Alabama lawmakers are trying to figure out what to do about the rocket at the Alabama Rest Stop off of Interstate 65 in Ardmore and how they can pay for renovating or replacing it. One lawmaker even suggested using COVID-19 relief money.
The 224-foot Saturn IB rocket was one of three Saturn rockets developed in Huntsville but was not the launch vehicle that ultimately took the first men to the moon. It has been on display at the rest stop since 1979 but closed in November last year due to rest stop renovations.
According to State Rep. Danny Crawford (R-Athens), the rocket was never built to withstand exposure for more than 40 years. He argued that recent deterioration over the previous decades had rendered it a safety hazard.
“A lot of [the problem] is exposure, but the majority of the problem is the birds, pigeons and everything for 40 years,” Crawford told 1819 News. “They have been living in [the rocket], and the acidity of their excrement has just about rusted out all the support beams in that rocket. There’s holes that are big as softballs all in those spider beams they call them.”
Lawmakers set aside almost $1 million to refurbish the rocket in the FY 2023 budget. At the time, Crawford and others concerned with the rocket thought it just needed basic renovations. However, during a meeting with stakeholders and engineers in October, the cost of preserving the rocket was estimated to be $7 million.
“When we started looking at how we could get that rocket back up to speed about two years ago … it was hard to get information,” Crawford said. “We weren’t even sure who owned the rocket at that time, so it was hard to get information as to what it was going to cost. We thought at that time it was simple, take it down, paint it and put it back up.”
Crawford said he and other lawmakers are exploring options, including possibly replacing the rocket with a 3D-printed replica or a newer rocket. The artificial rocket would cost $3 million, but Crawford said it would last forever. On the other hand, acquiring a new rocket could cost around $5 million.
Lawmakers are also trying to figure out how much money they can get for the project and from where. Crawford said they’ve been talking to the Alabama Aerospace Association and other private Huntsville-area companies to secure donations. He also said they’re hoping to be able to spend at least $2 million in COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
“We don’t want to lose that icon,” Crawford insisted. “...We want the presence of that rocket … So in the discussion, we were looking at what are our options and what could we do with the most money that we could get and where we would get the money.”
Crawford said he’d like to handle the rocket situation before the welcome center reopens for renovations in about two years.
“It’s just going to take patience from folks that are really concerned about it and good communication from all the people,” he said. ”If we don’t have it, then we can still put it up at some date after that if we haven’t gotten it resolved at that time.”
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