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von Braun, Wernher

Entry updated 28 November 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1912-1977) German-born engineer and rocket scientist who notoriously led the Peenemünde team that developed Rocket technology for Nazi Germany before and during World War Two, leading to the V-2 or Vergeltungswaffe 2 ["Vengeance Weapon 2"] rocket-powered missile used against London and other Allied targets 1944-1945. As a Colonel in the Nazi SS, he has been accused of necessarily knowing the truth about the slave labourers who died in thousands working for him. There is no question, however, of his interest in rocket science. Even in his teens, von Braun had dreamed of Space Flight thanks to the influence of Herman Oberth's Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen ["The Rocket into Interplanetary Space"] (1923 chap; exp vt Wege zur Raumschiffahrt ["Ways to Spaceflight"] 1929), and he had assisted with Oberth's promising though soon cancelled rocketry experiments of 1931.

In 1945 von Braun and his specialist team were transferred to the USA to work on military rocketry and, later, the space programme. The 1965 song "Wernher Von Braun" by American satirist Tom Lehrer (1928-    ) refers to this period. Von Braun's popular Futures Studies speculations on space exploration predated NASA by several years, for example in a 1952-1953 series of space-themed special issues of Collier's Weekly beginning with the symposium "Man Will Conquer Space Soon!" (22 March 1952 Collier's); Willy Ley was another contributor to the series, and artists providing space and space-Technology images included Chesley Bonestell. In the same year, von Braun's Das Marsprojekt (1952 Weltraumfahrt; 1952; trans Henry J White as The Mars Project 1953) offered a detailed scenario for a manned expedition to Mars with an anticipated launch date of 1965. This monograph was originally the long technical appendix to von Braun's unskilled fictional treatment of just such a mission, Project Mars: A Technical Tale (written 1948; trans Henry J White 2006), which was not published until long after his death. First Men to the Moon (1958 This Week; exp 1960 chap), also presented as fiction, similarly imagines two astronauts' voyage to the Moon via multistage rocket; von Braun was to lead the development of the Saturn V multistage booster used for the Apollo and Skylab space projects. During the Cold War he also proposed a missile-armed US Space Station. He collaborated with Willy Ley and Fred L Whipple on the Hugo-winning nonfiction Conquest of the Moon (1953), and with Ley alone on The Exploration of Mars (1954; vt Project Mars 1962). A further work of fiction not published in book form is the Utopian novelette "Life on Mars" (24 April-8 May 1960 This Week), which he began writing in 1948; portions were translated from German by Henry J White, and von Braun brought the technology up to date for its magazine serialization.

Among the numerous honours received by von Braun for his achievements in rocketry is the 1969 NASA Distinguished Service Medal; the Moon crater von Braun is named for him. [DRL]

see also: Conquest of Space; Kurd Laßwitz; Brad Linaweaver; System Shock.

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun

born Wirsitz, German Empire [now Wyrzysk, Poland]: 23 March 1912

died Alexandria, Virginia: 16 June 1977


  • First Men to the Moon (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960) [chap: portions first appeared in This Week magazine: hb/Fred Freeman]
  • Project Mars: A Technical Tale (Burlington, Ontario: Apogee Books, 2006) [trans from unpublished manuscript by Henry J White: pb/]

nonfiction (selected)

  • Das Marsprojekt (Frankfurt: Umschau Verlag, 1952) [nonfiction: chap: first appeared 1952 in the German space flight magazine Weltraumfahrt: hb/]
    • The Mars Project (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1953) [nonfiction: chap: trans of the above by Henry J White: hb/]
  • Conquest of the Moon (New York: Viking, 1953) with Willy Ley and Fred L Whipple [nonfiction: illus/Klep: hb/Chesley Bonestell]
  • The Exploration of Mars (New York: Viking, 1954) with Willy Ley [nonfiction: illus/hb/Chesley Bonestell]
    • Project Mars (London: John Spencer and Co/Badger Books, 1962) with Willy Ley [nonfiction: vt of the above: illus/hb/Chesley Bonestell]


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