Man with a Singular Vision

After receiving the telescope, Wernher gained an interest in science fiction that would influence the entire course of his future. He read the novels of space travel visionaries, such as Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds. The book that had the most profound effect on him was one by German space travel theorist Hermann Julius Oberth, titled Die rake zu den planeten-raumen (The rocket into planetary space, 1923). In 1925, after reading Oberth's theory on piloted space flight, which included a diagram of a rocket, a single grand idea suddenly grasped Wernher's mind. It was an idea that would drive all his future decisions. He would build a rocket, one that would carry humankind into space. Toward this goal, Wernher knew he first needed to accomplish one important thing: an unerring understanding of physics.

In 1928, Baron von Braun enrolled his son in a boarding school, the Hermann Lietz School, in ancient Ettersburg Castle, near Weimar in central Germany. At Ettersburg, the educational curriculum included not only academics but also the development of technical skills such as carpentry and bricklaying. During the day, the school kept Wernher's active mind busy, and in the evenings he was allowed one or two hours with his small telescope.

In 1930, von Braun entered the Berlin Institute of Technology (BIT). There, he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1932. While attending BIT, von Braun became a member of the newly formed amateur rocket building society known as the VfR (Verein für Raumschiffahrt, or Society for Space Travel).

Von Braun's participation in the VfR was as ambitious as any of the founding members, including fellow member Hermann Oberth, von Braun's first true source of inspiration. Oberth and von Braun quickly became friends. In 1930, the VfR relocated to Raketenflugplatz, the abandoned military dump outside Berlin. Between 1930 and 1931, the VfR succeeded in launching 87 test rockets with engines of various design. They also conducted 270 static tests, in which the rocket engine is test-fired and does not leaving the ground.

The idea of putting a person into space was the single great idea in von Braun's mind. Yet there were many questions regarding

The VfR (Verein fur Raumschiffahrt, or Society for Space Travel)

Willy Ley (1906-69), Max Valier (1895-1930), and Johannes Winkler (1897-1947) founded this society on July 5, 1927, in Breslau, Germany. The goal of the VfR was to raise funds to finance the rocket experiments of space travel visionaries such as their countryman Hermann Oberth (1894-1989). The official charter set forth for the society outlined two goals: to popularize the idea of rocket flight to the Moon and outer planets and to conduct serious experiments in rocket propulsion development.

By 1929, the VfR had 870 members. Later, it grew to 1,000. Though funding was usually tight, by 1930 the society had succeeded in launching the first rocket car, in Russelsheim, Germany, driven by Kurt Volkhart, and a rocket glider at Rebstock, near Frankfurt, flown by Fritz von Opel. The club also acquired an old military dump outside Berlin that they called Raketenflugplatz (rocket airfield), which they used for testing their rockets.

By 1932, the rockets of the VfR had a range of about three miles (5 km) and could reach an altitude of about 5,000 feet (1,525 m), though the results were always inconsistent and the rockets were plagued with instability and overheating. In this same year, the German army became interested in liquid-fueled rockets and took notice of the work being done by the VfR, taking a special interest in one particularly enthusiastic member, Wernher von Braun. By 1933, Adolf Hitler came into power and the VfR collapsed for reasons of financial turmoil and restrictions on private experimentation in rocketry imposed by the Nazi regime. The remaining members of the VfR were absorbed into the Fortschrittliche Verkehrstechnik, E.V. (EVFV—Society for Progress in Traffic Techniques).

space travel, such as how would a body react in space? To help answer this question, in 1931 he and a medical student named Constantine Generales built out of a bicycle wheel a crude centrifuge that utilized white mice as test subjects. The device was designed to reproduce the effects of acceleration on a body, such as the force one would experience in a rocket traveling fast enough to breach the gravitational pull of the Earth. The results of the experiments were not favorable for the mice and showed that for humans to achieve piloted space flight, measures would need to be taken to safeguard against the effects of g force.

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