One of the mainstays of the Cold War was the employment on both sides of the Iron Curtain of massive numbers of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles more commonly called ICBMs for short. Upon notification at the push of a button, a weapon can be launched utilizing rocket technology to propel a potentially destructive warhead on a one way trip anywhere on the globe to deliver a destructive message upon the enemy. The threat of nuclear destruction from the heavens was the stuff of nightmares but yet an ever present danger in throughout the years of the Cold War. Each side was always trying to best the other. Rocketry has become a weapon of war on a scale never seen before capable of not only breaching the outer perimeters of our atmosphere but also in propelling weaponry at speeds inconceivable years before at such great distances that detection or interception is difficult. The development of the ICBM is derived of technology envisioned decades earlier as the brainchild of one man. His name was Wernher von Braun.
Born Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun in Wirsitz, in the province of Posen at the time part of the German Empire on 23 March 1912, Wernher was the second of three sons born to a Magnus Freiherr von Braun and Emmy von Quistorp. He was born into an aristocratic family thus inheriting the title of Freiherr or 'Baron' and he could trace his family heritage to medieval European royalty as a descendant of Phillip III of France, Valdemar I of Denmark, Robert III of Scotland, Edward III of England, Mieszko I of Poland and ultimately Charlemagne. In his early years von Braun developed a passion for astronomy. Following the signing of the armistice and the end of the First World War, Wirsitz was transferred from Germany to Poland and the von Braun family moved to Germany settling in Berlin. It was here that he had his initial encounters with rocketry when he at the age of 12 was inspired by the speed records set by Max Valier and Fritz von Opel in rocket propelled cars. After blowing up a weapon to which he had attached fireworks he was arrested only to be released shortly thereafter.
An avid amateur musician, he learned to play both Beethoven and Bach from memory. By 1925, he was enrolled in a boarding school at Ettersburg Castle near Weimar. With his passion for space travel and rocketry fuelling his young mind, he acquired an influential work on the subject the book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen or By Rocket into Interplanetary Space written by Hermann Oberth a leading rocket pioneer. After being transferred to Hermann-Lietz-Internat, another boarding school located on the island of Spiekeroog; von Braun applying himself to the studies of physics and mathematics determined to pursue his interest in rocket engineering.
By 1930, he was attending the Technische Hochschule Berlin or 'Berlin Institute of Technology' where he became a member of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt 'Spaceflight Society'. He obtained a degree in aeronautical engineering from the Institute in 1932. From his early exposure to rocket sciences he developed the conclusion that rocket science was not advanced enough to support space exploration and would require more aspects of science than were currently applied to the field. He enrolled in the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin for post graduate studies in the fields of physics, chemistry and astronomy where he would receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Physics in 1934. He received encouragement for his studies from the high altitude balloon pioneer Auguste Piccard.
Coinciding with his developing interests in rocket science, the situation in Germany has been shaped in years of turmoil and political upheaval. After the end of the First World War and the abdication of the German monarchy, the Weimar Republic had been instated with a liberal democracy. President of the Weimar Republic Paul von Hindenburg, a former Prussian General Field Marshal during the First World War initiated dictatorial emergency powers and reinstated the position of Chancellor of Germany by 1930. Germany would see several Chancellors in Heinrich Brüning, Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher before finally Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor with the ascent of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or National Socialist German Workers Party commonly abbreviated as NSDAP or Nazi Party in 1933. With his focus on his doctoral studies, von Braun seemed for the most part unaware of the changes sweeping across Germany at the time. As a German born to an aristocratic family, he was patriotic towards his country but rocketry was his main focus. On 12 November 1937 he applied for membership in the Nazi Party and was assigned the membership number 5,738,692.
His activities with the Verein für Raumschiffahrt caught the attention of the Reichswehr, Germany's armed forces in 1932. While attending one of the launches of von Braun's rockets, Army officers took notice of the young engineer and the promise that he garnered towards the development of German rocket science. Walter Dornberger, an Artillery officer in the German Army Ordnance Corps presented von Braun with the opportunity to further develop his rockets through researching military applications for rockets. Presented with the opportunity of having his rocket research paid for at the behest of the German Army, von Braun couldn't refuse and accepted Dornberger's offer. Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles following the end of the First World War, Germany had been prohibited the development of military aviation applications, rocketry had not been barred from research and thus development in rocketry was rapidly advancing.
In 1934, Wernher von Braun completed a work on the subject of rocketry in which he titled 'Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket'. Its contents were determined to be so vital to the national security of Germany that the document was given a classified status and transferred to the control of the German Army. Germany showed great interest in the works of American scientist Robert H. Goddard's works and regularly contacted him in the years leading up to the Second World War with technical questions and concerns. It was Goddard's works that von Braun incorporated into the development of his Aggregat or A series of rockets. The word Aggregat is a German word meaning 'The use of multiple appliances or machines to fulfill a certain technological function'. With von Braun now working with the German Army, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt which had rejected proposals from the German Army had a hard time finding funding for its own continued research and was dissolved in 1933.
With the dissolution of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt group, civilian rocket launches were banned by the new Nazi government with only rocket tests conducted for military purposes being authorized. The home for the advancement of these rocket tests and the location von Braun would come to call home was a large facility built near the village of Peenemünde in northern Germany located on the Baltic Sea. The Artillery Captain who had initially brought Wernher von Braun into military rocket science, Walter Dornberger became commander of the Peenemünde facility with Wernher von Braun as technical director. It would be here at Peenemünde in association with the German Luftwaffe that von Braun would contribute to the development of the A-4 ballistic missile and a supersonic guided anti aircraft missile designated 'Wasserfall'. Large amounts of research were dedicated to the development of liquid fuel rocket engines to power not only missiles but also aircraft engines and jet assisted takeoff devices.
On 22 December 1942, Adolf Hitler issued an order to initiate the A-4 rocket into the Vergeltungswaffe or 'Revenge Weapon' program with aims of targeting London. Following the presentation of a film documenting a demonstration of the A-4, Hitler was so enthused by its promise that he made von Braun a professor of science. Following a bombing raid on the Peenemünde facility which killed several of von Braun's scientists by RAF Bomber Command, the first A-4 now designated V-2 for propaganda purposes was fired at England on 7 September 1944. Von Braun's rocket development in Peenemünde was in later years criticized for the use of slave labor from the Mittelbau-Dora and Buchenwald concentration camps.Under the influence of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, Wernher von Braun had been commissioned as an Untersturmführer 'Second Lieutenant' in the Allgemeine SS. Having expressed regret that he was not progressing his research towards his achievement of space exploration but that his scientific exploits were squandered on weapons for waging war, one that was not going well, Von Braun was arrested by Gestapo under charges trumped up by Himmler stating that he was a communist sympathizer with plans to sabotage the German rocket program before fleeing to England. He was only released from prison through the exploits of Walter Dornberger and Albert Speer, the Reichsminister for Munitions and War Production.
With the Soviet Army near Peenemünde in 1945, von Braun assembled his staff and decided that enough was enough they had to surrender and bring an end to their war atleast. But to whom would they surrender to? It was decided that surrendering to the advancing Soviet Army was out of the question. The Soviets were well known for their brutal treatment of prisoners of war especially those who were documented members of the Nazi Party. It was decided that they would flee the Peenemünde facility and surrender to American forces. Under orders from SS General Hans Kammler, the team was to be relocated from Peenemünde to central Germany to progress their work. In the final days before the relocation, a contradicting report from Kammler ordered the scientists to join the Army and fight against the advancing Soviets. He and his team of nearly 500 associates fabricated documents and were transferred to Mittelwerk but not before ordering that many of his documents and blueprints be hidden away in an abandoned mine shaft in the Harz Mountains to avoid their destruction by the SS.
Following a car accident in which he suffered a compound fracture of the left arm and shoulder, he had his arm placed in a cast although a month later his arm would have to be rebroken and realigned due to negligent care of his wound. He was then transferred to the town of Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps.
Von Braun's brother Magnus also a rocket engineer approached an American Private from the 44th Infantry Division and announced his intentions to surrender to the United States on 2 May 1945. On 19 June 1945, two days before the area was to be turned over to Soviet authorities US Major Robert B Staver, Chief of the Jet Propulsion Section of the Research and Intelligence Branch of the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps in London and Lieutenant Colonel R.L. Williams transferred von Braun and his team to Garmisch near Munich where they were then flown to Nordhausen and Witzenhausen in the American sector of Germany to avoid their fall into Soviet custody. After being debriefed by American and British intelligence officials he was recruited under Operation Paperclip where he was relocated to the United States.
Upon arrival in the United States, von Braun along with his team were granted funding to continue rocket research under the United States government and in exchange their association to the Nazi Party would be expunged from their records. Once their records had been cleared, the government granted the scientists security clearances for work at some of the nation's most sensitive facilities. The first stop for many of von Braun's associates were to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to organize the documents brought to the United States from Peenemünde. Von Braun and his remaining Peenemünde team were sent first to Fort Bliss, Texas and White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico where they trained military personnel on the intricacies of rockets and guided missiles before helping refurbish, assemble and launch a number of captured V-2 rockets transported to the United States from Germany.
By 1950 and the outbreak of the war in Korea, Wernher von Braun and his team were transferred from Fort Bliss, Texas to Huntsville, Alabama where he would lead a U.S. Army rocket development team at Redstone Arsenal. The results of the research conducted by the team was the PGM-11 Redstone Rocket on 8 April 1952. The development of the Redstone rocket led to the first live nuclear ballistic missile tests conducted in the United States. A subsequent development in the development of the Redstone rocket was the first high precision inertial guidance system mounted on a rocket. Soon he would be appointed as Director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, where von Braun and his team would led the development of the Jupiter C series rocket which was essentially a modified Redstone rocket. The Jupiter C rocket would go on to perform three suborbital spaceflights throughout the 1950s before launching the West's first satellite known as Explorer I on 31 January 1958.
Von Braun remained determined to utilize his research in the subject of space exploration he began advocating space flight. With the Soviet Union launching Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, the way had been paved for von Braun to accomplish his dreams as the United States became determined to outdo the Soviets in the realm of space exploration. On 29 July 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration better known as NASA was established and in 1960, the Marshal Space Flight Center was opened at Redstone Arsenal. The Army Ballistic Missile Agency was transferred to NASA control under the provision that von Braun and his team be allowed to continue their research on a much larger rocket than the PGM-11 or Jupiter C series rockets which would be designated as the Saturn series rocket. Von Braun was designated as the Marshal Space Flight Center's first director presiding over the facility from July 1960 to February 1970.
From the successes of the Saturn program, the Apollo program for manned moon flights was developed and his dream for putting a man on the moon was realized when on 16 July 1969, one of his Saturn V rockets propelled the crew of Apollo 11 beyond the atmosphere of planet Earth to the lunar surface. Throughout the duration of the Saturn program, von Braun's rockets would put six teams of astronauts on the moon. He would be influential in the establishment of the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. He also envisioned the idea of U.S. Space Camp for training children in the fields of science and technology. After relocating from Alabama to Washington DC to take a senior level position in NASA, von Braun retired from NASA on 26 May 1972 with the realization that his goals for space exploration and those of NASA's were not one in the same. In his latter years he would serve as Vice President for Engineering and Development for the Fairchild Industries company and performing services as a public speaker at colleges and universities across the country.
He helped to establish the National Space Institute in 1975 and became its first chairman as well as become a consultant to the CEO of Orbital Transport und Raketen AG, or 'Orbital Transport and Rockets, Inc' a West German company based in Stuttgart. His health gradually declined following the onset of kidney cancer which forced him to retired from Fairchild Industries on 31 December 1976. He was later hospitalized from complications due to cancer and was unable to attend a ceremony in which he was presented the National Medal of Science. Wernher von Braun would die on 16 June 1977 of pancreatic cancer in Alexandria, Virginia at the age of 65. He was buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia.