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Flashback: Space Race Bootlegger

Gen. John Medaris, right, watches the launch of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite Jan. 31, 1958. Wernher von Braun is at left of second row.

Gen. John Medaris, right, watches the launch of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite Jan. 31, 1958. Wernher von Braun is at left of second row.

Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

John Medaris was the first commander of Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal. He hit the former cotton fields of the scruffy new base in October of 1955, speeding for the gate in a Jaguar. An MP pulled him over and upbraided him for doing 60 in a 35 zone. “I’m General Medaris, and the speed limit is now 60,” the dashing new commander — looks like Errol Flynn — is reported to have said.

The report comes in a new book, “Red Moon Rising,” by Matthew Brzezinski. Medaris and Redstone play leading roles in the drama, centered on Oct. 6, 1957, the day Soviet Russia shocked the world by launching the world’s first satellite.

President Eisenhower tried to laugh it off as “one small ball,” but the maddening “beep, beep, beep” of Sputnik was no joke to the average American and the U.S. media.
When a Vanguard rocket exploded four feet above the launch pad, leaving its would-be satellite toppled and beeping on the tarmac, “KAPUTNIK,” “FLOPNIK,” “STAYPUTNIK” the headlines brayed.

Vanguard’s flop, however, was Medaris’ and Redstone’s golden opportunity.

In the race to get up a satellite, the U.S. Army’s proposal — using a Redstone rocket developed by the Wernher von Braun team of scientists — had been passed over in favor of the Navy’s Vanguard rocket. While the Navy persisted in its budget-busting failures with Vanguard, Medaris patched together funds to bootleg Redstone back into the space race — building in secondary space goals while continuing with the rocket’s primary weapons mission.

As Medaris put it in a speech in Huntsville in 1978, he “almost literally begged, borrowed and stole money and facilities to support von Braun’s technical team... The Army actually bootlegged money to start construction of the first large test stand that served so well for Redstone and Jupiter.”

In the April, 1988 issue of Business Alabama Joe Moquin, then CEO of Huntsville-based Teledyne Brown Engineering, credited Medaris with creation of the Army Missile Command, which consolidated under his Huntsville command Redstone Arsenal, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the White Sands Missile Range and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It was a unique organization in that it had all the technical services of the Army and it also had the user — the customer — represented,” said Moquin, who came to Huntsville in 1956 to be chief management engineer under Medaris. “It was representative of the kind of organizational genius that General Medaris had.” 

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