Annette James of Bowling Green, Ky., said the surprise led her to stop at the Alabama Welcome Center at Ardmore last week with her teenagers to get a better look.
The Saturn 1B is Alabama tourism’s iconic welcome landmark to travelers entering the state. James said it’s particularly impressive against the clear blue sky and the forest that surrounds it.
As they posed for photos and read about the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, they couldn’t help making another discovery: The rocket needs work. “The rocket isn’t clean,” James said. “And it needs painting. They should take better care of it.”
The paint is faded and black mold and algae cover the bottom. Birds use the rocket’s crevices for nests and their droppings are everywhere.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville is working with the Alabama Department of Transportation to get it pressure-washed and painted this summer. The state Tourism Department will fund the project.
“The rocket presents a great perception of our state to visitors,” Space and Rocket Center spokesman Tim Hall said. “We want it to show the thrill and excitement of the state and the rocket program.”
Sherry Griffith is one of five representatives of the Alabama Tourism Department who works at the welcome center. She said 1.3 million guests signed the visitors book last year, and many more make quick stops without signing.
“The rocket is like a magnet,” Griffith said.
The welcome center opened in 1977. NASA donated the rocket to the state in 1979 but still works with the state on its upkeep. A fence was added around the rocket recently to prevent graffiti, officials said.
NASA ordered 12 complete Saturn 1B launch vehicles but, starting in 1966, launched only nine of them. They were used for Apollo, Skylab and Apollo/Soyuz test project missions.
On Jan. 27, 1967, a flash fire in the capsule of a Saturn 1B killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 mission.
Budget cuts and criticism of the Saturn 1B booster’s power halted production in 1968. After the Skylab launched in 1969-70 with the existing rockets, NASA scrapped the program in 1971. The Ardmore rocket was never used.
James said the rocket offered her 13-year-old daughters Haley and Holly, and their friend Tyler Baise, a chance for a history lesson as they traveled to Panama City, Fla., for spring break.
She said it led her to inquire about the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, its location and tour schedules.