From the back of a bike to the moon
American space research returns to its original launching pad in Huntsville, Ala.
One of Tim Pickens's biggest breakthroughs in his lifetime quest to fling stuff into space came on the back of a regular old bicycle.Skip to next paragraph
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The Huntsville-born propulsion engineer, who speaks with a tangy drawl, had come up with a unique homemade rocket engine built using empty fire extinguishers and fueled by a mixture of asphalt and laughing gas.
"I was talking to my friend, and he said, 'You know, we ought to put that on a bike,' " Mr. Pickens says. "Next thing you know we're rolling a bike out. At the end of the day, we were riding down the road with that rocket bike, and the neighbors were all coming out looking and grinning, wondering what in the heck's going on out here."
In many ways, Pickens, who is helping the National Aeronautics and Space Administration develop the throwback Ares rocket that will replace the space shuttle, embodies both the past and future of Huntsville. This unassuming town changed irrevocably in 1958 when 118 German rocket engineers – members of Operation Paper Clip – quietly moved in to help launch the Americans into space.
As the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of the US space program on Thursday, Huntsville is counting down to its next apogee, now bearing the bulk of the responsibility for shortening what could be a five-year gap in the ability of US astronauts to access space once the space shuttle program shuts down for good in 2010.
In the process, this Watercress Capital-turned-Rocket City is again tapping into the garage ethics, vivid imagination, and can-do attitude of the Germans, who over time became even more beloved by locals than the hush puppies at the Greenbrier Restaurant.
"We're essentially starting over with some of the same concepts that spawned the Saturn V success," says Jan Smith, an Alabama-born software engineer who worked for Boeing on the Apollo program. "These are interesting times for Huntsville."
It's hard to imagine a less likely place from which to launch a space odyssey. That's one reason why Huntsville has always sat in the shadows of Cape Canaveral and Houston in the American imagination. With more antebellum homes than any other American city, Huntsville had only 12,000 people when it was picked to host the German space team, in part because of lobbying by Alabama politicians, but also because the rolling topography reminded the Germans of their homeland.
Wernher von Braun, the lead German engineer, first found resistance and sometimes scorn from locals until they saw him on TV, espousing Huntsville's destiny to build the engines that would power America into space. They would eventually carry Mr. von Braun on their shoulders like a winning football coach when man landed on the moon. Space travel, von Braun told Time magazine in 1958, "will free man from his remaining chains ... [and] open him to the gates of heaven."
The original German engineers were essentially dreamers with drafting boards and welding equipment. Their arrival in Huntsville coincided with the first graduating class of the GI Bill coming out of places such as Auburn University and Georgia Tech. The men and women they hired were unlikely partners, essentially sharecroppers' sons and daughters.
"It's an unlikely combination of German rocketeers, former enemies, teaming up with primarily country boys who grew up on farms, who combined to pull off the 20th century's greatest event, the moon landing," says Ralph Petroff, a Huntsville entrepreneur and member of the Saturn V executive committee planning this week's celebration. "They used to joke that this is a rocket made by hillbillies."