Redstone Rockets: A Piece of Space Exploration History

Redstone Rocket in Test Stand
Redstone Rocket in Test Stand. NASA

The Birthplace of NASA's Rockets

Spaceflight and space exploration would be impossible without rocket technology. Although rockets have been around since the first fireworks invented by the Chinese, it wasn't until the 20th century that they were fashioned specifically to send people and materials to space. Today, they exist in a variety of sizes and weights and are used to send people and supplies to the International Space Station and deliver satellites to orbit.

In the history of spaceflight in the United States, the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama has played a huge role in developing, testing, and delivering the rockets NASA needed for its major missions.The Redstone rockets were the first step to space in the 1950s and 1960s.

Meet the Redstone Rockets

The Redstone rockets were developed by a group of rocketry specialists and scientists working with Dr. Wernher von Braun and other German scientists at the Redstone Arsenal. They arrived at the end of World War II and had been active in developing rockets for the Germans during the war. The Redstones were the direct descendants of the German V-2 rocket and provided a high-accuracy, liquid-propelled, surface-to-surface missile designed to counter Soviet Cold War and other threats throughout the postwar years and the early years of the Space Age. They also provided a perfect avenue to space.

Redstone to Space

A modified Redstone was used to launch Explorer 1 to space — the first U.S. artificial satellite to go into orbit.

That occurred on January 31, 1958, using a four-stage Jupiter-C model. A Redstone rocket also launched the Mercury capsules on their sub-orbital flights in 1961, inaugurating America's human spaceflight program.

Inside the Redstone

The Redstone had a liquid-fueled engine that burned alcohol and liquid oxygen to produce about 75,000 pounds (333,617 newtons) of thrust.

It was nearly 70 feet (21 meters) long and slightly under 6 feet (1.8 meters) in diameter. At burnout, or when the propellant was exhausted, it had a speed of 3,800 miles per hour (6,116 kilometers per hour). For guidance, the Redstone used an all-inertial system featuring a gyroscopically stabilized platform, computers, a programmed flight path taped into the rocket before launch, and the activation of the steering mechanism by signals in flight. For control during powered ascent, the Redstone depended on tail fins that had movable rudders, as well as refractory carbon vanes mounted in the rocket exhaust.

The first Redstone missile was launched from the military's missile range at Cape Canaveral, Florida on August 20, 1953. Though it traveled only 8,000 yards (7,315 meters), it was considered a success and 36 more models were launched through 1958, when it was put into U.S. Army service in Germany.

More about the Redstone Arsenal

The Redstone Arsenal, for which the rockets are named, is a long-standing Army post. It currently hosts a number of Defense Department operations. It was originally a chemical weapons arsenal used during World War II. After the war, as the U.S. was liberating Europe and bringing back both V-2 rockets and rocket scientists from Germany, Redstone became a building and testing ground for various families of rockets, including the Redstone and the Saturn rockets.

As NASA was formed and built out its bases around the country, Redstone Arsenal was where rockets used to send satellites and people to space were designed and built into the 1960s. 

Today, Redstone Arsenal maintains its importance as a rocket research and development center. It's still being used for rocket work, largely for Department of Defense use. It also hosts the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. On its outskirts, the U.S. Space Camp operates year-round, giving children and adults a chance to explore the history and technology of space flight.

Revised and expanded by Carolyn Collins Petersen.