Jan. 29 (Reuters) – The state budget has earmarked nearly $1 million to refurbish the prominent NASA rocket near Elkmont that an Alabama Tourism official has asked for its removal, but that money may not be enough to save the rocket repair it, even if it is considered salvageable.
State Assemblyman Danny Crawford said $980,000 in taxpayer money is earmarked in the state’s fiscal 2023 general budget for the rocket at the Alabama Welcome Center, which is being renovated off Interstate 65 south of the Tennessee line.
“The money should tear it down so it can be refurbished if possible,” Crawford said. “It had to be painted and stuff, but it has to come down to get everything right.”
Crawford said a line item was created for appropriations in the budget.
“This position ties directly to the problem you’re having, so it doesn’t require invoices authorizing anything,” he said. “The line item, if passed, will be authorized and credited to this account.”
Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Department of Tourism, said earlier this month it was time to replace the rusting Saturn 1B rocket dominating its surroundings and place another symbol of northern Alabama in the welcome center.
“It’s time to get started,” Sentell said. “It was never planned for so long.”
A Sentell employee said Thursday he was no longer commenting on the missile.
Crawford said members of the local delegation had requested that state budget funds be allocated to the rocket’s restoration.
“At that time … Mac McCutcheon was our Speaker (of the Alabama House of Representatives). So when we convinced him of the need, he saw it and brought it into the budget,” he said.
Crawford said the missile must be dismantled regardless of its fate.
“You can mine it where it can either be salvaged or refurbished if it’s possible; it’s an awfully expensive ordeal,” he said. “The structure is such that it must be dismantled extremely carefully, hope it doesn’t collapse. If you do, then you have nothing to work with.”
The welcome center near Elkmont has been closed for demolition and construction of a replacement center that the Alabama Department of Transportation hopes to complete by the second half of 2024.
Seth Burkett, spokesman for ALDOT’s northern region, said the department helped place the missile.
“ALDOT provided the location for the missile to be displayed at the Welcome Center beginning in 1979,” he said. “The rocket is on loan from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to the US Space and Rocket Center, which is responsible for its maintenance.”
The rocket is a Saturn 1B and is 168 feet tall and 22 feet in diameter. Crawford said it would be a year-long project to renovate it. However, he said there are cheaper options than trying to overhaul the missile.
“One is a replica of this Saturn rocket, same size and dimensions. … It will last forever, it doesn’t have to worry about rusting,” Crawford said. “The only way we can preserve Saturn’s history is to look at a replica, and that costs about $3 million to $3.5 million.”
The replica would be made out of some kind of plastic, Crawford said. He said another option would be to use a vehicle from NASA’s current Artemis project to bring astronauts back to the lunar surface, but that would cost about $5 million or $7 million if it needed refurbishing.
Crawford said if the Saturn 1B rocket could be refurbished but cost more than $980,000, or if any of the other options were an option, officials would turn to the private and aerospace industries for the remaining funds .
“We could raise the money from people who have been very active in the Saturn program. Boeing and the other people that are there, we would go to them and see how much we could raise,” he said. “We could raise enough to do it, we could be tight, then we’d see what we can get from the state to complete the project.”
Crawford said all options are terribly expensive.
“We will try to use as much debt financing as possible and as little taxpayer money as possible,” he said. “We have the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money that the federal government has passed through and we’re trying to figure out how to capture some of it. We are examining all possible financing options.”
sentiment for holding the rocket
Crawford said he hoped the missile could be repaired.
“We have to revive this icon,” he said. “This is very important to the community, the state and people from across the country who are traveling in this way.”
Crawford said if it’s not possible to reposition the original rocket, an iconic item with the same visual effect must be put in its place.
Ardmore Mayor Billy Shannon said he would like to see the rocket refurbished if it is financially feasible.
“I would hate to have it go because it’s such an important part of our lives and history as far as northern Alabama is concerned,” he said. “But if (moving) is what needs to be done, then I think we should take this opportunity to allow the citizens of Alabama to voice their thoughts and ideas for perhaps our next big landmark.”
If the rocket needs to be replaced, Shannon said he’d like to see a landmark associated with the impact North Alabama has had on space exploration.
The missile is located in District 1 of Limestone County Commissioner Daryl Sammet. Sammet said he would be interested to see what a replica would look like.
“It’s a landmark. Everyone looks for it when you come to Alabama and it shows what we represent,” he said. “It puts us into perspective how far we’ve come[in space exploration].”
Sammet said he has no preference for what the missile should replace.
“Just so it’s big and can be seen,” he said.
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks said if the funding stream is available he would like to see the rocket refurbished.
“That’s a decision for the county and state levels … but I certainly hope they will do something to maintain their presence,” he said. “It’s such a historic, iconic place to come into the state of Alabama on Interstate 65. This rocket has been seen by millions and millions of people.”
Marks said if the rocket is replaced he’d like to see something space-related, but at least it has to be something that draws people in.
Burkett said ALDOT will not make decisions about the missile.
“ALDOT is proud to have the Saturn 1B rocket on display in our Welcome Center for nearly 44 years, but we’ll follow the judgment of NASA and the US Space and Rocket Center,” he said. “We remain open to some of the conversation with them, as well as with local guides and tourism officials, about what role the welcome center can play in a suitable replacement for the rocket.”
—[email protected] or 256-340-2460.