The sound and fury generated that day resulted from the test-firing of the first stage of the Saturn moon rocket. Throughout the 1960s, Huntsvillians would hear and feel that roar many times as ASA scientists aimed for the goal set by President John F. Kennedy in 1961-- "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." Before the end of the decade, the goal would be reached, and on July 16, 1969, a mammoth rocket, standing taller than the Statue of Liberty, would leave the launch pad in Florida carrying three human beings toward the surface of the moon.
To buttress America's Cold War arsenal, the team developed the Redstone and Jupiter missiles, but von Braun pushed for more. He wanted to explore outer pace. In 1954 he ought President Dwight D. Eisenhower' permission to modify a Redstone missile with the goal of launching America's first satellite. Eisenhower, fearing the appearance of "saber rattling," said no, but he changed his mind after October 1957 when the Soviets stunned the world by launching Sputnik, the world's first orbiting satellite. Von Braun's team responded quickly and on January 31, 1958, launched America's first satellite, Explorer 1, on a modified Jupiter-C. Following the launch, von Braun and most of Huntsville danced in the streets. The United States, it seemed, had finally caught up with the Russians in the space race.
Explorer's success threw von Braun and Huntsville into the national spotlight and put the space race into high gear. Eisenhower and Congress created the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, which opened for business on October 1, 1958. Eventually, the government transferred four thousand U.S. Army employees to ASA' George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, which opened July 1, 1960, at Redstone Arsenal.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States now staked everything on being the first to put a human into orbit. Some critics called the idea little more than a "circus stunt," something akin to shooting a lady out of a cannon. Others worried that international prestige rather than scientific knowledge now represented the nation's major goal in space, but the drive to launch a human was on and nothing could stop it. A week after NASA opened, the agency authorized "Project Mercury," a program to put a man in orbit. Then they set about selecting seven candidates for the job.
Project Mercury was directed by NASA's Space Task Group at Langley, Virginia whose engineers would design the capsule. Von Braun's group in Huntsville was asked to modify and test the Army Redstone missile, which NASA would use to launch the capsule into pace. Between April 1959 and July 1960 von Braun's engineers in Huntsville ground-tested the Redstone's propulsion systems more than two hundred times. Unfortunately, they failed to uncover a problem with faulty circuitry in the tail section of the rocket. At its launch in Florida on November 21, 1960, the unmanned Redstone rocket wobbled slightly on its pedestal and settled back on its fins after, at the very most, a four or five-inch liftoff. The astronaut escape tower on top of the Mercury capsule, however, blew off and climbed four thousand feet, landing about four hundred yards from the launch site. Those who had gathered to watch what was supposed to be a rocket launch ran for cover.
Already under pressure from newspaper and politicians reminding them of the progress the Russians were making, von Braun and his engineers went to work on the technical problem that had beset the launch, finally orchestrating a successful launch of an unmanned Mercury-Redstone on December 19, 1960, and yet another on January 31, 1961. To learn more about how humans might react in space, the scientists placed a thirtyseven-pound chimpanzee named "Ham" in the second capsule. Ham spent sixteen and one-half minutes in flight playing games with flashing lights and levers. Following the flight, veterinarians pronounced him in good health, and NASA gave him an official welcome home. Ceremony aside, the technical data compiled following the flight showed that the Redstone rocket had given Ham a wilder ride than NASA ever expected. Ham's flight plan called for an altitude of 115 miles, a distance of 290 miles, and a peak velocity of 4,000 miles per hour. The Redstone engine used to launch Ham, however, had run with the throttle wide-open, and what he experienced was an altitude of 155 miles, a range of 420 miles, and a peak velocity of 5,800 miles per hour.
Von Braun called for one more unmanned Redstone launch. "The Germans were very conservative guys," recalled Rocky Clarke, a veteran of the Redstone era who still works at the Marshall Center. "A man was fixing to fly on [the Mercury-Redstone], and these people didn't want to kill anybody. That's the reason they tested so much." After the successful launch of a Redstone rocket on March 24, von Braun was ready. His rocket, termed “Ol’ Reliable" by his Huntsville engineers, was ready to launch America's first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space. Unfortunately for the Americans, another event stole some of Redstone's thunder.
On April 12, 1961, the Russians announced that Maj. Yuri Gagarin had successfully orbited the Earth for 108 minutes in a five-ton spacecraft, becoming the first man to make a successful orbital flight through space. Von Braun's response was conciliatory. He offered "our heartiest congratulations," admitting that he and his team had been "expecting it for some time." While the Soviets prepared for a gigantic ceremony in Moscow's Red Square to honor Gagarin, President Kennedy openly lamented the Soviet space coup: "No one is more tired than I am" of seeing the United States second to Russia in the space field, he said. "But, we are behind."
The chance to launch Shepard on a suborbital flight came within weeks of Gagarin's flight. On May 5, a Redstone rocket supplied by the Marshall Center lifted off the pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying Shepard. His Mercury spacecraft, nicknamed "Freedom 7," rose to an altitude of almost 116 miles and covered a range of more than 300 miles. His flight lasted less than fifteen minutes.
As they had done when von Braun's Jupiter-C launched Explorer I, Huntsvillians celebrated. Von Braun and his rocket experts gathered with the public on the courthouse square, where the man who had offered congratulations to the Russians and Gagarin a few weeks before now spoke with Cold War fierceness. "Our opponents across the ocean, behind the Iron Curtain, thought about a month ago they had slammed the door to the universe in our face, but Shepard has let us out of our dilemma and embarrassment." Then von Braun made another prediction: ''We will go farther and farther, eventually landing on the moon." The people of Huntsville, he told the Huntsville Times, "will share in these achievements."
Following Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson to find a U.S. space program that promised "dramatic results" in a race with the Russians that the U.S. "could win." Johnson passed the request along to von Braun, who responded on April 29, 1961, that the United States had "an excellent chance" of beating the Russians to a lunar landing. After consulting with his top advisors, Kennedy spoke before a joint session of Congress on May 25, issuing his challenge to land a man on the moon "before this decade is out." Clarke remembers the impact in Huntsville. "Everybody was elated. We wanted to work on a big manned outer space program," he said. "We had a real target out there," he added, referring to Kennedy's end-of-decade deadline. The early space race between the Soviet Union and the United States was like a weight-lifting contest. Success meant building a rocket with enough propulsion to lift not only its own weight but the weight of the capsule on top. Bob Schwinghamer, now Associate Director, Technical, at Marshall, helped von Braun design the Saturn rockets, and he recalls von Braun's obsession with propulsion.
Von Braun knew factors like aerodynamic design were extremely important, but he believed that propulsion was paramount. "I can fly a beer can if you give me enough propulsion," von Braun once told Schwinghamer. In 1957 Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) designers had envisioned a large, clustered engine in the first stage of a multi-stage rocket that would lift multiton payloads into earth orbit. When the von Braun team transferred from the army to NASA in 1960, the rocket project went too. Initially, the rocket was called Juno V, but it was later renamed Saturn.
In the next years, Marshall built and launched three versions of the Saturn rocket, including the Saturn I, Saturn IB, and Saturn V. Keith Glennan, NASA's first administrator, recalled meeting with von Braun and inspecting one of the first smaller versions of the Saturn, the Saturn I, in Huntsville in the early 1960s. "As usual," Glennan recalled, von Braun "spent about half his time talking about exotic trips into outer space." But Glennan was also astonished at the new rocket, which he described as "one of the most amazing combinations of engineering, plumbing, and plain hope anyone could imagine."
Important as they were, the Saturn I and Saturn IB were really research and development rockets and lacked the force needed to land a man on the moon. That job went to the three-stage Saturn V rocket that some engineers referred to as "the beast." le was, in fact, a rocket with enough power in just one fuel pump of its five first-stage F-1 engines to push with the force of thirty locomotives. "Each stage contains seventy-seven miles of electrical wiring" and "fuel tanks as cavernous as cathedrals," wrote Gene Bylinsky, a writer for Fortune who called the Saturn V "Dr. von Braun's All Purpose Space-Machine.”
Meeting President Kennedy's challenge also meant scaling up the facilities in Huntsville. At its founding, Marshall had inherited the army's Jupiter and Redstone test stands, but much larger facilities were needed for Saturn V testing and for manufacture of the giant stages. Jim Odom, now retired from the Marshall Center, remembers the push. 'We had to literally build an industry. We had to build a complete infrastructure related to test stands manufacturing facilities, and launch facilities. To be able to do all that in the time frame that we did was, in my judgment, almost as significant a feat as going to the moon."
From 1960 to 1964, existing test stands at Marshall were remodeled and a sizable new rest area was developed. The new towers erected for propulsion and dynamic tests were among the tallest buildings in Alabama. Besides expanding its own facilities, Marshall acquired the Michaud Assembly Facility near New Orleans as the site to manufacture and assemble Saturn stages, a massive new engine complex in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and a government-owned computer facility in Louisiana to support the Michaud plane and the Mississippi test site. In Huntsville, engineers acquired or built barges and docks on the Tennessee River to transport the huge Saturn elements to the launch site.
The center also acquired a specially designed bloated cargo airplane nicknamed the "Pregnant Guppy" and an even larger aircraft, at first dubbed "the Very Pregnant Guppy" and finally named the "Super Guppy." The planes were designed to ensure that the giant Saturn stages were delivered as quickly as possible from contractor sites at Marshall to Cape Canaveral. Saturn historian Roger Bilstein recalled the day the "Pregnant Guppy" first arrived at the Redstone Arsenal Airstrip in Huntsville. Von Braun dispatched one of his German lab chiefs to participate in a test flight. Hermann Kroeger got so excited that he broke into German after he landed. At that point, von Braun himself insisted on flying the airplane, crawled in, and took off.
But there were challenges that went beyond logistics. Years later, Georg von Tiesenhausen, now retired from the Marshall Center, told the Montgomery Advertiser, "There was no precedent for almost everything we did. You couldn't open a book or ask a contractor, you had to come up with it on your own." Marshall's Alex McCool was a direct participant in building the Saturn V. "It was hard work and sweat," he said. As a propulsion expert, McCool helped solve problems like making sure the propellants flowed uniformly to a cluster of rocket engines that powered the Saturn V. "It was a plumber's nightmare." McCool and others cackled problems associated with pressurizing the huge propellant tanks to prevent them from crumpling once their fuel was depleted.
He also worked on the powerful F-1 engine for the Saturn V first stage. Reports stated that the five F-1s used on the first stage generated double the amount of potential hydroelectric power that would be available at any given moment if all the moving water of North America were channeled through turbines. "Nobody had ever built an engine that big," McCool said. "Solving some of the technical problems almost brought us to our knees," he added. Under von Braun's leadership, McCool and other engineers solved problems dealing with super-cool cryogenic fuels, insulation, bearings, turbine blades, and combustion chambers. "We blew up a lot of liquid oxygen pumps during the research and development phase," McCool said.
Building a more powerful rocket than had ever been built also meant relying on more powerful fuels to power the stages. One of the most dangerous propellants used for the Saturn V was liquid hydrogen. One aerospace company taught its engineers to respect hydrogen-fueled projects by referring often to the May 1937 Hindenburg disaster. That conflagration killed thirty-six people when a hydrogen-filled dirigible burst into flame while attempting a mooring in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Werner von Braun was in the middle of all of it. "We have thrown our hat across the river," he said, enthusiastically. But how he managed to hold it all together remained the subject of much interest. Mike Kaylor of the Huntsville Times reported years later that von Braun and his associates often gathered in the back room of a local lounge after work to drink hot beer and draw designs on cardboard beer cases. "Me and the beer men would laugh about it and say, 'I wonder where this rocket is going,'" Sarah Sanders Preston, the former proprietor of the Top Hat Lounge, told Kaylor. But Huntsville historian William Stubno, Jr., believes von Braun's management style was rooted in something more elemental than his ability to get along with his subordinates. The Germans, Stubno believes, "instinctively utilized novel methods of management and scientific inquiry deeply rooted in Germany's past." Stubno compares von Braun's German laboratory chiefs in Huntsville to vassals who owed allegiance to von Braun, their feudal lord. Indeed, the office of almost every lab chief contained an inscribed picture of von Braun.
Von Braun also believed in what he called a "dirty hands" approach to managing rocket projects. He wanted his laboratory chiefs co maintain their technical competence in order to supervise rocket construction directly. This philosophy had been fostered in the scientists by both the German army and later the U.S. Army. But building the Saturn rockets, especially the Saturn V, required resources unparalleled in the history of any government engineering project and made a hands-on approach to managing the project almost impossible. As the Apollo astronauts later wrote, the Saturn Vs "very statistics defied the human brain." Each Saturn V rocket included more than three million pieces making up seven hundred thousand different parts. For von Braun, this meant he had to find new ways to manage operations at the Marshall Center. It also meant he had to find a way to link up with a nationwide network of twenty thousand private contractors in Alabama and across the country.
"It was long hours and on the road a lot," one Marshall engineer recalled, referring to trips to contractors' sites on the West Coast and elsewhere. Lee James, former Saturn V program manager and one who often accompanied von Braun on these trips, was as familiar with the complexity of the Saturn V as anyone could be. There were millions of parts and thousands of decisions. There were always requests to change something after someone had found a way to improve it. Recommendations were funneled through a series of change boards. Schedule, budget, and other factors meant that each change had to be considered carefully. “We approved about half and worried like the dickens about the half we didn't approve," James said.
Bob Schwinghamer remembers the technical and political challenge. "Constantly there was this sense of urgency. The Cold War was in full swing. It was more than just turning out a product. Man, if you don't beat them they'll beat us. You got it every day in the newspapers."
NASA launched two unmanned and three manned Saturn V flights before attempting a manned lunar landing in July 1969, but the importance of those missions seemed pale compared to the launch of Apollo 11--the first mission to carry astronauts to the surface of the moon.
In the months leading up to the launch, "Everybody was tense," said Lee James. Kennedy's "presidential commitment had about five months to run out." The prestige of NASA and the entire country was on the line. James and his fellow employees were in charge of a monstrous thirty-six-story rocket, weighing 6½ million pounds. The days, minutes, and seconds before the launch were "a time of soul searching," he said.
Between 750,000 and 1,000,000 persons crowded Brevard County, Florida, to witness the launch of Apollo 11. As the Saturn V lifted the Apollo spacecraft carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, there was some applause, but most spectators watched in silence until the Saturn V disappeared overhead. "At the moment of ignition," reported the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, "it was not what lay beyond the astronauts that gripped the millions watching TV. It was the question of whether the huge Saturn booster would respond to command." Physicists described the sound generated by the Saturn V at liftoff as "one of the loudest noises in history, natural or manmade," and compared it to the sound produced by the Great Siberian Meteorite in 1883. "Your tie and your shirt would pulsate," said Schwinghamer. "You could actually feel the sound waves on your chest. It [the Saturn V] was so extremely tall relative to its diameter, and it just moved effortlessly."
A worldwide audience, including Wernher von Braun, focused on the launch and on the journey. "When that leg appeared on television as Armstrong was about to get down to the lunar surface," von Braun said later, it was a "pretty emotional moment." Millions around the world watched as the astronauts "jumped around on the moon like kangaroos," to use von Braun's description. In Wollongong, Australia, a local judge heard cases while watching a portable TV set. In more remote corners of the world, a village chief listened to a Voice of America broadcast and feared the astronauts might fall off the moon if they weren't careful. Another group thought the lunar landing might plunge our planet into darkness and release monsters from the Earth's core. In Huntsville, Marshall Space Flight Center employees danced in a conga line, crowned fellow employee Nancy Scott "Miss Lunar Maid," and joined thousands of others near the courthouse square to celebrate and carry Wernher von Braun aloft on their shoulders. "To be borne by a rocket to the moon is one thing, but to be borne up these steps by admirers is almost as impressive," von Braun told the crowd.
"The Saturn gave us one magnificent ride," reported Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. He called the lunar landing a "giant leap" for mankind. Von Braun described it as a "quantum jump" in science and technology. Eventually, six more Saturn Vs would lift off from Cape Canaveral as part of the Apollo moon-landing program, but, after the first lunar landing, von Braun and others found it difficult to find support for the Saturn/Apollo program. Marshall's own budget had started falling as early as 1967. Congress knew the lower funding level would force reductions in NASA's future capabilities, von Braun said, "but Congress was even more aware that there was simply not enough funds to satisfy all the requirements of Vietnam and the many urgent demands for domestic programs."
Nevertheless, von Braun left Huntsville in 1970 for a new assignment at NASA headquarters in Washington, where he would plan future space projects. Huntsville held a "Wernher von Braun Day" that culminated in a banquet at the Redstone Arsenal's Officers' Club, with 1,000 Marshall Center employees and spouses in attendance. The banner draping the table of honor read, "Dr. Wernher von Braun-Huntsville's first citizen--on loan to Washington, D.C."
Von Braun had already put together a proposal for flying a group of astronauts to Mars and back, and he was intent upon selling it to Congress. The scheme, according to historian Erik Bergaust, "involved a fleet of Saturn Vs to carry hardware and fuel for two Nerva nuclearrocket-powered interplanetary ships to a low earth orbit, where the two ships would be assembled and fueled and from where they would depart for the neighboring planet." Von Braun cried to find the money, but the time was not right. Having already beaten the Russians soundly, politicians saw no need to do it again.
On June 10, 1972, von Braun announced his resignation from NASA to join Fairchild Industries, where he planned to develop satellites and other technologies for outer space. In 1975, however, he discovered he had cancer. Two years later, at the age of sixty-five, he was dead. His lengthy obituary in the New York Times, June 18, 1977, noted that "Dr. von Braun's name, perhaps more than any other," had become "synonymous with space travel." The Times also recalled von Braun's youth in Berlin, where he read about an imaginary trip to the moon that made a lasting impression on him: "It filled me with a romantic urge," von Braun later said. "Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one's life to. Not just stare through a telescope at the Moon and the planets, but to soar through the heavens and actually explore the mysterious universe. I knew how Columbus had felt."
In the years after the first lunar landing, Huntsville and the Marshall Center adjusted to reductions in the space program. For the last three Apollo moon missions, Marshall provided a lunar-roving vehicle that astronauts would drive on the moon. The center also employed another Saturn V to launch the Skylab space station and developed a series of high-energy astronomical telescopes that were launched in the late 1970s. Most significantly, the center's scientists and engineers, during the 1970s, developed engines, boosters, and the fuel tank needed to power the space shuttle in the 1980s, the 1990s, and beyond.
Among those today who remember and have recorded the impact of the Saturn program on Huntsville is Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, who first worked with von Braun at Peenemunde during World War II and later at the Marshall Center. The first manned lunar landing, he said, was "a dream come true," and von Braun's dreams went far beyond the lunar landing. "What von Braun wanted to do after the Apollo flights was to build the space station and plan a flight to Mars," Stuhlinger said. But von Braun recognized the realities of 1969. The lunar landing was an easy target to fire the imagination, and "one of the problems is that we ran out of moons."
Stuhlinger recalls von Braun's departure from Huntsville, when thousands gathered in the pouring rain for a parade in his honor. "My friends," von Braun said, "there was dancing in the streets of Huntsville when our first satellite orbited the earth. There was dancing again when the first Americans landed on the moon. I'd like to ask you," he said, "don't hang up your dancing slippers."