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Life in Huntsville isn't rocket science, but it's pretty close

Sunday, February 16, 2003

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As a girl of 7, Loretta Spencer used to stand outside her father's funeral home in Huntsville, Ala. and watch the farmers who drove in to the town's dusty square to buy farm supplies, school books and whatever else they couldn't grow.

Huntsville was a languid Northern Alabama cotton town back in 1944, drawing its identity from its claim of being the state's oldest town. Most of its 10,000 residents drew sustenance from growing, ginning, selling or turning cotton into cloth at one of three local textile mills. Cotton brokers clustered around the two movie houses, which provided the only diversions from school, church and meetings of the Rotary or PTA.

Redstone Arsenal, the Army base on the outskirts of town, turned out bombs and other weapons during World War II. After the war, it slowed down so drastically that, for a time, the government offered it for sale.

"Huntsville was a different kind of place," said Spencer, now 65, who grew up to be a teacher and community planner before becoming Huntsville's mayor 6 1/2 years ago. "Then the Germans came, and everything changed."

"The Germans" were the team of about 100 rocket scientists whose arrival after World War II marked the beginnings of both the nation's space program and Huntsville's 50-year evolution into the archetypal NASA city. Today, Huntsville displays the space shuttle on its city seal and bills itself as Rocket City USA, a high-tech, high-living, ethnically diverse metropolis that entwines its identity with the NASA installations that are its best-known tenants.

"Huntsville would not be the city it is without the rocket team and NASA," said Barbara Nash, spokeswoman for the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce. "Because of them, we have a bunch of smart people who live here today. Having these people has upped the standard of living -- the economy, the schools, the arts, everything."

During World War II, the German scientists developed the V-2 rocket, the lethal missile that terrorized England, reaching speeds of up to 3,500 mph. Convinced by early 1945 that Germany could not win the war, team leader Wernher von Braun arranged for his scientists to surrender to the U.S. Army and to bring their plans and families with them to America.

In 1949, the Army centered its missile and rocket research and development program at Redstone.

It hadn't been all that long since the United States was at war with Germany, so many of Huntsville's citizens weren't thrilled at first to receive von Braun and his team, Spencer said. But they didn't take long to thaw, thanks to the jobs being generated to support the rocket program. They, too, saw the benefits they and their children would reap by supporting the scientists' desire for excellent schools and cultural facilities to rival those left behind in Germany.

"It's said the Germans turned up the next day [after their arrival] at the library to get their cards," said Homer Hickam, the best-selling author of "October Sky" and retired NASA aerospace engineer who has lived in Huntsville for all but five of the last 33 years.

The Germans quickly formed a symphony, Hickam said, and later supported the creation of a ballet company, theater and other music groups and a society to study Thomas Jefferson, whose ideas on liberty they admired, he said.

In 1960, NASA opened its Marshall Space Flight Center on the Redstone grounds, with von Braun as its first director. A Marshall-built Mercury-Redstone rocket would carry astronaut Alan Shepherd on his suborbital flight in 1961, and Saturn rockets developed there would later lift other U.S. astronauts to the moon and to the Skylab space station.

Today, Marshall's 7,341 federal and contract employees support nearly all of NASA's projects. But since 1981, Marshall has been perhaps best known for developing and managing the propulsion systems for the space shuttle program.

The Army continues missile, aviation and rocket research and development at Redstone. Also in Huntsville are the National Space Science Technology Center, run jointly by NASA and several Alabama universities, and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to its popular visitors center and Space Camp.

Elsewhere in the city and its suburbs are more than 500 private engineering, software, electronics and technology firms.

These firms have drawn job-seekers from all over the world. They brought diversity to the community and helped to mitigate racial strife that periodically tore the rest of the state and the South. Today, the city has about 160,000 residents; the metropolitan area has about 367,000. Native-born Alabamians are in the minority, and Thai restaurants pop up as frequently as barbeque joints.

NASA and Redstone pay no taxes on property they occupy. But NASA alone pumps more than $820 million annually into the Alabama economy in the form of salaries and purchases of goods. Redstone generates a like amount, Spencer said.

The average annual household income in Huntsville is about $53,000, among the highest in the Southeast. But in this city where one in 13 people are engineers and many others hold doctorates in other professions, many salaries are much higher.

The purchasing power of those people, and the sales taxes they generate, make up 55 percent of Huntsville's annual $114 million budget.

The three public school districts that serve Huntsville and its suburbs and area universities also have thrived from relationships with NASA.

The public schools are consistently ranked among the best in the state and the Southeast and have won recognition in national magazines. Their dropout rates are half of the state average, and their students score above national averages on Stanford Achievement Tests and surpass the state average on college admissions tests.

All three public school systems -- Huntsville, Madison City and Madison County -- benefit from teaching and research partnerships that bring NASA workers into classrooms and put them on advisory panels to work with students on LEGO robotics programs, Moon Buggy races and other ventures. NASA also offers specialized training for teachers, which they share with colleagues in their schools.

The University of Alabama at Huntsville, Alabama A&M and other universities in the region also have benefited from the NASA connection. Once little more than a night-school branch of the state's land-grant university in Tuscaloosa, UAH now is an autonomous campus that emphasizes science and offers masters' and doctorate programs in engineering and physics. Alabama A&M, too, has beefed up its engineering and science programs.

"The heavy emphasis on schools and the arts, that Huntsville was a good place to raise your kids, helped us to decide it suited me and my family," said former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver John Stallworth, now the co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Madison Research Corp. in Huntsville.

Madison Research provides engineering and information technology services to NASA and other clients. Although Stallworth's wife was a Huntsville native and he grew up near Tuscaloosa, Stallworth said he, his wife and their son and daughter didn't settle in Huntsville merely because it was familiar.

"We were entrepreneurial and we wanted success. Things were going on here with NASA and with the Army that affected our decision," said Stallworth, 50.

Because of its pervasive ties to NASA, Huntsville has been in mourning since the Columbia shuttle disaster earlier this month. Many NASA employees knew Columbia crew members from training sessions at Marshall, and even people with no direct connection with NASA share a sense of collective responsibility for its success.

Widespread questions about what went wrong with Columbia, and about the direction NASA will take now, have tinged Huntsville's grief with worry. But no one there really believes NASA's role in the community will diminish.

"There's one thing that people in Huntsville understand and the rest of world may not: We know what the space program has done for the quality of life in this country," Nash said.

"This is not just about a little white airplane going up and down in the air, but also about cell phones, cancer treatments and all kinds of technology that came out of all that," she said. "There is a lot of resolve here that they will find out what went wrong and keep the research going."


Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973.

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