MASCOUTAH, Ill. — When America’s first rocket rose from the launch pad, Norbert Zinck felt some well-placed pride.
In his own small way, Zinck was partly responsible for the success of the rocket that launched America’s first satellite into outer space. He was a member of the team of Army specialists assigned to work on the Redstone series of rockets, patterned after the German V-2 rocket developed during World War II.
Zinck’s work pre-dated NASA, when the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was brought to the United States to work in ballistic missile technology in Project Vanguard.
Zinck’s contribution was welding, a skill he had learned growing up on the family farm in southern Illinois and honed during a stint in the Army. Even so, the project required more than just run-of-the-mill welders.
“I had to pass government regulations to weld on it,” he said.
His military career began in 1956, when he entered the Army and was sent to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He later served at Fort Knox in Kentucky before being transferred to Fort Belvoir in Virginia, where he began working on ballistic missiles.
He already knew how to weld before his military stint, having learned to work on equipment at the family farm in St. Clair County. He received extensive training in the Army.
“My unit went to Vietnam but they never sent me,” Zinck said. “They said, ‘We’re not going to send you because we’ll lose everything we have invested in you.’”
His military career consisted of two years active duty and four years active reserve.
“I was well satisfied,” he said. “If I had to do it over again, I would.”
Zinck grew up on the family farm, where his father grew corn, soybeans and wheat, and raised beef cattle and pigs. Like most farms of that period, the Zinck family also raised their own poultry, laying hens and dairy cows for milk. He returned home after his military service and continued to farm.
“I worked at farming for a while. There wasn’t a lot of money in it, so I worked a job in town,” Zinck said. “I saved money and was able to make a down payment to buy my own farm.”
He still helps out on the farm, largely when welding or machine work is needed.
“I work in a shop what I’m able to do,” he said. “I can’t do quite as much as I used to. I run a machine shop full time.”
Zinck’s post-military experience covers much more than farming. He traveled extensively around the world — including Russia, Africa and the Middle East — helping with agricultural projects.
He served as a volunteer with ACDI/VOCA (Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance) for years.
“He took 25 trips overseas,” said his daughter, Mary Rennegarbe. “He’s been all over the place, helping with different farming techniques.”
His most memorable posting was Siberia, where he helped with corn yields.
“Siberia was pretty interesting,” Zinck said. “It was 65 below zero there. I didn’t know they had that much in agriculture. But they have corn, a few soybeans and they’re pretty big in wheat production. They wanted to increase their corn farming and I taught them a lot about that.”
Zinck’s contribution to the U.S. space program is still a source of pride. Several years ago he visited the Smithsonian Institution during a family vacation with one of his granddaughters, touring the missile exhibit.
“I noticed a big missile and it was the Redstone, the one I worked on,” he said. “It was like 97 feet long. They had to dig a hole in the wall and raise the roof to stand it up in the building.”
It brought back memories of his work on the program. He never doubted that the rocket would get off the ground in the early days.
“I had full confidence that it would work out OK,” he said.