Huntsville's Missile Payload

By Silverstein, Ken | Mother Jones, July/August 2001 | Go to article overview

Huntsville's Missile Payload


Silverstein, Ken, Mother Jones


Pentagon money and Nazi rocket scientists turned a sleepy Alabama town into a defense contractor's paradise. Now President Bush is preparing to sink billions more into missile defense and give Huntsville its biggest boost ever.

Like any great promoter, Joe Fitzgerald emanates unbridled enthusiasm. A congenial man with a neatly trimmed white beard, he's a classic civic booster who loves to extol his hometown's virtues. "Huntsville is an extremely patriotic community," he gushes. "We have a Veterans Day parade here-tens of thousands of people come out to see it."

But Huntsville's patriotic fervor is more than the God-and-country passion of the typical Southern town: Over the past 50 years, the city has nurtured a remarkable economic boom on federal dollars for weapons and space projects-notably the Pentagon's long-standing quest to build a Star Wars-type missile-defense system. President Bush announced in May that he wants to go ahead with such a system and have at least part of it in place by 2004. If his plan is approved by Congress next year, missile-defense spending could reach $10 billion annually, more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the government spent to produce the atomic bomb.

And if Fitzgerald has his way, much of that money will continue to flow to Huntsville, Alabama. "First, we recognize that if America is to be defended, we need a missile-defense system," he says, summarizing the position of a business group he represents. "Second, we want that system to be developed here in Huntsville."

A booming community of 160,000 that proudly proclaims itself "Rocket City," Huntsville is to missile defense what Detroit is to cars and Pittsburgh once was to steel-a place that derives much of its revenue, and its civic mythology, from a single industry. Local landmarks bear the name of rocket-science pioneer Wernher von Braun; a massive replica of the Saturn V rocket marks the entrance to the city; and just outside town, charming antebellum homes give way to an industrial park that houses dozens of military contractors and federal agencies.

Roughly half of Huntsville's economic activity is generated by federal contracting dollars-and a hefty share of that money is earmarked for missile defense. Though the Pentagon has yet to produce a technology capable of knocking incoming warheads out of the sky, it has spent an estimated $95 billion on the effort in the past two decades. Huntsville companies currently hold 150 missiledefense contracts worth a combined $1.7 billion, with the beneficiaries ranging from the four biggest contractors-Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and TRW, all of which have a substantial local presence-to hundreds of smaller, homegrown firms that have fattened up on the missile business.

Not surprisingly, the city's business and political leadership has emerged as a vocal lobbying force for more spending on missile defense-and Fitzgerald is one of its chief pitchmen. He is a member, consultant, or officer of some two dozen local organizations, from the executive committee of the local Republican Party to the Space and Missile Defense Working Group, an association of some 150 business, military, and civic officials. When I called him from my hotel in Huntsville, Fitzgerald said he'd be right over to meet me; he arrived, bearing an armload of documents, barely 30 minutes later.

The Working Group's mission, Fitzgerald explained over a glass of beer, is public education. To that end, the organization has sent every member of Congress a "White Paper" explaining how the United States is vulnerable to missile attack by Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other "rogue" states. The Group has also sent a four-minute docudrama called "America at Risk" to governors and top school officials in all 50 states. In the video, a man confesses that he's alarmed about all the countries that are "threatening to fire missiles at us, to keep us out of their business." His wife pooh-poohs his concern ("Sweetheart, if they did fire something at us, we could handle it. …

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