In Praise of Pioneer Women and Rocket Scientists

Sebastian Modak
Sebastian Modak

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. He arrived in Cheyenne, Wyo., from Las Vegas, where he explored an unexpected side of the city, and then moved on to Huntsville, Ala.

When the planners restoring the Wyoming State Capitol building in Cheyenne unearthed a set of old blueprints for the building, they realized that, at some point in the past, history had fallen prey to bureaucracy. A cluster of fluorescent-lit offices and a copy room on the building’s second floor, it turns out, had been home to the Wyoming territorial assembly and later the Supreme Court. Where people now battle paper jams, a constitution had been drafted and statehood ratified.

When I visited the Capitol on my sixth stop of 52, teams of painters were recreating the original trompe l’oeil wallpaper, others were restoring the wooden banisters of the viewing deck and, in general, bringing the entire section of the building back to its single-room, former glory in time for July 10 when Wyoming will celebrate 129 years of statehood. 2019 also marks 150 years since the territory of Wyoming guaranteed women the right to vote and hold office — 51 years before the country guaranteed women voting rights with the 19th Amendment. On the eve of statehood, from that very room, Wyoming officials sent a rebuttal to the United States Congress, which was reluctant to welcome a state where women could vote. The telegram reportedly said something along the lines of: “We will remain out of the Union 100 years rather than come in without the women.”

More than 1,000 miles away, another momentous paint job was underway in Huntsville, Ala. When I saw it, the 363-foot-tall vertical replica of the Saturn V rocket that towers over the city was about a quarter of the way through its face lift, the line between bright white and weathered yellow marking the progress. It, too, is set to be finished this summer, just in time to commemorate 50 years since the Saturn V rocket built in Huntsville launched Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon on July 16, 1969.

It was an exciting time to be in Cheyenne and Huntsville, two places I had never visited, as each was gearing up for a year of events commemorating these milestones: one an outright celebration of the force that built a city, the other a renewed call to action.

February might not be the ideal time to visit Wyoming, but it does help you understand the resilience of its original inhabitants and those who came during the Western expansion. I felt it most while standing right by the dome of Cheyenne’s capitol building during a behind-the-scenes look at the ongoing restoration project. The wind quickly turned every exposed part of my body numb, and when I opened my mouth, it was like sinking my incisors into a scoop of ice cream.

“This is not a climate for you if you’re soft to the world,” Affie Ellis told me over pizza a few days later. “Our women have a no-nonsense attitude to the world. They get things done.”

I had asked her what it was about Wyoming that had led to so many firsts for women. Including her own. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, Ms. Ellis became the first Native American in Wyoming’s senate when she assumed office in January 2017.

There are omissions and complications. With so much focus on the heartiness of the pioneer women, I saw a disheartening lack of attention paid to the indigenous women who were here long before. One exception was an expansive section of the Wyoming State Museum devoted to the stories of the tribal groups who once called the plains home, including a candid portrayal of genocide and displacement.

There’s also the murkiness around why the territory of Wyoming was the first to pass women’s suffrage at all. The established narrative — that Wyoming was facing a population crisis and needed to incentivize women to move out West — is on shakier ground these days. For one, it discounts the role of women like Esther Hobart Morris and others who, some say, were fervent campaigners for suffrage, not grateful recipients of men’s magnanimity. But there’s also evidence of a political battle won by legislators who believed that if black men were going to vote, then as a counterweight, white women should as well.

The anniversary is forcing Wyomingites to confront that history and ask those questions. The result is that a major focus of the sesquicentennial is on encouraging more civic engagement from the women of Wyoming.

Ms. Ellis, for example, felt compelled to run for office when she took her daughter to a Senate debate. At the time, there was only one woman in the State Senate. Looking around the room, Ms. Ellis’s daughter asked her, “Mom, do they let girls be in the Senate?”

“It was all I needed to hear to turn my life upside down,” Ms. Ellis told me.

Before it was “Rocket City,” Huntsville was a cotton town, and the “Watercress Capital of the World.”

“In other places, you might get a little watercress sprinkled into a salad. Here, you could get a nice big bowl of the stuff,” said Brooks Moore, 92, a retired NASA rocket scientist who has lived in the Huntsville area since 1952, when he took a job at the Redstone Arsenal, an army facility.

Mr. Moore now volunteers here as a NASA emeritus Docent at the Center. Clad in a white lab coat, he talks to visitors under the shadow of a full-scale replica of the Saturn V rocket he helped build. He was reassigned to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center when it was established in 1958. His job was to build a rocket to get people into space, instead of one that could reach Moscow in a single flight.

Mr. Moore told me stories for an hour, him leaning on his walker, me insisting (to no avail) that maybe we find somewhere to sit down. He told me about the strange tension that came from working with a team of German engineers under the guidance of Dr. Wernher von Braun who, a few years earlier, had been designing the V-2 rockets that had rained carnage on London. He walked me through the steps that led to a full-fledged space race with Russia — first, a race for intercontinental ballistic missiles, then satellites, then the moon — each of which Mr. Moore was a part of. Of the Apollo 11 launch itself — when he saw the rocket he had helped design send three astronauts to the moon — he was remarkably understated.

The Space and Rocket Center is, predictably, going all out to celebrate 50 years. On July 16, launch day, an attempt to break a Guinness World Record for launching the most miniature rockets into the air at once — 5,000 of them — will be hosted here. (I saw a trial run of 300 and, with only two failing to launch, it would appear they’re almost there.)

A new, state-of-the-art planetarium just opened in the center, too, which tells the story of the Apollo launch, and can do things like map the stars exactly as they would appear in the Huntsville night sky if there was no light pollution or cloud cover. A small, but powerful, exhibit on the Apollo landing has just opened, with as much attention paid to the technicalities of the launch as to the political, social and cultural context in which it occurred. There will be concerts, a car show and models of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the next generation of rocketry, set up across the Tennessee Valley.

It’s all very fun, but to come face to face with a reservoir of living history like Mr. Moore and hear the firsthand stories of someone who took us to the moon is the real reason to go to Huntsville now. That, and everything not related to rockets, as many a resident told me.

In fact, “more than just rockets,” was a kind of rallying cry I heard again and again. Being in a place that was trying to go beyond its history was a stark contrast from my experience in Cheyenne, where there was a concerted effort to embrace the past.

In Huntsville, nowhere is that reinvention more on display than at Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment, a cotton mill that’s been repurposed into the largest privately owned arts facility in the country. Walking through its endless corridors, I passed a studio where an artist creates “plausible, fictional maps;” a cigar box guitar workshop; a facility that creates miniatures for tabletop role-playing games; and a pottery store. On its periphery, the Tangled String Studio is a performance space and workshop where Danny Davis — who, for 30 years, worked on propulsion systems for NASA — builds custom guitars and mandolins.

“What people don’t realize is that engineers here do a lot more than just space things. They make guitars, they brew beer, they write songs,” Mr. Davis said. “The creative community and the engineering community, they feed on each other here and that means all of a sudden you have this cool stuff going on that couldn’t exist anywhere else.”

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