Reaching for the Stars: How one German scientist transformed Huntsville into the Rocket City
January 1, 2014
By Lee Roop
The cliché in North Alabama is that Huntsville was “a nice little cotton town” before the German scientists arrived after World War II and built a moon rocket — and a modern metropolis — in the 25 miles between the banks of the Tennessee River and the Tennessee state line.
In this case, the cliché is true. Huntsville numbered about 13,000 people at the close of World War II, and it has a population of 180,000 today. The metropolitan area boasts 300,000 people, and the city has America’s second-largest research park. Almost 40 percent of the population has a college degree, and per capita income is among the highest in the South.
But can you really credit Wernher von Braun and NASA with what modern Huntsville has become? Absolutely, say many who saw the transformation. It’s true that the Defense Department was here at the beginning and is the city’s largest employer today, but NASA was the reason for critical decisions that still fuel the city’s growth and, less tangibly, NASA was modern Huntsville’s “brand.” That brand is something Huntsville trades on even today starting with the official motto of the Chamber of Commerce: “The Sky Is Not The Limit.”
The main outlines of Huntsville’s story are well-known. The Army was looking for a secure place for its “good” German scientists to pursue their post-World War II weapons-related rocket work, and decided on an Alabama base where the Army Ordnance Department had just founded a center for rocket research and development at a mothballed munitions factory known as Redstone Arsenal. The Germans liked the green mountains surrounding the city far better than the dry plains of Ft. Bliss, Texas, where they had been housed in barracks, and Alabama’s powerful congressional delegation was able to make the transfer happen.
Von Braun and his team worked for the Army in Alabama during the early days of the space age, but Washington decided to split America’s military and civilian space programs by forming NASA. When the Marshall Space Flight Center opened in 1960, the agency quickly became a national job magnet for engineers and technicians and a regional draw for carpenters, welders and other tradesmen. And when President John F. Kennedy opened America’s checkbook to race the Soviet Union to the moon, jobs were suddenly everywhere.
Fine, but how did that moon race lead to the Huntsville of today? Some think it began with one decision by von Braun. “He convinced (NASA) Headquarters that big contracts should be awarded out of Huntsville,” Ed Buckbee told The Huntsville Times in 2012. “That was a big change.”
Buckbee, one of von Braun’s first public relations officers, was talking about the early days of the moon race. The rocket that got men to the moon, the Saturn V, was designed and tested by von Braun’s team in an ocean of federal money, and if you wanted to sell to NASA, you came to Huntsville.
“He told the companies, ‘I want you to have a presence here,’” Buckbee said. “It will be much more efficient if you are here. That was the beginning of the research park, and it’s something he should be credited with.”
Von Braun didn’t just say it. He went with local leaders to the West Coast and persuaded Lockheed Martin to buy one of the first parcels of land in the city’s new 3,600-acre Cummings Research Park. “Wernher opened more doors out there than we could open in six years,” community leader Will Halsey told the Associated Press in 1992. “He could sell ice to the Eskimos, I guess.”
And so they came: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric, Raytheon and dozens more. Local companies grew up with names like Brown Engineering, now Teledyne Brown Engineering, and when the space program dipped after Apollo, engineers started their own companies, including blue-chippers with names like Intergraph, SCI Systems and ADTRAN. 
The Army never stopped working in missiles, of course, and Cummings Research Park is now a 4,000-acre research and technology campus for both aerospace and defense, just across Interstate 565 from the Marshall Space Flight Center. Today, 285 companies are located in the park, and 25,000 workers report for work there each day.
Von Braun was brilliant, handsome and media savvy. He was close to men like Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, he had the trust of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and he remembered workers’ names and their families. When he spoke, people listened.
Some of those people were in the Alabama Legislature, and when von Braun said Huntsville needed a technical school where his engineers could pursue advanced courses and degrees, the result was an extension campus that grew into the University of Alabama in Huntsville. A top engineering school today with an emphasis on rocketry, UA Huntsville attracts students from around the world. Part of the attraction is the chance to do co-op work for NASA at Marshall.
But the Germans’ influence on Huntsville didn’t stop with economics and technology. Like many Germans then and now, they were cultured as well as competent. And what they didn’t find when they got to Huntsville, they helped to create. One of those men, Heinz Hilten, just died in 2013 at the age of 103, and his story is typical.
Hilten was von Braun’s architect. He designed the buildings where the Germans, and later NASA employees, worked and tested their inventions. In his personal time, Hilten played the piano and violin. His gatherings with fellow Germans and other musicians in the 1950s led to the founding of the Huntsville orchestra in 1960. Today, it is one of the city’s most popular arts organizations with an ambitious classical and pops schedule. The Germans and the educated people who followed them to the city helped get theater groups, ballet companies, an art museum and dozens of other arts organizations up and running. Many of those organizations perform today in the city’s Von Braun Center.
“These people were activists,” ADTRAN President Mark Smith told the Associated Press in 2003. They just didn’t sit back and demand from the government or from others. They got together and organized things.”
Today, Huntsville is trying to add on to its economic house with new initiatives in biotechnology, cyber-security and unmanned aerial vehicles. It is revitalizing its downtown area, and people are beginning to move back into older neighborhoods once sidelined by the rush to the suburbs. The culture, the growing restaurant and music scene, and the nearby mountains and lakes have made the city a regional destination.
But if all of that is true, the No. 1 tourist attraction in Huntsville — and Alabama — remains the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and its Space Camp. Both of those were von Braun’s ideas, too. And visitors arriving from the west today see a full-sized Saturn V replica standing upright beside Interstate 565 and a real Saturn V on display in a glass-fronted building right beside it.
One wonders occasionally what the Army thinks about all of this attention to a civilian space program that fights for its financial life in Washington on a regular basis, employs far fewer people and has far less economic impact today than the major missile and aviation programs the Army has located in Huntsville.
But the suspicion is that letting the little brother take the spotlight is fine with the Army, much of whose work in Huntsville is top secret. They call the arsenal complex Team Redstone now, and NASA is just one proud member of family that includes numerous Army commands and centers, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Huntsville will always be the city that built the moon rocket and the city the moon rocket built. The first is an accomplishment that some say will be one of the few events remembered in 1,000 years. The second is obvious to anyone who takes a closer look. When they needed a name for the city’s AA baseball team, for example, Huntsville’s team wasn’t called the Rockets, Aviators or Defenders, as proud as the city is of its warfighters. The team was called the Stars.
Lee Roop covers NASA and biotechnology for Alabama Media Group, including and The Huntsville Times.
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