, , , ,

Werhner von Braun in 1961 Image Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Download Podcast OR Listen in the Browser

Rockets and von Braun by Darren Dobroski

Dr. Wernher Von Braun was a Nazi engineer who created the rocket technology that would fuel the space race. Inspired by science fiction novels, Von Braun learned calculus and trigonometry at a young age so that he could grasp the concepts of rocketry. He joined the German army to develop missiles at the age of twenty.  The V-2 ballistic missile is sometimes considered the brainchild of Von Braun’s early career, although many of the components were based on the work of American physicist Robert H Goddard. The V-2 launched against London on September 7, of 1944. Von Braun primarily studied rockets for the purpose of space travel, and after the attack on London was quoted to say “the rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.”  Von Braun, who had been personally promoted by Hitler, came under suspicion of sabotage and intention to join the Allies. The rocketeer was overheard expressing regret about the war and the violent use of their scientific talents, and he was detained for several weeks without knowledge of his crime. After some deliberation, Hitler conceded to release Von Braun as long as was useful to their cause.  Yet other factors began to spell doom for the Nazi regime, and Von Braun began to prepare for an Allied victory. Fully aware of the infamous brutality of Soviet forces, Von Braun and his assistants chose to surrender to the United States.  After the Allied Forces captured the V-2 complex, the United States transported Von Braun and other German engineers to American soil through a program called Operation Paperclip. Von Braun was one of several officials who were expunged of Nazi involvement and given new employment histories. Many Americans protested this move, namely Albert Einstein, who had been Von Braun’s childhood idol.  The German engineers had to grow accustomed to the American way of business: they had indulged in all Nazi accommodations, but the United States neglected their living conditions and scientific freedom. Despite these hindrances, Von Braun helped to design the Jupiter-C rocket that sent the first satellite of the West, Explorer 1, into orbit in 1958.  As the Soviet space program grew, Von Braun struggled to earn the trust of his American hosts and improve their lacking interest in rocketry, but their focus was ever on his questionable history rather than his visions of space exploration. To this day, the extent of his loyalty to the Nazi party is still debated, though his contribution to the science of rocketry is unquestionable.


1. Brzezinski, Matthew. Red Moon Rising: New York, New York, Times Books, Published 2007.

2. Wright, Mike D. MSFC History Office: Dr. Wernher von Braun, at http://history.msfc.nasa.gov/vonbraun/bio.html.