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.
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.
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.
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.