Born in 1912, von Braun had discovered the concept of space travel, as so many of us had, through the science fiction novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The man who made it all seem possible was the science writer, Hermann Oberth and his 1923 classic By Rocket to Space’ (Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen.) That book encouraged von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry in order to gain an understanding of rocketry. During his teenage years he was deeply interested in space flight and in 1929 joined the German rocket society. In 1932 his desire to build large capable rockets led him to go to work for the German army developing ballistic missiles. He was also furthering his education and received a Ph.D. in physics in July of 1934.
The great controversy of his life was the forced labour used by the Nazi’s to build the V-2 rockets during World War II. He knew about the forced labour but there was little or anything he could have done about it. At one point he was arrested by Heinrich Himmler and the SS despite holding the rank of an SS officer. It was a case of Himmler wanting control of Peenemunde. Another party got him out of the trumped up charges but he knew he had to be careful.
The V-2 rocket developed by von Braun and his “rocket team” was the first step in a path that led to those used by both the United States and the Soviet Union in the exploration of space which had always been von Braun’s ultimate goal. The V-2 rocket was only 46 feet tall and weighed a meagre 27,000 lbs. But it could hit speeds of 3,500, carry a 2,200 pound warhead and hit targets 500 miles away. But it was not enough to win a war and von Braun knew it. So he arranged the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, plans and test vehicles to the Americans before the complex at Peenemunde was captured.
For the next fifteen years he and members of his team worked for the U.S. Army designing and building ballistic missiles. Then in 1960 he and his team went to work for NASA and got the job of building the giant Saturn rockets. He was installed as the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and was the main man behind the development of the Saturn V launch vehicle that took Americans across the void to the moon. He was finally doing the work he had dreamed of doing throughout his life.
He was asked by NASA to head the strategic planning division of the agency and moved to Washington, D.C. to take up those duties in 1970. He retired from NASA in 1972 and went to work for Fairchild Industries of Germantown, MD. He worked with them until his death on June 16, 1977.