Alabama's rocket men
In 1950, this cotton market town in northern Alabama lost a bid for a military aviation project that would have revived its mothballed arsenal. The consolation prize was dubious: 118 German rocket scientists who had surrendered to the Americans during World War II, led by a man — a crackpot, evidently — who claimed humans could visit the moon.The German immigrants of Huntsville made a terrific contribution to the US after World War II. It is one that we still benefit from. They have assimilated into the community in much the same way an earlier generation of Germans assimilated in the Hill Country of Texas and produced the man who was in charge of the Pacific fleet that defeated the Japanese in World War II, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. The Texas Germans came here after a failed revolution in 1848. That may be one reason why they voted against succession a few years later.
Ultimately those German immigrants made history, launching the first American satellite, Explorer I, into orbit in January 1958 and putting astronauts on the moon in 1969. The crackpot, Wernher von Braun, was celebrated as a visionary.
Far less attention, though, has been given to the space program’s permanent transformation of Huntsville, now a city of 170,000 with one of the country’s highest concentrations of scientists and engineers. The area is full of high-tech giants like Siemens, LG and Boeing, and a new biotech center.
Rocket scientists, propulsion experts and military contractors have given the area per capita income levels above the national average and well above the rest of the state.
Huntsville residents regard their city as an oasis, as un-Alabaman as Alabama can be. But they acknowledge that the state’s backwater reputation is a hindrance to recruiting. Local boosters are hoping to use the 50th anniversary of Explorer I on Jan. 31 as a way to promote Huntsville as Rocket City, unveiling a new pavilion, housing a 363-foot Saturn V rocket, at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, a museum and popular tourist attraction.
Even the Germans, who had spent five years cloistered on an Army base near El Paso, knew beforehand of Alabama’s spotty “résumé,” as Konrad Dannenberg, who at 95 is one of the last surviving members of the original von Braun team, put it last week.
“We knew that the people here run around without shoes,” Dr. Dannenberg said, in a tone of deadpan gravity. “They make their money moonshining and that’s what they drink for breakfast, and supper. And so we, in a way, were a little bit disappointed that it was really not that bad.”
The residents were wary of the Germans as well. They knew that most of them had been members of the Nazi Party and that they had built the V-2 rocket for Hitler. But the charismatic von Braun accepted virtually every speaking invitation, winning over Rotarians and peanut farmers.
And the Germans tried hard to assimilate. Von Braun insisted that the scientists speak English if there was so much as a single American, even a janitor, within earshot, said Ernst Stuhlinger, 94, another surviving member of the team. Dr. Stuhlinger was one of many who settled on Monte Sano, the mountain overlooking the town, which reminded the Germans of home.
The Germans also needed thousands of Americans to staff the missile program. Many who answered the call were “rocket boys” like Homer H. Hickam Jr., author of the memoir by that name, who scavenged together his first rockets in a West Virginia mining town and now lives here. Others were young men from cotton-picking families who went to school on the G.I. Bill.
By the time Explorer I was launched, the residents of Huntsville had so thoroughly adopted the Germans that there was an impromptu celebration. Charles E. Wilson, the former secretary of defense whose severe curtailment of the Germans’ work was blamed by some as having allowed the Soviet Union to beat America to space with Sputnik, was burned in effigy.
And by the mid-1960s, von Braun had so mastered the local culture that when he wanted voters to approve a bond issue for the Space and Rocket Center, he persuaded Bear Bryant, the revered University of Alabama football coach, and Shug Jordan, the rival Auburn coach, to make a television commercial supporting the project.