Von Braun’s mother, an enthusiastic astronomer, helped instill his passion for space | al.com

By Mike Marshall, The Huntsville Times 

The Huntsville Times Von Braun, shown on the cover of the Feb. 17, 1958, edition of Time, told of his mother's early influence on him in the cover story.

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Early in 1958, Baron Magnus von Braun celebrated his 80th birthday at his apartment in Oberaudorf, a Bavarian village near the border of Austria.

It was an eventful time in America. A few weeks earlier, on the night of Jan. 29, 1958, the first American satellite, Jupiter-C, had been launched.

Less than four months after the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, Wernher von Braun, the second of Baron Magnus von Braun’s three sons, had made good on his promise to launch Jupiter-C.

Who was this man who had given Huntsville national and international attention? And what made him tick?

To find out, Time sent a reporter to Huntsville and to Oberaudorf. In the cover story of its Feb. 17, 1958, edition, Time sought to discover, among other things, von Braun’s early inspirations.

Von Braun’s father gave Time’s writer little clue.

“Said he, fingering his white walrus mustache in wonderment – now mixed with pride – at his son’s strange fascination with space: ‘I don’t know where his talent comes from,’ ” the magazine said.

Ultimately, the answer came from Wernher von Braun: His mother had provided one of the initial sparks.

Von Braun’s mother was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, according to Time.

“Odd,” von Braun told the magazine, “few mothers are.”

On clear nights in East Prussia, now part of Poland, his mother had pointed out the planets and the constellations to him.

“For my confirmation, I didn’t get a watch and my first pair of long pants, like most Lutheran boys,” von Braun said. “I got a telescope. My mother thought it would make the best gift.”

From curiosity to application

Hermann Oberth, a German physicist who was considered “The Father of Space Travel,” was von Braun’s early mentor.

There is a story from the mid-1920s about a young von Braun and Oberth, then in his early 30s, that speaks to Oberth’s influence on von Braun.

When von Braun was perhaps in his early teens, he was reading an astronomy pamphlet. In the pamphlet was a drawing of a rocket zooming through space, apparently on its way to the moon.

The drawing was part of an article about Oberth. The article and the drawing inspired von Braun to acquire a copy of “A Rocket to Interplanetary Space,” Oberth’s 1923 book.

According to the 1958 article in Time, Oberth’s book contained some surprises for young von Braun. Among them was the numerous mathematical equations in the Oberth’s book.

Von Braun had been something of an opponent of math until then, disliking it until he read Oberth’s book.

“But I decided that if I had to know about math to learn about space travel and rocketry, then I’d have to learn about math,” von Braun said in 1958.

After reading the book, von Braun attended a boarding school on an island in the North Sea. By then, he had excelled at math.

When one of his teachers fell ill, von Braun filled in as the physics and math teacher.

In his late teens, he became a member of a group known as the Society for Space Travel. In 1930, he and some other members in the group conducted research at a rocket air field in Reinickendorf, a suburb of Berlin.

To the Germans, the air field was known as the Rakentenflugplatz. Years later, in the early 1960s, von Braun said the group had one objective: the continuous evolution of space flight.

“Ever since the days of Rakentenflugplatz Reinickendorf in the outskirts of Berlin in 1930, we have been obsessed by the passionate desire to make this dream come true,” von Braun said during a speech at a research conference in French Lick, Ind.

In his youth, von Braun left Berlin to attend the Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he kept experimenting, this time building a device that simulated rocket takeoffs. He and a roommate, an American, spun mice in their invention.

A year later, von Braun returned to Berlin, and he and his group launched 85 rockets. A captain in the German army, Walter Dornberger, saw some of von Braun’s rockets and was impressed by his work and enthusiasm.

In 1932, von Braun, then 20, was appointed the top civilian specialist for the German army’s new rocket station at Kumersdorf, in a pine forest south of Berlin.

His goal then was similar to the goal he had when he spoke to the research conference in French Lick in the early 1960s, when NASA was preparing to embark on the Apollo-Saturn era.

“(With) a singleness of purpose,” he said, “we have had only one long-range objective: the continuous evolution of space flight.”

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