One thing is for sure: They don’t build them like they used to.
We’re used to historic buildings and monuments lasting pretty much forever. Sure, the Statue of Liberty might need a face-lift every 100 years or so, but it’ll always be there — even if the rest of the world goes the way of “Planet of the Apes.”
But that’s not so when it comes to one local monument: the Saturn 1B rocket that stands at the Alabama welcome center on Interstate 65, just south of the Tennessee state line.
The rocket, donated by the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, has greeted southbound visitors since 1979. Alabamians who have ventured north for business or pleasure have gotten used to knowing they’re almost home when they see the rocket peer above the treetops. Now the rocket’s time appears to be almost up.
“It’s time for it to go,” Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell said last week. “That was never intended to be anywhere that long.”
Sentell estimates it would cost $1 million to take down, refurbish and restore the rocket, which is one of three completed but never launched during the heyday of the Apollo moon program. The Saturn 1B and the Saturn V rocket that blasted astronauts to the moon were both developed at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Marshall is now working on the Space Launch System, the backbone of the Artemis program, which will return Americans to the moon.
Sentell wants something new for the I-65 welcome center, which is also being demolished and replaced. The Alabama Department of Transportation hopes to open the new center at the site by the second half of 2024. However, ALDOT has nothing to do with the rocket.
“What Huntsville needs to market is the next big project, going back to the moon, instead of people saying nothing ever changes,” Sentell said. “It really does. What Huntsville’s undergoing now is enormous success and redevelopment.”
Marshall Space Flight Center agrees. The NASA center issued a statement last week saying it supported the removal of the rocket and looked forward to “what may take its place in the future.”
“This rocket was not built to withstand more than 40 years of continuous exposure to the elements of nature,” the statement said. “The support structure has deteriorated over the years, the damage is too significant to repair, and could potentially pose a structural safety issue if left in place.”
The question is, what should take the rocket’s place? It’s a far different environment now than it was in 1979, when the Apollo program was winding down, the space shuttle program was getting underway and NASA had a monopoly on human spaceflight.
Spaceflight now has many players, many of which have a major presence in Alabama. It’s not just NASA and the Space Launch System. It’s Decatur’s United Launch Alliance, which is getting ready to launch the first of its new Vulcan Centaur rockets. Boeing’s long-delayed manned crew capsule, the Starliner, will eventually launch atop another ULA rocket, the Atlas 5. Blue Origin, the private space launch company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, builds the engine for the Vulcan Centaur at a plant in Huntsville.
If the state of Alabama wants to dazzle visitors with its technological know-how as they drive into the state, it may take more than one rocket to do the job. It might take three.
Regardless, replacing the Saturn 1B at the state line will take money. Maybe a good way to raise it is a specialty license plate like the one issued to help fund refurbishment of the Saturn V rocket inside the Space and Rocket Center’s Davidson Center. With the Saturn V refurbished, proceeds from the “Alabama Space Tag” have gone to other exhibits. Maybe whatever replaces the Saturn 1B on I-65 should get the lion’s share of that revenue for a while.