HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The renovated Saturn V rocket gleams like new, ready for its dedication. One would never know raccoons, birds and opossums were living in the 363-foot-long steel structure until recently.
Once used for test firings at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, the rocket spent 35 years laying on its side outside the neighboring U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which includes hundreds of artifacts from the earliest days of the U.S. space program.
The Saturn V was split into sections for display, but there was no building large enough to hold it. So it became a perfect home to critters as it baked under the Alabama sun, green algae clinging to its white-and-black underside.
Newly painted and renovated, the rocket will be dedicated Thursday, the 50th anniversary of the launch of America's first satellite. The work was the cornerstone of a $23.4 million project to preserve the rocket and expand the state-owned museum.
Konrad Dannenberg, 95, helped build the Saturn V rockets and will be among the honored guests for the ceremony. He's the oldest surviving member of the German team that came to the United States with Wernher von Braun after World War II and designed America's first rockets.
"It looks brand new," Dannenberg said in an interview Wednesday. "I had not expected it to look so good."
Using a combination of private donations, local funding, federal grants and bond money, the museum hired a contractor to oversee the renovation and began work on a 68,200-square-foot building to house the rocket.
After 2 1/2 years of work, museum CEO Larry Capps still marvels at the spectacle of the rocket's 250-ton first stage being rolled into the new building from its old display area a few hundred yards away.
Despite years in the weather, the rocket didn't require as much work as originally feared.
"Outwardly it was in much better shape than anyone expected," Capps said. "Inside, where the raccoons, birds and 'possums had nested, there were droppings that created a pH imbalance. That all had to be cleaned up."
Workers replaced some fragile metal and painted everything, but the rocket's old, gumdrop-shaped capsule — a mockup made of plywood and steel — was falling apart. The museum found a replacement capsule and escape tower at Marshall, where Capps said they were stored in a "bone yard."
Moving and restoring the rocket, plus constructing its new home, cost $9.5 million, and the rest of the new visitor center cost $13.9 million, Capps said.
Just as it did before, the rocket lays on its side. Steel stands support the first two stages and the upper sections are suspended by thick cables.
The rocket's new home will become the new entry point for the museum, which plans to move many of its Apollo artifacts from their home in the original exhibit hall. A full-size replica of a Saturn V points to the stars outside.
The Huntsville rocket, owned by the Smithsonian Institution, was named a national historic landmark in 1984. The only other Saturn V rockets are on display at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and in Houston, where the Johnson Space Center completed a $5 million renovation of its rocket last year.