An American whiz kid at the dawn of the Space Age who became a professor at the Propulsion Research Center of the University of Alabama in Huntsville: James Bertram Blackmon, this is your life, Part 2
Hello there, my spaced out reading friend, and welcome to the second and final part of our look at the life of teenage rocket maker and adult engineer James Bertram “Jim / Jimmy” Blackmon. It was / is quite the story if I may say (type?) so.
In September, and yes, we are still in the year 1956. In September, state I, Blackmon was the guest of honour of an episode of the television show Synopsis, broadcasted by WBTV, an independent station based in Charlotte, North Carolina, the oldest television station in that state (1949) if you must know, owned by Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company. The viewing audience, which probably included Blackmon’s proud parents, saw the teenager and his father during their August 1956 tour of Redstone Arsenal, a rocket research and development facility located near Huntsville, Alabama, and controlled by a United States Army agency, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA).
While on the air, Blackmon was given more than 600 metres (2 000 feet) of film taken during that tour. The teenager also received a projector he could use to watch these 50 to 55 minutes of film footage.
On display in the headquarters building of Redstone Arsenal for a few days, Blackmon’s rocket soon returned to Charlotte. So many residents of the city wanted to see it that the teenager agreed to put his creation on display in the Charlotte offices of American Trust Company for a couple of weeks, in September and early October. Blackmon then stored his rocket in the family’s residence, quite possibly in the attic.
The United States Army and the American media were not the only organisations impressed by Blackmon’s accomplishments. Nay. The committee which chose the winner of a youth award / scholarship awarded by the American Rocket Society (ARS) was most impressed as well. Blackmon, who happened to be the very first recipient of the brand new award, received the $ 1 000 check provided by Chrysler Corporation in November 1956, at a banquet organised by the ARS and Chrysler, in a posh hotel of New York City, New York. Said banquet was the highlight of the ARS’s 11th annual meeting.
Would you believe that Blackmon, the youngest rocket builder in the United States, it was said (typed?), was handed his check by the commander of ABMA, Major General John Bruce Medaris? The money was to be used for Blackmon’s college / university education. By the way, that sum corresponds to approximately $ 10 750 in 2023 Canadian currency. And yes, the rocket was on display at the banquet.
Five other individuals received an award at the banquet, by the way. One of them was the West German physicist and engineer Hermann Julius Oberth, one of the controversial fathers of rocketry and space exploration, who was living in the United States at the time. Oberth, who was mentioned in a January 2021 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee, was working for ABMA, as a consulting engineer, on future civilian space project ideas.
The second youngest person honoured at the banquet was 20 year old Donald Lane Crabtree, a sophomore engineering student at Purdue University, who got the student award for the best student paper on jet and rocket propulsion. Crabtree would go on to become a respected automotive design engineer at General Motor Corporation, a giant of the American automobile industry mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018, and…
Why was an important automobile manufacturer like Chrysler involved in a youth award / scholarship linked to rocketry, you ask, my puzzled reading friend? Did you not know that this firm also made weapons of mass destruction in the 1950s and 1960s – a case of turning ploughshares into swords, if I may say (type?) so? In 1956, for example, Chrysler began production of the ABMA / Chrysler SSM-A-14 / M8 Redstone short to medium range thermonuclear-tipped ballistic missile, the first large ballistic missile of the United States Army.
With your permission, yours truly will now quote a Chrysler executive, Thomas F. “Tom” Morrow, Vice President for Defense and Special Products: “Chrysler is proud to honor Jimmy as one missile builder to another.” Wow…
The morning after he got the $ 1 000 check, Blackmon was interviewed, live, on television, by none other than David Cunningham “Dave” Garroway, the very popular host of the very popular American daily news and talk television show Today, the very first daily news and talk television show on planet Earth. Yes, that Today show. Pretty good, eh? And yes, the rocket was there. Of course. And we both know where you saw a photograph of Blackmon and Garroway, do we not? At the beginning of this second part of our article, of course.
Would you believe that Blackmon shared the limelight with the director of the Guided Missile Development Division at Redstone Arsenal, Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun? That was pretty heady stuff for a 17 year old, was it not?
And yes, my observant reading friend, Garroway was mentioned in a January 2023 issue of our amaaazing you know what. (Hello, MMcC!)
In March 1957, Chrysler announced it would distribute an 8-page illustrated booklet on Blackmon and his rocket to science teachers, United States Army personnel, ARS members and school administrators everywhere in the United States. The photograph on the cover of said booklet might well have been the one you, my reading friend, saw at the beginning of the first part of this article.
And if you think that the youth award / scholarship was the only award Blackmon got, you are sadly mistaken. I came across at least three more, but back to our story.
Incidentally, by that time, and quite probably well before that, Blackmon found the media attention somewhat bothersome.
As was hinted at in the first part of this article, Blackmon attended Phillips Academy, in Andover, Maine, around 1955-57, if not earlier. Need yours truly inform you that the rocket was displayed there for some time in 1957? I thought so.
In the fall of that year, Blackmon joined the aeronautical engineering student body at the California Institute of Technology, a private research university in Pasadena, California. He did very well. Indeed, Blackmon earned his Bachelor of Science in Engineering in 1961.
And yes, my telephile reading friend, Pasadena was / is the city where the very popular American television situation comedy The Big Bang Theory took place.
Incidentally, Blackmon tested a slender 1.7 metre (5 feet 6 inches) high solid-fuel rocket in late September 1957. Put together with the help of a pair engineers from the Charlotte Army Missile Plant, near Charlotte, engineers Blackmon politely refused to name, said rocket was based on a design found in a magazine.
Launched from a remote beach in North Carolina, near the border with South Carolina, in an area where aircraft were not to be found, the rocket worked splendidly. It reached a height of about 1 200 metres (4 000 feet), ending its course a short distance off shore, in the Atlantic Ocean. From start to finish, the event lasted at best 15 seconds. Whether or not anyone had time to photograph or film the rocket’s journey was / is unclear.
Blackmon, his parents and a few Douglas Aircraft Company Incorporated engineers who worked at the Charlotte Army Missile Plant, with their families, 20 or so people in all, safely crouched behind a sand dune, were simply ecstatic. Dare one say, over the moon? Sorry.
You will of course remember that Douglas Aircraft, a well known and respected American aircraft manufacturing firm if there was one, operated said Charlotte Army Missile Plant.
Would you believe that the launch was mentioned by at least 80 or so American daily newspapers? According to an amused journalist, “The security surrounding the test made the military’s “secret” missile firings at Cape Canaveral, Fla., look like fireworks in a fishbowl.”
Memo to myself: Jot down that expression for future use. Now, yes, now, because you have the attention of a bored cocker spaniel, and are quite forgetful. Now!
[Music of the American television game show Jeopardy playing in the background.]
Sorry about that, my reading friend. Having an argument with yourself is not always fun, especially when you lose, but back to our topic.
The rocket’s firing mechanism was, err, unique. It consisted of an automobile battery and some electrical wires, on the one hand, and, on the other, a microswitch connected to the rocket by some wires. A small piece of carboard set against the microswitch prevented the battery’s current from passing through. When Blackmon gave the signal, one of the gentlemen present at the site knocked off the small piece of carboard by firing at it with a rifle from a distance of about 180 metres (600 feet). I kid you not.
That time around, Blackmon did not contact the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) or any other government organisation to obtain permission to test his creation. From the looks of it, the young man was not bothered by the CAA or any other government organisation. Blackmon might have been asked not to act that way again, however. If the teenager ever took a fancy to firing another rocket, the CAA asked that he get in touch with its Charlotte bureau to make sure than nothing untoward happened.
It went and still goes without saying that anyone planning to test a rocket should abide by that advice and contact the appropriate organisations.
By early 1958, if not earlier, the number of putative rocket testers was indeed increasing in the United States, which greatly concerned various government authorities at the local, state and national levels. The risk of explosion was ever present, at was that of mid air collision or ground impact.
And yes, the September 1957 article on Blackmon’s successful test launch published in The Charlotte News shared the front page with a rather more significant piece of news.
You see, my reading friend, it was in September 1957 that 9 high-scoring African-American female and male students attempted to attend Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas – a lilywhite high school since its inception. Millions of Caucasian Americans boiled with rage. Arkansas governor Orval Eugene Faubus called on the Arkansas National Guard to stop these unbelievably brave young people from entering their school. This use of military force against a few defenceless adolescents circled the world. The brand image of the United States, the bastion of freedom, it was said, got it right in the neck. With good reason.
Contacted by the outraged mayor of Little Rock, Woodrow Wilson Mann, President Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower used the powers granted to him by his office to take control of the Arkansas National Guard and send United States Army troops there. For the first time since the American Civil War, the United States government was sending troops to a state which had risen against it. The tension was at its highest. Day after day, soldiers kept a dangerously hostile crowd away from the Little Rock Nines, as the 9 students became known. The 1957-58 school year was a constant nightmare for these young people. This being said (typed?), the Little Rock crisis was indeed a turning point in American history. Black lives matter!
Systemic racism is no myth. Refusing to recognise this simple fact to please a political base is, dare I say, disappointing, if not worse.
As we both know, Eisenhower was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since March 2018.
During the summers of 1958 and 1959, Blackmon worked for the Defense and Special Products Division of Chrysler. He apparently worked on the engine of the very hush, hush ABMA / Chrysler SM-78 Jupiter, the first thermonuclear-tipped medium range ballistic missile of the United States Army, which entered service in 1958.
And yes, my politically savvy reading friend, the Jupiter launch sites set up in Italy and Turkey in 1961 were one of the reasons the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics set up thermonuclear-tipped medium range ballistic missile launch sites in Cuba in 1962, thus launching the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and bringing the world closer to utter destruction than at any other time in history, but back to our story.
Upon graduation, in 1962, Blackmon joined the staff of the Missile and Space Systems Division of Douglas Aircraft. Not too long after, he began to work toward a Master’s Degree at the University of California, Los Angeles. Juggling the two proved challenging but Blackmon managed. Indeed, he earned his Master of Science in Engineering and Applied science in 1967. Better yet, Blackmon earned a Doctorate in Engineering and Applied Science at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1972.
Blackmon joined the staff of McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company, a subsidiary of American aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas Corporation, in 1977. He was a program manager. In 1984, Blackmon became a manager of advanced space systems. He was one of the individuals who went to McDonnell Douglas Space Systems Company when McDonnell Douglas Astronautics was broken apart to form McDonnell Douglas Space Systems and McDonnell Douglas Electronic Systems Company, in 1988. In 1989, Blackmon became a senior manager of advanced space systems. In 1992, he climbed another step of the ladder and accepted the position of director of advanced program development and production support.
Over the years, Blackmon and his colleagues published numerous papers and patented various ideas.
Around 2000, Blackmon joined the staff of the Propulsion Research Center of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, in… Huntsville, Alabama, as a research professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering. He was seemingly still at work in March 2015 when the rocket completed in 1956 was taken out of its wooden crate for the first time in decades. It still looked good.
James Bertram Blackmon (on the right) having a look at the lower part of the rocket completed in 1956, Propulsion Research Center of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Huntsville, Alabama, March 2015. The director of the centre, Robert A. Frederick, Junior, was on hand to help. Reid Creager, “Rocket boy revisited,” The Charlotte Observer, 20 April 2015, 1C.
Blackmon retired at some point in the second half of the 2010s.
If yours truly may say (type?) so, the Blackmon rocket would be a worthwhile addition to the admirable collection of the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, District of Columbia. Just sayin’.
Ta ta for now.