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Famous physicists: Wernher von Braun

wernher von braunWho was he?

Wernher von Braun became excited by the possibilities of space exploration by reading the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells at an early age. He became involved in the German rocket society in 1929.

In 1932 he went to work for the German army to develop ballistic missiles. He became the leader of the “rocket team” which developed the V-2 ballistic missile for the Nazis during World War II. The first V-2s were launched towards England on 7 September 1944, only 21 months after the project had been officially commissioned. The V-2s were manufactured at a forced labour factory called Mittelwerk.

A difficult choice

When von Braun realised that Germany had lost the war he decided, with 500 of his staff, to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians. He arranged for his team to be moved to the Bavarian Alps and there, on the 2 May 1945, he and his brother found an American soldier. Von Braun's brother approached the soldier, calling out in broken English, "My name is Magnus von Braun. My brother invented the V-2. We want to surrender."

Working for the opposition

The American high command was well aware of how important their catch was: Von Braun and his department chiefs were taken to Munich. Later he and his team were installed at Fort Bliss, Texas where they worked on rockets for the United States army. In 1950 von Braun's team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, where they built the Army's Jupiter ballistic missile.

In 1960, he was transferred from the army to the newly established NASA and received an order to build the giant Saturn rockets. Von Braun became director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle.

His dream to help mankind set foot on the Moon became a reality on July 16, 1969 when a Marshall-developed Saturn V rocket launched the crew of Apollo 11 on its historic eight-day mission. Over the course of the program, Saturn V rockets enabled six teams of astronauts to reach the surface of the Moon.