Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Nike-Cajun Rocket: How It Got Its Name

I promised some time ago that I would discuss the origin of the Nike-Cajun rocket, used as a sounding rocket by the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and other organizations during the Cold War.

A Nike-Cajun rocket.
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration.)

As I write in my book, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People:
Cajuns have further demonstrated their ability to adapt to the modern world by pursuing high-tech careers.  A few Cajuns, for example, became veritable rocket scientists, among them J. G. Thibodaux [sic].  
Born  in a lumber camp in the Atchafalaya swamp, he helped to develop the Nike-Cajun rocket in the 1950s, whose second stage, a sounding missile used for testing the upper atmosphere, was named in honor of his ancestry.  He went on to serve as chief of the Propulsion and Power Division at Johnson Space Center, assisting NASA with the Apollo moon missions and later with the space shuttle (p. 147).
Interviewed in 1999 for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Thibodaux (full name Joseph Guy Thibodaux, Jr.) described his own origins as follows:
I was born in the Louisiana swamps. . . . I was born at the F.B. Williams Lumber Camp in the Atchafalaya swamp on the west side of Lake Verret.  It is certainly a swamp. It was a big cypress logging organization. My father worked there. 
My birthplace was registered as Napoleonville, Louisiana[,] which is twelve miles north of Thibodaux, Louisiana[,] on Louisiana Highway 1 which parallels Bayou Lafourche. . . . [W]e left there and moved to New Orleans when I was about five and I went to high school in New Orleans and later on I went to Louisiana State University.(1)
Elsewhere, Thibodaux noted, “I consider myself a Cajun[,] both on my mother’s and father’s side.”  He added, “My grandmother was an Hebert.”(2)

Logo of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics,
forerunner of NASA.

Thibodaux graduated from LSU in Chemical Engineering in 1942 and served as a U.S. Army officer from 1943 to 1946, including wartime service in Burma.  On separation from the military he went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for whom he ultimately worked.  Stationed at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory/Langley Research Center at Langley Field, Virginia, Thibodaux aided NACA first as a propulsion engineer in its Pilotless Aircraft Research Division before moving on to a number of other posts under both NACA and, beginning in 1958, newly created NASA.(3)

Logo of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

It was while working for NACA that Thibodaux helped to create the Cajun rocket.  Mated to a Nike first-stage rocket, the resulting two-stage rocket was known as the "Nike-Cajun" rocket.  As I have observed elsewhere in this blog, "The name evoked a strange combination of ancient Greek mythology and rural south Louisiana folklife."(3)

According to a NASA report, Origins of NASA Names, the Nike was "a solid-propellant first stage . . . an adaptation of the Nike antiaircraft missile. . . . The name ‘Nike’ was taken from ancient Greek mythology: Nike was the winged goddess of victory. In NASA's sounding rocket program, Nike was used with Apache, Cajun, Tomahawk, Hawk, or Malemute upper stages. . . ."

A Nike-Cajun rocket preparing for liftoff, ca. 1960;
the man in the truck bed is handling the Cajun stage.
Note the NACA symbol at upper left.  (Click to enlarge)
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration)

As for the Cajun rocket itself, Origins of NASA Names notes:
The Cajun solid-propellant rocket stage was designed and developed under the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' Langley Laboratory (later NASA's Langley Research Center). The project's manager, Joseph G. Thibodaux, Jr., formerly of Louisiana, suggested the new motor be named "Cajun" because of the term's Louisiana associations.
The report continues, "Allen E. Williams, Director of Engineering in Thiokol Chemical Corporation's Elkton (Md.) Division, agreed to the name, and later the Elkton Division decided to continue giving its rocket motors Indian-related names."(4)

Liftoff of a Nike-Cajun rocket,
1957 (bottom) & 1958 (top).  (Click to enlarge)
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration.)

In a 1969 letter to noted science writer William R. Corliss, NASA’s Assistant Director for Flight Projects Eugene C. Draley likewise observed:
With regard to the naming of the Nike-Cajun rocket, the story [I will relate] involves [the naming of] the Cajun only.  Mr. J. G. Thibodaux, for many years Head of the Rocket Group at Langley and now Chief of the Propulsion Division at Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, was responsible for the name Cajun. 
When Langley contracted with the Thiokol Chemical Corporation in 1955 for a higher performance version of the Deacon rocket, Mr. Thibodaux, a native of the Cajun country near New Orleans, suggested the name Cajun for the new motor and Thiokol so named it.(5)
Thibodaux himself, however, remembered a slightly different version of events, "[Thiokol’s] Chief Engineer was Bryce Wilhite, also from Louisiana.  He was familiar with my Cajun background and it was his original suggestion that we name the rocket ‘Cajun.’  I agreed."(2)

Yet in a 1996 interview, however, Thibodaux gave himself partial credit for naming the rocket, observing, "We use[d] to name all the rockets that I had developed, give them a special name. One of them I named after my Cajun heritage—we—Bryce Wilhite, Thiokol’s Chief Engineer at Elkton [Maryland], also from Louisiana, and I—called it Cajun."(6)

In any event, the rocket was named for Thibodaux’s ancestry.

Envelope cover commemorating a Nike-Cajun launch, 1963.
(Author's collection)

Thibodaux was not the only Cajun to work for NASA, either directly or, through a subcontractor, indirectly.  For example, Doug Ardoin of Eunice, Louisiana, graduated in physics from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and went to work for NASA in summer 1967 on the Apollo moon missions.  Later he worked on the space shuttle program.

And my own uncle, Oscar Bernard of Opelousas, Louisiana, also graduated from USL in physics and went to work for NASA through its Boeing subcontractor.  Like Ardoin, Bernard worked on the Apollo moon missions, assisting with (among other things) the design and construction of the first stage of the mammoth Saturn V rocket.  (Interestingly, Ardoin and Bernard both performed in the 1950s as swamp pop musicians — Ardoin as lead singer and guitarist of the original Boogie Kings band and Bernard as guitarist for The Twisters, backing group for his brother, singer Rod Bernard.)

At least one other Cajun (I’m sure there must be more) worked on the U.S. space program, namely, Chief Master Sergeant Patty Dupuis of Cecilia, Louisiana, who, according to a May 2000 news report, “played a major role in the development of . . . [a defense satellite perched atop a Titan IV] rocket, which has been dubbed the Rajin’ Cajun [sic], in honor of Dupuis.”(7)  As an article by's Jim Banke noted at the time:
"The Ragin' Cajun roared off the pad, marking the return of Titan operations here," Air Force Titan launch director Lt. Col. Tony Goins said Monday, making reference to the booster's nickname. "It's a great boost for us here at the Cape to successfully place an operational satellite on orbit to support the warfighter." 
Goins and his colleagues named this Titan 4 the "Ragin' Cajun" in honor of Chief Master Sergeant Patty Dupuis, a Titan manager from Louisiana who supervised maintenance work at Launch Complex 40 and is moving on to a new assignment.(8)

1. J. G. Thibodaux, interview by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Kenneth J. Cox, 9 September 1996, Clear Lake, Texas, Space Stories: Oral Histories from the Pioneers of America's Space Program,, accessed 6 April 2012.

2. J. G. Thibodaux, [Clear Lake, Texas?], to Shane K. Bernard, [New Iberia, La.], 6 May 2000, e-mail correspondence, computer printout in the possession of the author.

3. J. G. Thibodaux biographical data sheet, NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, 7 April 1999,, accessed 6 April 2012.

4. Helen T. Wells, Susan H. Whiteley, and Carrie E. Karegeannes, Origins of NASA Names, The NASA History Series, Scientific and Technical Information Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, D.C., 1976,, see Section V: Sounding Rockets,, accessed 6 April 2012.

5. Eugene C. Draley, [Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.?], to William R. Corliss, Glenarm, Md., 14 February 1969, TLS [copy], Records of NASA Langley Research Center, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

6. J. G. Thibodaux, interview by Robbie Davis-Floyd and Kenneth J. Cox, 10 September 1996, Clear Lake, Texas,, accessed 6 April 2012.

7. “Cajun Rocket Liftoff,” news program teletype script, 8 May 2000, photocopy in the possession of the author.

8. Jim Banke, "2000 Ragin' Cajun (Titan 4) Delivers Its Payload,", 8 May 2000, reprinted on, accessed 7 April 2012.


  1. Another cajun at NASA was William Simon, who now teaches mechanical engineering at UL. (He may have retired recently). He was very much involved in design on the Apollo project. He is from Lafayette and attended Cathedral-Carmel and USL. He lives in Carencro on property he inherited from his parents.

  2. Just an FYI: My dad, Allan E Williams was also from Louisiana.

  3. Thanks for that note. For those who don't know, Williams is mentioned in the above article as Director of Engineering in Thiokol Chemical Corporation's Elkton (Md.) Division.