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The Huntsville Space Program

As World War II ended in Europe, the United States government set about recruiting those German scientists who had worked on rocketry weapons for their now defeated homeland. Over 100 scientists who had been instrumental in developing the dreaded German V-2 rocket during the war arrived in the United States in the last months of 1945. Here, at a Fort Bliss, Texas, research facility, the team began work on what would evolve into America's space program.

In 1949 the Army designated the Huntsville, Alabama, site of two World War II-era arsenals as the new home for the missile and rocket research effort. Redstone Arsenal was formally opened the next year, with the German scientific team headed by Dr. Wernher von Braun moving to its new quarters.

The U.S. soon was involved in a "space race" with the Soviet Union when that rival launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in October of 1957. America countered in January of 1958 with Explorer I, propelled into space orbit by the "Redstone" rocket developed by the Huntsville arsenal group. That same year, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) was chartered to oversee the nation's non-military rocketry programs. The George C. Marshall Space Flight Center was opened by NASA in Huntsville in 1960, with Dr. von Braun's group now working on civilian rather than military space projects.

In May of 1961, just weeks after America's first "astronaut" made his first short space flight, President John F. Kennedy announced the nation's commitment to land a man on the moon before the decade was out. Dr. von Braun's scientific team set to the task of designing, developing, and testing a succession of ever-more powerful and reliable launch vehicles. The program triumphed when the "Saturn V" rocket developed at the Center launched the Apollo 11 crew to a lunar landing in July 1969.

Dr. von Braun left Huntsville for a Washington, D.C. post in 1970, only to leave government service just two years later. America's space program turned away from moon landings in the decades that followed, pursuing instead projects with potentially longer term benefits to science. An orbiting space station (Skylab) was rocketed aloft in 1973. Then, in 1981, NASA introduced a new generation of space vehicles with the first Space Shuttle, an airplane-like craft which could touch down after space orbit and then be re-flown. The Marshall Space Flight Center and its associated Huntsville auxiliaries continued to develop many of the launch delivery systems and scientific experiments for the space shuttle program.

As the host of NASA's largest installation in the United States, Huntsville itself was profoundly affected both economically and socially. The U.S. space program and private ancillary businesses brought thousands of new higher-pay jobs and better-educated residents to the area. In addition, the city and state took advantage of the space program's popularity to create a booming tourist attraction in conjunction with the federal facilities. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center was opened in 1970 to offer exhibits and educational programs that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.