German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), born in 1912 in Wirsitz, Germany, took an early interest in rockets and the possibility of space exploration. As a young man, he joined the German Rocket Society (Verein fur Raumschiffahrt). In 1932, von Braun joined the German army to work on the development of ballistic missiles. By 1937, he was the head of the Peenemeunde Rocket Center and leader of the Nazi rocket program that eventually developed the V-1 “buzz bomb” and the deadly V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile.
In the closing days of the war, von Braun and a group of his rocket scientists surrendered to American forces. Although he had been a member of the German SS and had used slave labor at Mittelwerk, the Nazi underground rocket facility, von Braun and his colleagues were embraced by the United States government and began working for the Army on rocket technology. In 1960, von Braun became the first director of NASA’s new Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. During his 10-year stint at Marshall, von Braun spearheaded the development of the Saturn rockets, including the Saturn V rocket that launched the crew of Apollo 11 toward their historic landing on the moon.
Von Braun died on June 16, 1977.