The Life and Legacy of Wernher von Braun

Dr. Wernher von Braun (1912–1977) was one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration in the twentieth century.

As a youth he became enamored with the possibilities of space exploration by reading the work of Hermann Oberth, whose 1923 book The Rocket into Interplanetary Space, prompted von Braun to master calculus and trigonometry so he could understand the physics of rocketry.

The Early Life of von Braun

From his teenage years, von Braun had held a keen interest in space flight, becoming involved in the German Society for Space Travel (VfR) in 1928.

As a means of furthering his desire to build large and capable rockets, in late 1932 he went to work for the German army to develop liquid-fuel missiles.

Based on his army-funded research on liquid-propellant rocketry, von Braun received a doctorate in physics on July 27, 1934, from the main university in Berlin.

Von Braun’s V-2 Rocket

Wernher von braun's v-2 rocket
Credit: NASA

In 1936, von Braun created the V-2 liquid-engine rocket, which would impact WWII and rocketry forever.

The V-2 rocket, developed by Wernher von Braun and his team, was a revolutionary feat of engineering with several innovative design features that set it apart from previous rockets of its time.

There were many key aspects of its revolutionary design:

1. Liquid Propellant

Unlike many contemporary rockets that used solid propellants, the V-2 utilized a liquid propulsion system.

It combined liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer and ethyl alcohol (ethanol) as the fuel. This combination offered higher energy density and thrust efficiency, providing the V-2 with greater speed and range.

2. Gyroscopic Inertial Navigation

The V-2 was one of the first rockets to employ a gyroscopic inertial navigation system, which used gyroscopes to maintain the rocket’s stability during flight and make real-time adjustments to its trajectory.

This innovation allowed the V-2 to follow a predetermined flight path accurately, making it one of the world’s earliest guided missiles.

3. Supersonic Aerodynamics

The V-2 was designed with streamlined features to minimize air resistance and achieve supersonic speeds during its ascent. Its slender shape reduced drag, enabling the rocket to reach high velocities, thereby increasing its range and potential target distances.

4. Combustion Chambers

The V-2’s combustion chambers featured innovative regenerative cooling techniques, where hot gasses produced during combustion circulated around the walls of the combustion chamber, effectively cooling them and preventing damage from the intense heat generated during the engine’s operation.

5. Thrust Vector Control

To maintain stability and control, the V-2 was equipped with four graphite vanes in the rocket’s exhaust nozzle.

These vanes could be individually swiveled to direct the thrust, allowing the rocket to adjust its flight path as needed.

6. Automatic Stabilization

The V-2 incorporated an automatic stabilization system that used pendulum-based sensors. These sensors continuously monitored the rocket’s orientation during flight and triggered corrective movements of the fins or vanes to maintain stability.

7. Telemetry System

The V-2 featured a pioneering telemetry system that transmitted real-time data back to the ground. This system provided vital information about the rocket’s performance and allowed engineers to make adjustments and improvements for future launches.

Overall, the V-2 rocket’s innovative design marked a significant advancement in rocket technology during its time.

While its use as a weapon during World War II had devastating consequences, its legacy in space exploration and the development of modern rockets remains undeniable.

Post-World War II

Wernher von braun and the us rocket team
Credit: NASA

For 15 years after World War II, Von Braun worked with the U.S. Army in the development of guided missiles.

As part of a military operation called Project Paperclip, he and an initial group of about 125 were sent to America where they were installed at Fort Bliss, Texas.

There they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army and assisted in V-2 launches at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico.

1. Von Braun & Explorer I

Wernher von braun working
Credit: NASA

In 1950 von Braun’s team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, where they designed the Army’s Redstone and Jupiter ballistic missiles, as well as the Jupiter C, Juno II, and Saturn I launch vehicles.

A Jupiter C orbited the first U.S. satellite, Explorer I, in 1958. Von Braun also became one of the most prominent advocates for space exploration in the United States during the 1950s, writing numerous books and several articles for magazines such as Collier’s.

Von Braun also served as a spokesman for three Walt Disney television programs on space travel, Man in Space.

2. Von Braun & Apollo 11

Wernher von braun in his office
Credit: NASA

In 1960, President Eisenhower transferred his rocket development group at Redstone Arsenal from the Army to the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Its primary objective was to develop giant Saturn rockets. Accordingly, von Braun became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the super booster that would propel Americans to the Moon.

At Marshall, the group also worked on the Mercury-Redstone, the rocket that sent the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961.

Shortly after Shepard’s successful flight, President John F. Kennedy challenged America to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade. With the July 20, 1969 moon landing, the Apollo 11 mission fulfilled both Kennedy’s mission.

In 1970, NASA leadership asked von Braun to move to Washington, D.C., to head up the strategic planning effort for the agency.

He left his home in Huntsville, Alabama, but in 1972 he decided to retire from NASA and work for Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland. He died in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 16, 1977.

Von Braun Life Summary

Wernher von Braun’s impact on space explorations and rocketry cannot be overstated.

The lessons learned from the V-2’s design and operation paved the way for subsequent achievements in space exploration and continue to inspire advancements in aerospace engineering today.

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