How Does Alabama Play a Key Role in Manned Space Flight?

The flight into Huntsville, AL this week was on time and very smooth. My son, Aaron, and I, both space aficionados, planned to learn as much as possible about the history of NASA in Huntsville. The history there was much more significant than I had previously realized.

Huntsville is the home of Redstone Arsenal, which was established in 1943 by the US Army as a chemical munitions plant. After the war, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency was formed and Redstone Arsenal was repurposed as a missile and rocket development site. It was during this time a team of 200 German rocket scientists and engineers captured from Nazi Germany were assigned to to develop increasingly longer range ballistic missiles. The team, under leadership of Dr. Wernher von Braun, improved the German V2 rocket design and went on to develop the Redstone rocket and various descendants. When NASA was formed in 1958, all operations were transferred to the new civilian agency, and the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) was created on land transferred from Redstone Arsenal. The Saturn V rocket was designed and developed under Von Braun’s NASA team at MSFC. The rocket was used by NASA’s Apollo program, which put 12 men on the surface of the moon between 1969 and 1972, and subsequently by the Skylab program. The Saturn V development and operational costs throughout the vehicle’s life were $50 billion in today’s dollars.

We were able to cram a lot of learning into our short four-hour visit. I’ll hit some of the highlights in the paragraphs to follow. We started out at The U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a museum operated by the government of Alabama showcasing rockets, achievements, and artifacts of the U.S. space program. We spent about 10 minutes at the Apollo Virtual Reality Experience. After putting on the goggles and headsets, we experienced the Apollo 11 mission, the greatest journey ever taken by humankind, in virtual reality. The VR technology recreated the events which took place between July 16th and July 24th in 1969, more than 50 years ago. We were able to experience the historic event through the eyes of those who lived it. The interactive documentary used a mix of original, archival audio and video together with accurate recreations of the spacecraft and locations, all set to inspirational music. The experience was not only educational but created a lasting impression and deep respect for the men and women who worked on the Apollo program during NASA’s golden era.

Before heading to the Mars Grill at the Rocket Center for lunch, we took a walk through various mockup modules of the football field sized International Space Station. Then we toured the outdoor space park which included a vertically standing full-scale Saturn V rocket replica. See picture at top of story. The park included numerous jet aircraft, missiles, missile launchers, an Army two-person submarine, and shuttle era exhibits. There is a full-scale mockup of the space shuttle’s huge orange external tank mated with the solid rocket boosters. The external tank is 144 feet long, 28 feet in diameter, and a gross weight of 1.68 million pounds. There is also the Space Shuttle Pathfinder, a mockup currently being restored. MSFC used Pathfinder to practice ground operations during shuttle development. The Shuttle Training Aircraft, a modified Northrop Grumman Gulfstream II, was used by NASA astronauts to practice landing the shuttle.  Also on display is a T-38 Talon supersonic trainer used for pilot proficiency.

A prominent feature at the rocket center was the Space Camp. Launched in 1982, Space Camp has inspired and motivated young people from around the country, and later the world, with attendees from all 50 states, U.S. territories and more than 150 foreign countries. Trainees have an unparalleled environment to spur imagination while being surrounded by space, aviation and defense artifacts. Space Camp was the brainchild of rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun. Space Camp alumni include NASA and ESA astronauts, engineers, scientists and technologists. Camps are available for fourth grade through high school-age students. We saw a lot of them.

The highlight of the day was the Saturn V Hall at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The authentic 363-feet long Saturn V is a National Historic Landmark. The mere size of the rocket is mesmerizing. You have to see it to believe it. The rocket was on its side and there was separation between the first, second, and third stages, the Lunar Excursion Module, service module, command module, and escape tower. The Saturn V first stage has five F1 engines. Each engine is 18ft tall, 12ft in diameter, weighs 18,500 pounds, and produces 1.5 million pounds of thrust. The Hall is full of historic artifacts and interactive exhibits from space exploration. Uniformed NASA guides roamed the floor to interact with visitors and answer their questions. 

The many accomplishments in Huntsville are impressive. What makes it even more so to me is the tools they had to use. There were no iPads, supercomputers, sophisticated design tools, or the ability to digitally model and simulate. The thousands of mechanical parts were designed using protractors, compasses, slide rules, and pencils. Today, Huntsville is leading propulsion development for the Space Launch System and also the Human Landing System, both of which are major components of NASA’s Artemis program to take human’s back to the moon. The future of space flight is bright.

Aaron J. Patrick contributed to this article.