There was a shocking video circulating on social media showing North Alabama's beloved "rest stop rocket," the once mighty Saturn IB, crashing to the ground during demolition of the Interstate 65 welcome center near Ardmore, Alabama.
An upsetting end for a rocket destined for the stars, crushed and destined for the scrap heap.
Space enthusiasts cried, and cried foul! Why did they destroy an important relic of Rocket City history?
NASA historian Brian Odom, who works out of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center where the rocket was developed, says the Saturn IB was a workhorse for NASA's early test flights into low earth orbit for the Apollo program. It flew uncrewed missions to test critical hardware. It also flew the first fully-crewed mission, Apollo 7.
After the moon landings, which were accomplished with the Saturn V, the Saturn IB flew several missions to deliver astronauts to America's first orbiting space station, Skylab.
And, Odom says, it was the vehicle for the final Apollo mission - which became a symbol of Cold War cooperation between the USA and Soviet Union.
"The last flight of the Apollo program, a lot of people don't know that it was the Saturn IB as part of the Apollo Soyuz test project. You know, the 'Handshake in Space,'" Odom said.Ā
So, how did it end up as a heap of scrap metal? Through interviews with NASA, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and a local politician, Āé¶¹app uncovers the rocket's shocking state of decay after over 40 years, how this happened, and what happened next.
"Well, it hurt. It really did,ā said Larry Sortor.
Sortor speaks for a lot of space fans who were shocked and saddened to see Alabama's once proud rest stop rocket come to such a sad end.
"With good maintenance, I don't see why the Saturn IB at our tourist center here had to be taken down,ā Sortor expressed.
For some more backstory, our Saturn IB was NASA surplus stock from the late sixties.
Owned by the Marshall Space Flight Center, it was loaned to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for display in the late seventies.
They set it up at a new welcome center rest area, along southbound Interstate 65, just over the state line.
It stood as a nearly 200-foot-tall symbol of the burgeoning aerospace industry taking hold in the deep red clay of North Alabama. And it worked!
"We would picnic under the rocket when I was a child," said State Rep. Andy Whitt.
Whitt loved the rocket and all it stood for.
"You know, it's more than just cotton fields here! And when you crossed into the state of Alabama and you saw that rocket, children began asking questions. They wanted to know more about it," said Whitt.
He led the charge to leave it up, to fix it up, and to follow up when it was finally decided, it had to come down.
It was tragic in the end, but not at all unexpected by those who built the rocket.
Acting director of Marshall Space Flight Center, Joseph Pelfrey, says he understands the passion and pride the Saturn IB represented for the community.
"But our legacy is our people,ā said Pelfrey. āIt's the people that have worked on these missions, that have poured their expertise, that have given their family time. That's the legacy that we have here in Huntsville."
NASA doesn't get too attached to hardware. Rockets aren't built to be around very long.
"Usually when we design a rocket, we design them, at most maybe, to sit exposed for a year, and then we launch it. It works for, you know, two to eight minutes depending on the vehicle, and then we're done with it," said Pelfrey.
This brings us back to our Saturn IB, which stood outside in the rain, wind, heat, cold and snow for more than 40 years.
That's why the corroded interior structure of the rocket broke apart during deconstruction. We showed the video of this to Odom.
"Geez! I hadn't seen that," said Odom.
Despite its obvious historical significance, he believes removing the rocket was the right decision.
"That hardware is thin by design. It's meant to be lightweight. Rigid but lightweight, with materials that aren't meant to last in the elements for a long time," explained Odom.
After getting a good look at the damage, Whitt was moved to the same conclusion.
"Really surprised that it hadn't already fallen, to be quite honest with you," said Whitt.
The US Space and Rocket Center, responsible for maintaining the Saturn IB, told me issues that affected it "could not have been prevented by routine maintenance." In a statement they also said, "structural integrity was compromised" making the rocket's stability "unpredictable."
Now that it's gone, what's next?
For fans like Sortor, it's got to be another rocket.
"Everybody can identify with it," said Sortor. "Even a janitor can say, 'Yeah, I took care of the building where all the engineers worked that did this."Ā
Whitt says replacing the rocket is a top priority.
There is already $2 million set aside to design and build a full scale replica.
"That will stand the test of time and become the welcome mat for Alabama that the other rocket was," said Whitt.
What's left of the Saturn IB is now at a secured site on Redstone Arsenal.
NASA would not allow Āé¶¹app cameras back there. We're told eight engines were salvaged, along with the service module. They will be refurbished and made available as artifacts for display.