Years before either the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA) or the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) was established,
a group of scientists and engineers known as the Von Braun
rocket team became prominent in America’s fledgling space program. Von
Braun and his team had developed the famous V–2 rocket
during World War II for their native Germany. But Von Braun’s
real interest was developing rockets for space exploration.
As World War II ended, Von Braun and other German rocket
experts surrendered to Allied forces and eventually moved
from Germany to work for the U.S. Army. Initially assigned
to Fort Bliss, Texas, the Von Braun team was later transferred
to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. There the team
expanded during the 1950’s to include hundreds of U.S.-born
engineers and scientists as well as those who had worked with
Von Braun in Germany. On January 31, 1958, the team used a
modified Redstone rocket called a Jupiter-C to launch Explorer
I, America’s first orbiting satellite.
Two years later, Von Braun became director of NASA’s
new George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville where
he and his team would develop the Saturn rockets that launched
astronauts to the moon in 1969.
The Marshall Space Flight Center was activated on July 1,
1960, with the transfer of buildings, land, space projects,
property, and personnel from the Development Operations Division
of the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency. It was dedicated
on September 8, 1960, by President Dwight David Eisenhower.
The Center was named in honor of General George C. Marshall,
the Army Chief of Staff during World War II, Secretary of
State, and Nobel Prize Winner for his world-renowned "Marshall
Shortly before activating its new field Center in 1960, NASA
described the Marshall Center as "the only self-contained
organization in the nation which was capable of conducting
the development of a space vehicle from the conception of
the idea, through production of hardware, testing and launching
operations." Initial design for the launch complex in
Florida was performed in Huntsville. At that time, engineers
from Huntsville also traveled to Florida to conduct launch
activities. They then returned to Huntsville to analyze the
Not long after the Marshall Center officially opened for
business, the United States sent its first astronaut into
space. Today, visitors to the Marshall enter can still see
the Historic Redstone Test Stand where the rockets were
tested for the Mercury-Redstone vehicle that boosted America’s
first astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, on a suborbital flight in
In the wake of Shepard’s successful flight, President
Kennedy presented the nation with an even greater challenge.
He committed the United States to "achieving the goal,
before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and
returning him safely to Earth". The Marshall Center’s
role in meeting that challenge was absolutely vital. The Center
was assigned the task of building the Saturn V rocket that
would launch the astronauts on their way to the moon. Engineers,
scientists, administrators, and contractors worked night and
day to develop the technology powerful enough to lift the
363-foot tall, 6.2-million pound Saturn V rocket into space.
Some estimates stated that the Saturn V engines produced as
much power as 85 Hoover Dams. Saturn components and rocket
engines were tested at various sites including Huntsville.
Saturn testing was an unparalleled spectacle of sight and
sound in Huntsville. A visiting magazine writer once called
Huntsville the "Land of the Earth Shakers." One
"leaves the observation bunker with a weakness in the
knees that is just short of collapse... It was total flame,
total sound, total power." The noise was sometimes heard
in a radius in excess of 100 miles.
Three launch vehicles were developed in the Saturn program.
The Saturn I was primarily used as a research and development
vehicle. The Saturn IB as used for orbital missions with Apollo
spacecraft. Its first stage was powered by eight H–1
engines generating a total thrust of 1.6 million pounds. The
Saturn V, used for the Apollo manned lunar landing missions,
depended on a first stage powered by five F–1 engines,
each generating 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Saturns also
orbited the Skylab and later the Apollo spacecraft into the
historic linkup with the Russian-Soyuz spacecraft in 1975.
In all, Marshall provided NASA with 32 Saturn rockets, including
six used to land astronauts on the moon.
Early in its history, Marshall Center scientists and engineers
took advantage of the opportunity to use space as a place
for scientific study. As a bonus on two of the early Saturn
engineering test flights in 1962, the dummy upper stages were
used for a scientific experiment called Project Highwater.
Thousands of gallons of ballast water from the inert stages
were released into the upper atmosphere. This effort to investigate
the effects of water clouds marked the first use of a Saturn
vehicle for scientific purposes, even though the research
was clearly secondary to engineering objectives of the flights.
The first genuine scientific payloads launched by Saturn vehicles,
and the first satellites for which the Marshall Center had
full responsibility, were three Pegasus micrometeoroid detection
satellites orbited in 1965.
Marshall’s contribution to the Apollo lunar landing
program also included development of the Lunar Roving Vehicle
for transporting astronauts on the lunar surface. It was an
open-space vehicle about 10 feet long with large mesh wheels,
antenna appendages, tool caddies, and cameras. Powered by
two 36-volt batteries, it had four 1/4-hp drive motors, one
for each wheel. The unique vehicle was collapsible until needed
when it could be unfolded by hand. Its speed limit was about
9 miles per hour. A lunar rover was used on each of the last
three Apollo missions in 1971 and 1972 to permit the crew
to travel several miles from the landing craft. Outbound they
carried a load of experiments to be set up on the moon; on
the return trip, they carried more than 200 pounds of lunar
rock and soil samples.
Marshall Space Flight Center’s activities broadened
in the 1970’s with the development of Skylab. Skylab
was the United States’ first crewed orbiting space station
and the first American space program wholly dedicated to scientific
research. Skylab operated in orbit from May 1973 through February
1974. Three astronaut crews spent a total of 171 days conducting
scientific research in space. Marshall supplied the Skylab
workshop itself, plus the four Saturn launch vehicles, the
solar observatory and many of the scientific experiments for
each mission. Skylab results included significant discoveries
in all the experiment disciplines and far more data than anticipated.
It opened the era of comprehensive scientific research in
A Marshall Saturn rocket was used for the last time in the
mid-1970s as part of the joint U.S.-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test
Project mission. In 1975, a Saturn IB sent American astronauts
to rendezvous with Russian cosmonauts. As art of the mission,
the Marshall Center also provided several scientific experiments
and a multipurpose electric furnace for processing material
The focus was also on science for other Marshall-managed
space missions in the 1970’s. These included the Laser
Geodynamics Satellite. Laser beams from the ground were bounced
off the prismatic mirrors on the satellite to track movements
in the Earth’s crust. Another scientific project, Gravity
Probe-A, was also called the Redshift Experiment. It used
an extremely precise clock to confirm part of Einstein’s
general theory of relativity.
During the 1970’s, Marshall also had responsibility
for the High Energy Astronomy Observatory series of spacecraft.
That project provided revolutionary insights into celestial
objects by studying their high-energy radiation from space.
Each of the three observatories launched in the late 1970’s
was about 18 feet in length, weighed between 6,000 and 7,000
pounds and carried about 1.5 tons of experiments.
On January 5, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon announced
plans to develop the Space Shuttle for routine access to space.
As part of that program, Marshall designed the shuttle’s
main engines, its solid rocket boosters, and its external
tank as well as a variety of scientific payloads. Marshall
also received responsibility for Spacelab, a versatile laboratory
carried within the Shuttle’s cargo bay. Other Center
assignments included the upper stage boosters that would lift
Shuttle payloads into higher orbits and on interplanetary
voyages. One of Marshall’s prime responsibilities included
developing the Hubble Space Telescope, an optical observatory
that is returning unprecedented views of the universe. The
first Space Shuttle main engine was test fired in 1975, followed
by the first test firing of its solid rocket motor in 1977.
That same year, tests on the huge external tank began at the Marshall Center. In March 1978, throngs of employees
and citizens greeted the Orbiter Enterprise upon its arrival
at the Marshall Center for testing. The orbiter was hoisted
into a modified Dynamic Test Stand originally built for the
Saturn V. It was then mated to an external tank, and subjected
to vibration frequencies comparable to those expected during
launch and ascent.
April 12, 1981 marked a new era in the history of space
flight. The world’s first reusable space vehicle, powered
by Marshall developed propulsion systems, was thrust into
orbit with two astronauts aboard. This new chapter in the
history of the Center would feature Marshall at the forefront
of the nation’s space exploration efforts, among them
launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, responsibilities
for more than 20 Spacelab missions, and much more.
National Historic Landmarks
The NASA Marshall Space Flight Center announced on January
22, 1986, that the U.S. Department of the Interior’s
National Park Service had designated four Marshall Center
facilities as National Historic Landmarks. On July 15, 1987,
a fifth designation was announced. The first four facilities
are the Redstone Test Stand, Propulsion and Structural Test
Facility, Saturn V dynamic Test Stand, and Neutral Buoyancy
Simulator. The Saturn V on display at the United States Space
and Rocket Center represents the fifth designation.
Historic Redstone Test Stand
The Redstone Test Stand was used during the 1950’s
in early development of the Redstone missile propulsion system.
This was the test stand where the modified Redstone missile
that launched the first American into space, Alan Shepard,
was static tested as the last step before the flight occurred.
Propulsion and Structural Test Facility The Propulsion and
Structural Test facility, developed in support of Jupiter
missile development, was modified and used for testing on
the first clustered engine stage in the American space program,
the S-IB stage of the Saturn I launch vehicle. It was also
used as the primary test stand for the development of the
F–1 engine, the largest liquid rocket engine ever developed.
The F–1 generated 1.5
million pounds of thrust.
Neutral Buoyancy Simulator
The Neutral Buoyancy Simulator was designed to provide a simulated
weightless environment needed to perform engineering tests
in preparation or space missions. The extra-vehicular activity
protocols for the Skylab rescue and Apollo Telescope Mount
film retrieval were developed in the facility
Dynamic Test Stand
The Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand was used in 1966–67
for ground vibration testing of the Saturn V launch vehicle
and the Apollo spacecraft. Completion of this program was
the final step prior to the launch of Apollo 11, the first
manned lunar landing mission. In 1972–73 the stand was
used for tests involving the Skylab Space Station, and in
1978–79 for ground vibration testing of the complete
Space Shuttle vehicle.
Saturn V Display
The Saturn V on display at the United States Space and Rocket
Center is the actual test rocket that was used in dynamic
testing of the Saturn facilities at Marshall. The stages of
the rocket were used to check out all the Saturn facilities
at Huntsville. Although the rocket was not intended to be
flown, it was a working vehicle that prepared the way for
the Apollo expeditions to the moon. Officials from the Department
of the Interior referred to the vehicle as "a unique
engineering masterpiece that formed the key link in the chain
that enabled Americans to travel to the moon. The success
of the Saturn V made possible the success of the American
space program." The Saturn V at the United States Space
and Rocket Center was delivered by Marshall in 1969 after
all three stages were taken from the Center’s Dynamic
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