How Alabama gave Apollo 11 its "ticket to ride..."

Jul 19, 2019

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 manned moon landing is next week. Baby boomers may remember where they were and what they were doing when astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. The APR news team is spending the month looking at stories surrounding the historic moon landing, but not just on Armstrong’s “one small step.” APR’s Pat Duggins reported on how the astronauts got to the moon and Alabama’s role in that monumental task.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins started their trip aboard a 300 foot tall rocket called the Saturn V. For Alabamians in 1965, the sound of the Saturn’s 7 million pounds of liftoff thrust was nothing new. Although back then, it was new. Fifty years later, on a hot summer morning, we’re at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville with historian Brian Odom. He and I are standing in front of a 300 foot tall tower of steel and concrete. This is test stand 4670. It’s where the Saturn V first sprang to life.

Test stand 4670 at the Marshall Space Flight Center, where the Apollo Saturn V was tested in the mid 1960's.
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“It’s beyond structurally sound. I mean you talking forty feet deep beneath the surface, tapped into the bedrock, more concrete than you see above,” Odom said. “So it’s a huge engineering marvel, in itself, capable of holding that big rocket.”

Odom said in 1965, a Saturn rocket’s first stage was put into the test stand, clamped down, fueled up, and the engines were ignited.

“Then, you have this huge explosion, and y have fire coming out of that flame bucket, that you could see for miles,” Odom said. “So, it really does have an impact.”

That first stage is what sent Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins on their way to the moon. The problem is, that launch took place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the astronauts live work in Houston, so Huntsville’s contribution is largely forgotten.

“It’s almost the old joke that…miraculously, one day, a Saturn V showed up at the pad, you know,” Odom said.

Miles from test stand 4670, along interstate 565, visitors crowd the museum at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. This is where the public gets to see Alabama’s role in the space race. The Command Module capsule from Apollo 16 is here, as well as a Saturn V rocket on its side that was tested here before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969.

Apollo 16 Command Module capsule at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

It’s here that we met Kenny Mitchell.

“Most of the people I talk to here at the museum…I ask them where they’re from, and 'First time in Huntsville?’” Mitchell said. “And they say 'Yes,' ‘Have you heard about Huntsville’s exploits in space exploration?’ And, they say ‘No, I haven’t.’”

Mitchell is 78 years old. He’s in a white lab coat with a pocket full of NASA trading cards. His job is to work the crowd, but just walking up and talking. And, if anybody knows the answer to any NASA related questions, it’s Mitchell. That’s why he rates his own trading cards.

NASA trading card for retired engineer Kenny Mitchell
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

Mitchell signed on as a NASA engineer in 1960 when Marshall first opened up. He worked with rocket pioneer Werner Van Braun on the Saturn V. Visitors, who aren’t talking to Mitchell, crowd around an interactive exhibit on the test stand firings of the Saturn V. Mitchell doesn’t need to see it. He was there during the actual tests in the 1960’s.

Mitchell said the not so fun part was when an early rocket test created a shock wave that blew out the windows in a Huntsville shopping mall miles away.

“When we built the Saturn V test stand, we turned it around, so it faced Decatur,” Mitchell said. “And, it was 25 miles away, so we thought it’d be safe now.”

That’s south toward Birmingham. “In Birmingham, they’d think they were in an Earthquake,” Mitchell says.

“It was vibrating the ground, all the way to Birmingham,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell agrees that Huntsville is underappreciated for its role in paving the way for the Apollo 11 moon landing. However, the town known as Rocket City, U.S.A. may be seeing a change in its fortunes, not from NASA, but from private industry.

Odom pointed out hints of how big business is expanding into space travel. One example is a fuel tank for the rocket maker Blue Origin. It’s laying its side near the NASA test stand where Saturn V rocket engines were fired back in the '60s. Odom said another sign is the bunker that oversaw those Apollo tests.

“You go in that block house, and you look through those windows, and you can see the stand, just as the people ibn 1965 saw the stand,” Odom said.

And it looks like Blue Origin scientists will soon be moving in. The space rocket company has signed a deal with NASA to use the Apollo era test stands to try out new engines for Blue Origins Vulcan rockets.

Odom thinks there may be a hitch. The block house near the test stand is historic. So historic that it’s considered a landmark.

“We have people, we have folks who are assigned to be historic preservation officers, and they’re working hand in glove with Blue Origin, to make sure they’re what they’re supposed to be doing,” Odom said. “Not going further than they need to…making sure these assets are taken really care of.”

Back at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Mitchell has to wrap up his shift talking to parents and kids as a docent. The private industry push for space exploration has him busy as well. Not with Blue Origin, but a competitor. SpaceX owner Elon Musk is planning on using his Falcon Heavy rockets to launch astronauts to the International Space Station, and maybe onto the Moon or Mars. The catch is, SpaceX has only launched unmanned cargo to orbit. Sending up people is more complicated than stuffing them in a space capsule and saying “three, two, one.” The Falcon Heavy has to go through a process called man rating. That’s making sure a rocket has backup systems so flying people is safe. Mitchell has seen the SpaceX operation in Huntsville up close. 

A full sized Apollo Saturn V rocket, at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“I’m really impressed…I really am,” Mitchell said. “The more I’ve gotten to know them and their facilities.”

The question was whether the next generation was impressed having Mitchell around. The Saturn V was the very first rocket designed to carry astronauts, so Mitchell was asked to advise SpaceX engineers. He says it took time for them to get used to him. 

“At first, the old cliché Reagan used, 'I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,'" he said. "They’d all scoff.”

For Mitchell, convincing the skeptical is nothing new. He did that back during the Apollo moon landings; that includes his wife’s grandmother.

“To her dying day, 94 years old, she said ‘Now, Kenny you can tell me, we really didn’t go to the Moon, did we?’ And, I said ‘Momma, we really did, we really really did!”

And if all goes well, rockets built and tested in Huntsville may just do it again.

Editor's note: NASA engineer Kenny Mitchell is author of the book "The Cradle of American Space Exploration."