LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) — For 44 years drivers on I-65 have had the enjoyment and wonder of seeing the Saturn 1B rocket alongside the interstate.
The 168 feet tall rocket sits at the Alabama Welcome Center in Limestone County and is visible to both northbound and southbound drivers near the Tennessee state line.
However, it is officially coming down.
Thursday, a representative with the U.S. Space & Rocket Center told News 19 that work was already being done to remove the engines from the iconic rocket.
News 19 first learned that work might be going on on Wednesday when several viewers reach out to us. When News 19 arrived at the welcome center area, we were able to see a blue electric scissor lift sitting under the base of the rocket.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center told News 19 that the Alabama Department of Construction Management (ADCM) is handling the full removal of the rocket. The spokesperson told News 19 that the plans for that are still being finalized.
Once the removal plans are finalized, the rocket could come down as soon as two weeks after.
When Alabama State Senator Tom Butler heard that work had already begun, he drove to the rocket to see for himself.
“I actually drove up there yesterday [Wednesday], late, after I heard that they were going to start actually taking it down, and they have,” Sen. Butler told News 19. “There was some heavy equipment already parked out there and they were taking pieces down.”
He said he is extremely disappointed to learn the fate of the beloved rocket.
“When people come from Tennessee and the North down to Alabama, the first thing they see is that iconic symbol of the space program,” he said. “It’s got Huntsville, Alabama written all over it.”
“We’ve even earned the title of Rocket City USA and to take that rocket down is sort of a slap in the face of all the engineers and research and development people at Redstone Arsenal, and I just don’t like it [the removal] at all” Butler said.
Butler has been vocal about saving the rocket and sponsored SB 237 during the 2023 Legislative Session. Despite the legislation being passed, he said there wasn’t much the state could do.
“That’s NASA’s rocket, they own it, we own the property it’s sitting on, the state of Alabama does, that’s our property, they can’t take that,” he said. “But if they take the rocket down they can haul it off, demolish it or do whatever, it’s NASA’s rocket.”
The rocket was installed at the Alabama Welcome Center 44 years ago. Sen. Butler told News 19 that the idea for putting the rocket there came from former Alabama Representative Tommy Carter.
“That’s essentially Tommy’s rocket,” he said. “He called me one day, two, three months ago, and said ‘Whatever you do, don’t let them take my rocket down’, he worked hard to get that rocket there.”
Butler has accepted that the rocket is being removed, however, he hopes pieces of it can be salvaged for educational purposes. He suggested giving one of the engines to the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s engineering department.
“As sad as I am about the final outcome that looks like it’s gonna happen, saving the rocket piece by piece, taking things that can be educational like a rocket engine to UAH might serve a good purpose,” he said. “Hopefully NASA somehow, will listen to the public and try to salvage as they can for history.”
John London, a space historian, agrees with that sentiment. London hopes when the rocket is removed, that it is done in pieces that can be seen and studied by people of all ages and educational backgrounds.
“The pieces now can be distributed to many, many locations, many institutions and museums and it’ll allow a lot of people to see it that otherwise would not have been able to see those components up close,” London said.
London is sad to learn about the fate of the rocket because he said it provided visitors with an insight into Alabama’s history with space and Alabamians with a source of pride.
“It was an iconic statement for Alabama,” he said. “People traveling south that were not from Alabama, they see this gigantic rocket when they cross the border from Tennessee into Alabama and it sent a very strong message that Alabama is the cradle of rocketry for the United States.”
According to NASA, Saturn 1B launched the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit to train for manned flights to the moon. After the completion of the Apollo program, Saturn 1B launched three missions to the Skylab space station in 1973. The Saturn 1B also was used for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.
“It is a remarkable achievement – what engineers in north Alabama did and that Saturn 1B was designed right here at the Marshall Space Flight Center,” London said.
Both London and Sen. Butler hope a replica can go in its place at the Alabama Welcome Center. However, that would be a costly venture.
“Representative Rex Reynolds put $2 million in the budget which is still there, and it is there to preserve the rocket or do whatever,” Sen. Butler said. “Restoration or replication cost is a future question that will have to be looked at.”
Sen. Butler told News 19 that there is currently $2 million dollars set aside that could be used for this.