Remembering the Nazi Scientist Who Built the Rockets for Apollo

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

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

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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