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We have had questions on the origin of JSC, KSC, White Sands, and Wallops Island. Today is MSFC's turn.


After World War II, many of the officials of the German rocket program -- including leader Wernher von Braun -- were brought to the United States to develop missiles for the U.S. Army. They initially worked at Fort Bliss, Texas. However, the group was relocated in 1950 to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The facility was transferred to NASA in 1960 and renamed the Marshall Space Flight Center. Von Braun served as the facility's first director until 1970. The center is particularly known for launch vehicle development (Mercury-Redstone, Apollo-Saturn, Shuttle) and space station operations (Skylab, ISS).

Why was Redstone Arsenal particularly chosen for the Army rocket group? There seem to be plenty of other potential choices:

  • Wikipedia suggests that Redstone was a natural choice because it was involved in "the production and storage of ordnance shells" during WWII. However, there were plenty of other munitions plants throughout the U.S., so why not these other sites? In particular, Wikipedia describes Thiokol having to move operations from Maryland to Redstone Arsenal.

  • Von Braun's group initially launched missiles from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. As the largest U.S. Army facility, it has plenty of space which could have been used for R&D.

  • Development for the White Sands missiles occurred across the state line, at Fort Bliss, Texas. Von Braun's group started there, and arguably could have stayed there. As the second largest U.S. Army facility, it also has plenty of available space.

  • Cape Canaveral in Florida may at first seem like a logical choice. However, it was never owned by the Army: by the Navy as Banana River Naval Air Station (1940-1948), by the Air Force (1948-2020), and by the Space Force (2020-current).

  • Kennedy Space Center did not break ground until 1962, nor was it ever involved with Army missile development.

I'm looking for an answer backed by an authoritative source.

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  • $\begingroup$ Minor nitpick on the question: Redstone Arsenal still exists; it has tentatively been chosen as the headquarters for the recently formed US Space Force. Only a small part of the arsenal was transferred to NASA to form the Marshall Space Flight Center. $\endgroup$ Apr 5 at 10:06
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In the late 1949, the Army designated the Redstone Arsenal as their R&D center for rocket-related activities, presumably to consolidate the efforts in one location:

In October 1948, the Chief of Ordnance had designated Redstone Arsenal as the center of research and development activities in the field of rockets and related items. The arsenal was officially reactivated as the site of the Ordnance Rocket Center on 1 June 1949.

(source)

The choice for the Redstone Arsenal was motivated by two reasons: first, it was available as it was declared surplus after World War II, and local politicians were eager to find a new purpose for it to maintain employment:

Established in 1941, the 1620-square-kilometer arsenal was used by the U.S. Army in the production and testing of chemical warfare weapons. After the war, it was shut down, declared surplus property, and put up for sale in 1949. Huntsville city fathers and local politicians, including Senator John Sparkman and Representative Bob Jones, were soon sounding out their contacts in the Department of Defense to see what could be done to keep the Arsenal alive. Jones and Sparkman were hot on the trail of a new location for wind tunnel test facilities for the Air Force, but lost out to the state of Tennessee. The wind tunnel was located at the recently closed Camp Forest at Tullahoma, and was eventually named the Arnold Engineering Development Center. Nevertheless, Sparkman and Jones had made an impression. Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington told Sparkman that Alabama would get something better in the long run. A few weeks later, the Alabama congressmen found out exactly what they were acquiring-the Army's Rocket Research and Development Suboffice, to be relocated from Fort Bliss, Texas.

(from "Stages to Saturn", chapter 13)

Secondly, among the available options, the former arsenal was favored due to the available facilities, space and access to the river:

Huntsville had been one of the several sites under consideration. The site selection committee included von Braun, and he was enthusiastic about Huntsville from the beginning. "For me, it was love at first sight," he said. Among other things, the advantages of Huntsville included the existing Arsenal facilities, abundant low-cost electric power from the TVA, the Tennessee River (both for water supply and transportation), and the open space. "In selecting this site, of course," von Braun recalled, "in our field we had to consider that these rockets would be making a lot of noise."

(ibid)

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    $\begingroup$ Nicely done. My answer, which was in work and said much the same, is now gone. $\endgroup$ Apr 5 at 10:21
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen Is just read chapter 13 last week or so, by chance. I figured I had to be quick ;-) Would be good to find a source on why the army wanted to move away from Fort Bliss, but that information may be unfindable (red tape, classified, etc...) $\endgroup$
    – Ludo
    Apr 5 at 10:25
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    $\begingroup$ There were several factors. (1) Von Braun and his crew did not like the Fort Bliss area, and that's being nice. (2) A V2 rocket launched in 1947 from White Sands went south rather than north and crashed very close to Juárez Mexico. That international incident had long lasting repercussions, including ruling out San Diego as a NASA center more than a decade later. A near term repercussion was that launching from the middle of the continent was perceived as a bad idea. (3) Fort Bliss expanded in different areas at about the same time, and space at the Fort was needed for those other purposes. $\endgroup$ Apr 5 at 10:36

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