Behind the Scenes: Hillbilly Armageddon

First Glimpse of Huntsville, Alabama

Saturn 5

Saturn 5

Jeffrey Schreier

Tim Evans, Supervising Producer

You have to drive two hours outside of Nashville to get to the hometown of the Rocket City Rednecks. Nashville is a bustling metropolis—home to both the music industry and Al Gore. But then you hit Highway 65 and head South… Deep South. Past rib shacks and open fields, decaying barns and large signs advertising the delights of “The Boobie Bungalow.”  Eventually you cross the state line into Alabama… hit the Tennessee River… and make a left. You’re still in the rich, green, rolling rural south—until you see the gigantic Saturn V rocket looming on the horizon on your right. You’re about to enter Huntsville – the Rocket City.

Huntsville is kind of a weird place—set in the deep South, yet home to one of the greatest concentrations of PhDs in America. It’s got a world-class university, NASA headquarters, U.S. Army research labs, hundreds of high-tech start-up firms, and literally billions of dollars in cutting-edge tech business… right there amidst the rib joints, cow pastures, and relics of the Civil War.

It turns out that this strange dichotomy is all due to some homesick Nazi scientists. 

At least that’s how Charles “Daddy” Taylor tells it. 

“Daddy” is one of the five Rocket City Rednecks. His son is Travis Taylor—PhD, engineer, astronomer, self-proclaimed redneck and the lead “mad scientist” on National Geographic’s new series. Travis, Charles, and the rest of the rednecks are going to demonstrate how they can save the planet from a monster asteroid crash... using a frozen watermelon, a shotgun, and a homemade catapult. Oh, and maybe some M-80s from the fireworks stand down by the river. That’s the concept of the show – solving Big Science problems with backwoods ingenuity.

But the whole concept of the show—and even the Taylor family’s careers—may have been very different if it weren’t for those homesick Nazis.

Wernher Von Braun and his team of German V2 rocket engineers had surrendered to American forces at the end of WWII. They were brought back to the States and sort of shuffled around from place to place by the American military, while the Army brass tried to figure out whether there was any future to this rocket science thing.  Of all the different bases from Florida to Texas, Von Braun’s team seemed to like the area around Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal the best, since they said it reminded them of Germany. 

The Germans were placed at Redstone.  And when the Russians launched Sputnik, America’s space program began in a hurry—starting in Alabama. 

Not Cape Canaveral, not Houston, not Washington, D.C… Alabama.

And it turns out that there was this local 19-year-old old kid in Huntsville who was good at welding and “generally fixing stuff.” His boss tells him, “There’s some Germans in town. You’re gonna go work with them. Whatever they break, you fix.”

And that’s how Charles Taylor—a.k.a “Daddy”—found himself part of the original team that built the Saturn V rocket from scratch.  In fact, Daddy would literally find himself plowing WITH MULES at dawn on his father’s share-cropper farm (they couldn’t afford a tractor), then he’d head off to work on the world’s most advanced technological achievement… before going back home to finish off plowing.

And that’s the kind of dichotomy that makes Rocket City Rednecks so crazy and so wonderful. By a weird accident of history, the best minds in rocket-propulsion engineering wound up in this patch of Southern rural splendor… and the two worlds continue to collide, collaborate and intermingle over at least two generations. 

And we’re gonna watch them collide for an entire season. With explosions. Now that’s gonna be good TV.

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