President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs an executive order transferring the brilliant rocket designer Wernher von Braun and his team from the U.S. Army to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Von Braun, the mastermind of the U.S. space program, had developed the lethal V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany during World War II.
Wernher von Braun was born into an aristocratic German family in 1912. He became fascinated with rocketry and the possibility of space travel after reading Hermann Oberth’s The Rocket into Interplanetary Space (1923) when he was in his early teens. He studied mechanical engineering and physics in Berlin and in his free time assisted Oberth in his tests of liquid-fueled rockets. In 1932, Von Braun’s rocket work attracted the attention of the German army, and he was given a grant to continue his work. He was eventually hired to lead the army’s rocket artillery unit, and by 1937 he was the technical director of a large development facility located at Peenemünde on the Baltic Sea.
Von Braun’s rocket tests impressed the Nazi leadership, who provided generous funding to the program. The most sophisticated rockets produced at Peenemünde were the long-range ballistic missile A-4 and the anti-aircraft missile Wasserfall. The A-4 was years ahead of rockets being produced in other nations at the time. It traveled at 3,600 mph, was capable of delivering a warhead a distance of more than 200 miles, and was the first rocket to enter the fringes of space. In 1944, the Nazis changed the name of A-4 to V-2 and began launching the rockets against London and Antwerp. The V stood for Vergeltung—the German word for “vengeance”—and was an expression of Nazi vindictiveness over the Allied bombardment of Germany. The V-2s took many lives but came too late to influence the outcome of the war.
Von Braun and 400 members of his team fled before the advancing Russians in 1945 and surrendered to the Americans. U.S. troops quickly seized more than 300 train-car loads of spare V-2 parts, and the German scientists were taken to the United States, eventually settling at Fort Bliss, Texas, where they resumed their rocketry work. At first, they were closely supervised because of their former allegiance to Nazi Germany, but it soon became apparent that they had fully shifted their loyalty to America and the great scientific opportunities it provided for them.
In 1950, von Braun and his team, which now included Americans, were transferred to Huntsville, Alabama, to head the U.S. Army ballistic-weapons program. During the 1950s, von Braun enthusiastically promoted the possibilities of space flight in books and magazines. In 1955, he became a U.S. citizen.
The USSR successfully launched Sputnik—the world’s first artificial satellite—in October 1957, but von Braun’s team was not far behind with its launching of the first American satellite—Explorer 1—in January 1958. In July of that year, President Eisenhower signed legislation establishing NASA, and on October 21 von Braun was formally transferred to the new agency. Von Braun, however, did not really go anywhere; NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center was built around von Braun’s headquarters in Huntsville. In 1960, he was named the Marshall Center’s first director.
At Huntsville, von Braun oversaw construction of the large Saturn launch vehicles that kept the United States abreast of Soviet space achievements in the early and mid 1960s. In the late 1960s, von Braun’s genius came to the fore in the space race, and the Soviets failed in their efforts to build intricate booster rockets of the type that put the first U.S. astronauts into a lunar orbit in 1968. Von Braun’s Saturn rockets eventually took 27 Americans to the moon, 12 who walked on the lunar surface. Von Braun retired from NASA in 1972 and died five years later.