Town transformed by rocket science is sure of its heroes
International Herald Tribune
By Shaila Dewan
January 3, 2008
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama: 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.
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 defense 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, launched on Jan. 31, 1958, as a way to promote Huntsville as Rocket City, unveiling a new pavilion, housing a 363-foot, or 110-meter, 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, Texas, 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 month.
"We knew that the people here run around without shoes," he 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.
"People said, 'If you had just been at war with these people, how can you be so accepting of them?' " recalled Loretta Spencer, the 70-year-old mayor of Huntsville, offering a visitor a homemade pecan cookie. "But I think we were just in awe." In school, the German children's diligence posed a challenge. "I remember working real hard in physics class to beat Axel Roth, who later worked for NASA," Spencer said. "I beat him by a point on the final exam, and I was really tickled by it."
The Germans 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 lives here.
By the time Explorer I was launched, the residents of Huntsville had so thoroughly adopted the Germans that there was an impromptu celebration. Charles 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.
Rocketry permeated Huntsville, where windows shook and dishes cracked each time the powerful propulsion engines were tested. Children built rockets powered by zinc powder and sulfur, and the tradition still has a hold. Tim Pickens, a rocket designer who helped a private manned spacecraft win the $10 million X Prize in 2004, attached a 200-pound-thrust engine to a bicycle in his garage here.
City officials trying to capitalize on this kind of ingenuity are irritated that prominent scholars have chosen this moment to scrutinize the von Braun team's Nazi ties.
A new biography by Michael J. Neufeld portrays von Braun as a man who made a Faustian bargain. Diane McWhorter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Birmingham, Alabama, native, is at work on a book on the space race that compares Nazi ideology to contemporaneous white supremacy in the South.
Most Huntsvillians concluded long ago that the Germans had been coerced into joining the party. And, though skeptical of claims that the scientists were thoroughly apolitical, McWhorter says Southerners might easily understand that membership in an organization is not the necessarily the best indicator of sentiment.
"There were members of the White Citizens Council in the South who were probably less racist than people who weren't members," she said.
Residents point to the symphony and the Huntsville branch of the University of Alabama, both nurtured by the Germans, and say their enlightened views contributed to the fact that the town had the first integrated elementary school in the state. Von Braun himself was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan for hiring blacks, said Bob Ward, a Huntsville newsman and von Braun biographer.
Besides, Huntsville is a forward-looking place.
The Nazi question "just doesn't come up," Loren Traylor, a vice president at the Chamber of Commerce. "That was then, this is now."