From the back of a bike to the moon
American space research returns to its original launching pad in Huntsville, Ala.
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As the 1950s program geared up and the earth rumbled during test firings out at the Redstone Arsenal, the space program became anything but theoretical for Huntsville residents.Skip to next paragraph
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"At that time the Russians had launched Sputnik and we were in a war, we thought, for the health and welfare of the United States, and all of Huntsville got behind the program and welcomed it," says Ms. Smith. "They supported it by repeatedly replacing windows" that were blown out by rocket tests, sometimes as far away as 20 miles.
But as the Apollo program was shut down in the late 1970s and rocket-engine testing moved to Mississippi, Huntsville's focus slowly changed.
To be sure, today it's a city of 100 languages, an entrepreneurial boomtown that epitomizes the rising economic stature of the New South. But the Ares project and the 2005 Base Realignment Act, which will move a major military command and thousands of military personnel to the city, promises to launch the city into a new era, says John Southerland, a chamber of commerce spokesman.
Yet the city's challenge is probably greater than what NASA and others are making public, says David Christensen, an aerospace consultant who worked with von Braun on the Saturn project. When the space shuttle is retired in 2010, the American space program will be at the mercy of the Russians, who alone will have the capability of sending human payloads skyward. NASA engineers are now scrounging the Saturn V archives for clues and direction, he says.
"We're trying to struggle around and get momentum going and get parts together," says Mr. Christensen. "It's difficult and very expensive and time consuming ... and it's going to be even worse than what we're expecting, that [five-year] gap."
Enter Tim Pickens.
His fledgling rocket company, Orion Propulsion, was born from Pickens's work on Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne – where the ideals of alternative, fast, and inexpensive solutions to rocket problems are embodied in a garage-mechanic ethos.
Pickens's tumultuous workshop in Huntsville looks more like a farm implement shop than a rocket lab. It's packed with piles of valves and spigots, greasy lathes, and even a surplus vacuum chamber used to burst, or explode, rocket canisters. In one corner is a truck-rocket that's fired using a modified Xbox controller.
His ability to turn around commonsense solutions quickly is why NASA and Boeing have turned to Pickens, and others with a similar mind-set, for help with the Ares. "That's been my passion, to try to dig into the hardware, especially propulsion, to say, 'Man, why is this stuff so expensive? Why is this so hard to do? Is this real or have we just gone down a path of, 'that's just the way we've always done it'?" Pickens asks.
Despite this week's celebrations and the opening of a new Center for Space Exploration, the vision for America's future in space may not ultimately come from Huntsville. But the actual mechanics of space travel, just as in 1958, will most likely be sketched on a napkin and conceived in a garage here in the Rocket City.
"One of the German scientists, Ernst Stuhlinger, tells the story of Explorer 1, where he was tasked with making this device called the 'apex predictor' that would figure out exactly the right moment to boost the engines," says Mr. Petroff. "When asked, 'Well, this device of such precision, Dr. Stuhlinger, where was this manufactured?' He says, [in a German accent] 'In my garage.' "