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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. 

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