ASTRONAUTICS IN HUNTSVILLE


(information courtesy of NASA History)

 

The elaboration of the nation's space program in the 1960s and early 1970s had an obvious impact in the south and southeast, anchored by major NASA centers. NASA's geographic influence in the region stretched along a great arc, from the Manned Spacecraft Center in Texas, to Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In between were MSFC's "satellites" near New Orleans: the Michoud Assembly Facility, the Slidell computer complex, and the Mississippi Test Facility. This concentration of space-related expertise and activities has been described as "a fertile crescent" of astronautical skills. Development of these centers of major NASA activities created extensive local and regional changes, and the story of the impact of NASA in Huntsville is paralleled in many respects by the events that occurred south of Houston and near the Kennedy Space Center.11

Before the von Braun team came to Huntsville, Alabama, the town was known as "Water Cress Capital of the World." Its population was 16 000. Even so, this period of Huntsville's "salad days" continued strong ties with the cotton textile industry, and Huntsville once boasted 13 cotton mills in the area. Throughout the 1940s, the other major source of employment in the area had been the Redstone Arsenal. Established in 1941, the 1620-square-kilometer arsenal was used by the U.S. Army in the production and testing of chemical warfare weapons. After the war, it was shut down, declared surplus property, and put up for sale in 1949. Huntsville city fathers and local politicians, including Senator John Sparkman and Representative Bob Jones, were soon sounding out their contacts in the Department of Defense to see what could be done to keep the Arsenal alive. Jones and Sparkman were hot on the trail of a new location for wind tunnel test facilities for the Air Force, but lost out to the state of Tennessee. The wind tunnel was located at the recently closed Camp Forest at Tullahoma, and was eventually named the Arnold Engineering Development Center. Nevertheless, Sparkman and Jones had made an impression. Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington told Sparkman that Alabama would get something better in the long run. A few weeks later, the Alabama congressmen found out exactly what they [391] were acquiring-the Army's Rocket Research and Development Suboffice, to be relocated from Fort Bliss, Texas.12

Huntsville had been one of the several sites under consideration. The site selection committee included von Braun, and he was enthusiastic about Huntsville from the beginning. "For me, it was love at first sight," he said. Among other things, the advantages of Huntsville included the existing Arsenal facilities, abundant low-cost electric power from the TVA, the Tennessee River (both for water supply and transportation), and the open space. "In selecting this site, of course," von Braun recalled, "in our field we had to consider that these rockets would be making a lot of noise."13 After the arrival of the Army's missile agency in April 1950, Huntsville started its meteoric growth, from 16 000 in 1950 to 48 000 enumerated in a special census held in 1956. The 1960 census put the population of the city at 72 000; another special census in 1964 gave the population as 123 000; in 1970 it was 136 102. Construction boomed during the first half of the 1960s: the city of Huntsville was 195th in population in the United States, but ranked 25th in building construction.

In 1950, the city limits extended about one and a half kilometers from each side of the courthouse, encompassing 11.1 square kilometers, with roughly 125 kilometers of sewer lines but no sewage treatment plant at all. Huntsville's effluent was piped to a creek outside the city limits, where it was carried directly into the Tennessee River. Tax considerations and other agreements made earlier with the textile mills provided a stumbling block to city plans for enlarging the city limits, along with improving sewage facilities-which the Army was now insisting on. After numerous sessions lasting into the early hours of the morning, representatives from the city, the Army, and the mills came to an agreement, and in 1956 the city of Huntsville suddenly enlarged itself to over 181 square kilometers. Eventually, over 1300 kilometers of sanitary lines and a first-rate sanitation system served the area.14

The influx of Army personnel, NASA civil servants, and contractors, with their families, raised enrollments in the city schools from 3000 in 1950 to over 33 000 by 1974. The numbers barely suggest the problems involved in establishing classrooms, finding teachers, and creating appropriate curricula. Fortunately, among the families of the scientists, engineers, and technicians pouring into the city were spouses with teaching backgrounds to help staff the expanding school system. The schools developed a definite scientific-technological bent, probably encouraged by the frequent appearance of many of Marshall's top personnel as guests and speakers in school classrooms and assemblies. Huntsville's new population also gave the public schools a strong orientation to higher education, with 80-95 percent of Huntsville's high school students going on to college, in comparison to a state average of only 20 [392] percent. Rapid population growth also brought new challenges to Huntsville's medical facilities. The Huntsville Hospital had been built in the 1920s. By the early 1950s, patients were being placed in the hallways of the hospital, and an emergency expansion finally brought the hospital's capacity to 150 beds. Severe pressures for medical services persisted, and by 1970, Huntsville had four hospitals in operation with a total of almost 1000 beds.15

There was a parallel impact on higher education in the city. Since 1949, the Chamber of Commerce had been advocating a branch of the University of Alabama in Huntsville. A center was authorized, and 139 part-time students began classes in January 1950. The arrival of von Braun and the elaboration of Army research immediately stimulated a graduate program. In 1960, construction of a permanent campus began at the northern edge of the city, and von Braun appeared before the Alabama legislature in support of an appeal for a $3-million bond issue to establish a research institute geared to graduate research at the new campus. The bond request was passed easily by the legislature and approved quickly by the voters, a success marking a sustained period of growth by the University of Alabama in Huntsville, with a student body of over 4000 and a replacement value of about $30 million by 1974.16

The citizens of Huntsville always maintained a strong interest in cultural activities, with literary and music societies dating back several generations. The arrival of the culturally minded German rocketeers enhanced this tradition and left an imprint on the history of the arts in Huntsville. According to local legend, the Germans arriving in Huntsville equipped themselves with library cards even before the water in their homes had been turned on. The newcomers from Fort Bliss not only appeared in public school classrooms, giving informal lectures and talks, but were regular attendees at local PTA meetings. Acculturation was remarkably rapid. Three years after arriving in Huntsville, the DAR medal for the best American history student in the city went to a young German girl.

Wanting to avoid a German enclave in the middle of the dry, von Braun encouraged his associates to settle all over Huntsville. The rocket engineers and the Huntsville natives soon established strong bonds of common interests and activities. A local chamber music group learned of the musical inclinations of many of the newcomers. The day he arrived, Werner Kuers, an accomplished violinist, was startled to receive a call to join one of the local music groups in need of a new violin. "I was very astonished," Kuers recalled. "Mr. Dreger soon started to arrange playing sessions for us in homes and churches. We were introduced into quite a number of very friendly families interested in cultural activities and education. I experienced a welcome in this city that I had never experienced before anywhere."

[393] Thus, veterans of Peenemuende and of Fort Bliss were quickly absorbed into the life of Huntsville and into American culture. In April 1955, only five years after they had arrived in Alabama, the first group of 109 Germans became American citizens. Their naturalization took place at a public ceremony in the Huntsville High School auditorium, part of the officially proclaimed events of a "New Citizens' Day" declared by the city. Many of the newly naturalized American citizens had already taken an active role in civic affairs. A sergeant in the Luftwaffe when he was assigned to Peenemuende, Walter Wiesman joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Huntsville soon after the von Braun team's arrival in 1950. Two years later-before Wiesman became a naturalized citizen-the JCs elected him their president.17

In Marshall Space Flight Center's heyday, wags sometimes referred to Huntsville as "Peenemuende South." For years, the city proudly called itself Rocket City, U.S.A. Nevertheless, the city fathers, as well as von Braun himself, realized that federal budgets, like NASA's, had valleys as well as crests. It was widely agreed that Huntsville should expend considerable time and energy attracting other industries into the area. In later years, von Braun took a considerable measure of satisfaction in remembering his role as an advocate of diversification. "I can say in retrospect that I have never regretted using my powers of persuasion... in talks with the city fathers and our community advisory committee, when I always reminded people: `Don't get too used to this NASA money that's flowing into this area.'" He warned against becoming a single-business town and advocated the attraction of other industries during a period of good stability, with attention to nonaerospace companies in particular.

The development of the industrial character of Huntsville frequently reflected the high-level technology represented by NASA and the U.S. Army Missile Command, on the site of the old Redstone Arsenal. The continuing development of the Cummings Research Park characterized this high-level technology. Located near the University of Alabama campus, the Research Park comprised over 30 companies that offered unique management services and research facilities and employed over 6000 people with an annual payroll of over $93 million by 1974. In the 1960s, the emphasis was on space, but the farsightedness of von Braun and other Huntsville industrial executives maintained a healthy diversity in the city's manufacturing companies in the 1970s. At the Research Park and elsewhere, including an industrial center located near the new Jetport, Huntsville's products included automobile radios, digital clocks, electronic parts, computers, TV cameras, ax handles, flags, aircraft specialty glass, tools and dies, telephones, rubber tires, and a host of other goods and services.18

One of the most visible results of the von Braun team's sojourn in Huntsville was the new Von Braun Civic Center located downtown near a [394] renewal area known as Big Spring Park. A $14- million complex that opened in 1975, the center included a large arena, as well as a spacious exhibit hall. A concert hall and playhouse provided exceptionally fine facilities for both performers and audience. Finally, the performing arts in Huntsville were no longer dependent upon the good will of various churches and high school auditoriums. The homeless graphic arts of the city at last found, in the Von Braun Center, a handsome new creative arts museum, with arrangements for both permanent and visiting art exhibits. The city also acquired a major tourist attraction, the Alabama Space and Rocket center. The Center not only coordinated tours at MSFC, but also mounted some innovative displays. Skillfully planned and automated dioramas and indoor exhibits explained the theory of the solar system, fundamentals of rocket propulsion, future space exploration, and numerous other aspects of astronautics. The indoor displays also featured an eye-catching array of aerospace hardware, including full-sized mockups of spacecraft and genuine artifacts such as Saturn engines. The most impressive section was outdoors, where a rocket display area included several Army missiles, a V-2, and several early NASA launch vehicles. Towering above them all, a Saturn I stood erect, and a complete Saturn V rocket, stretched out on its side, loomed as a backdrop.19