Rocket Man: The Legacy of Wernher von Braun

Wernher von Braun helped pave the United States' path to the Moon. Photo Credit:
Wernher von Braun helped pave the United States’ path to the Moon. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Von Braun would become a leading figure during the United States' efforts to land a man on the Moon in time to complete President Kennedy's challenge. Photo Credit: NASA
Von Braun would become a leading figure during the United States’ efforts to land a man on the Moon in time to complete President Kennedy’s challenge. Photo Credit: NASA

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.


  1. It is frightening to think about how the course of space history and the Cold War might have turned out if von Braun had been captured by the Soviets. A man of pure genius, his vision allowed mankind to set foot on another world. He, too, should be recognized along with Armstrong and the other U.S. astronauts in a monumnet in Washington, D.C.

  2. @Tom Vasiloff
    I think you do the Soviet space scientists something of a disservice.
    Without the help of von Braun, the Soviets nonetheless managed to put the first artificial satellite in space, the first animal and the first man in orbit, develop the first ICBM, put the first probes on the Moon, Venus and Mars, complete the first spacewalk, and establish the first space station.
    So I wonder how the course of space history and the Cold War might have been different?

  3. Thomas: You are quite correct as to the impressive list of Soviet “firsts” in the initial days of the space race. What the Soviets lacked, however, was the sophisticated technology that US scientists and engineers developed for spaceflight. For example, the Soviet N-1 moon booster generated 10,000,000 pounds of thrust with a total of 43 engines, 30 in the first stage alone. Their LK lunar lander was a single-seat, Vostok-shaped craft with crude instrumenation compared to the US Lunar Module. There was also no internal trasnfer tunnel between the Soviet command module and the LK, forcing a spacewalk between the two craft. The Soviets relied on brute force as well as very ingenious ways to accomplish what they did. Vasily Mishin, who succeed Sergei P. Korolev (von Braun’s equivalent) in 1966 was asked in an interview whether he believed the Soviets could have beaten the Americans to a lunar landing. His reply was “No.” He cited the huge difference in money spent by both sides: $4-5 billion for the Soviets compared to $25 billion for the United States. Had the Soviets won the moon race, it is, of course, conjecture as to how the path of the US manned and unmanned space programs would have developed.

  4. I’m sorry, but is it okay that he was an active Nazi party member, and was unrepentantly so even in his adopted homeland?

    Mr. Darling, I admire you and your writing greatly, but you seem to go out of your way to avoid admitting he was a Nazi. The article even seems to imply he was somehow anti-Nazi.

  5. Hubert, thank you for your comments. The article is solely about von Braun’s contributions to the US space effort. Von Braun’s Nazi history is well documented elsewhere and it was not my intention to comment on it here, nor on whether it was “right” that so much expertise was used in the West in fields such as rocketry and aerospace medicine that had been derived in part from the use of slave labor and even horrific experimentation on human subjects. Of course, such things are not “okay” — that goes without saying — and the article at no point implied that they were.

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