The Story of Arlington’s Own Rocket Boys (and Girls)

Remember the movie 'October Sky'? In the Sputnik era, Wakefield High School had its own cadre of rocket builders and moonwatchers.
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Lt. Col. Charles M. Parkin Jr. explains a launch device to Wakefield rocketeers during a visit to a Nike missile site in Lorton in the 1950s. (Photo by Fred J. Maroon / Look Magazine)

The explosion could be heard clear across the Potomac River. On a Saturday afternoon in March 1957, members of the Wakefield High School Rocket Society were launching foot-long model rockets into the river near Mount Vernon. One rocket, however, exploded after takeoff in an earth-rumbling blast.

A U.S. Park Police cruiser raced to the riverside, sirens wailing. Surely relieved to find the teenagers and their adviser, David Saltus, unharmed, the officer let them go with a warning.

Founded the previous September, the rocket society was one of countless such clubs that developed around the country in the 1950s. In 1955, both the U.S. and what was then the Soviet Union had vowed to put artificial satellites into orbit, initiating a “space race” that continued into the moon missions of the 1960s and early ’70s.

David Saltus

Wakefield physics teacher David Saltus (Courtesy photo)

In 1956, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory started a citizen science program called Operation Moonwatch, enlisting amateur astronomers to help spot and record data about the first satellites. Saltus, a Wakefield physics teacher and self-professed “space bug,” thought the school’s rocket society would work well as a Moonwatch team and gained the necessary approvals.

Moonwatching required placing an array of telescopes on an elevated site with unobstructed views. Saltus chose Wakefield’s roof. Students regularly arose at 3 a.m. to get out on the roof before dawn, bleary-eyed but excited. They recorded glimpses of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that was the first to enter Earth’s orbit in October 1957, and many others.

In the spring of 1958, the Moonwatch team expanded to include girls, who called themselves the GAMS—the Girls Auxiliary Moonwatch Society.

As a teacher, Saltus was well-liked, perhaps because he would push limits for the sake of science.

“There’s a story of Dad launching a rocket without the appropriate permissions and getting arrested,” remembers his son Mark Saltus, who lives in San Diego. “My version is that the rocket ended up crashing through the roof of a local shopping center. My brother’s memory is different. Either way, Dad got arrested.”

David Saltus died of intestinal complications in September 1966, at the age of 41. The former U.S. Naval Reservist is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“I don’t think I will become a Rocket Scientist,” he once wrote to the Smithsonian. “I am already too old to ride a moon probe or be the first on Mars; but, by being a Moonwatcher, I can feel that I am contributing to what will be the greatest achievement of mankind.”

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Categories: Local History