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American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Pioneer Profile

    Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977)

    Wernher-Von-BraunBorn in Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912
    Died in Alexandria, Virginia, 16 June 1977

    Wernher von Braun was one of the world's first and foremost rocket engineers and a leading authority on space travel. He was born March 23, 1912, in Wirsitz, Germany. His wife was Maria von Quirstorp von Braun. Together, they had three children named Iris, Magrit, and Peter. He became a U.S. citizen on April 14, 1955. His interests and hobbies included: his family, space, rockets, scuba diving, boating, flying, reading, writing, music, and poetry.

    Von Braun was a man of immense talent. He headed the development of the Explorer satellites, the Jupiter and Jupiter-C rockets, and Pershing. He also headed the work on the Redstone rocket, Saturn rockets, and the Skylab, the world's first space station. He directed the technical development of the U.S. Army's ballistic missile program at Redstone Arsenal.

    Wernher von Braun was the second of three sons born to Baron von Braun and Baroness Emmy von Quistorp. His natural leadership and ability to encourage others led him to organize an observatory construction team at the age of sixteen. Later he enrolled at the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1930. He received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the age of twenty and was offered a grant to conduct and develop scientific investigations on liquid-fueled rocket engines. Two years later, von Braun received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Berlin.

    On June 20, 1945, Cordell Hull, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, approved the transfer of von Braun's team of German rocket specialists. This was known as Operation Paperclip because the paperwork of those selected to come to the U.S. was indicated by paperclips. They arrived in the United States at New Castle Army Base, just south of Wilmington, Delaware. Then they moved to their new home at Fort Bliss, Texas, a large Army installation under the command of Major James P. Hamill. Here they were tasked to train military, industrial, and university personnel in rockets and guided missiles. They were also to help refurbish, assemble, and launch a number of V-2's.

    During this time von Braun proposed to 18-year-old Maria von Quirstorp in Germany by mail. They married on March 1, 1947. They had their first child, Iris, in December 1948.

    Between 1950 and 1956, von Braun led the Army's development team at Redstone Arsenal, resulting in the Arsenal's namesake, the Redstone rocket. Later they developed the Jupiter-C, a modified Redstone. This rocket successfully launched the America's first satellite, the Explorer 1, on January 31, 1958. He later became director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the superbooster that would propel Americans to the Moon from July 1960 to February 1970. He retied from NASA in June 1972.

    After NASA, he became the vice-president of Fairchild Industries in Germantown, Maryland, where he was active in establishing and promoting the National Space Institute. He learned he had cancer not long after. No matter what he did the cancer progressed, forcing him to retire from Fairchild on December 31, 1976. Wernher von Braun died on June 16, 1977 in Alexandria, Virginia, leaving behind a legacy never forgotten by anyone.

    Visit the Germany Profile for more information on German pioneers or visit the United States Profile for more information on American pioneers.

    Provided to the AIAA for the sole purpose of its Evolution of Flight Campaign.

    Contributed by Amy Clark, AIAA Class of 2003 Ambassador