The Ballistic Chrysler

An Army Redstone rocket shown at an unspecified location in 1953, possibly in preparation for the first test flight August 20, 1953. The first Chrysler-built Redstone flew three years later. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC).
An Army Redstone rocket shown at an unspecified location in 1953, possibly in preparation for the first test flight, August 20, 1953. The first Chrysler-built Redstone flew three years later. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC).

It was May of 1945. Germany was collapsing. Magnus von Braun bicycled from the village of Oberjoch in the Bavarian Alps towards the advancing U. S. Army. Magnus had a message; a group of German rocketeers wanted to give America the moon.

Using broken English, Magnus surrendered himself, his brother Wernher von Braun, and members of the German V2 rocket team to the United States Army. These German scientists had made history when their self-guided V2 first skimmed outer space on its journey to bomb allied cities. After the war, the von Braun team designed America’s first ballistic nuclear missile and satellite launch vehicle. The Army called the missile Redstone, and Chrysler built it.

In 1950, the U. S. Army installed the scientists under the direction of Wernher von Braun at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. The arsenal test flew its first experimental Redstone on August 20, 1953.

Realizing the potential for an advantage against the Soviet Union, the Army formalized contracts in 1954 for volume production of Redstone missiles. Those contracts totaled more than $22,000,000, and required a manufacturer adept at problem solving. Only one company fit the bill.

Chrysler Corporation beat nine possible contractors. Chrysler’s outstanding defense production during World War Two uniquely qualified Chrysler to manufacture Redstone. Chrysler had built aircraft air frames, Sperry gyroscopic compasses, and uranium diffusers used to fuel the first atomic bombs. Chrysler engineers had solved wartime snafus that baffled their counterparts in other industries. The fact that President Harry Truman drove Chryslers, including a new 1953 Chrysler New Yorker, probably didn’t hurt either.

Chrysler built Redstones at a Navy jet engine plant in Warren, Michigan. Chrysler initially estimated that it needed 200,000 square feet of the plant space to accommodate Redstone, then upped the estimate to 400,000 square feet. By 1959 Chrysler missile production spanned 2,000,000 square feet.

There was a reason for all that room. The Redstone missile measured nearly 70 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. It required 148,000 feet of electrical wiring and 7,000 soldered connections. Without fuel the Redstone weighed 16,000 pounds.

The first Chrysler-built Redstone took its test flight on July 19, 1956. By September of ’56 Chrysler produced Redstones at a rate of two per month.

The Army designed Redstone to reach targets as far as 200 miles from the launch site while traveling at supersonic speeds. Although intended as a weapon, the Redstone also lent itself for space exploration. Redstone helped launch the first American satellite into space.

One year before the Soviets launched Sputnik, a Redstone/Jupiter C missile built by the Redstone Arsenal first penetrated deep space. The rocket achieved an altitude of 682 miles. In August of 1957, two months before Sputnik, a Redstone/Jupiter C missile built by the Arsenal and Chrysler sent its nosecone into space and back. Only bureaucracy prevented the Redstone team from launching the world’s first artificial satellite.

Explorer 1 lifts off on January 31, 1958 propelled by a modified Redstone first stage booster. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC).
Explorer I lifts off on January 31, 1958, propelled by a modified Redstone first stage booster. Credit: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC).

The Army finally got its chance for orbit on January 31, 1958. A Redstone/Jupiter C rocket launched Explorer I, America’s first successful satellite.

While the Soviet Sputnik contained just two radio transmitters, Explorer I carried a cosmic ray detector, radio transmitter, temperature and micro-meteroid sensors. The satellite relayed data that led to the discovery of the Van Allen Belts, belts of radiation trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field. Explorer III, also launched by a Redstone/Jupiter C rocket, confirmed existence of the belts.

Explorer I remained in orbit for twelve years. Sputnik fell to ground after only three months in space.

Chrysler’s burgeoning rocket business necessitated the creation of the Chrysler Missile Division in January of 1958. The company now performed $52 million dollars in missile work for the U. S. Army. Magnus von Braun, the young man who brought Germany’s rocket scientists to the U. S. Army in 1945, served as manager of the Redstone missile program control for the division.

A rocket for the road and a rocket for space. The 1960 DeSoto brochure paints a pretty picture of a DeSoto Adventurer parked near a Redstone-Mercury rocket on the launch pad. Is that Wernher von Braun at the wheel?
A rocket for the road and a rocket for space. The 1960 DeSoto brochure paints a pretty picture of a DeSoto Adventurer parked near a Redstone-Mercury rocket on the launch pad. Is that Wernher von Braun at the wheel?

Not coincidentally, military officers and settings began appearing in Chrysler’s car ads. A Redstone-Mercury rocket, the type that would launch Alan Shepard into space in 1961, loomed behind the 4-door Adventurer hardtop in the 1960 DeSoto brochure.

The Army deployed Chrysler-built Redstone missiles in 1958 with the 40th Artillery Group in West Germany. Redstone would remain stationed in Europe through 1964 when the Army declared Redstone obsolete.

Chrysler built 101 Redstone missiles.