Where would the Rocket City be today without, well, rockets?
Beyond being a city in search of a new nickname, Huntsville would not be an economic pillar of Alabama if not for the success of the Apollo 11 moon mission.
So maybe one celebration, in turn, inspires another.
As America recognizes that first moon landing in 1969 as a special moment in the nation’s history, the race to the moon in the 1960s launched Huntsville into an otherworldly status of prosperity that decades later is still on a trajectory of success not unlike the Apollo 11 mission itself.
“I think the Apollo 11 mission and all the Apollo missions were springboards into the future,” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.
The story can be told in different ways about how Huntsville’s prominent role in building the Saturn V rocket that carried the first astronauts to the moon.
But the numbers perhaps tell it best of all.
Marshall Space Flight Center was founded in Huntsville in 1960 as America began pursuit of not only matching the Soviet Unions early success in space but eventually surpassing the Russians in what became known as the Space Race.
At that time, Huntsville had a population of 72,365, according to the U.S. Census. That made it the fourth-largest city in Alabama albeit a distant fourth. The state’s third-largest city at the time, Montgomery, had almost twice as many people as Huntsville. And Tuscaloosa, the fifth-largest city, was just 9,000 people behind Huntsville.
“When the space boom hit Huntsville, there was a point where it was like, ‘Are we going to keep what we have or are we going to go for the unknown?'” said Donna Castellano, executive director of the Huntsville Historic Foundation. “That’s a very scary thing for people to do. And they went for the unknown.”
As an example, Castellano cited the Madison County Courthouse which opened in 1967. The nine-floor building with its distinctive 1960s design — replaced the traditional courthouse design so often seen across the state today.
That new courthouse, itself now too small, received rave reviews at the time for its architectural design and was touted as “the courthouse that space built.”
We used that as a springboard to bid into IT, we used it to get into sensoring and cyber work, Battle said of the Apollo 11 success. We used it as a springboard to get into aeronautics. All the disciplines sitting right there with NASA are disciplines that you find today in our industries that are stretched throughout Research Park the second-largest research park in America. We have more engineering degrees per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. It all stemmed to our work with Apollo.
Wee celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 with stories through the month of July. You can find the full collection of stories, from AL.com staff and others, here: Apollo 11 Anniversary.
Alabama and its rocket put Apollo 11, first man on the moon
Florida had the launch pad and countdown, Houston had the astronauts, but Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center brought the rocket that made it all take flight (source)
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— Rep. Laura Hall (@RepLauraHallD19) July 14, 2019