Wernher von Braun quite possibly may be one of the most influential men you’ve ~maybe~ never heard of. Without him, we wouldn’t have GPS. We wouldn’t be exploring other planets. And we would not be a world leader in space military defense. So, who is this guy?

Wernher von Braun was one of the most influential rocket scientists to ever live
Wernher von Braun – rocket pioneer (from Space.com)

Von Braun was a German-born rocket scientist who led the team of German scientists creating the V-2 rocket during World War II. The V-2 rocket was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, or simply put – it was the first missile that could travel a distance from Baltimore to New York City (200 miles), killing hundreds of people at its target destination. The Germans used this rocket during WWII to attack Allied cities (London and Paris were two of those targeted cities).

The German V-2 rocket launching
The German V-2 rocket (from v2rockethistory.com)

Though the V-2 was a Nazi effort, Wernher von Braun was not loyal to the Nazis. In fact, he only joined the party because he knew it was the only way he could study and practice his rocket science. Near the end of the war, the Soviet Union was slowly approaching on where von Braun and his team were located, so they needed to make a decision about who their rocket technology would go to after the war. So on May 2, 1945, von Braun and members of his team surrendered to the US.

Von Braun and his team were secretly transferred to the US, under the operation code-named Project Paperclip. When they were stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, they helped refurbish and launch numerous V-2 rockets that had been shipped over from Germany to the US. It was this acquisition of incredible talent, both in von Braun and his team, and the rocket they invented, that makes von Braun such an influential person in US history. He is regarded as the founder of US rocketry, which is why without him we would not have the space presence that we do now.

German scientists who were brought over under Project Paperclip
German scientists brought to the US under Project Paperclip (from Wikipedia)

In 1950, von Braun and his team were transferred to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama (this is now known as NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center). While at Redstone, von Braun developed a variety of different US rockets including the Redstone ballistic missiles, and the Saturn launch vehicles. The Redstone missile was an older sibling to the later-developed Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle that launched Alan Shepard into space. The Saturn launch vehicles, specifically the Saturn V, were the rockets that sent Americans to the Moon in 1969. Without von Braun’s expertise in the field at that time, the US might not have won the Space Race, and we wouldn’t be where we are today in terms of our presence in and exploration of space.

The Mercury-Redstone rocket that sent Alan Shepard into space
Mercury-Redstone rocket (from NASA)
Saturn V rocket that sent humans to the Moon
Saturn V rocket (from NASA)

Dr. Wernher von Braun was also a huge advocate for a space station, missions to Mars, and human exploration of outer space, all of which we are working to accomplish today. Thanks to von Braun and his team’s efforts in developing the first long-range ballistic missiles, and the first rockets powerful enough to send humans to the Moon, we are able to accomplish these feats in the next decade or so.

You can visit NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and take a bus tour to see where the Mercury-Redstone rockets were tested. While in Huntsville, you can also visit the US Space and Rocket Center museum where you can see the Space Shuttle Pathfinder and a variety of rockets!