Wernher von Braun would have been 100 today, and though he died 35 years ago, his legacy remains as controversial as ever.


Wernher von Braun with John F. Kennedy.

Few figures in the history of technology provoke a reaction as quickly as Wernher von Braun. The rocket scientist was a card-carrying Nazi who built the world's first ballistic missile with slave labor from concentration camps. As the war wound down, he surrendered to the Americans and took his rocket-building team and talents to the United States. Eventually, he became a leader in the American space program, building the rocket (the Saturn V) that carried Apollo 11 to the moon. Today would have been his 100th birthday. He died in 1977.

Roger Launius, a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum, wrote a nuanced evaluation of the man's life.

Wernher von Braun was a stunningly successful advocate for space exploration and has appropriately been celebrated for those efforts. But because he was also willing to build a ballistic missile for Hitler's Germany, with all of connotations that implied in the devastation and terror of World War II, many of his ideals have also been appropriately questioned. For some he was a visionary who foresaw the potential of human spaceflight, but for others he was little more than an arms merchant who developed brutal weapons of mass destruction. In reality, he seems to have been something of both.

Wernher von Braun surrendering to American troops. He's in the middle with the cast.