Wehrner von Braun, the German-American rocket scientist who became the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century, died from pancreatic cancer on this date in 1977, at the surprisingly young age of 65. A lifelong advocate of manned space exploration, von Braun is best remembered in the United States for his critical role in the development of the Saturn V rockets that propelled the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969. Somewhat less well known is that as a young man in Hitler's Germany he joined the Nazi party in 1937. Von Braun never denied this, but explained that at the time he was the technical director of an Army Rocket Center at Peenemunde (despite being just 25 years old), and felt he would lose his position and have to abandon his childhood dream of building rockets if he failed to join. At the time, that rocket center was relatively inconsequential. But by the end of World War II Hitler looked to Peenemunde to develop miracle weapons, like the V-1 and V-2 rockets that terrorized Britain, in a futile attempt to turn the tide of the war.
At the end of the War von Braun and many of his team were spirited away to the United States to build America's fledging rocket program, which at the time was years behind that of the Germans. These German scientists ultimately formed the core of the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, their Nazi pasts conveniently whitewashed. After the Moon landing in 1969, von Braun, now a national hero, was moved to Washington, D.C. to become NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator For Planning. But he quit after just two years, frustrated by budget cuts. He died five years later.
In 1955, long before the Apollo program was envisioned, von Braun collaborated with Walt Disney to produce a series of films on space exploration. Below is a fascinating 6 minute clip from one of these films in which von Braun, then just 43 years old and in the United States for less than a decade, presents at length his conceptual plans for a manned spaceship. As you watch it, you'll be startled by how closely it presages not the Apollo lunar lander, but the Space Shuttle.