Wernher von Braun, brilliant, controversial, enigmatic, one time member of the German Nazi party, and aerospace engineer, died in the United States on 16 June 1977.
Von Braun’s career was nothing short of incredible, straddling one of the most tumultuous periods of modern times, from the Second World Way through to the Cold War and Space Race of the 1960’s.
He was born in 1912 into a German family of nobles, inheriting the title of Freiherr, roughly equivalent to an English baron. He become interested in space travel from an early age and his enthusiasm, together with his superior intellect, led him into a career as a rocket scientist.
Following the rise of Hitler, von Braun joined the SS and then the Nazi Party, although his relations with them were often fragile. He was once arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of sabotage but released through Hitler’s personal intervention.
He became a leading scientist in the development of the V2 rocket, but disapproved its use as a weapon, as Hitler had ordered.
With the collapse of Nazi Germany he surrendered to the Americans, along with many other scientists, engineers and technicians who had all been part of Germany’s rocket program. The Russians also commenced a similar venture with German scientists they had managed to capture.
The Americans were happy to overlook von Braun’s history with the Nazi party and he became a central figure in the development of the United States space program. He was instrumental in the development of the rockets that powered many successful launches, including the Saturn V that lifted the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.
In 1975 he received the US National Medal of Science for his outstanding contribution to the engineering sciences. The International Astronomical Union also named the von Braun crater on the Moon in his honour as a recognition of his contribution to space exploration.
Image: Von Braun with President Kennedy in 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.