50 Years of Space Flight History

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(WHNT) - When WHNT News 19 signed on in 1963, Doctor Wernher von Braun and his rocket team were busy making President John Kennedy’s 1961 promise to go to the moon within the decade a reality.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” said President Kennedy.

In The Rocket City, making those hard things happen meant developing huge rocket engines for the Saturn V.

WHNT News 19 covered the roar that shook north Alabama, rattling windows and scaring people and dogs.

It all culminated in 1969 with Apollo XI; our coverage anchored by Walter Cronkite.

And the Saturn V developed at Marshall Space Flight Center did exactly what it was supposed to do.  The first humans made it to the moon.

“Neil Armstrong, 38 year old American standing on the surface of the moon. That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” reported Cronkite.

It wouldn’t be long before a lunar rover was also on the moon, courtesy of hard work by Marshall Space Flight Center engineers and technicians.  But before that, something else happened.

“WHNT TV Television News presents a farewell tribute to Doctor Wernher von Braun, good afternoon.”

“In 1970, a parade and a special goodbye ceremony held on the Madison County Courthouse steps.

“My friends, there was dancing in the streets of Huntsville when the first satellite orbited the Earth. And there was dancing again when the first astronaut landed on the moon. I’d like to ask you, don’t hang up your dancing shoes,” said von Braun

There could have been dancing with Skylab.  Mankind’s first space station doesn’t fly without the leadership of Marshall Space Flight Center.  That leadership would go forward with the development of the world’s first re-useable space craft– the space shuttle.

When testing led to the first flight of STS-1, WHNT News 19 was there.

The shuttle program had a spectacular beginning.  Then, in 1986 on the 25th launch, disaster struck.  73 seconds into flight, the shuttle Challenger exploded.  The shuttle program was down for 32 months while the reason for the disaster was discovered.

“Technicians painstakingly cleaned and salvaged those flight recorder tapes at Marshall Space Flight Center. Officials kept saying those tapes wouldn’t yield new information, but we now know the crew seated on the flight deck probably did see something amiss,” said Bob Knowles, WHNT News 19 alumnus.

The problem that downed Challenger was fixed and the shuttle program returned to space.  Marshall was in charge of all propulsion and the external tank.

Among other specular accomplishments, the shuttle made the International Space Station possible.

And then in 2003, another disaster struck.  This time, the shuttle Columbia orbiter disintegrated during re-entry.  The shuttle program was grounded for 29 months.

WHNT News 19 was at Kennedy Space Center for the return to flight.

“Things have finally calmed down here at the Kennedy Space Center.  After one scrubbed launch and worries about a faulty fuel sensor, NASA is finally back in the manned space flight business.  And liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery, and thus America returned the space shuttle to flight. And the vehicle has cleared the tower,” said WHNT’S Steve Johnson.

And then in 2011, this incredible program came to an end 30 years after the last shuttle flight.  We were live from Kennedy Space Center.

The end of the space shuttle program led to work on a replacement.

When the Ares had its test flight, we were there.

“It did what it was supposed to do, it went right where it was supposed to go, and what a sense of accomplishment for that team,” said Robert Lightfoot, Marshall Space Flight Center Director.

As often happens–the program that spawned Ares was changed.  Now, the team at Marshall Space Flight Center is leading the way on the vehicle to replace the shuttle.

When it flies, WHNT News 19 will be there.

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