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Former Marshall HQ coming down but legacy stands tall

HUNTSVILLE — For more than six decades, NASA and the nation have relied on the  Marshall Space Flight Center to deliver its most vital propulsion systems and hardware, flagship launch vehicles, world-class space systems, state-of-the-art engineering technologies and cutting-edge science and research payloads – work overseen by Marshall leaders and managers in Building 4200.

That includes development of the Saturn V rocket that lofted the Apollo missions to the moon; engines and propulsion hardware for the Space Shuttle program; hardware, air and water recycling systems, and science communications for the International Space Station; delivery of the Chandra X-ray Observatory and elements of the James Webb Space Telescope; and management of the Space Launch System, the Human Landing System Program, and other elements of NASA’s Artemis-era return to the Moon.

Scott Worley, Marshall’s historical preservation officer, said the real key to NASA’s successful pursuit of its mission over the past six decades isn’t in a building, but in “the generations of visionary innovators who walk its halls.”

“Buildings come down,” Worley said, “but rockets keep going up. Our work lies beyond the sky.”

 

 

Even so, the legacy of Building 4200 lingers in the minds of its former occupants and NASA retirees.

Brian Odom, acting NASA chief historian, credits that to the galvanic shift Marshall helped lead over the years.

“It’s not a laboratory or a test site, it didn’t house critical rocket hardware or science payloads,” Odom said. “Its impact is really about the decisions made there, the critical choices enacted across the whole history of American spaceflight.

“The calls made by those teams still drive us onward, and still color our perception of the best we can be and the finest work we can do.”

Following formal establishment of Marshall in July 1960, Marshall leaders selected architectural firm Wyatt C. Hendrick of Fort Worth, Texas, to design the center’s first administrative hub. Electronic and Missile Facilities of Valley Stream, N.Y., built the facility. Ground was broken on Sept. 30, 1961, and the first center employees began arriving in June 1963. Building 4200 initially was home to workers in the Aeroballistics Division, Research Projects Division, Future Projects, and the Launch Operations Directorate, which later would move to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Modeled after the utility-meets-expediency formula adopted by U.S. military posts, Building 4200 also home for years to a library, mail office, barber shop, cafeteria, photo lab, and other services.

Guests who came to meet with Marshall leaders – and often to address team members in spacious Morris Auditorium – routinely included astronauts and space flight authorities, White House representatives and congressional leaders, and state executives from all over the world.

Others toured Marshall as well, from former First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson and the visionary German film director Fritz Lang to Gen. Chuck Yeager. Novelist Ben Bova, acclaimed author of more than 120 works of science fact and science fiction, shook hands with Marshall workers here in 2000; members of the world-renowned rock band Styx did the same 18 years later.

But demolishing the aging structure, which would be prohibitively expensive to renovate, opens a path to the future for Marshall and its workforce, said John Green, Marshall’s master facilities planner in the Office of Center Operations.

“The key to success is to evolve and grow to meet the needs of new generations of innovators and engineers,” Green said. “It’s our job to prepare Marshall to tackle new agency directives and to succeed in a changing work environment. We will continue to build facilities as flexible and adaptable as the teams housed in them.”

And those teams will confidently continue to lead NASA and the nation into a rewarding and productive spacefaring future.

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