A stroll down rocket history boulevard.

When it comes to the History of rockets, few towns play a more important role than Huntsville, Alabama.  Situated in what was then rural Alabama, Huntsville became home to the Operation Paperclip rocket scientists following WWII.  Since then, Huntsville and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center have had at least a finger in ever system NASA has ever launched.  I took a walk in the rocket park at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville today.


The above is a V1 rocket, the terror of London.  The V1 horrified England with it’s loud buzzing engine and payload of explosives.  The first intercontinental Missile.


This is the V2 Rocket, the first real successful rocket flown, and the forefather of American rocketry.  The V2 was designed by Warner Von Braun in Nazi Germany during WWII.  Following the war, Operation Paperclip snatched Von Braun and his team, along with 34 rail cars full of V2 parts.  This V2 is put together from the parts brought back from Germany.  Recently refurbished, it sits next to (and is dwarfed by) the Saturn 5 rocket.


This is a picture of the budding United States entry into rocketry.  The green rocket is a Redstone.  Designed in Huntsville at Redstone Arsenal, it is basically the American upgrade to the V2.  And it is a serious upgrade.  Next to it on the left, but looking very similar to the Redstone is, well another Redstone.  Only this one was fitted, in 60 days after the Navy failed to launch the first US satellite, to launch the first US satellite into space. In this variant, the Redstone was known as a Juno 1.  Two rockets to the right is another Redstone, this time the Redstone-Mercury system.  It is a Redstone Jupiter-C rocket with the Mercury capsule on top.  It successfully launched Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into suborbital space.  The other two missiles are Juno and Jupiter variants of the Redstone.


This is the big daddy of the Redstone family of rockets.  The Saturn I rocket.  The first stage is basically several Redstone rockets wrapped together.  This is the rocket first used to test the Apollo missions.  It is also atop one of these rockets that astronauts Grissom, Chaffee and White lost their lives in a fire.


This is the Saturn V rocket, that sent American’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.  Well, actually it isn’t a Saturn V.  That’s a free standing mockup, full scale mind you, of the Saturn V rocket.  It’s beautiful to look at, but the director at the museum that had it built was a moron who had tons of financial issues while in position, and while building this fake Saturn V, a real Saturn V was rotting away on the back side of the museum property.  Luckily of us, other people stepped up, and a new section to the museum was added, the Davidson Center for Space Exploration.  The main exhibit? the fully restored Saturn V.  A real Saturn V, compete with F1 engines and everything.  And better yet, it hangs from the ceiling, so you can walk under it.  Wanna see?  I knew you would.


Did I mention a Saturn V is huge?  I’m standing under the first stage engines, looking toward the capsule.  The blue path, all the way till you can just make out a break in it is all the First Stage.  That’s the, let’s get all this weight off the ground stage.  This is a mammoth beast of a machine.

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These are all various shots of the Saturn V taken around the room.  I think the last is the one that shows the most of the rocket, you can make out the bottom fins of the first stage through to the capsule.  That sucker is big.  As a bonus, they had the Apollo 12 Capsule.


Okay, it’s behind glass facing a wall of windows.  Not my best shot, and I don’t have a polarizing filter for that particular lens.

However, that’s not all they had.  I think this is the coolest thing in the whole museum.


That is a moon rock, an actual extraterrestrial rock.  It took Apollo 12 a half million miles to get that rock and bring it back.  The feat is stunning.


That brings us here.  To the Shuttle Transportation System.  The last manned system NASA produced.  Now retired, the Shuttles no longer fly and NASA has no way to get men to the International Space Station.  This is a real, unused, external tank, two retired solid rocket boosters and a 99/100 scale wind tunnel model of the shuttle named Pathfinder.  Personally, I think it is a shame that the US Space and Rocket Center didn’t get a real shuttle.

It is also a shame that NASA no longer has manned space flight.  Frankly, I think it is a shame that we seemed to have failed so utterly with the Shuttle.  It had such potential, and so much hope.  But the national pride was wasted away, and the shuttle fleet aged.  Two disasters, and the fleet had to be put down.  But there was nothing waiting to take over, nothing ready to step up to the plate and lift our astronauts back to the stars.

It’s be easy to blame Obama, and much of the blame does have to fall on him.  Constellation was nearing the completion of the design stage when Obama pulled the plug, setting US Manned spaceflight back by years and risking losing the newest space race to the Chinese.  But the truth is, Bush didn’t exactly push a shuttle replacement.  Neither did Clinton.  So really, instead of figuring out what to do next while flying the Shuttle, NASA didn’t get the funding for the next phase of manned space flight.  And that’s a shame.

Now that manned flight is, essentially, off the table there are strong voices, both in congress and in NASA that is arguing against a return of manned space flight outside of low earth orbit.  Robots, drones or other means, these voices say.  Look at the success of the rovers!

There is some truth to that.  But imagine what we could do with those rovers if we had a real human making the decision instead of a 20 minute one way delay.

Side note:  All images used in the post are copyright 2014 by Michael Malone.  All rights reserved.  


13 thoughts on “A stroll down rocket history boulevard.

  1. Nice story. I get bummed thinking about the current state if NASA. The boomers really dropped the ball and it’s up to Generation x to try to fix it.

    • I argue that the boomers didn’t as much drop the ball as got short changed every time they tried to innovate. Do you realize that had the boomer idea of the Shuttle C, a cargo only unmanned shuttle, been built, that the ISS could have been built in a third of the time?

      Constellation was a mess. The locals called it Frankenrocket because it took the best parts of so many systems and inexpertly shoved them together, but it was at least leaving design stage. To scrap it at such a late date…

  2. I’m wondering how much of the engine is still intact for the Saturn V. The ones at Kennedy and Smithsonian are nowhere near refurbishable. My understanding was that Carter made NASA destroy the plans and de-commission all the existing rockets to force them to move forward with the STS. (ref: Red October and the Cortez story)

    Then again a private firm has recently recovered a used one from the floor of the Atlantic. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/mar/20/saturn-v-rocket-engines-recovered-jeff-bezos
    It can be reverse engineered from there.

    • I currently know the location of 7 mostly intact F1 engines right here in Huntsville. I can’t remember if the Rocket Park, now no longer publicly accessible on the post has an F1 or not, so quite possibly 8 mostly intact F1 engines.

      I know for a fact that during the design of Constellation, the F1 engine sitting in front of Building 4200, the NASA’s Marshal Space Flight Center Headquarters, was gone over with a fine tooth comb to see how it worked, and much of the design of that engine went into the initial design of the main engines of Constellation.

      I’v heard the rumor that the plans were destroyed, but don’t believe it. For one, by the time Carter came into office, six of the seven engines I’m thinking about were no longer under government control, but had been donated to a state run museum, so NASA no longer had control over the engines. Second, the first director of that museum was one Von Braun, and he donated his personal library to the same museum, including his personally annotated copy of the final F1 engine blueprints. I know those blueprints made their way to the design engineers of Constellation as well.

      The bigger problem than destruction is that those plans were created in the 1960’s. Engineering has changed radically since then, and the original designers are retiring and passing away. The language of Engineering has also changed, and for a young upstart engineer looking at the most complex engine ever designed is like trying to read a latin manuscript when all you know is french.

  3. Great photos, sir. This looks like a fantastic museum. I love the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, but this looks like it rivals that. Have to add this to my bucket list.

    • It’s not bad if you’re in the area. The main museum building has been converted to a rotation exhibit. Right now it is a kids explanation of GPS. Kinda cute, but I’m glad I had the free passes. Check the website and plan your trip around a good exhibit.

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