German innovation transformed city into powerhouse

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Were it not for the efforts of a former Nazi scientist, Huntsville today might still be what it was in the 1950s: the watercress capital of the world.

Instead, German rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun moved to the sleepy agricultural town and brought with him a team of scientists — all of whom worked on the Germans’ V2 rocket program during World War II. The rockets were the first long-range, guided weapons, capable of hitting London from sites inside Germany.

Of course, the U.S. and the Soviets were both interested in the German scientists. As the SS team guarding them fled, von Braun negotiated the surrender of his team to the Americans, keeping valuable German knowledge out of the hands of the communists. By 1946, they were working in the United States. Eventually, von Braun would become a U.S. citizen.

As the space race heated up, the nation’s leaders started looking at places to house the manufacturing site for the propulsion rockets that would first launch satellites and then people into space. Nearly empty, but with an expansive complex of warehouses, the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville caught their eye.

So the military moved to Redstone and von Braun and his crew recruited American scientists to help create the U.S. Army’s version of the V2 rocket — the Redstone Missile. NASA was created in 1952, and the Army agreed to let the German adapt the rocket to a propulsion system for space. Today, Huntsville is known, and marketed, as the Rocket City.

“They couldn’t have done it without the Germans,” said NASA historian Mike Wright. “We needed that expertise, without a doubt.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Huntsville became “the place” for rocket science and aerospace research. That fact still surprises most people in the rest of the country, who view Alabama as a quiet, agricultural state.

NASA’s mission in Huntsville peaked in the mid-1960s as it ramped up to send people to the moon. But by 1971, things were quieter, and the city looked around for the next big thing — not willing to relinquish its place as a high-tech destination.

Martin Cummings, a visionary cotton farmer, went to the city’s leaders with the next big idea. That idea would become the fourth largest research park in the world. Today, it’s known as Cummings Research Park, home to more than 25,000 workers and more than 4,000 acres.

“It’s something we couldn’t have done without the city leaders,” said Ethan Hadley, vice president of economic development at the Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce.

And without that asset, the latest Huntsville visionary wouldn’t have a place for his latest venture.

Jim Hudson, a biotech engineer, sold his biotech company for what Hadley calls “a small fortune.” He and a co-investor used their money, along with about $150 million from the state, to create HudsonAlpha, a state-of-the-art biotechnology research institute focusing on genome and genetic research.

Only two years old, the institute employs 450 people. Among other projects, it creates artificial DNA and RNA for sale to pharmaceutical companies. Other research efforts at HudsonAlpha have led to the creation of new start-ups in Huntsville.

Huntsville’s future looks as bright as its past.

Forbes magazine recently named Huntsville the best place to ride out the recession, and Moody’s ranks it No. 2 for job creation.