Remembering the Space Race: How the Rocket City earned its nickname

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - We are finally here. Coming up in just a few days is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that put two Americans on the moon.

How we got to that mission is a complex story.

In 1957, Huntsville was a growing city. The sleepy cotton days were ending, and the cars that jammed the downtown area were driven mostly by men and women whose lives revolved around missile work at Redstone Arsenal. That changed in the fall of the year. In October, in 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik. The communist country shocked the world with the first man-made satellite in orbit.

"I was not mad, I just said it could be ours," said Ernst Stuhlinger, of the German Rocket Team, The satellite could be ours here, and now it's theirs."

Doctor Stuhlinger was a working member of the German Rocket Team that led the efforts to build missiles at Redstone. He was part of the work that sent a test nosecone into space. A nosecone that was retrieved and studied. That success was one reason that Redstone got the call on November 8th to put a satellite into space.

The Army effort had to wait on the Navy's Vanguard program, but Vanguard exploded on the launch pad. Redstone Arsenal became the center for America's space hopes.

"Well, of course, we felt relief. 'Finally, we'll show you that we can build a satellite. You should have given us permission earlier, but still, we will do it now and hope we will be successful,'" recalled Stuhlinger.

With permission in hand, the serious work proceeded. Steve Smith was a 17-year-old co-op student, and he did soldering on the satellite that would ride to space on a modified Redstone Rocket.

"The immediate feeling I had was, 'let's get on with the job,'" said Smith. "We can do it very quickly. We have the skills to do it It wasn't a big deal, it was just a question of doing it."

Maybe so, but the world held its breath when Explorer was launched, and America got into the Space Race. It's when Huntsville, Alabama truly earned its nickname.

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