Ernst Stuhlinger: An Appreciation, Part 1

In the year 2022, residents and visitors to the City of Huntsville are used to seeing evidence of space-related activities all over the place. City buses are called Orbit Buses. Our newest music venue is named Orion Amphitheatre, and it is located in Apollo Park. Much of our downtown public art is space-themed. One of the dog parks is named Astro Dog Park (presumably named after the Jetson’s dog Astro from the 1960s cartoon). And there are many others. Perhaps finding as many as possible would make for an interesting and worthwhile scavenger hunt!

The Rocket City is indeed fortunate to have that association with space; there are so many fun ways to creatively handle naming and activities!

And of course the biggest attribution of all may be the named buildings around town, none larger in size and legacy than those named after Dr. Wernher von Braun. Most visibly, we have the Von Braun Center (formerly the Von Braun Civic Center) downtown and the Wernher von Braun Complex on the Arsenal; one of the largest buildings in Alabama in terms of square footage.

But we are missing something, I believe. Where are the attributions and honors for the man who was always right by Dr. von Braun in so many historical photos; Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger? The man who, when von Braun had an idea, was the go-to man who, like von Braun, had the mastery to make it happen? Dr. Stuhlinger was one of the members of the original von Braun rocket team from Peenemunde, Germany who came to Huntsville in the 1940s. An incredibly gifted scientist, he was very methodical, disciplined, and precise in his thinking and speaking. I knew him personally through my affiliation with the local astronomy club, the Von Braun Astronomical Society (Ha! There’s another one for our scavenger hunt…).

Von Braun and Stuhlinger discuss particulars of the nuclear electric rocket at Walt Disney Studios. Check out that ‘calculator’ he’s holding (a slide rule actually) – he knew how to use it! From Wikipedia.

I first met Ernst Stuhlinger as a socially awkward and nerdy teen of maybe 14 or 15. I was fascinated with astronomy and had heard of an astronomy club in town, then called the Rocket City Astronomy Club. I was very nervous about attending this event of a monthly astronomy club meeting, but my Dad and I went. There, with supreme patience and methodology, Dr. Stuhlinger took the time to reprise, perhaps for the thousandth time in his life, how amateur astronomers calculate the celestial hour angle, so essential for finding objects in a telescope with setting circles. I still remember his reasoned presentation to this day.

Later, I became the student member of the Board of Directors there at VBAS, and Dr. Stuhlinger would actually call me, a young boy, to encourage me to attend VBAS activities. The import of those calls wasn’t lost on me; imagine, a man of his importance, calling a young student like me! Those days had a lot to do with me eventually getting my degree in Optics and my life-long fascination with astronomy.

So back to the main point here. I would like to see the name of Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger honored more visibly here in Huntsville. Perhaps he was more behind the scenes that Dr. von Braun, but his signature in the Rocket City is far more prevalent that most are aware. VBAS does indeed honor him with the naming of the Ernst Stuhlinger Solar Telescope, but I think it would be appropriate to see something quite visible around town that bears his name as well.

I’ll be posting some more personal memories of Dr. Stuhlinger here soon!

The Early Days: Ernst Stuhlinger (right) and Ray van Orden (left) building moon tables near the VBAS Observatory.
VBAS Archives.

About Pgibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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