Redstone Arsenal


Located in Huntsville, Madison County, Redstone Arsenal was born of the war effort in World War II. It has since evolved from an ordnance plant to the center of development of rocket engines and other technology during the race to the Moon in the late 1950s and 1960s, led by German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. Now a major center of the Army's missile command, it continues to fuel Huntsville's high-tech economy.

A worker stacks containers for chemical weapons at Gulf Chemical Warfare Depot, ca. 1940Before World War II, Huntsville was a quiet community known mainly for its stately homes, its flourishing cotton industry, and its role as Alabama's first capital. With Europe and Asia already at war in the late 1930s, the U.S. Army began searching for a site for a chemical munitions plant. U.S. Congressman John J. Sparkman, a Tennessee Valley native, strongly promoted Huntsville as a location, and 40,000 acres of land adjacent to the Tennessee River was made available to the government. The Army located the plant, named Huntsville Arsenal, on the site in 1941, later building the Redstone Ordnance Plant nearby.

Women employed at the Redstone Ordnance Plant in Redstone Ordnance PlantAt the arsenal, the Army manufactured colored smoke munitions, tear gas, mustard gas, and other chemical warfare agents. The ordnance plant produced grenades, bombs, and chemical artillery ammunition. During the war, more than 27 million items of chemical munitions were produced at the arsenal. The ordnance plant produced approximately 45.2 million units of ammunition. Employees at the facilities won the top Army-Navy "E" award for their efforts five times during the war. Sparkman continued to back programs and workers at the facility, renamed Redstone Arsenal in 1943, as a congressman and, beginning in 1946, as a member of the U.S. Senate. As an increasingly powerful senator and in 1952 the Democratic vice-presidential contender, Sparkman was influential in keeping the arsenal open and in convincing the Army to locate new missile and rocket research efforts at the arsenal.

German rocket expert Wernher von Braun (1912-1977) was Wernher von BraunA few years after the war ended, the ordnance plant went on standby status, and the arsenal was advertised for sale. During the Cold War era, one area of intense competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was missiles and rocket development. In 1950, under a program called Operation Paperclip (paperclips were used to flag the dossiers of highly valued foreign scientists), German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun and his team of expatriate German scientists (who had developed the German V-2 rocket program during the war) were transferred to Redstone Arsenal from the White Sands New Mexico Proving Grounds. At Redstone, they formed a core group for developing guided missiles. There, with scant funding, they developed the Redstone Rocket, which evolved into the Jupiter C intermediate-range missile that later took Explorer 1, America's first satellite, into orbit.

Because of a lack of sufficiently trained local workers, people poured into town to take professional, clerical, and production jobs at the reinvigorated Arsenal. Of these, 500 civilians and 500 military people, including the German scientists, came to Redstone in the early 1950s. Despite fluctuations over the years, the Army and Redstone still top the list of Huntsville-area employers, with 14,601 employees on the payroll, according to a Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce report.

The Marshall Space Flight Center—named for George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, ca. 1960sWith the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik into space in October 1957, the space race began. In 1958, the United States launched the Redstone-designed Explorer 1 satellite into space, and Pres. John F. Kennedy promised that the United States would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade. The George C. Marshall Space Flight Center was established at Redstone in 1960, and von Braun became its director. By that time, he and 102 other German-born scientists had become U.S. citizens. In July 1960, the Army at Redstone Arsenal lost all its space-related missions, as well as some 4,700 civilian employees, including the German team, to the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, also in Huntsville. At Marshall, the newly organized research teams began testing of the rockets for the Mercury-Redstone vehicle that would boost America's first astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, into space in 1961.

With the Marshall Space Flight Center taking the lead, scientists went all out to meet that commitment. Marshall scientists were assigned the task of building the Saturn V rocket that would launch astronauts on their way to the Moon. The efforts of NASA scientists at Redstone and elsewhere paid off with the Apollo lunar landing program, when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the Moon in 1969. Both the roving vehicle for transporting astronauts on the Moon's surface and the Saturn rocket booster for launching them into space were products of Redstone technology.

With the end of the race to the Moon in 1972, Redstone's role in NASA efforts decreased. But the arsenal and related NASA research centers and the related influx of scientists and engineers into Huntsville over three decades had changed forever the cultural and intellectual climate of the area. New high-tech industries sprang up, and the Huntsville area continued to be a magnet for entrepreneurs as well as established companies. Another important addition to the economic and scientific environment is the University of Alabama in Huntsville, which both employs and trains many graduate engineers, mathematicians, and scientists. A study prepared by the city of Huntsville for relocating government workers reports that one out of three employed Huntsville residents works in professional, technical, or scientific fields; the report further states that the median family income is above $52,000.

Hawk antiaircraft guided missiles were produced at Redstone Hawk MissilesIn addition, Redstone Arsenal expanded its research science efforts to include other areas of research. During the 1960s and 1970s, Redstone workers also were involved in the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In August 1962, the U.S. Army Missile Command (MICOM), with 19 major missile systems, was activated at Redstone Arsenal. Among the missiles developed at Redstone were the Hawk antiaircraft guided missile, first used by Israeli defense forces in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab states; the Nike-Hercules antiaircraft guided missile; and the airborne Tube-Launched Optically Tracked Wire-Guided (TOW) antitank missiles, which were employed in Vietnam. The United States also used Redstone-developed Stinger missiles in Operation Urgent Fury, the U.S. airborne assault on Grenada in 1983. During Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91, Redstone-developed Patriot air defense missiles were deployed to protect installations in Saudi Arabia and Israel from Iraqi's Scud surface-to-surface missiles. Anti-armor missile systems such as Redstone's Dragon and TOW were also featured in the Persian Gulf War. Private companies, such as Thiokol Propulsion, developed weapons technology at Redstone for military applications as well.

During the 1990s, the Army continued to transfer missile technology with space applications to the Marshall Space Flight Center. In response to growing concerns about international terrorism, the FBI Hazardous Devices School opened its training program at Redstone in September 2004.

Firefighters and emergency medical personnel are given the Apache Helicopter at Redstone ArsenalIn 2005, Redstone Arsenal became the beneficiary of the U.S. Department of Defense's Base Closure and Realignment plan (BRAC). Under the plan, the Army will eventually move three major command headquarters, including those for missiles and aviation, to Redstone. Most of the Missile Defense Agency, which serves all branches of the armed forces, also will move to Redstone. Ultimately some 4,500 federal jobs and an estimated 5,000 contractor jobs will be moving to the Huntsville area between 2009 and 2011.

Redstone Arsenal has been both the cornerstone and beneficiary of the space age. Now, in its seventh decade, it remains a vital part of the U.S. military effort.

Additional Resources 

Akens, Davis S. Rocket City, USA. Huntsville, Ala.: The Strode Publishers, 1959.

Boyne, Walter J. "Project Paperclip." Air Force Magazine Online, June 2007.

The Birmingham News. 9/8/1960, page 1; 9/14/1961 (no page no.); Dec. 28, 2007, p. 1B.

City of Huntsville, Ala. Community Information: Prepared for Relocating U.S. Military/Government Personnel and Contractors. Office of the Mayor, City of Huntsville. No date shown.

Flynt, Wayne. Alabama in the Twentieth Century. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

The Huntsville Times. 7/14/1997, p. 24; 7/14/1997, p. 18; 9/24/1997, no page number; 3/28/1998, no page number.

Stephens, Elise Hopkins. Historic Huntsville: A City of  New Beginnings. Woodland, Calif.: Windsor Publications Inc., 1984.

Sandra Bearden
Trussville, Alabama


Published December 8, 2008
Last updated December 12, 2014