Near Promontory Summit, Utah, USA (July 2011)
A surprise awaits visitors to the desert on the north side of the Great Salt Lake. Most people probably know about the Golden Spike National Historic Site — in fact that’s probably why most people are way out there in the middle of nowhere. Lesser know, but still enjoyable is the ATK Rocket Park on the nearby grounds of ATK Launch Systems (map).
This branch of the company specializes in rocket engines, and it is probably better known by previous names including Thiokol and Morton-Thiokol. While still Thiokol, the company began to purchase extensive lands in Utah in the 1950’s for use as a rocket test range. Many U.S. military and NASA rockets went through testing here including most famously, the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters. Other rocket motors have been used for Pershing, Trident, Minuteman and Sidewinder missiles. On the civilian side, they developed motors for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and of course the Space Shuttle program.
Experiencing the Rockets
It is a remarkable history. The company, justifiably proud of its contributions to the nation, kindly decided to share a sampling of its legacy at a permanent outdoor exhibition at its Promontory campus. It’s an easy and compact tour with plenty of signage to explain each rocket, and best of all there isn’t an admission charge. It’s free. You also won’t feel rushed or crowded. We saw only one other set of visitors the whole time we were there and they were arriving as we were leaving; otherwise we had the entire place to ourselves for as long as we liked.
One simply drives into the large parking lot, walks into the park, and follows the concrete boardwalks between the rockets. You’ll know you’re getting close to the park when you see the barren desert suddenly marked by large earthen berms, concrete tracks built onto the hillside, and finally a very large office building with the big lot. It looked completely out of place with the otherwise desolate terrain, but it makes perfect sense when one realizes that the best place to test a rocket motor would be somewhere far away from the general populace. This spot certainly fits the bill.
It’s also surprisingly convenient, assuming one already planned to visit the Golden Spike site. I would venture it’s less than five minutes out of the way. Simply continue a couple of miles past the turnoff for the Golden Spike entrance (heading on Route 83 from the direction of Brigham City and Corinne). I’m not sure it’s worth traveling hours to see unless someone is an extreme rocketry buff, but it’s certainly worth the effort for a five minute detour.
As the signage explains, visitors can see two very important transportation milestones from this single area: the completion of the transcontinental railroad, and then a hundred years later, the site of the rocket motors that carried astronauts to the moon. How far we’ve come.