REDSTONE ARSENAL – During the pandemic it wasn’t unusual to see an empty parking lot in front of the Marshall Space Flight Center Headquarters building, which is known to everyone as 4200. However, a closer look shows a couple of unusual things.
Weeds are growing tall through the patios surrounding the building, and almost all of the ten-story facility is covered with a net. “It had some things, some different mechanical systems, plumbing systems that we knew we were having issues with, and then we started having issues with the outside of the building,” said MSFC Director Jody Singer.
One of the panels that cover the outside of the building fell off. “The seven by five foot panel came through one of our windows, that’s the building talking to you,” said Singer.
The building essentially said it needed a protective net to catch any other falling panels. Now the halls where some 450 employees walked and worked are vacant. The museum at the front entrance has been cleaned out, and the first-floor auditorium where so many all-hands meetings were centered is empty. 4200 has been de-commissioned. “It was a sense of loss for me personally. I started my career in that building,” said Singer who is the 14th Director of Marshall.
The first Director was Wernher von Braun, and from his tenure on, every Center Director’s office has been located in 4200. That is one small part of the building’s history. In May of 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, there was a sign likely standing in an empty field at Redstone Arsenal announcing the future site of the “Central Laboratory and Office building for Marshall Space Flight Center”. The building would be known always by its numerical designation, 4200, and it would be one of the most important buildings in American space flight history.
“It’s critically important to the work that’s happened in there. The thinking about NASA, the thinking about the missions we undertake. A lot of that thought process happened in that building,” said NASA Historian, Brian Odom.
The first major decisions and crises to happen in 4200 would have been concerning the Saturn V, which is the rocket that made humans walking on the moon in 1969 possible. Skylab in 1973 could be called a child of the Saturn program and would be America’s first space station. Then there was the Space Shuttle, which despite two deadly setbacks was the world’s first reusable spacecraft, and had a remarkable 30-year run. The shuttle made building the International Space Station possible. The Hubble Space Telescope owes its existence to work at 4200, and in 31 years has been a remarkable generator of knowledge about the cosmos.
More recently work to design and develop the Space Launch System, the SLS was centered at 4200.
“It’s natural,” said Historian Brian Odom, “to consider all that 4200 has meant to America’s efforts in space. But there’s also as a NASA employee, there’s this look to the future. You know, the modernization and the great work that we have to do as part of Artemis.”
Yes, there is a future that NASA is working toward, and 4200 won’t be part of it. “It’s bittersweet. But you know when I think about the building, I don’t think about the walls. I think about the people in the building and the leaders before me, and the decisions that were made and the people that surround me, and that’s what you take in your heart,” said Jody Singer.
No date has been set for tearing down 4200, but it was always in the master plan for Marshall and slated to be replaced by 2030.
The decision was moved up because of numerous age-related problems for the 58-year-old building, and the fact that was costing about a million dollars a year for maintenance and operations.