BREAKING NEWS Morgan County DA: Decatur ‘conman’ gets more than 5 life sentences on theft charge Full Story
STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Wheeler Dam disaster threatened moon launch 60 years ago

In 1961, Wernher Von Braun and his team were ready to test-launch the first version of their massive Saturn rocket that would take astronauts to the moon, but a catastrophe at the Wheeler Dam threatened to put the entire Apollo program behind schedule.

Posted: Apr 12, 2019 8:25 PM
Updated: Apr 12, 2019 9:56 PM

NASA has a long relationship with the Tennessee River. Since the birth of the space program, parts of rockets – too large to move over roads – are shipped by barge from Redstone.

In 1961, Wernher Von Braun and his team were ready to test-launch the first version of their massive Saturn rocket that would take astronauts to the moon, but a catastrophe at the Wheeler Dam threatened to put the entire Apollo program behind schedule. That is until the Tennessee Valley Authority stepped in to help save the moon mission and win the space race.

Randy McCann is a retired TVA employee and part-time historian. He was six years old on that “bad day” - June 2, 1961 - the day the walls of the only lock on Wheeler Dam suddenly collapsed!

“It was a bad day. It sure was,” said McCann. “Massive concrete blocks, they’re like eight by eight by sixteen or twelve foot, they just jumbled up like tinker toys.”

Within seconds, tons of concrete and steel that formed the lock for 26 years now blocked the only way through the dam, and 375 miles of the Tennessee River was instantly cut off from barge traffic.

“Major catastrophe. It affected river traffic immensely,” said McCann. “It was gonna effect the moon blast launch program that was on a real strict schedule.”

Overnight, shipping came to a halt. Nothing could get through; no farm goods, no manufactured products and no 75-ton rockets.

NASA engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center were ready for their first test flight of their new Saturn rocket, but their only path to Cape Canaveral was now blocked. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Just eight days before the lock failed, President Kennedy had made a bold promise to the American people.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” said President Kennedy.

At Redstone Arsenal, it was all hands on deck. Repairing the lock was not an option. That would take up to a year, so they teamed up with the TVA to come up with a plan to portage the rocket.

“TVA mustered together forces, along with the Corp of Engineers, and they built these two docks to move the Saturn rocket, which was stranded above,” said McCann.

Two massive custom-built concrete structures were built. The upstream dock was built in a small cove.

“This cove or slough was dug out to make the water deep enough for this large vessel,” said McCann. “I would expect they worked 24-7.”

The downstream dock was just on the other side of the dam.

TVA carved a new road through the forest, a mile long, to connect the docks. Then the rocket, on a huge flatbed trailer, was rolled onto its barge at Redstone and floated downstream to the first dock. There it was off-loaded, moved slowly along the new road to the other side of the dam, where it was wheeled onto the other barge to continue the trip to Florida. The date was August 5, barely two months from the day the lock at Wheeler Dam failed.

“That was quite a feat. It was. It would be difficult for us to do that that quickly today, but uh, with so many other regulations that we’d have to follow, but it was an emergency effort,” said McCann.

An emergency effort that McCann says speaks to the space program as a whole. Failure was not an option.

“A lot of dedicated people working on the whole Apollo program, and earlier the Gemini. It all came together,” he said.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has commemorated what happened here with these new markers. President Kennedy said back in 1961 when he spoke to congress that it would take the entire country coming together to pull off the dream of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely to Earth. 

What happened here nearly sixty years ago is proof that there was no obstacle too great to overcome on the road to achieving that goal. 

Huntsville
Scattered Clouds
87° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 87°
Florence
Few Clouds
88° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 88°
Fayetteville
Few Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 87°
Decatur
Clear
88° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 90°
Scottsboro
Broken Clouds
88° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 93°
WAAY Radar
WAAY WAAY-TV Cam
WAAY Temperatures

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 18354

Reported Deaths: 649
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Mobile2271118
Jefferson1859103
Montgomery175843
Tuscaloosa79916
Marshall7009
Franklin5628
Lee55033
Shelby52220
Tallapoosa42765
Butler41418
Unassigned3842
Walker3702
Elmore3628
Chambers35825
Madison3434
Baldwin2929
Morgan2871
Dallas2793
Etowah26012
Lowndes25212
DeKalb2493
Coffee2381
Autauga2335
Sumter2247
Houston2214
Bullock2096
Pike2060
Colbert1862
Russell1750
Hale1759
Barbour1721
Marengo1716
Lauderdale1662
Calhoun1643
Choctaw15310
Wilcox1507
Cullman1471
Clarke1462
St. Clair1281
Randolph1277
Dale1220
Marion12211
Pickens1184
Talladega1175
Limestone1080
Chilton1031
Greene954
Winston900
Macon854
Covington811
Jackson812
Henry802
Bibb761
Crenshaw753
Escambia723
Washington716
Blount631
Lawrence500
Monroe432
Geneva430
Perry420
Conecuh411
Coosa401
Cherokee383
Clay282
Lamar260
Fayette160
Cleburne151

Tennessee Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 22566

Reported Deaths: 364
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Davidson504062
Shelby4943111
Trousdale13924
Rutherford119623
Sumner88145
Hamilton79415
Bledsoe6071
Williamson55210
Putnam4795
Robertson4653
Tipton4423
Out of TN4184
Lake4140
Wilson4078
Knox3755
Bedford2834
Montgomery2693
Rhea2100
Hardeman1960
Madison1752
Loudon1430
McMinn14114
Macon1363
Cheatham1230
Bradley1221
Fayette1152
Cumberland1121
Dickson1090
Unassigned920
Blount913
Maury890
Sevier812
Washington750
Coffee730
Wayne640
Gibson631
Monroe622
Sullivan602
Hickman580
Lauderdale561
Franklin531
Greene502
Dyer500
Marion401
Anderson401
DeKalb370
Hamblen362
Smith341
White330
Hawkins332
Lawrence310
Grundy311
Haywood312
Marshall311
Obion301
Henry300
Jefferson280
Carroll271
Overton260
Meigs260
Weakley260
Lincoln250
Warren230
Cannon210
Perry210
Cocke200
Carter191
Campbell181
Morgan170
Jackson170
Crockett162
Roane160
Polk160
Johnson160
Henderson150
Hardin152
Sequatchie150
Humphreys131
Fentress120
McNairy120
Chester120
Giles120
Scott120
Stewart110
Claiborne90
Houston80
Grainger80
Clay70
Benton71
Decatur50
Unicoi40
Union40
Van Buren40
Lewis30
Pickett30
Moore30
Hancock10

 

 

Community Events