When Premier Turbines closes its doors in Neosho for good, the city will no longer claim title to the moniker “Spacetown U.S.A.”
Destined to close early next year, the plant holds more than 50 years of a proud space heritage in Neosho. The space age came to Neosho in 1956, when ground was broken for a rocket engine plant built by Aerojet-General Corporation. Less than two months after the groundbreaking, the name Rocketdyne was born in Neosho as the North American Aviation company took over the project.
Rocketdyne made a huge impact on Neosho, as local men and women were hired to run the plant and build the engines that were destined to lead the world in space exploration. Although many men experienced in engineering and aviation led the staff, most of the workers came from the area. Most had no aviation or engineering experience but they displayed a remarkable talent for getting the work done — and getting it done well.
The Rocketdyne plant was built on land that until only recently was part of Camp Crowder, a military camp that was established just before the beginning of World War II.
Along with the manufacturing plant, some test stands were built in the area. These stands were used to test the massive jet engines. When one of the engines was tested, a loud boom blasted into the air which could be heard for miles, accompanied by a cloud of steam.
Testing could done at any hour of the day, and when a night test was conducted, the glow of the firing could be seen in nearby communities.
People in the area eventually got used to the testing and took it in stride.
The Neosho Rocketdyne plant was in early on American space exploration. Many, many of the great engines were turned out for the space ships that began competing with the Russians. These engines helped America win the race to the moon.
America was excited about the nation’s space program and people who could watched the televised launches. Others listened to the radio broadcast and envisioned both the manned and non-manned blasts into space. Astronauts were celebrities and most people could name all the early astronauts.
Some of the astronauts visited Neosho to see the plant and the men and women who made the engines that would thrust them into space. Even the famous “rocket man,” Wernher Von Braun, paid a visit to Neosho. Von Braun has been a rocket scientist in Germany and helped develope the early rockets used by Hitler’s army. After the fall of the German Reich, Von Braun chose to emigrate to the United States and use his rocket knowledge for the United States.
But eventually the national space program dwindled and so did the space program in Neosho. The plant held on to some space contracts and made up the work with such things as engine repairs for the military and for private aviation companies.
In the last few years, contracts have been hard to come by and this year the plant’s owner, Dallas Airmotive, announced plans to close the plant.
In a very short time, change will come and Spacetown U.S.A. will be no more.