| CURRENT EVENTS Iconic rocket at Alabama rest stop to be taken down, NASA says


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Iconic rocket at Alabama rest stop to be taken down, NASA says


The NASA rocket that towers at the north Alabama welcome center on Interstate 65 will be taken down, the space agency and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center said in a statement Friday night.

It’s the final verdict on a long-running issue of how best to deal with the deteriorating Saturn 1B rocket that’s become a popular landmark near the Tennessee state line. Officials have spent months studying the issue and determined that repairs would be cost prohibitive if the rocket could even withstand an extensive refurbishment.

Discussions have also begun on a possible replacement for the rocket at the rest stop.

“Initial estimates to disassemble and reconstruct the Saturn IB exceed $7 million with no guarantees that the rocket would withstand the process,” the statement said. “Several factors prevent it from being safely transported as it is too large to fit under the overpass bridges on I-65 and other routes also present obstacles.

“Extensive repairs, if possible, would need to be done on site and require a team of experts working fulltime for more than a year. None of these efforts will prevent the inevitable deterioration of a vehicle that was not designed to stand outdoors.”

rocket athens rest stop

The Saturn 1B rocket, shown here in January 2023, at the I-65 Alabama welcome center just south of the Tennessee state line has an uncertain future amid continuing deterioration. (Paul Gattis | pgattis@al.com)

State Rep. Andy Whitt, R-Ardmore, met with NASA officials Friday and said in the statement he looked forward to ideas for a replacement to the rocket. On Thursday, Whitt said he would “fight the fight” to save the rocket but relented following the meeting.

“This is an opportunity to create a landmark that will withstand the test of time and serve as a symbol of Alabama’s past and current role in space and technology,” Whitt said in the announcement.

Whitt chairs the House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism.

“Everyone involved is working together to create the next great icon for our community, our state, and our nation,” he said in the announcement.

Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville said earlier in the day that it supported removing the rocket, saying that deterioration was too extensive to repair and that it could become a safety hazard. The rest stop is now closed while undergoing renovation by the Alabama Department of Transportation.

NASA owns the rocket, which has been on loan to the rocket center for display at the welcome center. According to the rocket center, the Saturn 1B was one of three launch vehicles in the Saturn family and served as a test bed for the Apollo lunar program. It was used to carry Skylab astronauts into orbit and last flew in 1975.

The rocket stands at 168 feet -- a towering presence for travelers zooming past on the interstate as well as visitors to the welcome center -- but much smaller than the 363-foot tall Saturn V rocket that carried men to the moon in the Apollo program. A model of that rocket stands on display at the rocket center.

Its presence is to remind travelers of Huntsville’s space travel legacy that’s been renewed with the December launch of Artemis I that orbited the moon.

Officials are now looking toward a replacement for the rocket that will still carry that message of Huntsville’s space heritage.

“We are inspired by the community’s passion for the rocket and the accomplishments it represents,” Kimberly Robinson, CEO and executive director of the rocket center, said in the announcement. “Whether the rocket is replaced by a replica of the Saturn 1B or another rocket, we’re excited at the possibility for a new enduring emblem of Alabama’s leadership in space exploration.”

Collin Daly, commission chair of the Limestone County -- which is home of the welcome center -- echoed Robinson’s sentiments.

“After meeting with NASA and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, I am 100% certain that we can work together to find a solution that echoes the voices of Alabama citizens and honors the legacy of those who took us to the moon,” Daly said in the announcement.

No timetable for the rocket’s dismantling was given in the announcement.

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That's a landmark for sure. My wife's from Paducah and we've made many, many trips up 65. I really hate that.

Being able to see key pieces of history like that is important. I always think of our proud state bookends of the USS Alabama and the Saturn V for their might, technology and ingenuity. The B-52 in battleship park is no slouch, either.

I guess it's inevitable that all of these relics will eventually go away. About 18 months ago, The Texas Raiders dropped by McCollum Airport in Kennesaw with their B-17, just an incredible machine. Their dedication to the upkeep of this flying memorial was so impressive. They were joined by several other aircraft. In November, the B-17 was involved in a midair collision at an air show (the other aircraft came in high, fast and out of formation - they never saw it coming) and five crewman were lost, along with aircraft. That loss really struck home. I'd spent a few hours talking to these guys, and their love for what they were doing, and what they were preserving, was evident.

Time marches on.
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