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Next mission: Remove, replace welcome center rocket

HUNTSVILLE – The U.S. Space & Rocket Center said it will continue to partner with NASA and work with federal, state, and local leaders to replace the iconic Saturn IB rocket at the Alabama Welcome Center in Ardmore.

Dr. Kimberly Robinson, CEO and executive director of the Space & Rocket Center, said the center was working for a meaningful, sustainable and economically feasible replacement.

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

Owned by NASA and on loan to the Rocket Center for display at the welcome center, the rocket is one of the first things travelers see when they enter the state of Alabama. It has been a beacon of history for travelers for over 40 years, but it was never designed to withstand exposure to the elements.

“We have had several productive meetings with NASA, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and Limestone County officials,” said State Rep. Andy Whitt (R-Ardmore), chair of the state Economic Development and Tourism Committee. “In these discussions, all parties agree that doing nothing for the replacement of the rocket is not an option and the citizens of our state should have input.

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

After assessing the rocket’s condition and considering all options, the Rocket Center and NASA said the Saturn IB is degraded beyond repair and could pose a safety issue if left in place.

It will cost more than $7 million to disassemble and reconstruct the Saturn IB, with no guarantees it will survive the renovation.

Furthermore, several factors prevent it from being safely transported. It is too large to fit under the overpass bridges on I-65, and there are no other routes feasible.

Extensive repairs then, would need to be done on site. It will also require a team of experts working fulltime for more than a year and still – none of those efforts will prevent the inevitable deterioration of the rocket.

“After meeting with NASA and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, I am 100 percent 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,” said Limestone County Commission Chair Collin Daly.

The Saturn IB 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.

“We now need to view this as 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.

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