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Wernher von Braun Collection

Identifier: MC-44
Letters, articles, DVD recordings, memorabilia, and miscellaneous artifacts pertaining to the life and career of Wernher von Braun.


  • 2009-04-09


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research in the Archives & Special Collections reading room. Handling guidelines and use restrictions will be communicated and enforced by archives staff members.

Conditions Governing Use

This material may be protected under U. S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S. Code) which governs the making of photocopies or reproductions of copyrighted materials. You may use the digitized material for private study, scholarship, or research. Though the University of Alabama in Huntsville Archives and Special Collections has physical ownership of the material in its collections, in some cases we may not own the copyright to the material. It is the patron's obligation to determine and satisfy copyright restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in our collections.


3.25 Linear Feet (4 boxes + 1 oversize.)

Biographical / Historical


Rocketry royalty, Wernher von Braun was born into “East Prussian nobility” on March 23, 1912 (Wilford).

When von Braun was confirmed in the Lutheran church, the boy’s mother gave him a telescope as a gift, feeding his fascination with the realms beyond (“Wernher von Braun”). In 1925, von Braun read rocketry pioneer Herman Oberth’s The Rocket to the Interplanetary Spaces, which was mostly complex mathematical equations von Braun couldn’t understand (Smith, “Wernher von Braun”). Determined to wrap his mind around this complex math, von Braun studied with such dedication that not only did he turn his poor grades in math around, but he eventually became the top in his class (“Wernher von Braun”).

In 1930, while a student at the Berlin Institute of Technology, von Braun became a member of the German Society for Space Travel (Verein für Raumschiffahrt in German), in which he “he assisted [Herman] Oberth [and Willy Ley] in liquid-fueled rocket motor tests” in what spare time he had (“Wernher von Braun”). Von Braun earned his engineering doctorate degree in 1932 (Lundquist).

Recognizing the “military potential of liquid-fueled rockets and the ability of [von] Braun,” then-Captain Walter R. Dornberger had the German Army Ordnance Department give the young von Braun a research grant in 1932 (“von Braun, Wernher,” “Wernher von Braun”). Von Braun joined the rocket program, and he began his research “at a small development station...adjacent to Dornberger’s existing solid-fuel rocket test facility at the Kummersdorf Army Proving Grounds near Berlin,” where he worked on the engine for the A-1 rocket, one of the first “steps in the development” leading to the infamous V-2 (“Wernher von Braun,” “von Braun, Wernher”).

Von Braun continued his education, and he earned a Ph.D. from Friedrich Wilhelm University in 1934 (Lundquist). His public doctoral thesis was blandly titled “About Combustion Tests;” von Braun’s actual dissertation, “Construction, Theoretical, and Experimental Solution to the Problem of the Liquid Propellant Rocket,” contained research too valuable to be exposed to the public, and it was kept as a secret military document (“von Braun, Wernher”).

When Adolf Hitler’s power over Germany was firmly established, non-military rocket tests were “forbidden by decree” (“Wernher von Braun”). However, von Braun was safely nestled in the military, so the scientist could continue his research unimpeded; “[b]y December 1934..., [von] Braun’s group…had successfully launched two [A-2] rockets” called “Max” and “Moritz,” the former reaching a vertical height of “2.20 km (1.37 mi),” and the latter a vertical height of “3.50 km (2.10 mi)” (“Wernher von Braun,” “von Braun, Wernher”).

In February 1936, the A-3 rocket was tested. “The rocket was intended as a subscale prototype for the propulsion and control system technology planned for the much larger A-4,” but all its launches failed, so it was scrapped in favor of the A-5, “a subscale test model” for the A-4 (“A3”, “A5”).

In 1937, von Braun officially joined the Nazi Party, and would go on to receive multiple promotions in the SS over several years (“von Braun, Wernher”). According to Dunar, “Heinrich Himmler personally awarded an honorary SS rank to von Braun in May 1940, which von Braun accepted only after he and his colleagues agreed that to turn it down might risk Himmler’s wrath.”

Missile testing and development were moved to a military development facility newly constructed in the village of Peenemünde in 1937 (“von Braun, Wernher,” “Wernher von Braun”). The same Walter Dornberger responsible for von Braun’s 1932 research grant served as the facility’s military commander, while von Braun was its technical director of rocket development (“Wernher von Braun,” Lundquist). At this new facility, “liquid-fueled rocket aircraft and jet-assisted takeoffs were successfully demonstrated, and the long-range ballistic missile A-4” (otherwise known as the V-2) “and the supersonic antiaircraft missile Wasserfall were developed” (“Wernher von Braun,” “V-2”).

In 1943, Peenemünde was bombed by the British Royal Air Force, forcing V-2 development to be moved underground (“Peenemünde”). Compounding the situation was a labor shortage, so victims of the Dora concentration camp were forced to work in Germany’s underground Mittelwerk V-2 factory in appalling conditions. Germany’s own former Minister for Armaments and War Production Albert Speer would later write about the conditions laborers endured while preparing the tunnels, saying “the sanitary conditions were inadequate, disease rampant, the prisoners were quartered right there in the damp caves, and as a result the mortality among them was extraordinarily high” (Schafft). Von Braun’s association with the Nazi Party and the V-2 would come back to haunt him years later.

Though a member of the Nazi Party and the SS himself, von Braun was arrested for “careless remarks he made about the war and the rocket” in 1944 (Harbaugh). However, General Dornberger interceded on von Braun’s behalf, convincing Hitler that von Braun’s genius was too valuable to the German war effort to be destroyed, so von Braun was released and allowed to continue his work (Wilford).

As it became more and more apparent that Germany would lose the war, von Braun and over one hundred of his top scientists decided to surrender to American forces in 1945. The Americans subsequently took the men prisoner and secretly brought them over to America through Operation Paperclip, which was intended to snap up Germany’s brilliant minds for America’s own use. On September 1, 1945, von Braun “and a small contingent” were flown to Fort Bliss, Texas, the rest of the scientists later reaching America by boat (“von Braun, Wernher”).

The Paperclip scientists, as they were called, then tested captured V-2 rockets for the Americans in White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico (Smith). “In 1950, von Braun’s team moved to the Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, where they designed the Army’s Redstone and Jupiter ballistic missiles, as well as the Jupiter C, Juno II, and Saturn I launch vehicles” (Harbaugh). During all of these experiments, von Braun found the time to become an American citizen on April 14, 1955 (“Wernher von Braun,” “von Braun, Wernher”).

Through the use of a Juno I, “a [modified] Jupiter-C rocket” the von Braun group developed, Explorer I was launched in early 1958 (“The Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno,” Smith). Explorer I was the first United States satellite to be launched, and it also discovered the Van Allen radiation belts (Wilford).

NASA was born in 1958; President Eisenhower had von Braun and his team transferred from Redstone to NASA in 1960 (“The Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno,” Harbaugh, “Wernher von Braun”). Von Braun became the Director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, holding the position until 1970 (“Wernher von Braun”).

“Atrocities perpetrated at V-2 production facilities at Nordhausen and the nearby concentration camp at Dora-where some 20,000 died as a result of execution, starvation, and disease-stimulated controversy that plagued the rocket pioneers who left Germany after the war,” and von Braun was no exception (Dunar). In the mid-1960s, survivors of the hellish Dora concentration camp leveled severe accusations at von Braun (Dunar). Von Braun admitted he had set foot at Mittelwerk when summoned there on several occasions, but he claimed his visits were very short and he never saw the murder of prisoners. He admitted that he learned of the abuse and terrible conditions in 1944; he condemned the environment as “repulsive” (Dunar).

Under von Braun’s leadership, the Saturn Program continued, culminating in Saturn V, the largest and most powerful rocket ever made. Von Braun led the team responsible for the rocket, serving as Saturn V’s chief architect (Harbaugh).

After several successful Saturn V test launches, the crewed Apollo 8 was launched into space; the spacecraft orbited the moon, then returned to Earth. The crews of Apollos 9 and 10 tested the Apollo moon lander (May). On July 16, 1969, the legendary Apollo 11 was launched, and it landed on the moon four days later, thus accomplishing an ambition both American and personal for von Braun (“Saturn V,” May). Four years later, a Saturn V rocket brought Skylab into orbit (May).

On March 13, 1970, Von Braun was transferred from the Marshall Space Flight Center to NASA headquarters “as deputy associate administrator for planning,” a position “in which he was to help plan and promote a post-Apollo course for the American space program” (Wilford). He held this position for two years, and then he stepped down from NASA for good. Von Braun joined aerospace company Fairchild Industries, becoming its vice president for engineering and development. In 1975, he founded the National Space Institute, an organization meant to win public support and understanding for space activities (Wilford, “Wernher von Braun”).

Throughout his career, von Braun wrote on and promoted rocketry and space travel dedicatedly, authoring books and articles on the subjects, and appearing on television. He even partnered with Walt Disney to promote ventures in space; “Man in Space” and “Man and the Moon” were both televised in 1955, and “Mars and Beyond” was televised two years later (“von Braun, Wernher”).

Von Braun died on June 16, 1977 (Lundquist).


Dunar, Andrew J. and Stephen P. Waring. “Power to Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center 1960-1990.”, NASA, 1999.

Harbaugh, Jennifer. “Biography of Wernher Von Braun.” NASA, 2017.

Lundquist, Charles. Transplanted Rocket Pioneers, 2015.

May, Sandra. “What Was the Saturn V?” NASA, 2017.

“Peenemünde.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Schafft, Gretchen, and Gerhard Zeidler. “The Camp Mittelbau-Dora.” Commemorating Hell: The Public Memory of Mittelbau-Dora, University of Illinois Press, 2011, pp. 19–38. JSTOR,

Smith, J. Y. “Dr. Wernher von Braun, 65, Dies.” The Washington Post, 18 June 1977. The Washington Post Archives,

Von Braun, Wernher. “The Redstone, Jupiter, and Juno.” Technology and Culture, vol. 4, no. 4, 1963, pp. 452–465. JSTOR,

Wade, Mark. “A3.” Encyclopedia Astronautica,

Wade, Mark. “A5.” Encyclopedia Astronautica,

Wade, Mark. “Saturn V.” Encyclopedia Astronautica,

Wade, Mark. “V-2.” Encyclopedia Astronautica,

Wade, Mark. “von Braun, Wernher.” Encyclopedia Astronautica,

“Wernher von Braun.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Wilford, John Noble. “Wernher von Braun, Rocket Pioneer, Dies.” The New York Times, 18 June 1977. The New York Times Archives,

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Ray Garner, 2009.

Processing Information

Collections are processed to a variety of levels, depending on the work necessary to make them usable, their perceived research value, the availability of staff, and competing priorities. The library attempts to provide a basic level of preservation and access for all collections as they are acquired and does more extensive processing of higher priority collections as time and resources permit.



Megan Sullivan
Description rules

Repository Details

Part of the The University of Alabama in Huntsville Archives & Special Collections Repository

M. Louis Salmon Library
301 Sparkman Drive
Huntsville, AL 35899 Alabama 35899 United States of America