When Terrell Jones graduated from the School of Engineering in 1951, Vanderbilt engineers had their pick of top jobs. Because he was already married at the time, Jones opted for the offer with the highest pay. As it turned out, that job wasn’t at all what he expected, but it did set him on a history-making career path that offered a front row seat to the Cold War.
After working as a “glorified draftsman” in Dallas for a year, Jones made the move to Huntsville, Ala.—Rocket City, U.S.A., to work for Rohm and Haas, the multinational chemical manufacturing giant, doing propulsion work for the U.S. Army. Jones recalls that Huntsville was a true boomtown in the 1950s.
“Things were developing so fast that one day they just completely bulldozed a cane field and poured a blacktop street down the middle of it,” Jones says. “Then they’d put up these little prefab houses that were like shoeboxes. They were just two or three pieces stuck together.”
His first job at Redstone Arsenal didn’t have much room for advancement, so he made the move to civil service and began working for the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. The agency was headed by Wernher von Braun, the German-born American rocket scientist and trailblazer for the U.S. space program.
Jones, who eventually achieved top-secret clearance, started in the structures and mechanics lab and then moved to the propulsion project office. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Defense requested that the agency begin work on a new missile fueled by a solid propellant. Since Jones was the only one with solid propellant rocket experience, he was assigned to do the preliminary design on what eventually became the Pershing missile.
The scope of the project was broad and unknown to many. People worked on different parts of the missile in different locations.
“People who were limited in their clearance might be working on a graphite nozzle, but they wouldn’t know what it would go to,” he says. “Later on, when I had to meet with the people doing the warheads, they were very selective in what they would let me see. They really didn’t want to give me the weight and size of the nuclear device. I had to design around their restrictions.”
The Pershing was a two-stage rocket and Jones was the agency’s project manager responsible for two rocket motors inside those stages. His parts of the puzzle had to mesh with everyone else’s.
“If I made the thrust too high, then the guidance people griped because the acceleration would be too great, for example,” Jones says. “One group wanted a smaller diameter, but I was able to have my way on that one.”
As the work continued, it became clear that the Pershing was a one-of-a-kind weapon—the first ballistic missile that was mobile. To understand just how important of an achievement that was, one has to understand the political atmosphere at the time.
The threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union and the fear of communism permeated America. Schoolchildren practiced bomb drills and families built shelters. With the nuclear arms race running full steam ahead, the Pershing missile was vital to U.S. defense.
The missiles had a fairly short range—only about 1,000 miles. They were positioned in Northern Europe, pointed at Russia.
“Each missile was on a big trailer that was pulled by a tractorlike vehicle,” Jones says. “Whenever it stopped, these stabilizing feet would expand. This missile would be raised hydraulically from a horizontal position into a firing position.” Several nights later, the missile would be moved to a new location.
During daylight hours, Soviet satellites were tracking the missiles. According to Jones, the missiles’ movements “drove the Russians crazy” because they couldn’t keep up with locations. That mobility, combined with the threat of nuclear missiles able to breach Soviet borders, was a key U.S. military advantage.
In 1960, Jones departed the Pershing project and moved to North Carolina to work for Northrup Corp. After 10 more years developing ordnance and propulsion systems, he left and started a second career building homes and commercial buildings regionally. After retiring from the construction business in the 1990s, he continued building as an active volunteer and site supervisor with Habitat for Humanity. Today, 61 years after graduating from VUSE, he resides in Palm City, Fla.
Work for Naught—or Not?
Throughout his career—whether working on space-age technology or building homes, Jones has relied on his Vanderbilt School of Engineering education.
“After I started working, I was thankful that I had had to take some courses that I didn’t appreciate at the time,” Jones says. “It turned out that many things I learned through class work and lab work helped me in my field. I couldn’t foresee that when I was in school.”
The Army awarded Jones’ work on the Pershing system, but Pershing missiles were never fired outside of a test situation. They—along with Russian SS-20 missiles—were banned by the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987. The Pershing and SS-20 missiles were destroyed except for a few inert examples in the Smithsonian and other displays. An entire class of nuclear weapons was eliminated.
“I had mixed emotions about that treaty,” Jones says. “I was glad to see anything with the potential to cause death and destruction gone. But from the standpoint of all that work—not just from me but from all the other people who worked on the project—it was a lilttle bit of a letdown.
“In the end though, I wish we could’ve gotten rid of all the nuclear missiles out there. This was just a small drop in the bucket.”