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Monte Sano State Park


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VBAS History

Von Braun Astronomical Society Historical Information

In this section you will find information about the history of the Von Braun Astronomical Society starting with its beginnings as the Rocket City Astronomical Association (RCAA) in 1954.

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Here are some images from the early days of RCAA, including several images about construction of the Swanson observatory.

Can you identify any of the people in the picture? If you can, please let us know! We will add the names to our records. Thank You!

Below you can read first hand account of what happened

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Please enjoy and let us know your thoughts!


Dr. Stuhlinger and Dr. Von Braun


How It All Began

The following was taken from a VBAS brochure published in 1979 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of its formation:

IN THE FALL of 1954, 16-year-old Sammy Pruitt sold several Huntsville high school classmates on the idea of forming a club to study astronomy. Failing in their initial try to interest more boys of their own age, the group turned their efforts toward soliciting the help of a few scientists at nearby Redstone Arsenal. Among the early responders from the Army’s famous missile team were Dr. Wernher von Braun and Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger.

The society had its beginnings in a series of informal meetings at the home of Dr. Martin Schilling, another Redstone Arsenal rocketeer, during the winter of 1954 and early spring of 1955. It was at one of these early meetings that a decision was made to form an association and buy a large telescope. While Dr. von Braun went shopping for a suitable scope, plans were made to build an observatory. Wilhelm Angele, another Army missile expert, volunteered to design the observatory building.

The first temporary officers and directors were elected April 4, 1955. They were as follows:

President……..…Dr. Wernher von Braun
Vice-President………...B. Spencer Isbell
Secretary……………….. Samuel F. Pruitt
Treasurer………….........Erwin W. Priddy
Directors..……….... Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger
Charles T. Paludin
Gerd Schilling
Conrad D. Swanson
Dean Breasseale

After aerial reconnaissance to pick the best location, Paludin and Stuhlinger were successful in obtaining from the State of Alabama a 13.5-acre tract of land in Monte Sano State Park. State officials agreed to a nominal rental of $1 for a 25-year lease, renewable at the group’s option.

As soon as the land was theirs, members eagerly began to prepare the site for construction. Among the most active workers were Dr. von Braun, Dr. Stuhlinger, Priddy, Swanson, Isbell, Gerhard Heller, Eugene Mechtly and George Ferrell.



Charter Members

Below are the Charter Members of the Rocket City Astronomical Association, which later changed its name to the Von Braun Astronomical Society: 

  • Wilhelm Angele
  • Thomas Beckert
  • Robert Brandon
  • Dean Breasseale
  • William D. Escher
  • George A. Ferrell
  • Thomas Gunter
  • Gerhard Heller
  • Eike Hueter
  • Uwe Hueter
  • B. Spencer Isbell
  • J. Rob Maulsby
  • Eugene A. Mechtly
  • James Norman, Jr.
  • Charles T. Paludin
  • Franz Pauli
  • Juergen Patt
  • E. Wayne Priddy
  • Samuel F. Prultt
  • Dr. Martin Schilling
  • Gerd Schilling
  • Hartmut Schilling
  • Roif Sieber
  • Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger
  • Conrad D. Swanson
  • Gerald Swanson
  • Ronald Warner
  • Dr. Wernher von Braun
  • William W. Varnedoe
  • Helmut Zoike

RCAA/VBAS Presidents

RCAA/VBAS Presidents

The following information is taken from Rocket City Astronomical Association and Von Braun Astronomical Society brochures, archives, and the memories of some longstanding members. If you notice any errors, please let us know.

1955 - 1968          Dr. Wernher von Braun
1968 - 1970          Milton Cummings
1970 - 1976          Ronald Ferdie
1976       Donald Parker
1977       William Henry
1978       Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger
1979       Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger
1980       Larry Tarr
1981       Larry Tarr
1982       Dr. Oskar Essenwanger
1983       Dr. Oskar Essenwanger
1984       Dr. Charles “Chip” Meegan
1985       Dr. Charles “Chip” Meegan
1986       Dr. John Piccirillo
1987       John Davis
1988       John Davis
1989       Sandy Sherman
1990       Charles Boley
1991       Charles Boley
1992       Sandy Sherman
1993       Steve Sauerwein
1994       Steve Sauerwein
1995       Bob Wooley
1996       Tim Perry
1997       Tim Perry
1998       Charles O’Donnell
1999       Charles O’Donnell
2000       Tim Perry
2001       Tim Perry
2002       Sandy Sherman
2003       Gerald Conrad
2004       Ken Farnell
2005       Ken Farnell
2006       Jeff Delmas
2007       Michael Cowger
2008       John Young
2009       Michael Cowger
2010       Al Reisz
2011       Tom Burleson, Jr.
2012       Don Martin
2013       Dr. John Johnson
2014       Dr. Naveen Vetcha
2015       Jared Cassidy
2016       Steve Patrick
2017       Tom Burleson, Jr.
2018       Don Reed
2019       Beth Bero


A Brief VBAS History


In 1954 Huntsville High School student Sam Pruitt wrote a letter asking Dr. von Braun, then at Redstone Arsenal, to build an observatory for school children interested in astronomy. Von Braun didn’t hesitate in organizing his colleagues, students and others in the community to build our observatory on Monte Sano. Von Braun was our society’s first president [then known as the Rocket City Astronomical Association (RCAA)]. After his death we re-named our society in his honor. VBAS is an astronomical society for amateur and professional astronomers. VBAS is a special astronomical society in that our origins began with the citizens who fervently believed in space exploration before it began. In the early 1960s NASA scientists used the telescopes at VBAS to help select lunar landing sites for the Apollo program. VBAS history is storied with space exploration pioneers such as Oberth, von Braun, Stuhlinger, Swanson and Angele. Many of our members were involved in developing the Saturn V, the rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to walk on and explore the Moon. Our planetarium has a shield of the Saturn V third stage fuel tank top half serving as our projection dome. VBAS is a society that provides the public with opportunities for telescopic viewing of the night sky. We have astronomy programs, star parties and astronomy related special events. Still true to our beginnings we continue to give presentations in astronomy and star tours to student and other groups. We welcome those of you with interests in exploring the stars to join us.

26 June 57 The Rocket City Astronomical Association (now the Von Braun Astronomical Society) put out the first edition of the locally edited Space Journal, a new magazine dealing with space travel and the astrosciences. The first issue was dedicated to Dr. Hermann Oberth, who is known as the

26 June 57 The Rocket City Astronomical Association (now the Von Braun Astronomical Society) put out the first edition of the locally edited Space Journal, a new magazine dealing with space travel and the astrosciences. The first issue was dedicated to Dr. Hermann Oberth, who is known as the "father of astronautics." Left to right: Dr. Hermann Oberth, Dr. Wernher von Braun, RCAA (VBAS) President, and Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger.

VBAS is the second observatory that Wernher von Braun was instrumental in building. As a student at the Lietz boys high school that he attended in Berlin, at the school’s North Sea campus on the island Spiekeroog, he influenced the school to buy a telescope and build a small observatory in 1927. He selected a reflector with a 95-mm objective lens.

Al Reisz,



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