Sunday, October 25, 2009


I'm sitting in front of a rusty gate closed by a chain and padlock. Birds are chirping behind me and I hear crickets in the woods on both sides. I feel a peaceful serenity and solitude at the end of this torn up road. In the distance in front of me, beyond the gate and a row of low trees rise two towers of steel webbed girders, adorned with propellant and oxidizer tanks and cranes that look as if they have been caught in a spider's web waiting to be consumed and sucked dry. I can not see the base of the towers; they are obstructed by different kinds of trees. A low pitched whirr is coming from the base of the towers, perhaps some sort of refrigeration system? A wren calls out. The road that I am on, at the southern end of Redstone Arsenal and the Marshal Spaceflight center, is cracked and the asphalt litters the road in spots with pebbles. A wasp just performed a flyby of my computer screen. Perhaps he wonders why someone has come here to sit on the hood of his car and type into his computer. The wildlife gets louder. Perhaps they are more comfortable now that I have been here for a while. I wonder how the wildlife reacted when the mammoth F-1 engines were tested at this test stand in the 1960s.
This morning, my manager told me that the engineers had not considered the magnitude of the acoustic shock from the engine, and with no suppressing countermeasures, windows for miles around were broken out by the shockwave. That was the first time the engineers working on that engine had operated something so powerful. Perhaps only weaker than the atom bomb, but the F-1 engines sustained continuous explosion, while a nuclear bomb is over in an instantaneous flash.

I hear a clang. The whirring stops. When the airplane overhead moves on, I expect to hear no man made sounds at all. Only the birds and crickets inhabit this place, along with the inanimate man made objects.

Two walkers approach me from behind, and give me a nod. They reach the gate, turn around, and return back down the winding wooded avenue.

30 minutes ago I stood in front of the Jupiter C, Redstone, Saturn 1, Hermes, and V2 rockets lined up in a row about a mile north of where I sit. The Jupiter was riveted together, like a vintage airplane with round rivets that protruded from the metal, unlike modern airplanes where the rivets are flush. It looked like something that was put together a long time ago. These rockets weren’t that big, either. I looked up at the Redstone rocket, which carried Allan Sheppard into his suborbital flight so long ago. I could be on top of that, I thought. It's not even that tall. I did a full walk around the Jupiter C. The V2 Stood next to the Hermes. It's comical bulbous pointy shape pointed to the sky. "I aim for the stars" was the name of the movie made about Von Braun. "But sometimes I hit London," a satirist suggested as an addendum to the title. That V2. Here in Alabama. Far from Penuumbre where it was conceived and manufactured. It came to these woods in Alabama with the designers to show the hunters how to begin the ascendance above the atmosphere. This same machine above me at the time served as a beacon along the trail to the stars, whereas if it had been picked before one of the other V2 rockets in the final days of World War Two at Penuumbre it could have been one of the rockets that killed 168 people at Woolworths in New Cross, London. Its brother V2, which actually struck Woolworths, could be the one standing erect at the Redstone arsenal in 2009. Would it feel survivor’s guilt like the Apollo moon walker Eugene Cernan felt guilt for not being shot at in fighter planes over Vietnam because her was flying in space missions to the moon?

The V2 rocket and Von Braun both came here to Alabama to shake their dark past of fatal slave labor from Jews and merciless arbitrary killing against the people of London. They came to Alabama, with no pretentions about their past, but a dogged determination to make good with the evil gift that had been a mainstay of Nazi desperation in the waning days of World War Two. Still, here at the Redstone armory, both Von Braun and V2 were saddled side by side with the development of the nuclear-carrying ICBM missiles. Hitler had pushed rockets for war in the 1940s, and in the 1960s, Von Braun was not free from the clutches of a country that used every advance in space exploration to further the military technology of missiles.

I pondered on the simple calculations that I had done the night before as I took my propulsion midterm exam. Those formulas that I employed to answer the arbitrary questions, did the engineers who built this hardware really know them much better than I did when they were grappling with the Redstone rocket design? I saw the smooth tubular shell of the rockets. "How complicated is it in there?" I wondered. As I looked carefully, I saw a bird pecking about inside the rocket inside the mesh. That bird was more familiar with the inner workings of the rocket than I was. When I draw my sketches on paper for a homework problem, they are so simple. I know that there are mysteries that the engineers had to discover and uncover as they built these rockets. The unseen intricacies underneath the white painted skin are what has become ingrained in these Alabama hunters. It's that mystery that has been frozen into these steel webbed towers that rise before me. They wait for us to build again.

I hear a rocket firing to my left. It is still going. Is it an engine? It sounds throttled back. The birds complain, breaking out into shrieks. I still hear the sound. It sounds like metal being dragged across the floor. It sounds like a waterfall.

The rocket is throttled up again. It sounds like sparks flying. It sounds like standing under a shower head, echoed through the hilly wooded countryside. I can’t imagine anything other than a rocket test that could make that noise. Now I hear crows in front of me beyond the trees beginning to caw. Perhaps they have had enough. Or maybe they are going to go and see what I can only imagine as I sit here.

These test stands wait here. They stand ready for America to build new engines, to try new technologies never before built by man. These towers are sleeping giants ready to roar to life with the birth of the engineering artifacts that will carry other men’s dreams, other men’s fears, and other men’s pride forward and upward through the atmosphere to unknown worlds and lands..

Men like Von Braun, who walked this very road countless times from the time that the government brought him here to this army base in 1960 with a mandate to put America on the Moon. Some of the Alabama country folk stopped hunting deer in the forests to start building rockets. They never stopped hunting deer, they just moved to other forests. One of the first things that I heard here in Alabama was when I got my security clearance at the Arsenal entrance: A group of locals were standing outside the security post and one said: “When I was gutting a deer this weekend…” in a deep southern drawl. I smiled as I headed to the rental car. These Alabamans didn’t put down their guns when they picked up their tools to construct this oddity in the universe; this portal to change. Where hunters ascend to Knowers. Doers. Makers. Be-ers.

I sit here, surrounded by birds, the very creatures that moved Wilbur and Orville off the sands of the beach in Kitty Hawk. An airplane flies above me now, a creature of man’s making that further moved men to build spaceships and rockets. I sit in front of the towers with their mechanical whirr (it started up again). The towers are creatures that are moving me to some future transcendence. What is it? I can envision interplanetary voyages, as the Wright brothers and Da Vinci envisioned flight when seeing the birds; as Goddard, Oberth, and Braunn envisioned space travel after seeing the airplanes. I see the current day spaceships, the test stands before me right now... I envision permanent settlement on the Moon and Mars. I envision simplified reliable rockets bringing up satellites, experiments, people, and energy into space. I envision a people who identify themselves not with their country, but with their planet and solar system. I envision knowledge spread among the people.

The walkers return again. The same walkers, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans. How many times do they make this trip? I asked them what the noise was earlier. They didn’t even notice. They told me, in their Alabama accents, about how different parts of the arsenal were used to test army missiles and NASA motors. They didn’t notice the sounds. It is such a regular occurrence to them that it only enters their subconsciousness. Those sounds are as natural to them as the birds and crickets.

I set the laptop down and walk down a small street that comes off the dead end where I sit toward the sound that I heard earlier. Perhaps I will catch a glimpse of the source of the noise. Writing on the back of a receipt that I find in my pocket, I make note of these things: The street is covered with dead tree bits. I pass a white blockhouse with a silent diesel generator installed on the side. The blockhouse can’t be larger than 15 feet by 8 feet. Next to it stands a rusty radio tower, consumed with vines. The old-school antennas atop the tower point toward the source of the sound. In big blue letters 4692 is written on the side of the building. A little further down the road, I meet another rusted gate, this one marked with a small white sign with C-12 painted on it, the paint mostly washed away by years, rain and sun. The padlock is rusted, the barbed wire atop the gate is rusted. An old metal mailbox bolted to the gate has been bent to the point that it no longer closes. I see through the open top that the bottom has been rusted out. What type of letters were delivered here, next to the sign that reads "DANGER: Explosives Keep Away." Perhaps the neighbors dropped off letters asking the workers to keep down the noise. Perhaps the wives of the engineers dropped off lunch in the little box? The gate itself has had vines growing from one side all the way to the other, only to die years ago. The dead vines now cross through the gate, past the padlock, as if to confirm the prohibition of access and the permanency of closure. The road continues past the gate in a straight line, ending in trees far away. Dead branches from the encroaching forest lay in the path, not even causing enough of a nuisance to warrant removal.

When I return to the car, a different walker passes by. He wears mesh shorts and is listening to headphones. He walks decidedly to the gate and taps the little white "C-18" sign as a token of reaching the end of his lap. And this is the end of my lap.

This is Huntsville. This is the Redstone Arsenal. This is the Marshal Spaceflight Center.

For me it is, anyway.

As I ready to leave, I hear once again the sound of rushing water, sparks, a metal plate being drug along the ground, or whatever it is.

I guess this place isn’t sleeping after all.

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