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Retro Rocket

The Saturn V Took America to the Moon. Now It's Bringing Us to the Museum.

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page C01

The tests are the stuff of legend: Towns complaining to NASA because of the noise. Seismographs quivering hundreds of miles away. China cabinets disgorging their contents when all five first-stage engines fired at once.

You remember Saturn V. Maybe. If you're old enough. It was the Babe Ruth of rockets, bigger than life and way cool, a teeth-rattling, jaw-dropping, 363-foot, fire-breathing behemoth that could shoot three guys -- always guys -- at the moon and hit the target every time.

A Saturn V at the Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, Ala. (U.S. Space & Rocket Center)

More than 31 years have passed since Saturn V last flew, but the legend lives on -- in decals, shoulder patches, stickers, photographs, videos, Web sites, scale models and stories that people tell their grandchildren. Even today, Saturn V symbolizes the pinnacle of U.S. space exploration.

But until relatively recently, retirement has not been kind. Saturn V's are enormous, awkward and not built for life on Earth, and while NASA installations quickly claimed the leftover rockets, they didn't care for them. The carcasses -- sun-bleached, moldy, rained-on and spattered with bird-droppings -- lay neglected for decades.

Times, however, are changing. The Kennedy Space Center has its own Saturn V museum, and plans are underway to move the two other remaining Saturn V's indoors and restore them. Creative thinking, a Clinton-era preservation fund and old-fashioned guilt are finally giving America's greatest rocket its due.

"Saturn V is a key artifact of the space race. If you wanted to pick one object to describe the era, that would be it," says Allan A. Needell, manned spaceflight curator at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. "I don't think you can overestimate its importance. There will never be anything like it again."

That's for sure. Giants always leave a mark, and Saturn V's footprints linger everywhere in its former habitat.

The visitors' complex outside the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., uses a life-size steel replica of Saturn V as a roadside teaser, and Marshall engineers talk rocket science around the beat-up conference table where Wernher von Braun and his colleagues met to design Saturn V.

At Florida's Kennedy Space Center, NASA still uses Saturn V's gargantuan Vehicle Assembly Building to "stack" rockets before a launch, even though the space shuttle barely fills half the assembly bay. And anybody at Kennedy who wants to watch a launch still has to stay three miles away -- the "fragmentation radius" in case a Saturn V blew up on the pad. It never happened.

And finally at Houston's Johnson Space Center, where NASA plans shuttle flights and trains astronauts, it is the Saturn V that holds the position of honor just inside the gate on the way to Mission Control. Saturn Lane is the main entry to the center.

The Johnson center, under Needell's oversight, has begun building a shelter around its Saturn V to get it inside for the first time in a quarter-century, the prelude to a museum-quality restoration. Needell expects the shelter to be finished and the rocket's structural damage to be repaired by the end of June.

This project is supposed to be the last word in Saturn V's, but the other centers are doing their best to match it. In fact, each has legitimate claims either to the uniqueness of its rocket or the distinctiveness of its exhibit. Where neglect once defined the treatment of the Saturn V, NASA now has dueling displays.

Marshall's Saturn V lies in the visitors' center backyard behind the glossy dummy, but the center will break ground on a new exhibition hall this spring. This Saturn V is the only one that has been together since birth, "the last actual vehicle," says Al Whitaker, spokesman for the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. "The others are made of components that had to be reassembled."

But Needell, a Johnson advocate, points out that Marshall's Saturn V was a test pad rocket, while Johnson's is composed "completely of stages that were intended to go to the moon" -- including unused service and command modules.

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