This year marks the centennial of Grand Central Station’s completion. In 1913, it stood as an awe-inspiring, Beaux-Arts landmark anchoring New York City’s commuter and long distance traffic in midtown Manhattan. It quickly became one of the most visited spots in the city, giving it a secondary role as one of the city’s best exhibition sites. In 1957, the Army exploited that capability by erecting a Redstone rocket in the main concourse.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, it took hold of the high frontier. And while American scientists knew the Soviet accomplishment was due to brute strength and not technological sophistication, the public reaction was marked worry and fear. To ease the minds of the American people and spread excitement about the new frontier in space, the Army erected a Redstone in Grand Central Station’s main concourse. It was a visceral public display of the nation’s might against this new threat embodied by the Soviet Union.
There’s an odd tidbit associated with this story.
On the ceiling of Grand Central is a mural of the zodiac. Stargazing visitors will note not only that the sky is backwards but the stars are slightly displaced as well. One explanation is that the ceiling is based on an image in a mediaeval manuscript that shows the sky as it would look to God as he looks down on the Earth, which would also accounts for some abstraction in the placement of stars. Another explanation is that it was an accidental reversal on the parts of the artists, Paul Helleu and Charles Basing.
But there’s something else up there that keen eyed observers might notice: a dark spot near the constellation Pisces. It’s a hole in the ceiling, and there are conflicting explanations on this point as well.
One story goest that the Redstone was too tall for Grand Central’s main concourse, demanding a hole be cut in the ceiling to allow for the rocket’s thin nose. The government was so eager to counteract Sputnik-induced anxiety that no one thought to check that the rocket would actually fit inside the building. Historical preservation then dictated that the hole remain as a reminder of the incident.
But the concourse’s ceiling is about 275 feet hight, and the Redstone variant that appeared in the station stood around 63 feet. The hole wasn’t made to erect the rocket. Rather, the hole was made to anchor a stabilizing cable to secure the Redstone and keep it upright during its time on display.
The Redstone did play a major role in the Space Race, launching Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom on their suborbital Mercury missions in 1961. The hole Grand Central’s ceiling has remained since 1957 as one of the least-known legacies of the space age.