HIGHLANDS, N.C. -- The godfather of America's space program, a star warrior turned priest, lives here on a mountaintop. And tonight, after piloting his silver Jeep Cherokee out of these majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, John Bruce Medaris, a retired two-star Army general who spearheaded America's entry into space, will roll up to the Washington Hilton for a prestigious aerospace banquet, to be honored with an award that is 30 years overdue. In the first weeks after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, America's Vanguard rockets were blowing up on the launch pad ("Kaputnik!") with awful regularity. And Gen. Medaris whipped his missile command at Alabama's Redstone Arsenal into a high-tech frenzy. It took Medaris' team a scant 90 days after the brass in Washington gave the green light, and Explorer 1 roared into orbit atop the Jupiter-C rocket. Then, barely two years later, in 1960, after his team of German rocket scientists was folded against his wishes into NASA, the fledgling space agency, Medaris spurned his third star and retired. For a time, he ran Lionel toys, then started his own consulting firm. He became an Anglican priest, charting a different path to the heavens, and retired to these Blue Ridge Mountains to run spiritual workshops. They now call the general "Father Bruce," a minister as comfortable quoting scripture as throw-weights. "I should have gotten the award way back in the '50s," he shrugs, sipping dry sherry over dinner Wednesday night. "But I'm not bitter. I've got more medals than I need. You can't take them with you." At the dawn of the space age, Medaris' domain included the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala.; White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico; the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, Calif.; and the Missile Firing Range at Cape Canaveral. He was an outspoken advocate of keeping the Army missile program intact, and he pushed for a unified space effort -- not one divided into military and civilian agencies and weakened by interservice turf fights. He made headlines with Wernher von Braun, his chief scientist at Redstone Arsenal; together, they were the one-two punch in America's budding space program of the 1950s. In 1957 the National Space Club presented von Braun with the first Robert H. Goddard Trophy, perhaps the most prestigious award in the aerospace field. After opposing the creation of NASA, Medaris was shunned. "I was poison," he says. Tonight, the National Space Club, a nonprofit organization of leaders in government, industry and the press, is honoring Medaris with a special award, a sort of space-race Oscar for lifetime achievement, to recognize his "epic contributions to the birth of America's space program," says club president Jack Herre. "It's long overdue." "He served a long and distinguished Army career that was never honored or acknowledged by the civil side of space," says James Beggs, the former NASA administrator. "It occurred to a number of us, had it not been for Medaris and his organization, a lot of things that were done in the early days couldn't have been done." In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the U.S. space program, Walter McDougall says Medaris geared up to launch Explorer 1 "in very little time ... He wanted no repetition of the Vanguard debacle," and he seized an opportunity to launch his Jupiter-C rocket between high winds at Cape Canaveral, putting America into space. "He's a national resource, a legend," says Lt. Gen. James Abrahamson, retiring director of the $4 billion Strategic Defense Initiative program who tapped Medaris as a technical adviser on the proposal that Ronald Reagan called his "dream." A letter from Abrahamson sits framed atop the mantel of Medaris' mountain home, alongside photos of a few of his three children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, near an altar where he conducts occasional services. At 86, Medaris remains outspoken, recounting a life of hard work, bloody wars in which he somehow avoided getting as much as a scratch and won the praise of such military heroes as Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower. An only child raised by his mother and grandmother in Cincinnati after his parents divorced (his father was a lawyer), he managed two paper routes at 9, absorbed schoolwork with the help of a photographic memory, hired on as a Great Lakes ship pilot at age 12 and later worked nights as a mail sack heaver, trolley conductor and taxi driver. As he snoozed at the wheel waiting for fares at Columbus' train depot, other drivers gently nudged his cab forward so he could sleep, aware of his ambitions. "I never knew I'd had a disadvantaged childhood until I was 40," he says with a laugh. At 16, he enlisted in the Marines, trained at Parris Island and got to France in time for World War I. His mother demanded an explanation, and he recalls telling her, "If I'm able to hold down a man's job, I want to be able to tell my children one day I was man enough to go to fight for my country." Afterward, he studied mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, won a commission in the U.S. Army and, fluent in Spanish, got orders to South America to help patch up a 100-year-old border dispute between Chile and Peru. Riding a mule into the mountains, he remembers, he caught both sides stuffing the ballot box in the disputed province, but helped broker a deal. Then he left the Army for the business world, staying away 10 years, then re-upped for World War II. He eventually found himself doing the ordnance planning for the First Army's invasion of Normandy. As Gen. Omar Bradley's trusted ordnance officer, he worked to crack supply bottlenecks, collected intelligence on Germany's V2 rockets (precursors to the Jupiter-C) and embarrassed at least one general for mismanagement. Once, he says, Gen. George Patton requested he inflate reports of captured enemy equipment; he refused. "Something is either true or it's not," he says. "And if it's not, I won't bend it." Gen. Patton didn't like his attitude, he says, but "he was a pain in the neck." Bradley, the Army chief of staff, got Medaris his first star, and soon he was off to Argentina as the first chief of the Army's mission. He was tall, dashing and handsome, married to his second wife (his first marriage ended in divorce in 1930), and he charmed both Peronistas and anti-Peron forces -- even, he says, drawing the attentions of the colorful Eva Peron. Medaris says he kept "far enough away" to avoid international incident. After Korea, he became commanding general of the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Ala., with unprecedented authority to oversee contracts with civilian firms supplying rocket parts. To guard against quality control errors that have since plagued the space shuttle program, he planted his men on assembly lines, something he wishes NASA would do today to guard against failures in the aerospace industry. "There's been so much tragedy in the space program," he says, "because the fox is guarding the henhouse. There's so little oversight." As Army missile chief, Medaris fought bitter battles in Washington for funds and support, losing in the end. He says President Eisenhower just didn't understand the urgency of the space program until after Sputnik. "He thought rockets were toys for scientists," says Medaris. After Sputnik, he made waves again by telling a Senate committee that the Army had proposed a similar feat, only to be turned down by the Defense Department. But once Washington made a decision to dismantle his team at Redstone in favor of NASA, Medaris raised no public objections. In fact, he instigated court-martial proceedings against a renegade staffer who gave columnist Drew Pearson data intended to reverse the decision. Soon afterward, however, a disappointed Medaris retired and wrote the controversial book "Countdown for Decision," a personal look at the early days of the space race. After his stint at Lionel and other business ventures, he found himself in Florida, in 1968, where he was ordained as an Anglican priest. Asked if there is a curious irony in a rocketman becoming a clergyman, he says, "A beautiful French author wrote years ago that an old priest and an old soldier get along well together. One spends his life defending his country on earth, the other defends his country in Heaven." Today he works without pay, living modestly on his $48,000 Pentagon pension, counseling anyone with a problem as a sort of minister without portfolio, from elderly to engaged couples (only one in the 50 he has married have divorced). He is especially sensitive to smoking; his wife of 37 years died five years ago of emphysema. At a restaurant here, he scrapped with a waitress who told him there was no section for nonsmokers. "What do you mean you don't have a no-smoking section?" he snapped, his command presence returning. "It's the law." Relaxing over a mountain trout, he is asked if he ever feels like a prophet without honor in his own time. "I just listen to what the Boss says," he smiles, eyes glancing skyward, "and try to get the message across the best way I know how. "I've never been accused of trying to please everybody. That's being caught on the worst horns of a dilemma. If you like what I have to say, fine. If you don't, I'm sorry about that."