Rocket Science

New signs mark the spot where TVA gave NASA a hand in transporting the Saturn I rocket around a failing Wilson Lock, contributing toward America’s moon landing.

In June, 1961, the only lock at Wheeler Dam in north Alabama failed due to a deep mud seam that allowed the bedrock to slip, halting the shipment of all cargo to and from the upstream section of the Tennessee River. At the time of the lock failure, NASA had plans to ship the Saturn rocket booster — built at Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal — by barge to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for its first test firing.


New signs commemorate the area where Saturn I took its notable detour around the lock.

Keeping the Saturn rocket test on schedule was crucial to support the planned Apollo program to send astronauts to orbit the moon. To meet this challenge, urgent response was needed to construct barge docks allowing the 75-ton Saturn rocket to be offloaded above the dam and reloaded below the dam.

TVA rose to the occasion as engineers and construction forces scrambled to enact a solution, building concrete bulkheads and roads around the dam that connected upstream and downstream sections of the river within two months following the lock failure. The enormous rocket was on its own dedicated large flatbed trailer unloaded and attached to a truck to make the slow journey around the dam. Meanwhile, NASA sent another barge to the downstream side to receive everything.

Ten days later, Saturn 1 reached its destination in Florida, and the mission launched successfully on Oct. 27, 1961, playing an important role in the march toward the first man on the moon. 

Remembering Where It Happened

Recently, TVA unveiled two new signs on the south side of Wheeler Dam that overlook where the massive operation took place. The concrete structure above the signs is the dock that was used to load the Saturn onto the second barge.

“I was 6 years old when the lock at Wheeler Dam failed,” said TVA retiree and contractor Randy McCann, who helped lead the effort for the commemorative signs. “I recall the endless tandem dump trucks that roared past our house on River Road on the way to Keller Landing for offloading to barges.  We heard the story of the lock failure and the reason grain had to be hauled from upriver.

“When I came to work at TVA, my office was located at Wheeler Dam near the upper Saturn Dock. I became fascinated with the story about the transloading of the rockets and it brought back those memories of the truck traffic from my childhood. I wanted to know more about the history and through some research found the documentation needed to develop the plaques, providing the public this interesting story and the purpose these massive concrete bulkheads served in the quest for putting a man on the moon and fulfilling the promise John F. Kennedy made.”

 “The signs look great,” said William Bryan, web editor for NASA, visiting the spot. “It is fascinating to be right there where so much history happened. I hope the photos will encourage people to visit the signs and the dam, and learn about what took place.”

A nuclear reactor vessel constructed above Knoxville, Tennessee, bound for Italy, was also transported around the dam using the same bulkheads. Wheeler Lock was reopened to river traffic 10 months after the failure.

Learn more about Wheeler Dam here. Learn more about its history here.