The Redstone in Grand Central Station

A Redstone Rocket on display in Grand Central Station in 1957. Public Domaine.

A Redstone Rocket stands on display in Grand Central Station in 1957. Public Domaine.

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.

The Ceiling in Grand Central Station's main concoure. Click for the full-size image where the hole near Pisces (the fish) is clearly visible. Credit: user Arnoldius on Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

The Ceiling in Grand Central Station’s main concoure. Click for the full-size image where the hole near Pisces (the fish) is clearly visible. Credit: user Arnoldius on Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

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.

Suggested Viewing

1957 Newsreel about the Redstone’s erection in Grand Central Station

Comments

  1. says

    Those were exceptional times, times of courage, times when every American wanted to be the first and the best in the World.

    Today…what is left?

  2. Larry says

    I would like to see how they transported the Redstone and how they assembled it inside Grand Central Station.

  3. David Shomper, ex-Apollo engineer says

    The Redstone was also the first stage of the Jupiter-C rocket which launched the first American satellite in 1958, Explorer I.

  4. Tony Mach says

    “… the Soviet accomplishment was due to brute strength and not technological sophistication …”

    Come on, the work of Sergei Korolev’s design bureau was as sophisticated as what Wernher von Braun and his team did later at NASA. And do I need to remind you what a mess this “technologically sophisticated” US space program was before the Sputnik shock? And mind you, there were other design bureaus in the Soviet Union doing some quite sophisticated work, with Vladimir Chelomey’s team probably being the second most important one. They made a few bad choices with regards to their moon rocket, but what about first automated docking in space? Something the US has acomplished not so long ago. Or the first space station? And not a single one-off surplus Saturn V rocket, no, it was an actual space station program, which included the first resupplied space station that enabled a permanent habitation. Or what about the first space station modules? Could you even name the first space station module? And if automated resupply flights to space stations aren’t sophisticated enough for you, I don’t know what is. They could even fly their Space Shuttle knock off fully automated, something the US version never could.

    Please, read up a bit about the Soviet space program before you judge it like that. There is quite a bit to read and it is highly fascinating. Yes, there is enough room for criticism, but the same goes for the US program I would say. Just look how the US planetary exploration was left to rot in the eighties. Or how the Space Shuttle program drained almost all resources and funding. Or the appalling safety record of the quite sophisticated Space Shuttle.

    • says

      Amy’s comment:

      “… the Soviet accomplishment was due to brute strength and not technological sophistication …”

      was obviously and specifically referring to Sputnik, not the entire Soviet space program, so your points about space stations and auto docking and so on, while interesting, have nothing at all to do with Amy’s comment.

      The R-7 Semyorka ICBM rocket that launched Sputnik also had its string of failures before initial success; ignoring that fact while trumpeting the early American failures is disingenuous.

      Your point that the R-7 was pretty sophisticated for its time is defensible; turning that point into a broad accusation of Amy’s ignorance of the Soviet space program is NOT.

  5. Tony Mach says

    No, sorry, writing that the Soviet program was “unsophisticated” and only possible due to some undefined “brute strength” (and by extension implying that the people themselves were “brute” and “unsophisticated”) is disingenuous, and being a sore looser. They had a couple of highly talented people, who did good work. I’m not saying that they were in a different league than the Americans, but neither should you or Amy – you yourself mention the first ICBM. That the Soviets were ahead in many fields was maybe a good bit of “corner cutting” (which they did in the early years, I grant you that) and a good bit of luck (which they hadn’t e.g. with Mars). They were highly methodical in what they did, and better organized than the Americans (can you spell “interservice rivalry”?). Please don’t be a sore loser and try to lessen their achievements, and I won’t call the US Space Shuttle a piece of murderous overpriced high-tech junk. OK?

    • says

      I assume that the “you” you are referring to, Tony, is me.

      I assure that I am not a “sore loser” – although you appear to be so. (Or a “sore looser”, as you typed.)

      I agreed with you that there is an excellent case to be made that the R-7 and associated programs was a sophisticated program – I AGREED WITH YOU – and yet you feel the need to let loose the insults.

      Your reading comprehension leaves much to be desired. Amy was NOT accusing the entire Soviet space program of being unsophisticated, but you attacked her as if she did. I agreed with your central point, and you insult me as if I didn’t.

      “Please don’t be a sore loser and try to lessen their achievements…”; I never said any such thing.

      “…and I won’t call the US Space Shuttle a piece of murderous overpriced high-tech junk.” Huh? Describing the Shuttle as you do is also a defensible point, if you care to discuss that (entirely separate) matter, but it has exactly nothing to do with this column or ANY of the previous comments.

      Hyperbole, much?

  6. Tony Mach says

    With “sore loser” I meant the sentiment in the US, as Amy wrote it down. To paraphrase the sentiment as I understood it: “They won the early race, but they were unsophisticated and could only win through brute force”. If you share *that* sentiment (as I outlined it), then yes, I would mean you too – but I did had not you specifically in mind when I wrote that. So calm down.

    How much bollocks this it that the Soviets were any less sophisticated, I outlined with the achievements that followed. And with regards to cutting corner and being “unsophisticated” I just recalled the Saturn I. As wikipedia puts it: “Most of the rocket’s power came from a clustered lower stage consisting of tanks taken from older rocket designs and strapped together to make a single large booster, leading critics to jokingly refer to it as “Cluster’s Last Stand”.”

    I still don’t get it how Sputnik is supposed to be due to “brute force” or the achievement was somehow unsophisticated. Yes it was very very simple design of the satellite, bu putting the first satellite into space is not unsophisticated no matter how simple the design is. Both the Americans and the Soviets worked hard, but the Soviets were a bit more lucky and made some right decisions, were the Americans had some bad luck and made some (in hindsight) not so right decisions – so why are we fighting over this?

    The fact that was disingenuous was this whole “unsophisticated” and “brute force” business started by Amy, not me. That I failed to point out all the failings of the Soviets (of which there were quite a few as well) was not meant to hide them, I enumerated the failings of the Americans to show that what Amy wrote was an illusion. So why are my words a problem, but not Amy’s?

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