by Robin Williams
May 2, 2001
Wernher von Braun is, without doubt, the greatest rocket scientist in history. His crowning achievement, as head of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, was to lead the development of the Saturn V booster rocket that helped land the first men on the Moon in July 1969.
Wernher von Braun was born in 1912 in Wirsitz, Germany (now part of Poland), into an aristocratic Prussian family. His father was Baron Magnus von Braun and his mother was a direct descendent of Valdemar I of Denmark (1131-1182). At an early age Wernher developed a fascination for rockets, inspired by the ancient Chinese who invented fireworks. At the age of 12 he tried his first practical rocket experiment. He strapped six rockets to a small wagon, and lit them up. The wagon performed beyond his wildest dreams and careened about crazily, trailing a tail of fire like a comet. When the rockets finally burned out, ending their sparkling performance with a magnificent thunderclap, the wagon rolled majestically to a halt. The police, who arrived late for the beginning of his experiment, but in time for the grand finale, were unappreciative. They took young Wernher into custody. Fortunately, no one was injured and he was released to the Minister of Agriculture, his father. So began a career in rocketry that changed human history.
Von Braun attended the French Gymnasium School in Berlin, but was not a star pupil. He spent much of his time building an automobile in his father's garage instead of studying books. Von Braun's grades improved after his father transferred him to a boarding school. Part of his education there involved working in small groups to develop technical skills. He would draw upon these lessons many times later in his career when working in teams. Before bedtime he was permitted to examine the stars with a small telescope that his mother bought him. Thus began his interest in astronomy.
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Top: A portrait of Wernher von Braun. (Drawing by Roger Kammerer)