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Anita Lai
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Engineers week concludes with a bang

A Toy Wagon to the Moon: Wernher von Braun and Rocket Engineering

By Martha Cornog

As a 12-year-old, little Wernher was hauled in by the police for setting off explosions on the street. The child had attached fireworks to his toy wagon, trying to make a rocket-propelled car like those developed by Max Valier and Fritz von Open. At school, he did not do well at math or physics until he realized the connection with space travel, which fascinated him. Rocketry meant weaponry, too, however, and the Nazis quickly folded the budding innovator into their military development program while he was still in graduate school. His rocketry progress so impressed Hitler that the Führer promoted him personally. However, von Braun’s dream was to land rockets on the moon, not on London. Suspicions about his real priorities plus concerns that he might escape led to his arrest by the Gestapo, although he was soon released as indispensible to the war effort.

When von Braun understood that Allied forces were going to take Germany, he convinced his supervisors to let his team shelter in civilian villages so they would not be as likely to be victims of U.S. bombings. In May 1945, von Braun and his teammate-brother identified themselves and voluntarily surrendered to U.S. troops entering the town. After considerable planning and paperwork, van Braun ended up in the United States.

Now working on U.S. military rocketry but able to go public about his interests in space exploration, von Braun proposed moon landings, space stations, and Mars missions. But these extra-Earth interests were not heavily supported until the Soviets put the Sputnik 1 satellite into space in 1957, beating the U.S. in a public relations as well as scientific coup. NASA was founded shortly after, with von Braun as its first director. His dream to help humans set foot on the moon became a reality in 1969 when a Saturn V rocket developed under his oversight launched the crew of Apollo 11 on its historic mission.

Sometimes considered the most outstanding rocket engineer of the 20th century, von Braun became a naturalized U.S. citizen and put in many more productive years of service in connection with the American space program. He also wrote books and collaborated with Walt Disney on educational films, and he was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1977. Yet his adopted country never fully supported many of the projects he proposed, and for years he remained under suspicion for his Nazi background—as in Tom Lehrer’s satirical song attributing multiple allegiances to the scientist. Certainly, his allegiance and attraction to rockets can never be in doubt.

In 1963, Drexel honored Wernher von Braun with its Science and Engineering Award as part of the fourteenth annual Drexel Engineer’s Day.

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