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Wernher von Braun - the engineer of the powerful

July 17, 2019

The moon landing in 1969 would not have been possible without this German rocket pioneer. In his past, however, von Braun had built a "miracle weapon" for Hitler's Germany that led to thousands of deaths.

German rocket expert Wernher Von Braun is shown Aug. 5, 1955, at the Pentagon in Washington
Image: AP

Finally it's done! On July 16, 1969, the 110 meter high "Saturn V" majestically climbs into the bright morning sky of Cape Canaveral, with a take-off weight of about 3000 tons. On board are three astronauts. Destination: the moon. The world holds its breath. The mission must work. And indeed, it succeeds - thanks to rocket designerWernher von Braun.

Four days later, for the first time in history, a man steps onto the moon. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States managed to shift the balance of power. With the Apollo 11 mission, von Braun made his very personal dream come true. The Americans celebrate their "Missile Man," without whom, at the time, the mission would not have been possible.

Race into space

The successful moon landing should show everyone that the . Before, the Soviet Union had always been a few months earlier to achieve the next milestone of this "Space Race." In 1957, the Soviets had shocked the West with their first Sputnik satellite. In 1961, with Yuri Gagarin, they had sent the first man into space.

Read more: From Apollo 11 to the new space race

Wernher von Braun explains the Saturn Launch System to United States President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, Florida
JFK and Wernher von Braun joined forces in the space raceImage: picture-alliance/NASA/MediaPunch

This time, however, thanks to massive political and financial support, von Braun and his team guaranteed the historic triumph: the US was the first to reach the moon. Wernher von Braun was at the height of his career and had reached his biggest goals: "Anything man can imagine is feasible," the German said later.

Superstar with a brown past

After the moon landing, Wernher von Braun was a celebrated researcher, a legendary superstar. His knowledge and skills were obviously too valuable for the Americans to risk irritating the scientist with uncomfortable questions about his past.

Read more:Why NASA turned Apollo tough guy pilots to geologists

Wernher von Braun with Nazi officers in german Peenemünde
The Wehrmacht gave von Braun ideal research conditions at PeenemündeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The space pioneer had also built rockets for Hitler. He developed the desired "miracle weapon" for Nazi Germany without ethical reservations and without consideration for losses. Ultimately, the acclaimed moon rocket was only a further development of the V2 rocket that von Braun had developed for Hitler's Germany in Peenemünde.

A life for the rocket

Already as a child Wernher von Braun had been obsessed with rockets. He observed the moon with the telescope and shot the first rockets into the Berlin sky at the age of 17. Later, he studied engineering at the Technical University in Berlin and dreamed of flying to the stars himself at some point.

In April 1932, even before Hitler seized power, his "Verein für Raumschifffahrt" surprisingly received a visit of three interested gentlemen in civilian clothes during a missile test. The Army Weapons Office searched for ways to circumvent the Versailles Treaty.

After the First World War was lost, Germany was no longer allowed to use airplanes and artillery projectiles. But the Versailles Treaty did not mention rockets, i.e. self-flying cannonballs.

Von Braun's "miracle weapon" to avert defeat

The young designer took up the challenge, got excellent opportunities to conduct technical experiments, became a member of the Nazi party NSDAP and the SS, and from 1937 headed a large rocket test site in Peenemünde in northern Germany. There his task was to build a "miracle weapon" for the Nazis.

From 1941 on, Braun's V-2 rocket was produced in series. Following a British bombing on Peenemünde in 1943, the production had to be relocated to the extensive mining tunnels of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in the Harz region in central Germany.

The german V2 rocket
The V2 was Nazi Germany's last hope to turn the tide in WWIIImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Braun's new technology ended thousands of lives - where it hit, but also where it was produced. His "weapon of destruction" killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people, especially in London and Antwerp. When it was built, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 forced laborers died in the underground tunnels under miserable conditions.

The rocket designer von Braun did not want to hear about any of this, and he rejected any guilt for the crimes committed during the Second World War.

Opportunist with big space plans

But von Braun did not lose sight of his original space plans even in times of war. On October 3, 1942, a V-2 with a flight altitude of 84.5 kilometers reached the limit of the atmosphere. A milestone in the history of space travel had been reached.

Read more:When America landed on the moon, the whole world did

Wernher von Braun after surrending to the US troops on May, 1945
Wernher von Braun surrendered to the US with 100 of his best engineersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As the defeat of Nazi Germany approached, von Braun decided to change sides. On May 2 1945, together with some scientists from his team, he met the US forces in Tyrol. "My country lost two world wars. This time I want to be on the side of the winners," von Braun has said when explaining why he defected to his former enemy.

Friendly welcome in the new homeland              

The US military quickly recognized the talent that had jumped into its lap. A short time later, the Secret Service brought Wernher von Braun and his 100-strong team to the US. "Our admission to Texas was surprisingly friendly," von Braun later recalled. The team explained the function and construction of the V-2 rocket to American experts; then, von Braun started to construct the "Redstone," the world's first nuclear medium-range rocket.

The past is history; the future is what counts - that was the motto. Accordingly, Braun's new home was quite prepared to let his ominous work for Hitler's Germany fall into oblivion - as long as the US could profit from his knowledge and his abilities.

Concentration camp Memorial Site Mittelbau-Dora
Wernher von Braun claimed he was never aware of the conditions at Mittelbau DoraImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Already in 1955, von Braun received US citizenship, although he had been a member of the NSDAP and the SS and although under US laws this is actually forbidden. In the same year, together with Walt Disney, he developed the television series "Man in Space," which made manned space flight popular to the American public. Von Braun had visions and the talent to inspire others to follow these visions.

"Even before the year 2000, there will be fully air-conditioned cities on the moon where you can live much more comfortably than on Earth. First for the scientists, later also for their families. The children can attend school there. They will only have to return to Earth for the time being to attend university. There, however, they will soon long for the sterile air and the low lunar heaviness," von Braun believed.

Read more: NASA's Artemis program aims to put first woman on moon

Dwindling enthusiasm and questions of responsibility

In 1970, one year after the moon landing, von Braun became planning director at NASA. But after the Space Race had been won, the initial enthusiasm and financial support gradually waned. The ongoing Vietnam War also devoured many resources.

But von Braun continued to promote space travel: "Apollo was [...] not - as many people think - an insane waste of taxpayers' money, but in my firm opinion one of the most sensible, wise and farsighted investments a country has ever made," he said. "Apollo has advanced research and technology in American industry like no program ever before."

Nevertheless, legislators did not support his plans for a manned Mars mission due to funding problems. Disappointed by the budget cuts of the US Congress, von Braun left NASA in 1972 and moved to a private aerospace company. In 1977, Wernher von Braun died of cancer in Alexandria, Virginia.

Only much later, when Apollo's fame gradually faded and Germany took a deeper look at its inglorious past, did von Braun's work for Hitler's Germany and the rocket pioneer's responsibility also become known to a wider public.

Although he distanced himself from National Socialism after the war and, in 1966, still denied that he had known of the suffering of the forced laborers in the Mittelbau-Dora rocket factory, he was not aware of the fact that he had been a slave laborer of the German National Socialists himself. "Science in itself has no moral dimension," von Braun justified argued. But his biographer, the Canadian Michael J. Neufeld, unmasks von Braun's self-portrait of the unsuspecting, apolitical scientist as a mere claim to protection. By working for the Nazi regime, von Braun had entered into a "pact with the devil" that would cast a long, gloomy shadow on the space pioneer.