Wednesday, February 3, 2010



Yep, shuttle launch in four days! But today, my title refers to a different kind of liftoff... that of our space program itself. It's not an overstatement to say that Huntsville, Alabama – known as "Rocket City" – is the true home of the American space program – the site where our first launch vehicles were designed and tested, before NASA or any of its space centers were founded.

After World War II, Dr. Wernher Von Braun and his "rocket team" surrendered to Allied forces and moved from Germany to work for the United States Army, eventually assigned to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. There the teams expanded to include hundreds of American scientists and engineers, who played a key role in the success of early milestones.

Historic Redstone Test Stand
Me at the 75-foot-tall Redstone Test Stand
Added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1976.

On January 31, 1958, the team used a modified Redstone rocket called a Jupiter-C to launch Explorer I, America's first orbiting satellite. Two years later, Von Braun became director of NASA’s George C. Marshall Space Flight Center -- named in honor of the Army Chief of Staff during WWII, Secretary of State, and Nobel Prize Winner for the reconstructive Marshall Plan.

The "Rocket Teams" were already developing the famous Mercury-Redstone Rockets, basically the same modified military missiles, but their warheads were replaced with crew capsules and escape towers. The first ones were built at Redstone Arsenal, but based upon their designs, the Chrysler Corporation (seriously) was awarded the contract to build production models, the third of which propelled Alan Shepard into space on May 6, 1961.

Redstone Rocket Test Site
O sure, hey...let’s test-fire a rocket
and sit like four feet away.

When my pal Craig drove me by this test stand at Redstone Arsenal, I was shocked to see how close the blockhouse (used for observations and for receiving telemetric data during tests) were to the actual firing site! They were basically only steel tanks covered by dirt mounds, with metal doors and observation windows...

You could jog from the rocket base to where the scientists were sitting in about 6 seconds! Hope you guys kept your goggles on.

The Redstone Test Stand is the oldest static firing facility at Marshall, and the very first in the US to accommodate an entire launch vehicle for static tests (previous test stands had accommodated only engines). The stand was also used to develop "human-rated" launch procedures, propellant fuel procedures, launch ignition procedures and acceptable criteria for launch pneumatics and thrust measurement.

Original cost to build in 1953? $25,000. Isn’t that about what a Prius costs now?

Seriously, every space or rocketry enthusiast should feel the magic and majesty of this small, abandoned site in northern Alabama. Despite how small and ancient it looks to modern eyes, it is the reverent stepping-stone of all stepping-stones to what our space program would eventually become.