to excel in his new role.

Questions arose during the Nuremberg war crimes trials in Germany in 1947 about von Braun’s connection to the Mittelwerk slave labor facility during the war, where the German rockets were built. He was called to Germany to testify, and despite being a Nazi Party member since 1937 and an honorary member of the SS, von Braun maintained his innocence.

It’s worth remembering that in the late 1930s the Nazi Party exercised strict control over all aspects of German life, and membership in the party, which allowed the Nazis to maintain control over the populace, became a prerequisite for public service in any capacity. Von Braun maintained years later that he did not share the Nazis’ racist or militaristic views, but that if he refused to join the party, his life’s work would have come to an end.

Von Braun was released by the war crimes tribunal after his testimony and returned to the United States. His subsequent achievements and some skilled PR by Washington led many people to forget the rocket scientist’s Nazi past, but the stigma never entirely went away. When a 1960 biopic about von Braun came out entitled, “I Aim at the Stars,” well-known comedian Mort Sahl suggested the film be called, “I Aim at the Stars, Only Sometimes I Hit London.”

Von Braun was eager to use rockets for space exploration. But with the U.S. government, he found himself facing the same prejudices that he found in Germany before and during World War II. There was just no room for consideration of purely scientific pursuits like sending men into space. Such ideas were considered impractical and removed from military necessity. In Germany, going against the military meant ending up in jail. But in America, von Braun had the freedom to take his case directly to the American public.

Beginning in the March 22, 1952 issue of Collier’s Magazine, von Braun and other scientists outlined a possible future for American space exploration. “Man Will Conquer Space Soon” set out details on putting satellites in orbit, building space stations where people could live and work, sending people to the Moon, and even traveling to Mars. The issue sold 3 million copies and made von Braun an American celebrity.

Collier's Magazine saw its largest ever circulation with the publication of von Braun's articles on space exploration. Image:

Collier’s Magazine saw its largest ever circulation with the publication of von Braun’s articles on space exploration.
Image: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

In 1955, von Braun partnered with Walt Disney to create a series of television specials devoted to space exploration. Man in Space premiered on March 9, 1955, and 42 million people tuned in, making it for many years one of the highest rated shows in television history.

With the public and later President Kennedy firmly behind him, von Braun dedicated himself to building a rocket that would put men on the moon before the end of the 1960s. The Saturn V was a magnificent achievement, 363 feet tall and capable of generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust. Von Braun maintained that the rocket was strong enough to send an automobile out of the solar system.

The Saturn V successfully launched seven missions to the Moon between 1969 and 1972, collecting a wealth of information that took scientists years to analyze. Unfortunately, in a nation that doesn’t savor success for long, the Moon eventually became old news.

Even von Braun’s magic couldn’t hold the public’s attention any more. In 1970, he was assigned to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. to become the deputy associate administrator for strategic planning. It was a purely bureaucratic position that took him away from the field where he had done his greatest work.

Von Braun continued to push for expanding the manned space program, but NASA funding steadily decreased after the first Moon landing. The Apollo program’s share of that funding dropped steeply, from 63 percent in 1969 to 24 percent in 1972. Apollo came to an end, and NASA began reorienting the bulk of its work to unmanned space exploration.

Von Braun grew disillusioned with the budget constraints and the government’s diminishing interest in the space program, and he retired from NASA in May 1972 to work in the private sector. In 1975, he founded the National Space Institute, a private organization dedicated to generating public interest and support of space activities.

Wernher von Braun succumbed to cancer in 1977, and was buried in Washington, D.C.

To learn more about the space program, check out my book, Space Exploration, available on Amazon.