Jupiter rocket

In July, when the U.S. celebrated the 50th anniversary of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the surface of the moon, Roanoke already had a perfect landmark in place.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation’s 67-foot-tall Jupiter class ballistic missile always makes for an odd sight, its nose poking up above the Second Street bridge in downtown Roanoke. I smile every time I see it.

Jupiter class missiles were used for suborbital test flights in the 1950s. These missiles were the precursors of the Saturn V rockets that actually carried astronauts to the moon.

Politicians lobbying on behalf of the museum brought the rocket to Roanoke in 1965. The city later gifted it to the museum.

The rocket stood for decades in Wasena Park, the transportation museum’s original location until the catastrophic 1985 flood. VMT moved into the 1918 Norfolk & Western freight station on Norfolk Avenue Southwest, but the Jupiter missile remained behind, a lonely anomaly.

In 1998 the rocket was repaired and moved to the place it stands now. It’s officially billed as a part of VMT’s “Wings Over Virginia” aviation collection.

It’s puzzled me over the years that Roanoke’s incongruous space rocket still hasn’t risen to the exalted status of beloved kitsch attained by the Mill Mountain Star, the H&C Coffee sign and the Texas Tavern. Perhaps the next big space program anniversary will offer another opportunity to (so to speak) launch our Jupiter missile into the stratosphere.

Mike Allen writes the Arts & Extras column for The Roanoke Times. The beat he covers includes visual art, classical music, opera, theater, dance, literature, museums and other arts and cultural nonprofits, and things even more eclectic.

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