Rocket man

There was an inkling of things to come when von Braun was just 11 or 12 years old. Curious about the effects of propulsion, he strapped a cluster of gunpowder rockets to a wagon and ignited them, sending it on a perilous path along a crowded street toward Tiergarten Strasse. "I was ecstatic,'' he later recalled. "The wagon was wholly out of control and trailing a comet's tail of fire, but my rockets were performing beyond my wildest dreams'' [2]. A police officer soon put an end to his excitement, grabbing hold of the boy's arm and threatening to arrest him. He was later released in the charge of his father.

While this escapade was an interesting experiment, and his telescope had certainly given him a boyhood fascination with the stars and space travel, von Braun first became truly immersed in rocket technology when he was 17 years old, while reading Hermann Oberth's authoritative 1923 book, By Rocket Into Interplanetary Space. He later became an enthusiastic member of the German Rocket Society, or Verein fur Raumschijfahrt (VfR), which had formed in July 1927.

Made up mostly of keen, young scientists, and with Oberth as its first president, VfR eventually set up a base in the Berlin borough of Reinickendorf. Soon afterwards they began carrying out a series of experimental rocket propulsion tests at their new base, which was basically an abandoned ammunition dump they had gleefully endowed with the nickname Raketenflugplatz, or Rocket Airfield.

One of the founding members of the Rocket Society was the prolific science writer and space advocate Willy Ley, later recognised for his gifted ability to accurately frame complex technical material in a form easily understood by the lay reader. He once wrote that the Rocket Society had to make considerable efforts to try and raise funds "to convert Professor Oberth's theoretical work into practical reality. It succeeded to some extent and built and fired quite a number of successful liquid-propellant rockets; but it must be borne in mind that in those days, from 1930 to 1932, a rocket was considered 'successful' if it worked at all.''

The man behind the vision 3

The man behind the vision 3

A group of German rocket pioneers in 1930. At centre, Hermann Oberth stands beside one of his rockets. Wernher von Braun (in short pants) is second from the right. (Photo: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)

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