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‘Rocket City’ lukewarm toward new missions

Huntsville, Ala., earned the nickname "Rocket City" because it is where the nation's first moon rockets were designed. But there's little interest in NASA's latest plan for moonshots.
Image: Saturn V rocket in Huntsville, Ala.
A newly renovated Saturn V moon rocket on display in Huntsville, Ala.Jay Reeves / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

During the space race, engineers such as German scientist Wernher von Braun were treated like celebrities in this former cotton town nicknamed "Rocket City" because it is where the nation's first moon rockets were designed.

Four decades later, the Huntsville phone book still lists 37 businesses with "rocket" in their name, including a motorcycle dealer, a chiropractor and a meat processor.

Yet NASA's mission to return astronauts to the moon — and eventually send them to Mars — has attracted little public interest here, despite the fact that Huntsville engineers are developing the next generation of rockets for the project, which could create as many as 2,900 jobs in the city within five years.

"In the '60s and '70s, it was exciting. Everyone had space fever," recalled Polly Morton, a longtime resident who works with the city's tourism bureau.

These days, she said, plans to explore the heavens are overshadowed by more immediate earthly concerns — like the war in Iraq and concerns about whether the government will have the money to complete the $100 billion Constellation program that began in 2005.

"Mars is the next thing," Morton said. "But right now, because of the war and the funding, it's not talked about as much."

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

The Constellation program aims to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020 aboard a new rocket called Ares that will replace the space shuttle fleet after it's retired in 2010. The first test flight for an Ares prototype is just a year away.

But the project has hardly captured the public's imagination the way the race to the moon did in the 1960s, when Huntsville was growing into a rocketry center. NASA acknowledges that the slower development of Constellation bears little resemblance to the frenetic, wide-open competition against the Soviet Union.

"It was a very different time. The Cold War was raging, and it was all new," said Steve Cook, manager of the Ares project office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. "Today we are focused on sustainable, long-term exploration."

Momentum is building for the project as spending and hiring increases, Cook said, but it's hard to compete with memories of the legendary Apollo era.

NASA officials have described the Constellation program as "Apollo on steroids" because many of its designs are similar to those used in the '60s. It involves two different rockets: Ares I, which would carry the astronauts into space aboard an Apollo-like capsule, and an unmanned heavy-lift cargo ship called Ares V.

Samantha McCall, a student at Alabama A&M University, is more interested in cheap gasoline than a Mars mission.

"I don't know anything about it, and I don't want to know anything about it unless they bring me back some gas," said McCall, 21.

Morton's 11-year-old grandson Josh wasn't too thrilled about a Mars mission either, possibly because the launch date is more than a decade in the future.

"If they really do it, I'll be interested," he said while playing a video game at a state-owned space museum near the Marshall center.

Cook said longtime NASA employees and retirees are excited about NASA's return to manned exploration of other worlds. For more than three decades, the agency has relied on robot probes, the space shuttle and the international space station.

From a launch out of the weeds to a special delivery in orbit, see the best space offerings from January 2014.

"They say, 'Hey, it's about time. I hear that all the time," he said.

But amateur astronomer Jeff Delmas said there's more buzz in Huntsville over a new shopping development than about the Ares rockets.

"People who are involved are very excited, but I'm sure I know people who know nothing about it," said Delmas, who works in the software industry. "It's not everywhere you look. It may get that way, but it's not now."

Ed Buckbee, an author and lecturer who has worked in the space industry for more than 40 years, believes next year's first flight of an unmanned Ares rocket will be the jump-start the Constellation program needs to get more of the public's attention.

"I don't think people are aware that we are so close to the launch of a new vehicle," he said. "When they see the shuttle's replacement on the pad ... that is going to make it real."