Wernher Von Braun, The Ex-Nazi Scientist Who Became The ‘Father Of The American Lunar Program’

Published March 6, 2022
Updated July 5, 2022

After developing the V-2 rocket for the Nazis, Wernher von Braun was recruited by America at the end of World War II where he designed the spacecraft that took NASA to the moon in 1969.

Wernher von Braun was one of the United States’ most valuable rocket scientists — and he was a member of the Nazi party.

As the Germans surrendered at the close of World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union discovered just how advanced the Third Reich’s military arsenal had been — and both sides wanted a piece of it for themselves. Consequently, the United States began recruiting some of Nazi Germany’s brightest minds, with von Braun at the top of their list.

Wernher Von Braun

Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun played a massive role in getting NASA’s space program off the ground and into orbit.

The former Nazi scientist then became the backbone of the United States’ burgeoning aerospace program — and even came to head NASA itself.

Wernher Von Braun’s Life In Germany

Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun, was born on March 23, 1912, to a wealthy Prussian family. Von Braun’s father worked for the federal government under the Weimar Republic and his mother was connected to Medieval European royalty.

As such, Wernher Von Braun’s childhood was marked with privilege. He took piano and cello lessons and attended a boarding school where his interest in space travel was piqued. He excelled in mathematics and physics.

In 1930, the German Army offered to finance his doctoral dissertation if he worked in secret on liquid-propellant rocketry. Just two years later, Hitler was elected Chancellor, and suddenly von Braun’s work became inextricably tied to the Third Reich.

Before World War II, he had been working at an operations base in Peenemünde, the German Army Rocket Center, researching the launch specs and ballistics of warheads. Those who worked with him in Peenemünde claim he had always dreamed of one day using his research to send a manned aircraft into space.

Von Braun reportedly applied for membership within the Third Reich in 1939, though this was allegedly not politically motivated. According to his statement, he claimed that had he refused to join the party, he would no longer have been able to continue working at Peenemünde.

He added that he had even been arrested by the Gestapo for making comments about the war that were construed as being anti-Nazi as well as making “careless comments” about the use of the rockets.

Later in his statement, he included that he never liked Hitler, referring to him as a “pompous fool with a Charlie Chaplin mustache.” Yet as World War II raged, von Braun continued his work without pause, and even used concentration camp prisoners to build his rockets at the Mittelwerk laboratory.

One prisoner claimed that von Braun personally selected prisoners from the Buchenwald concentration camp to work in his lab.

Nonetheless, he became one of the leading rocket scientists in Germany. For most of his early life, he worked for Germany’s rocket development program, helping to design the V-2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile.

Then, in 1945, Germany surrendered.

Going To Work For The United States

Von Braun And SS Officers

Wikimedia CommonsWernher von Braun and his team at Peenemünde.

As the Third Reich fell, Wernher Von Braun escaped to the Bavarian Alps as German forces surrendered to the Allies. It then became clear to the Allies just how advanced Germany’s military arsenal was — and just how valuable their weapons intelligence could be.

At the same time, the Soviets began aggressively recruiting former Nazi and German scientists to their ranks, usually with threats to their family, occasionally at gunpoint. Their hope was to further their space program and gain an advantage in the impending Cold War against the United States.

But the United States began secretly recruiting Nazi scientists of their own. Just two months after the Germans surrendered, the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the United States created Operation Paperclip, a secret Nazi recruitment program.

The name stemmed from the secret method Army officers would use to indicate which German rocket scientists they wanted to recruit. When they came across a viable candidate, they would attach a certain colored paperclip to the folder before passing it back to their superiors.

By September of 1946, Operation Paperclip had been officially approved by President Truman and saw 1,000 German rocket scientists moving to the U.S. under “temporary, limited military custody” to work on the nation’s young space program.

One of the most valuable and talented recruits for Operation Paperclip was Wernher von Braun himself.

Apollo 11 Landing

Wikimedia CommonsWernher von Braun celebrates with mission control after the successful launch and landing of the Apollo 11 mission.

While he had created the V-2 rocket back in Germany, most of his important breakthroughs would occur during the years that he worked for the United States after the war.

Upon arriving in the United States, Wernher Von Braun began working for the Army, testing ballistic missiles based on the designs of his original brainchild, the V-2. His work with the missiles led him to research launching missiles for his real dream: space travel.

Under the supervision of the Army, von Braun helped create test launch sites for the Redstone and Jupiter ballistic missiles, as well as the Jupiter C, Juno II and Saturn I launch vehicles. As he had while working at Peenemünde, von Braun dreamed of one day manning his launches and sending men into space.

Having more freedom in the United States than he ever did under the Third Reich, von Braun published his ideas for manned-rocket powered space exploration in various magazines. He even conceptualized a space station that would be locked in orbit around the Earth and continually manned by international space teams.

He also theorized that astronauts might be able to set up a permanent base camp on the moon, built out of the empty cargo hold of their spacecraft. Eventually, he thought, there could even be manned missions to Mars and potentially even a second base camp there.

Saturn Rocket

Wikimedia CommonsWernher von Braun standing in front of the engines of the Saturn rocket.

His ideas contributed to many works of science fiction at the time, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. They also, of course, contributed heavily to the real-life undertakings of the space program.

Engineering The First Mission To The Moon

In 1957, Wernher von Braun’s integrality to the space program became known when the Soviet Union pulled wildly ahead of the United States in the Space Race. The launch of Sputnik 1 threw the U.S. into high gear, putting von Braun front and center.

Three years prior, von Braun had suggested an orbital launch vehicle, similar to Sputnik, but had been shot down. Now, the Army said, they wanted him to try it.

JFK With Wernher Von Braun

Corbis/Getty ImagesPresident John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson Converse With Wernher von Braun at Cape Canaveral.

An official branch of the U.S. government was even established in order to devote their full attention to space exploration. Known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA for short, it would become the place where von Braun would be headquartered, and where he would make some of the most important space program advances.

At NASA, von Braun carried out tests to ensure that rockets could safely orbit the Earth and pass back into its atmosphere to prepare for manned missions. He became the first director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama. While there, he created a program to develop Saturn rockets that would be able to carry heavy loads out of Earth’s orbit.

The Saturn rocket tests were the precursor to the Apollo missions and the rockets that made them possible.

Just a year after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins successfully used his technology to land on the lunar surface, Wernher von Braun was named NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning. For two years he carried out his visions and plans to bring men into space, before retiring in 1972, when his plans got a little too big for NASA.

Wernher Von Braun At NASA

Wikimedia CommonsWernher von Braun with his model rocket collection at his desk at NASA.

Even after he retired, he continued to speak at universities and symposiums around the country. He also conceptualized the idea for a Space Camp that would teach kids about science and technology.

He promoted the National Space Institute, became the first president and chairman of the National Space Society, and was even awarded the National Medal of Science.

Wernher von Braun died in 1977 from pancreatic cancer as a naturalized citizen of the United States.

After learning about Wernher Von Braun and his influence on the American space program, check out these space facts that make life on Earth look boring. Then, check out these facts about the Apollo 11 landing.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
Cite This Article
Serena, Katie. "Wernher Von Braun, The Ex-Nazi Scientist Who Became The ‘Father Of The American Lunar Program’." AllThatsInteresting.com, March 6, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/wernher-von-braun. Accessed April 21, 2024.