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Remembering Wernher von Braun on his 100th Birthday

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wernher von Braun (March 23, 1912-June 16, 1977), one of the most famous rocketeers and advocates of spaceflight that ever lived. Accordingly, it is an appropriate time to reflect on his remarkable life and career. A longstanding “space cadet,” von Braun was an early member of the “Verein fur Raumschiffahrt” (Society for Spaceship Travel, or VfR). Although spaceflight aficionados and technicians had organized at other times and in other places, the VfR emerged soon after its founding on July 5, 1927 as a leading group that both advocated for spaceflight and worked to build rockets. Growing up in the VfR, Wernher von Braun became the quintessential and movingly eloquent advocate for the dream of spaceflight and a leading architect of its technical development.

Wernher von Braun

Photo of Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Director Dr. Wernher von Braun at his desk with  rocket models on his desk. Dr. von Braun served as Marshall’s first director from 1960 until his transfer to NASA Headquarters in 1970.

He achieved a new stage for his efforts in 1932 when the German army hired the charismatic and politically astute Wernher von Braun, then only 20 years old, to work in its military rocket program. While he was the first VfR member to go to work for the German military, he was far from the last. Under his direction, of course, Nazi Germany developed the V-2 ballistic missile in the early 1940s.

Von Braun’s motivations for this move, with the hindsight of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and the devastation and terror of World War II, have been questioned and criticized. Under von Braun’s technical direction, with political oversight provided by General Walter Dornberger, Germany developed the V‑2 rocket, the first true ballistic missile. The brainchild of Wernher von Braun’s rocket team operating at a secret laboratory at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast, this rocket was the immediate antecedent of many of those used in the U.S. space program. A liquid propellant missile rising 46 feet in height and weighing 27,000 pounds at launch, the V‑2, called the A-4 by the Germans involved in the project, flew at speeds in excess of 3,500 miles per hour and delivered a 2,200 pound warhead 500 miles away.


Two months before the Nazis came to power in 1933, physics student Wernher von Braun went to work on rocket weapons for the German army. Von Braun’s establishment made a breakthrough to large-scale rocket engineering. It created the world’s first operational ballistic missile: the V-2.

First flown in October 1942, it was employed against targets in Europe beginning in September 1944, and by the end of the war 1,155 had been fired against England and another 1,675 had been launched against Antwerp and other continental targets. The guidance system for these missiles was imperfect and many did not reach their targets, but they struck without warning and there was no defense against them. As a result the V-2s had a terror factor far beyond their capabilities.

With the V-2, on the morning of September 8, 1944, the world changed in ways that happen only rarely. After an enormous investment by Hitler’s Germany, more than a decade of research and development (R&D), the deaths of thousands of concentration camp laborers (with many more to come), and allied fears that led to an air strike on von Braun’s rocket R&D facility at Peenemünde, the V-2 changed the nature of warfare. After some false starts, at 8:40 a.m. on this date the first V-2 of the rocket campaign lifted off toward Paris. It exploded at high altitude and never reached the allied lines around Paris, an indication of the experimental nature of this complex new technology. Two hours later, however, a second rocket struck the Paris suburb of Charentonneau à Maison-Alfort, killing six people and injuring 36 others. All of them were non-combatants. This was the first ballistic missile attack in history, and it signaled a new age of warfare in which billions of dollars would be expended to strike enemies with missiles as well as to detect, deter, and defend against ballistic missiles.

Nazi Germany’s astounding success in developing a ballistic missile while the other combatants had not done so was no accident, and it was in no small measure the result of personalities involved in the research. Before 1941 the United States had led the world in rocket technology, chiefly because of the work of Robert H. Goddard. But he failed to gain the support of either other scientists or the U.S. government. On the other hand, the energetic von Braun courted his scientific colleagues and those in the German government. No similar level of salesmanship took place in any other nation. Popular and top-level support was therefore lacking, and von Braun was able to capitalize on this with its V-2 development during the war.

Advocates of spaceflight have tended to lionize individuals associated with this effort, not so much because of the V-2’s rather negative history as a potential weapon of mass destruction but because of what it meant for space exploration in the 1950s and 1960s. This has prompted a celebration of the von Braun’s team’s role in the development of American rocketry and space exploration even as it minimized the wartime cooperation of von Braun and his “rocket team” with the Nazi regime in Germany. Both have been distortions of the historical record. Even today, few Americans realize that von Braun had been a member of the Nazi party and an officer in the SS and that the V-2 was constructed using forced labor from concentration camps who were worked to death. The result has been both a whitewashing of the less savory aspects of the careers of the German rocketeers and an overemphasis on their influence in American rocketry.


Dr. William H. Pickering, Dr. James A. Van Allen, and Dr. Wernher von Braun (left to right) hoist a model of Explorer I and the final stage after the launching on Jan. 31, 1958. Explorer I, the first U.S. earth satellite was launched by a Jupiter-C with U.S. earth – IGY scientific experiments of Dr. James A. Van Allen, which discovered the radiation belt around the earth.

Wernher von Braun was a stunningly successful advocate for space exploration and has appropriately been celebrated for those efforts. But because he was also willing to build a ballistic missile for Hitler’s Germany, with all of connotations that implied in the devastation and terror of World War II, many of his ideals have also been appropriately questioned. For some he was a visionary who foresaw the potential of human spaceflight, but for others he was little more than an arms merchant who developed brutal weapons of mass destruction. In reality, he seems to have been something of both. In the 1960s, as the United States was involved in a race with Soviet Union to see who could land a human on the Moon first, political humorist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about von Braun‘s pragmatic approach to serving whoever would let him build rockets regardless of their purpose. “Don’t say that he’s hypocritical, say rather that he’s apolitical,” Lehrer wrote. “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.” Lehrer’s biting satire captured well the von Braun’s divided legacy.

Roger Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.



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13 thoughts on “Remembering Wernher von Braun on his 100th Birthday

  1. Von Braun no era apolítico. Nunca lo fue. Se afilió al partido nazi y militó en el mismo desde los inicios de los años treinta, pese a conocer bien su comportamiento con la población judía, gitana y con la disidencia política. Además, no le importó que en Peenemünde trabajaran para su proyecto trabajadores esclavos, que eran maltratados por los vigilantes de la fábrica. No consta que Von Braun nunca hiciera nada por ellos. (soory for my enclish) Von Braun was not apolitical. It never was. He joined the Nazi Party and was active in it since the early thirties, despite knowing well their behavior with the Jewish population, Roma, with political dissent and others. Also, do not mind that at its factory at Peenemünde work slave laborers, who were mistreated by the guards of the factory. No evidence that Von Braun never did anything for them.

  2. Well, yes. There were so many pleasant sensible engineers who achieved great things in WW2 Germany without resorting to slave labor, who went out of their way to inform their managers and company executives that they would produce their products and not make use of slave labor. We honor them today! There was ah ah ah ah … He worked for er er er er er and everyday we thank him (or her!) when we something or other. And there was uhm uhm uhm.

    So von Braun was quite an obnoxious exception!

  3. Dr. Launius, as always, provides a clear encapsulation of the von Braun historical dilemma. I’m sure others have considered the possibility that genius and vision can be decoupled from conscience and compassion. The common thread across von Braun’s life was his reach for the planets and stars, And the circumstances of international conflict, both World War 2 and the Cold War, were critical to his success. It is another case of the right person at the right time, even if the times were hell-bent on mass extermination.

    Even if one excuses von Braun for a 19th century sensibility (i.e. it was your tough luck to be born a Slav and find yourself in Hitler’s sphere of influence) or for building ballistic missiles to kill commies (because the military was paying and there would be no orbital and deep space travel without rocket engines), at some point he must have taken a moment to ponder if the road to the Mars needed to be paved with the dead and lubricated with their blood. What would be the point of liberating humankind from Earth if you had to kill some fraction of it to get the work done?

    von Braun probably had a lot of choices to make. Die himself in a concentration camp for not participating in the Nazi weapons program or decline the Army work and find himself in front of a McCarthy-era hearing as did Oppenheimer. Neither of those outcomes would have lead to the Saturn V.

    But I don’t think there is compelling evidence that von Braun ‘pushed back’ either. No Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg he.

    So back to the question of genius and/or conscience. I’d love to see some discussion of whether von Braun was intellectually or sociologically incapable of making value judgements. I do not mean to imply a generalization of genius; I don’t learn all my sociology from watching Big Bang Theory. von Brauns’ successors, like Elon Musk, are not trying to revolutionize access to space with slave labor just because it isn’t trendy anymore. Maybe von Braun just wasn’t wired that way. Or maybe be was an all-in Nazi but that came in number two to building rockets. Or, to be fair, maybe he just hid his torment very well.

  4. Michael B. Petersen authored a book focused on the motivations of those (including Von Braun) who built the V-2, it is called:

    Missiles for the Fatherland
    Peenemünde, National Socialism, and the V-2 Missile
    Series: Cambridge Centennial of Flight
    Hardback (ISBN-13: 9780521882705)

    The book’s description is from the Cambridge website (referenced above in the website box)

    Missiles for the Fatherland tells the story of the scientists and engineers who built the V-2 missile in Hitler’s Germany. This 2009 text was the first scholarly history of the culture and society that underpinned missile development at Germany’s secret missile base at Peenemünde. Using mainly primary source documents and publicly available oral history interviews, Michael Petersen examines the lives of the men and women who worked at Peenemünde and later at the underground slave labor complex called Mittelbau-Dora, where concentration camp prisoners mass-produced the V-2. His research reveals a complex interaction of professional ambition, internal cultural dynamics, military pressure, and political coercion, which coalesced in daily life at the facility. The interaction of these forces made the rapid development of the V-2 possible but also contributed to an environment in which stunning brutality could be committed against the concentration camp prisoners who manufactured the missile.

    Lehrer didn’t celebrate Von Braun the engineer but used a literary device (irony) to provoke audiences to recall Von Braun’s ugly politics. Von Braun’s advocacy for the US space program occurred at a time when most Americans did not know his personal history. If he were alive at 100, would Americans today accept him as a credible advocate for the peaceful use of space? Aren’t many people now turned off by his pre-US history? The chat board on the Von Braun page for Secrets of the Dead Episode Episode on the Hunt for Nazi Scientists (2008) is fascinating on how his legacy is seen by audiences today. See:

    I am not aware of many feminist historians who argue that Leni Riefenstahl’s accomplishments in film and Nazism should be treated as “a divided legacy.” Von Braun’s legacy in the 21st Century seems Riesfenstahlian.

  5. While Von Braun’s Nazi associations can’t be erased, it’s fair to add that he didn’t seek them out. Rather they became, so to speak, almost a condition of employment and, more importantly, a means of staying alive. On at least one occasion, I believe, Von Braun was almost caught up in the Nazi net and ‘disappeared.’ As for the SS membership, I believe it was conferred upon him; it’s hard to see how he could have refused it.
    While nothing mitigates the shame of slave labor and the many deaths associated with it, many Germans made similar choices to those that Von Braun made with respect to party membership, while rejecting Nazi ideology itself. One of the dark aspects of totalitarian societies is the way they force otherwise ordinary people into vile acts.

  6. I have heard the rumors since working here that von Braun had an office at Hanger C on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Hgr. C is next to the lighthouse). The hanger is currently going through some renovations and it would be great if someone could verify this fact or even had some photos of the office or of von Braun with the lighthouse in it to share with the CC Lighthouse Foundation. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

    Jim Ravitch
    Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation Member

  7. Von Braun even had his own biopic in the 60s — “I Aim For The Stars”. Comedian Mort Sahl quipped that it should have been “I Aim for the Stars — But Sometimes I Hit London.”

  8. I see Wernher von Braun as a true uber geek who was so focused on his dream, going to the moon, that he was willing to work with anybody, the German Army, the US army, or Walt Disney, to follow that dream. He is also one of the few geeks who can claim to have reshaped the world. Without the example of the V2 it seems unlikely that either the Russians or the Americans would have spent the money to develop long range missiles during the 40s and 50s. It is possible ICBMs would not have been developed.
    On the other hand he played a very significant role in turning the very example of impossibility into a reality.
    Von Braun cannot be held responsible for all of the side effects of his dream, but some of them were obvious. The story of von Braun’s dream, in its entirety, should be taught today. Who knows what other geeks are out there pursuing their dream without considering the side effects. Face is a marvelous tool for organizing social change. It is also a marvelous tool for building a society worse than the one George Orwell conceived.

  9. In serving the United States, Wernher von Braun was the good Dr. Jekyll of Stevenson’s classic tale. But when serving Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, he was the evil Mr. Hyde who personally selected slave laborers from the Buchenwald concentration camp. I recommend A HISTORY OF THE DORA CAMP, by Andre Sellier and VON BRAUN by Michael J. Neufeld.

    From one who once worked at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and NASA in Washington.

  10. NAZI, simple..Active SS member during WWII in Germany.. Why you all do not emphasize that fact? There were so many nazis leaving in US formally after the WWII. Shame…

  11. Dr. von Braun was a loyal German citizen and became an American hero. I am sure that many things he did for the German military haunted him. However, serving the Third Reich was not something you could just quit. It was a totalitarian regime and dissent was not tolerated. Von Braun was actually imprisoned at one time for “defeatism” and “fantasizing about outer space.” And before we criticize Dr. von Braun any further, let us reflect on the two atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities in WWII–which killed far more civilians than the V-2. And slave labor? Many of our own American ancestors were guilty of that. And then there is the “Trail of Tears” and genocidal actions by the US Army, under such commanders as General Custer. We are, therefore, hardly in a position to criticize a man who was surrounded by murderous thugs and who atoned for whatever his sins may have been for helping his adopted country be the first to land a human being on another world.

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