Air Force Bases

History of Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville Alabama

In April 1941, Congress authorized funding for a second chemical warfare manufacturing and storage facility In June, a survey team selected a site on the southwestern edge of Huntsville. A month later when the Huntsville Arsenal site was announced, the Ordnance Corps announced plans to build an assembly plant next to the chemical munitions manufacturing and storage facility. This "Redstone Ordnance Plant" would be redesignated Redstone Arsenal in 1943.

Huntsville first came into contact with missiles when the "Fred Project" was established in January 1945. The project demonstrated the "in-house" capability to produce liquid propellant. In August 1945, two JB-2 missiles launched from Eglin Field in Florida validated the government's capability and the demonstration project ended.

With the end of the war, activity at the two arsenals dropped dramatically. Many facilities at Huntsville were leased for use by private sector companies. Until 1947 when Redstone was placed in standby status, work at the facility consisted of renovating and salvaging ammunition returned from overseas. On June 30, 1949, Huntsville Arsenal was deactivated. Command responsibilities were assumed by Redstone, which on June 1, 1949, had been designated as the Ordnance Rocket Center.

With the founding of the Ordnance Rocket Center, contractors were invited to submit bids to operate many of the government-owned facilities. Thiokol Corporation was one of the many aerospace industries that established themselves within the Arsenal. Thiokol's role included research, development, and production of solid propulsion systems.

Huntsville's Role in Ballistic/Guided Missile Development

In 1950,120 German scientists led by Dr. Wernher von Braun along with American scientists and military personnel arrived from Fort Bliss, Texas, to begin work. Work at Redstone had initially centered on rocket-related research and development including basic and applied research on free rockets, jet-assisted takeoff engines, and solid-propellant fuels. With the arrival of the von Braun team, Redstone also became responsible for research and development of guided missiles. Their first major project was to develop a surface-to-surface missile with a 500-mile range. This missile became known as the Redstone.

The team established themselves within the confines of the former Huntsville Arsenal portion of the complex while rocket research and development continued on the southeast corner of the original Redstone tract. In September 1952, the two centers were merged to become the Ordnance Missile Laboratories.

To deploy and maintain the missiles developing at Redstone, the Army needed trained soldiers and technicians. Consequently, in 1952, the Army founded the Ordnance Guided Missile School (OGMS) at Huntsville. Eventually, the command evolved into the U.S. Army Missile and Munitions Center and School. By 1973, the school had graduated over 80,000 students.

In October 1955, divided on the issue of development of an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson that both the Air Force and Army proceed with their respective programs. The following month, Secretary Wilson directed the Army and Navy to collaborate on IRBM Number 2, known as Jupiter. This directive gave the Army the impetus to consolidate its ongoing Jupiter program within one organization.

Consequently, on February 1, 1956, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) came into existence at Redstone Arsenal under the jurisdiction of the Chief of Ordnance and assumed control of the facilities of the former Guided Missile Development Division of Redstone's Ordnance Missile Laboratory. Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris became ABMA's first commander.

Throughout 1956, ABMA, working with the Navy, made steady progress on the Jupiter program. Launches at the Atlantic Missile Range were so successful that the early Jupiter test program was accelerated. In August, construction was completed at Redstone on what was then the nation's largest rocket test stand.

Unfortunately for ABMA, on November 26, 1956, Defense Secretary Wilson issued a memorandum to the Armed Forces Policy Council that gave the Air Force operational jurisdiction of long-range missiles (over 200 miles). The Jupiter program received another blow in early December when the Navy pulled out of the Jupiter program after receiving the Defense Secretary's approval to proceed with its Polaris program.

In 1957, with the future of Jupiter in doubt, von Braun's team continued to make progress while the bureaucratic battle persisted in Washington. Because of the Army's rapid progress on Jupiter development, the new Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy's decision to deploy either the Air Force's Thor or the Army's Jupiter became quite difficult. The October 4, 1957, Soviet launch of Sputnik proved to be an important factor. Although earlier ABMA offers to launch a satellite were spurred in favor of the Navy's Vanguard program, on November 8, 1957, Defense Secretary McElroy ordered ABMA to prepare a Jupiter C missile to launch a satellite. On November 25, McElroy directed that production proceed on both Jupiter and Thor missiles. Thus, in the wake of Sputnik, suddenly Maj. Gen. Medaris had the authority to take all actions necessary to get Jupiter into full-scale production.

Forced to accept this weapon into its inventory, Air Force representatives met with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in early January 1958 to discuss operational deployment. Within a week of this meeting, the Air Force activated the 864th Strategic Missile Squadron (SMS) at Redstone Arsenal.

By midyear a substantial number of Air Force personnel had arrived in northern Alabama to attend OGMS courses on Jupiter operations. In January 1959, OGMS completed training for eight launch crews and two maintenance teams. By the end of the year, most of these graduates were in Italy; personnel of the 865th SMS later joined them in Italy. Italian Air Force personnel arrived at Huntsville in 1959 and 1960 to become trained on Jupiter operations. The Italy-based Jupiter squadrons were activated in 1961 to support the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). Personnel from the 866th SMS were eventually stationed in Turkey, manning a NATO Jupiter squadron with Turkish personnel trained at Redstone Arsenal. By 1963, these squadrons would be removed from alert status.

The successful placement of America's first satellite, Explorer I, in space on January 31, 1958, marked an apogee in the history of ABMA. However, the pace continued to be hectic. On February 28, 1958, ABMA awarded the Martin Company a contract to produce solid-fueled Pershing missiles at its Orlando, Florida, facility.

A military reorganization began that eventually led to the demise of the ABMA. On March 31, the new Army Ordnance Missile Command (AOMC) stood up at Redstone Arsenal with Maj. Gen. Medaris in command. ABMA became a subordinate command of AOMC on the following day, as did the newly formed U.S. Army Guided Missile Agency (ARGMA), White Sands Proving Ground, and the Army-contracted Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech. ARGMA had management responsibilities for shorter-range surface-to-surface systems such as the Sergeant, Corporal, Littlejohn, and Honest John as well as the Nike Ajax, Nike Hercules, and Hawk surface-to-air systems. In December, President Eisenhower would transfer JPL to the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Over the next 2 years, ABMA provided critical support for the new space agency's Mercury program and subsequent Saturn program. On October 21, 1959, President Eisenhower ordered components of the military's space program to be transferred to NASA. Thus in July 1960, a substantial proportion of ABMA facilities was leased to NASA to become the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Some of these facilities later received national historic recognition for their presence during both the ABMA and NASA eras. Constructed in 1953, the Redstone Rocket Test Stand (Building 4665) is listed as a Category I property on the National Register of Historic Places. The test stand had been the first that was capable of accommodating the entire launch vehicle during static tests. Category II properties dating from the pre-NASA era include the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator (Building 4705), the Solid Rocket Motor Propulsion and Structural Test Facility (Building 4572), and the Structures and Mechanics Laboratory (Building 4619). The Mobile District of the Army Corps of Engineers supervised the construction of these various facilities. From 1950 to the time of Sputnik, the Corps had finished construction worth $42 million and had an additional $21 million under contract.

In addition to receiving $100 million worth of facilities, NASA received the services of some 4,000 former ABMA personnel led by Wernher von Braun. With the severe loss of research facilities and personnel, the Redstone Arsenal focused on tactical missile systems. However, during the mid-1950s the Army assumed a mission requiring completely new types of missiles.

Huntsville's Role in Ballistic Missile Defense

In 1957, two years after the Army Ordnance Corps first contracted for the investigation of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD), the first BMD program office was established at Redstone to oversee work on the Nike Zeus project being performed by Western Electric and other contractors. Reorganization in 1958 placed the program office under the Army Rocket and Guided Missile Agency, which was a subordinate command to the newly formed Army Ordnance Missile Command. Further reorganization during 1962 supplanted this command with the U.S. Army Missile Command. Under this arrangement, the Nike Zeus Project Office received administrative support from the U.S. Army Missile Command but reported directly to Army Materiel Command.

Despite the bureaucratic reorganizations, the Nike Zeus Project Office could report substantial progress, as the system capability was proven on July 19,1962, when a Nike Zeus fired from Kwajalein Test Site came within the lethal distance necessary to knock out an incoming ICBM that had been launched from Vandenberg AFB. Although further testing validated this first feat and even proved the ability of the system to knock out orbiting satellites, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declined to deploy the system because it was technically incapable of countering a mass ICBM attack.

In 1963, Nike Zeus became Nike X. The Huntsville Project Office continued to fund research to develop vital components of what eventually would be dubbed the Sentinel and later Safeguard ABM systems.

With Secretary of Defense McNamara announcing in September 1967 his decision to deploy Sentinel, another reorganization placed the Huntsville Project Office under the new U.S. Sentinel Systems Command (SENSCOM). Because the Department of Defense restricted SENSCOM to functions relating to the engineering requirements needed to support Sentinel deployment, the Army set up an additional organization to support research and development (R&D) for an advanced system. This organization eventually became the U.S. Army Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense Agency (ABMDA) and reported directly to the Army's Chief of Research and Development. Although collocated in Washington with the SENSCOM System Office, ABMDA also maintained a presence in Huntsville adjacent to the SENSCOM field quarters.

To coordinate the construction of facilities for what one general called an effort comparable to the MANHATTAN PROJECT, the Army Corps of Engineers established a nationwide district based out of Huntsville to serve the needs of SENSCOM. Established on October 15, 1967, the Huntsville District's sole purpose was to construct Sentinel. When President Nixon reoriented BMD to guard strategic forces, Sentinel became Safeguard and SENSCOM became SAFSCOM. Work at a Sentinel site outside of Boston ceased, and efforts were redirected to sites north of Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, and Malmstrom AFB, Montana. Due to the 1972 ABM Treaty, only the Grand Forks site would reach operational status.

With this sole site coming on line during 1974, another reorganization took place, which merged SAFSCOM Systems Office and ABMDA to form the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO). With the merger, the ABMDA office in Washington disbanded and its Huntsville component became the Ballistic Missile Defense Advanced Technology Center (BMDATC), while Huntsville's SAFSCOM organization was retitled the Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command (BMDSCOM). These two components would be merged in 1985 during another reorganization.

During this post-Vietnam era, BMD took a back seat to a growing debate on whether to deploy new strategic missile systems to counter a growing Soviet threat. While debate raged on this sensitive issue, the Army obtained stable funding to continue BMD research. One of the potential systems that evolved from this research was a Low Altitude Defense (LOAD) that eventually became dubbed Sentry. Using a missile similar to the Sprint and downscaled site defense technology, Sentry ideally would have been deployed to defend a proposed MX missile "dense pack" configuration of missiles in clusters.

Sentry was never deployed. A Presidential Commission established by President Ronald Reagan in January 1983 recommended placing MX missiles in Minuteman silos and deploying a small ICBM, which subsequently was dubbed "Midgetman." The report rejected deployment of Sentry. However, the role of BMDO would still undergo a radical change after President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the American people on the evening of March 23, 1983.

To better posture its BMD component, the Army reorganized the command in 1985 with the new title of U.S. Army Strategic Defense Command (USASDC). Although the Headquarters of USASDC would be in Washington, the bulk of the organization remained in Huntsville.