Rocket Scientist, Space Pioneer
In many ways, Wernher von Braun was America's space program, and in many ways that space program was Alabama. Both the program and the state benefitted from the devotion of this German immigrant whose later life personified the Great American Success Story. Von Braun added another chapter to the tale- leaving a tremendous imprint not only upon his adopted state and his adopted country, but on the universe beyond.
Born on March 23, 1912, at Wirsitz, Germany, von Braun's childhood interest in science led him to a Ph.D. in physics and a career as a rocket scientist. A major figure in the development of the German V2 rocket during World War II, he and his team of researchers surrendered to American troops at the end of the war, avoiding capture by the Russians. Their decision greatly enhanced the future of America's space program and ensured its victory in the "Space Race" against the Soviet Union.
Arriving in Alabama with his colleagues in 1950, he began work on ballistic missile projects for the United States Army. In 1952, his team came under the authority of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which named him head of its new George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. There, his career in the promotion and development of space technology undergirds most of America's accomplishments in the field. The Jupiter and Saturn rockets, developed under his direction, launched the United States space age and landed the first men on the moon. Alabama's role in the space vehicles that carried the first Americans into space that said: 'Made in Alabama by Alabamians.'
Because of von Braun's great interest in his community and in technological education, a significant part of his contributions occurred outside his federal job. With his strong support and involvement, research programs developed at the state's major institutions of learning, including the opening of a University of Alabama extension center in Huntsville that became the University of Alabama at Huntsville. He also promoted his vision of a public educational facility and museum- the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, where his papers are housed today. From von Braun's work, Huntsville reaped a windfall- metamorphosing into a major city in a predominantly rural state. As an active promoter of Alabama to outside business interests, this adopted son became one of the leading salesmen of the "New South". The state's economy boomed, as outside capital and human resources found an irresistible magnet in Alabama.
The Medal of Honor, which President Gerald R. Ford presented to Wernher von Braun shortly before his death on June 16, 1977, was a fitting capstone for a life of achievement and contributions that had already won him the awards of governments internationally and locally and societies both patriotic and scientific.
Wernher von Braun was inducted into the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame in 1998.