Dr. Wernher von Braun, widely regarded as “The father of modern rocketry” was born in Wirsitz (at that time part of the kingdom of Prussia) in 1912. When that area was annexed into Poland in 1920, the von Brauns moved to Berlin.
During his childhood, he came across a pioneering book by fellow German Hermann Oberth, and this further fueled an already keen interest in space travel and rocketry. He later became a student and direct assistant to Dr. Oberth and the Technical University of Berlin, where they worked together to test liquid fueled rocket engines.
It was near the completion the his doctoral education in Berlin that Hitler’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP or “Nazi”) came into power. This event fundamentally altered von Braun’s life, much as it did almost every other German at the time. Von Braun’s future work would be directed less at space travel, as he had envisioned, and more to military applications, as a government employee.
Von Braun completed his doctorate in Physics in 1934, and immediately began working for the German Army (Wehrmacht) developing rockets at their new top secret military research facility near the village of Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea coast.
In 1937, von Braun joined the Nazi Party and the Waffen-SS (Shutzstaffel), essentially the military arm of the party. He has said later that he was coerced into doing so as the only way he could continue his work in his field, but there is some controversy surrounding the veracity of that claim. At any rate, he was promoted to the US Army equivalent of a Major in the SS by the end of the war. He claims he only wore the uniform on one occasion, when SS cheif Heinrich Himmler personally visited Peenemunde, but again these claims are unconfirmed.
My personal view was that von Braun was, for better or worse, a completely a-political person who was interested in the research he was doing above all else. I feel that his later work shows that he was a scientist first and foremost, regardless of who he was working for, and that any political opinions or affiliations would have to be secondary to the research and the work.
By 1944, his pet project, the V-2 rocket, was being used in military operations against England. Von Braun, who was always personally interested in using rocketry for space travel, was famously quoted as saying “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet”, after hearing news from London.
His career, and indeed his life, was placed in jeopardy near the end of the Third Reich, and he was even imprisoned for a short time by the SS, on trumped-up charges of being a Communist sympathizer, as well as a defeatist attitude. His released was personally secured by Hitler so that he could continue his work on the V-2, and showed his charges to be false by later orchestrating his surrender to American forces instead of Soviet ones.
It was at this time that von Braun became part of the now famous American “Operation Paperclip”, a secret operation involving the relocation of many of the Third Reich’s finest scientists and engineers into the United States. He then spent the next several years working in secret for the US Army in such places at White Sands, New Mexico, and Huntsville, Alabama, until the US Government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958.
It was at this point that von Braun was finally able to pursue his true dream of building rockets for use in space. The culmination of his NASA work resulted in the design, production, and launch of the Saturn rocket, which eventually was used in the Apollo program to carry astronauts to the moon. He continued working for NASA until 1972, when he retired. After leaving NASA, he became Vice President for Engineering and Development at Fairchild Industries, an aircraft and aeronautics company best known for it’s A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthog”, still in use today with the US Air Force as a close ground attack plane.
In 1973 however, von Braun was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which turned out to be fatal. He died in 1977.