Wernher von Braun was born in Wyrzysk, one of the sons of a minor aristocratic family. He became interested in astronomy at a young age when his mother presented him with a telescope. At the end of World War I his family, like many Germans finding themselves suddenly within the redrawn borders of Poland, moved to Germany, where they settled in Berlin. Though he was an accomplished musician and had originally intended to pursue a career in composing, von Braun found himself increasingly drawn to rocket science. In 1929 he began to pursue his interests in earnest. In 1930 he entered the Technical University of Berlin, where he became involved in the "Spaceflight Society". He also attended classes at ETH Zurich.
He was working on his doctorate in 1933 when the Nazi Party rose to power. Due to Adolf Hitler's policy of rearmament, rocket science became suddenly important for the government. As such, von Braun was awarded a government grant to continue his work on rockets that could have military applications. In 1934 he was awarded a doctorate in physics, and a portion of his doctoral thesis was classified by the army, and remained so until 1960. In 1936 and 1937 he worked on rocket aircraft and had some positive results. Before 1939, he was in frequent communication with Robert H. Goddard, an American rocket scientist whose contributions to von Braun's team helped them develop the rockets that would later be used against England. Von Braun became the technical director of a military installation near the town of Peenemunde, where he helped to develop numerous weapons and defense strategies for the Nazi regime. In 1937 he became a member of the Nazi Party. He also became a member of the Waffen-SS, probably in 1940. He was promoted three times, starting as a second lieutenant and ending as a Wehrmacht Major. Near the end of 1942, Hitler approved the production of von Braun's rockets. In 1943, when von Braun presented him with footage of one of the rockets taking off, Hitler awarded him a professorship. The first V-2 rocket was launched at England on September 7, 1944, a little over a year after Allied bombing of the Peenemunde facility had damaged the building and killed a few members of the technical staff. Von Braun, who was far more interested in space travel than the war, later said that it was the worst day of his life when they launched the rocket and it remained on Earth.
In 1943 he and two other colleagues were said to have expressed "defeatist views", that is to say they stated that they wished to work on a spaceship and didn't think the war was going particularly well. As well, Heinrich Himmler, who was scheming to gain more power through the deposition of von Braun, charged him as a communist sympathizer who had attempted to sabotage his own rocket project. On these charges, von Braun was arrested on either the 14th or 15th of March, 1944, and imprisoned in Stettin for two weeks. Albert Speer and one of von Braun's colleaues finally managed to get him released so that the rocket project could continue.
In 1945, as the Soviet Army drew closer, he and his staff decided to attempt to surrender to the Americans. He was given conflicting orders, one to move into central Germany, the other to join the army and fight. Von Braun decided moving into Germany was the safest bet, and fabricated documents that allowed many of his staff to get to the city of Mittelwerk. In March he suffered a compound fracture to his arm that he neglected, having it cast too soon, which required him to return to hospital and have it rebroken and realigned. He still wore a cast in April when his team was moved to the Bavarian Alps and held by SS guards, who were ordered to kill the team if they were likely to fall into enemy hands. Von Braun managed to convince the SS commander to allow his team to be dispersed into the town, and his brother found a US Army private and surrendered on behalf of the team. One of the top names on the list of important German scientists, von Braun was immediately evacuated to the American Zone.
Von Braun was recruited to America by Operation Overcast, later known as Operation Paperclip. His transfer was approved by the US Secretary of State in June 1945, but this wasn't admitted to the public until October. His Nazi affiliations were "removed" and he was given security clearance to work in the United States. He worked at Fort Bliss, Texas, and during his time there he married his wife, Maria Luise von Quistorp with whom he had three children. He became a naturalized citizen of America in 1955. He was the director of the Development Operations Division of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, where he presided over the development of the Jupiter C, a modified Redstone rocket that launched the Explorer 1, the West's first satellite in January of 1958. He was frustrated by his work during this period of time, because the Americans were not particularly interested in his work.
Von Braun was very interested in the idea of putting a person into space, and from the early 1950s he was considering how this could be made possible. He worked primarily on the possibility of a manned mission to Mars as early as 1952. Around this time he also wrote a science fiction novel, Project MARS: A Technical Tale, that was not published in full until late 2006. He worked with Walt Disney as a technical advisor to produce several space-themed television films in order to stir up public interest in the project. The first of these was broadcast in March of 1955. In 1959 he published a booklet detailing a significantly scaled-back projection of the manned lunar landing. Because a great deal of his work, especially on the space station, occurred when the Cold War was at its coldest, it was assessed for its capacity as a weapon. This was focused especially on the chances to use his designs as orbital weapons to give the US space superiority. Though von Braun himself came down on the side of opposition to the general public, he did describe how this might be possible in his books and articles.
NASA was established on June 29, 1958, and von Braun and his team were transferred there in 1960, and he was director from 1960 to 1970. The Apollo program for manned flights began to be developed around this time. While von Braun originally pushed for Earth orbit rendezvous technique, by 1962 he favoured the lunar orbit rendezvous technique. The more risky of the two, it was the one that eventually came to fruition. His dream of putting man on the moon was finally realized on July 20th, 1969, when the crew of the Apollo 11 set foot on the moon. In March of 1970 he moved his family to Washington D.C. to take up the post of NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for Planning. However, interest in the space program declined, and with it went a great deal of funding. Von Braun resigned from NASA on May 26th, 1972.
After NASA, von Braun remained in the aeronautics industry, becoming Vice President for Engineering and Development at Fairchild Industries in Maryland in the summer of 1972. In 1973 he was diagnosed with inoperable kidney cancer. Despite this, he continued speaking at universities and helped to establish the National Space Institute, later known as the National Space Society, in 1975, acting as its first president and chairman. He also joined the board of directors of Daimler-Benz. He received the 1975 National Medal of Science in 1977, but was too unwell to accept his medal in person.
Wernher von Braun died of pancreatic cancer on June 16th, 1977 in Alexandria, Virginia. He was 65.