Beginning in September 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, a team of about a hundred rocket scientists and engineers, led by Wernher von Braun, was spirited out of Germany and brought to the United States as part of “Operation Paperclip.” Along with them came a slew of captured V-2 rockets and components. This team, their launch vehicles, and von Braun in particular, would come to play a crucial role in the emerging United States space program.
Born in 1912, the son of a baron, Wernher von Braun became involved as a teenager with the German rocket society, Verein für Raumschiffahrt, and subsequently began developing rockets for the German military. Having masterminded the liquid-fuel-propelled V-2, he speculated about its use as a space launch vehicle—a move which got him temporarily detained by the Gestapo in March 1944.
When it was clear the Germans would lose the war, von Braun actively conspired with U.S. authorities to have himself and his colleagues flown across the Atlantic at the end of hostilities. He quickly found himself at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, launching adapted V-2s for the U.S. Army and helping it build a new generation of rockets. In 1950, von Braun and his team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Ala., where they set to work on the Army’s Jupiter ballistic missile. A decade later his rocket development center was transferred to the newly established NASA, renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center, and handed a mandate to build the giant Saturn rockets that would eventually boost astronauts on their way to the Moon. Von Braun assumed the dual role of director of MSFC and chief architect of the Saturn V. The 364-foot-tall behemoth—the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status—proved to be an engineering triumph. Its five first-stage F-1 engines remain the most powerful single-chamber liquid-fueled rocket engines ever made, gulping down 15 tons of kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel every second and producing as much power as 85 Hoover Dams. The vehicle ended its days with a 100 percent success record, launched 12 astronauts to another world, and lofted the United States’ first space station (the voluminous Skylab) into orbit—and was then abruptly abandoned.
Von Braun devised plans for a rotating wheel-shaped space station, a permanent lunar base, and a nuclear-powered mission to Mars with a launch date of 1982—all concepts that captured the public imagination and were brought to widespread attention by von Braun’s collaboration with Walt Disney. But public interest in Apollo dwindled following the first lunar landing, and the political will to invest in the permanent settlement of space also waned with the planting of the U.S. flag in the soil of Mare Tranquillitatis.
In 1970, von Braun was invited to move to Washington, D.C., to head up NASA’s strategic planning effort. But two years later he retired from the agency and went to work for Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Md. He died in Alexandria, Va., in 1977.