The young von Braun showed an interest in space early and upon his Lutheran confirmation, his mother gave him a telescope, sealing his passion for astronomy and the realm of outer space. One apocryphal story of the youngster says that he created mayhem in the streets of Berlin by attaching several fireworks to a toy wagon and setting them off. He was nabbed by the local police and held until collected by his father.
Wernher did not take to physics and mathematics at first at the boarding school he attended at Ettersburg castle near Weimar. It wasn't until he moved to the Hermann-Lietz-Internat on the East Frisian North Sea island of Spiekeroog that he found a copy of the book Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) by rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth, rekindling his fascination with the thought of space travel. He was inspired to apply himself to the study of physics and mathematics in order to pursue his interest in rocketry.
In 1930, he began to attend the Technical University of Berlin. While there he joined the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR, the "Spaceflight Society") and joined his hero, Hermann Oberth, in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the age of 20 from the University of Berlin.
As a means of furthering his desire to build large and capable rockets, in 1932 he went to work for the German army to develop ballistic missiles. While engaged in this work, von Braun received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Berlin on July 27, 1934. Between 1932 and 1937, he was employed by the German Ordnance Department. He became technical director of the Peenemuende Rocket Center in 1937, leader of what has been called the “rocket team” which developed the V–2 ballistic missile for the Nazis during World War II. The V–2s were manufactured at a forced labor factory called Mittelwerk. Scholars are still reassessing his role in these controversial activities.
The brainchild of von Braun's rocket team operating at a secret laboratory at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast, the V-2 rocket was the immediate antecedent of those used in space exploration programs in the United States and the Soviet Union. A liquid propellant missile extending some 46 feet in length and weighing 27,000 pounds, the V-2 flew at speeds in excess of 3,500 miles per hour and delivered a 2,200 pound warhead to a target 500 miles away. First flown in October 1942, it was employed against targets in Europe beginning in September 1944. By the beginning of 1945, it was obvious to von Braun that Germany would not achieve victory against the Allies, and he began planning for the postwar era.
Before the Allied capture of the V-2 rocket complex, von Braun engineered the surrender of 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles, to the Americans.
Von Braun came to the United States in September 1945 under contract with the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps as part of Operation Paperclip. He worked on high altitude firings of captured V-2 rockets at White Sands Proving Ground until he became project director of the Ordnance Research and Development Division Sub-Office (Rocket) at Fort Bliss, Texas. On 28 October 1949, the Secretary of the Army approved the transfer of the Fort Bliss group to Redstone Arsenal. After his arrival in Huntsville in April 1950, Von Braun was appointed Director of Development Operations. He continued in this position under the newly formed Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA).
Major ABMA development projects under Von Braun’s technical direction included the Redstone Rocket, the Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), and the Pershing missile. He and his team of German scientists and engineers were also responsible for developing the Jupiter C Reentry Test Missile and launching the Free World’s first scientific earth satellite, Explorer 1.
Von Braun also became one of the most prominent spokesmen of space exploration in the United States during the 1950s.
On 1 July 1960, Von Braun and his team were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and became the nucleus of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center at Redstone Arsenal. In 1970, NASA leadership asked von Braun to move to Washington, DC, to head up the strategic planning effort for the agency. He left his home in Huntsville, AL to serve as Deputy Associate Administrator.
On 1 July 1972, he decided to retire from NASA. Von Braun left NASA to become Vice President of Engineering and Development for Fairchild Industries in Germantown, MD. Wernher Von Braun was inducted into the Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame in 1973. He retired in January 1977 due to ill health and died on 16 June 1977.