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Retro Rocket

The Kennedy Center rocket is a mixture -- a test vehicle first stage and a mock-up service-command combo (the parts that orbited the moon and returned to Earth), Needell notes. And besides, he adds, the restoration in Florida is only "cosmetic," and parts of it will probably have to be redone.

Fair enough, but there are a couple of things to know about Kennedy's Saturn V. Although it spent 20 years lying derelict outside the Vehicle Assembly Building while lesser rockets were wheeled past it, it's inside now, and unlike the others, the exhibit is a done deal.

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

And the rocket looks terrific -- painted, carefully tooled and turned out in a building constructed especially for it next to a slice of wetland hard by Florida's Atlantic coast. (There's a real command-service module on the museum floor.) Johnson and Marshall may have better hardware, but only Kennedy -- so far -- has actually built the temple.

"I always try to bring people in this way, so they can see the engines," says Matt Slipkowski, of Delaware North Parks Services, the company that runs the Kennedy visitors' center. "It's really impressive." This, from someone who was born after Saturn V made its last flight.

The rocket lies on its side, with five tailpipe nozzles protruding from the bottom of the first stage's 33-foot diameter. The rest of the rocket, divided in pieces, disappears into the depths of a cavernous enclosure festooned with banners commemorating Apollo flights, and flanked by exhibit rooms and even a cafeteria.

Visitors get a taste of what the Saturn V was like in an auditorium where they can watch a movie of Apollo 8 taking off on Dec. 21, 1968. Lights flash on the mock mission control consoles and the windows shake as the rocket lifts off the pad.

It's pretty good, and astronaut James Lovell is charming doing the narration, but seeing the launch in a film retrospective doesn't quite illustrate it.

"The amount of energy at launch was not unlike the shuttle, but the Saturn was much taller and more visible," says Hal Row, a consultant to the Kennedy visitor complex. "It made the Earth rumble." The real thing, fully fueled and ready on the launch pad, stood as tall as a 36-story building and weighed 6.1 million pounds. The five first-stage engines generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust. Today's space shuttle, including solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank, weighs 4.5 million pounds. Nothing else has even come close.

And the Saturn V "was a great ride," adds astronaut John W. Young, the first person to fly in space six times, including two Apollo moon missions on Saturn V's. "It's putting out a lot of thrust, but it's so heavy you don't pull that many G's. The second stage is smooth as glass."

Saturn V came about directly as a result of President John F. Kennedy's 1961 call to catch and surpass the Soviet Union in space exploits and land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

This could be done, said von Braun, the rocket designer, but NASA needed a launch vehicle bigger by an order of magnitude than anything that had yet flown. That turned out to be the Saturn V, conceived in the fall of 1961, tested in the mid-'60s and flown for the first time with men aboard in 1968. In all, NASA built 15 Saturn V's and flew 13 of them.

Every longtime Huntsville resident remembers the age of Saturn V, when von Braun and his Marshall engineers helped transform a sleepy military town in northern Alabama's green hills into a cutting-edge test-and-development facility for the largest rocket history has ever known.

"There was no way you couldn't know what was going on," recalls space historian Irene Willhite, who moved to Huntsville in 1957. "Nobody around here ever kept little knicknacks on the mantelpiece."

The rumbling at Marshall's "dynamic test stand" broke windows in downtown Huntsville, prompted complaints from neighboring towns, collapsed a well in Haleyville, near the Mississippi border and registered on Richter scales hundreds of miles away. But local families took pride in their cracked foundations.

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