Whatever happened to watercress: Our road trip to the Rocket City

Jennifer Cohron
Posted 9/29/17

It is easy for visitors of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center to miss the nondescript plaque as they stroll through the gift shop and make their way to the ticket counter.

The inscription reads, “Alabama Space and Rocket Center: Dedicated by the …

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Whatever happened to watercress: Our road trip to the Rocket City

Posted

It is easy for visitors of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center to miss the nondescript plaque as they stroll through the gift shop and make their way to the ticket counter.

The inscription reads, “Alabama Space and Rocket Center: Dedicated by the citizens of Alabama to those Americans who have made it possible for man to walk on the moon and to explore the universe, and to the youth of America who will use the technology of space for the benefit of mankind.”

Its appearance suggests that it dates back to the facility’s opening in 1970, the year after Neil Armstrong took that one small step for man on the moon.

As I stood before it this weekend on our family’s trip to Huntsville, I wondered what those present for the dedication nearly 50 years ago would have assumed our space program would look like today.

Would they be surprised to learn that we not only haven’t colonized the moon yet but haven’t been back since 1972?

Famed rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who pushed for the center’s creation, might take some small comfort in the fact that we’re now aiming for Mars — 63 years after he publicly said that it was possible.

“Will man ever go to Mars? I am sure he will — but it will be a century or more before he’s ready. In that time scientists and engineers will learn more about the physical and mental rigors of interplanetary flight — and about the unknown dangers of life on another planet,” von Braun wrote in an article that appeared in Collier’s magazine in April 1954 — three years before the launch of Sputnik.

Of course, von Braun’s words and likeness are ubiquitous at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

One of the highlights of our trip was overhearing a visitor interpret a prominently-displayed quote of von Braun’s for his German relatives — “The rocket will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven.”

A 1:10 scale model of the Space Launch System, which is expected to eventually transport a U.S. astronaut to Mars, is housed in the same facility as one of the von Braun team’s Saturn V rockets, which took us to the moon.

I was proud to point out to my son, who learned about space in school a couple of weeks ago, that a real version of that rocket was recently assembled in our hometown.

Also, the building we were standing in bore the name of Oakman native Julian Davidson, a pioneer in missile defense.

Though space exploration would not be possible without contributions from counties like ours all over the U.S., only Huntsville can dub itself the Rocket City. (Before the space race, the city had the decidedly uncool nickname of “Watercress Capital of the World.”)

Though much of our visit this weekend was spent looking at rockets, I was equally interested in an exhibit called “101 Inventions Launched from the Rocket City.”

The inventions on display ranged from a buttered popcorn machine to a flying car.

The latter was patented by J.B. Green in 1968. “This disc-shaped aircraft was designed with two mesh enclosed counter-rotating propellers with pitch controlled blades, allowing the craft to be steered,” the description read. “The objective was to design a simplified and cost effective mode of transport that could be used by most households.”

I was also surprised to learn that Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, was born in Huntsville and that John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel, is a former resident of the city and graduate of the University of Alabama Huntsville.

On our way out of the gift shop, I picked up a copy of “Live from Cape Canaveral” by NBC’s Jay Barbree, the only reporter to cover every manned space mission from Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961 to the return of Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011.

I already own and can highly recommend “Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickam Jr. Most people are probably more familiar with the movie version, “October Sky.”

“Rocket Boys” is part of a triology based on Hickam’s adolescence in a West Virginia coal camp that also includes “The Coalwood Way,” a great read for Christmas, and “Sky of Stone.”

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.