Wernher von Braun: America's Original Rocket Scientist

By now, we've become so used to space exploration that even the startling news on Tuesday that astronomers had discovered a 13.1 billion-year-old galaxy may have come and gone without registering on most people's personal Richter scale. But the concept is still so mind-blowing that it's worth a moment or two of contemplation.


A lot of people, most of whose identities will remain unknown to the wider public, can take a bow for yet another group effort. In this case, the discovery was found in a photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was carried into orbit by a space shuttle in 1990. But if you want to turn back the clock to the dawn of the space age to learn how we got to this point, a few names - and one in particular - stand out. It's just coincidence but today marks the anniversary of a decision by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 to transfer the rocket designer Wernher von Braun and his team from the U.S. Army to the just-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It was a turning point in the history of space exploration. Von Braun's headquarters in Huntsville, Ala. subsequently became the Marshall Space Flight Center, the nerve center for the subsequent development of the massive Saturn launch vehicles that propelled the United States ahead of the U.S.S.R. in the space race. All told, the Saturn rockets would take 27 Americans to the moon and von Braun attained legendary status as the country's foremost rocket designer.

But any assessment of von Braun also must take into account his controversial work during World War II as part of the team which developed the V-2 ballistic missile for the Nazis. What's more, the V-2s were made at a slave labor factory. (For more about von Braun's Nazi past, click here.

After the war, von Braun, who orchestrated the surrender of 500 of his rocket scientists to Allied forces, went to work for the U.S. Army. For the first fifteen years, he concentrated on developing ballistic missiles before putting that know-how to work in the creation of the powerful Saturn rockets that were so crucial to the success of the space program.