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Retro Rocket

"We enjoyed the noise," says Willhite. "It showed things were working."

NASA tested an unmanned Saturn V twice, then launched 11 manned missions, six of which landed on the moon, beginning with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, and ending with Apollo 17 three years later.

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

Each Saturn V cost the equivalent of $771 million in today's dollars, and except for the command module and its precious astronaut cargo, nothing else ever came back. The rest fell in the ocean or got dumped on the moon.

Use it-and-lose-it was a hard sell to sustain at the height of the Vietnam War, and by the time NASA's high-end, one-trick dog had performed the trick six times, its days were already numbered. On May 14, 1973, Saturn V put Skylab in orbit, and that was it.

What to do next?

Under a 1960s agreement, the Smithsonian has the right of first refusal for anything NASA wants to throw away, and "there was just a ton of stuff from Apollo," Needell says. "Everyone agreed the Saturn V's were historic objects, but we didn't have anyplace to put them, and we didn't have the resources to oversee them."

Neither did NASA. Von Braun moved Marshall's Saturn V to the visitors' center in 1968. At the Johnson space center, NASA hustled to find a whole rocket -- three rocket stages and the command and service module -- getting some pieces from Kennedy and others from contractors, then barging them in from Galveston.

That was 1978, and "then it was hurry up and wait for 20 years," acknowledges Johnson Space Center Exhibits Manager Louis Parker. "No one really wanted to look beyond a few years, and I guess somebody thought magically that the money would appear."

But it didn't. In 1976, NASA found enough components to put together a bicentennial exhibit alongside Kennedy's Vehicle Assembly Building, then let it languish: "There was a lot of damage, what with birds nests and raccoons living in it," Row recalls.

What was worse, perhaps, was the way Saturn V lingered like an aging patriarch, revered but ignored, its stature progressively humbled with the passage of time: "Back then the Apollo program was over, and there was another program [the shuttle] coming on board," Row says. "We just moved on."

Until conscience intruded in the mid-1990s. "Many of us who had worked at Kennedy had walked past it for years," says Ed O'Connor, former executive director of the Spaceport Florida Authority, a state organization charged with promoting space tourism. "You could see the deterioration."

The authority commissioned a study that asked the question: If we built Saturn a home, would they come? "It was my opinion that the rocket was important to mankind, like America's pyramid," O'Connor says. "People for thousands of years, or tens of thousands of years would want to see it."

The study's findings agreed, and the authority easily negotiated a bank loan for $25 million, while NASA ponied up $11 million from visitors' center receipts. Then the conservators moved their Saturn V to its exhibit site and set about building the museum. The exhibit was up and running by 1996, and the loan was paid two years early.

At Johnson, would-be conservators were hard up for a donor until 1998, when, by "dumb luck," Blair says, his office spotted a newspaper article describing a new federal public-private program headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton called Save America's Treasures. Qualify for a restoration grant, then find matching funds to complete the job.

He called Needell, who got a grant for $1.25 million in 1999. NASA kicked in $1.85 million to build a shelter to enclose the rocket during restoration. The shelter will be finished shortly: "We have some structural damage, and some of the engine mounts have failed," Needell says. "But it won't get any worse."

But to get any better, Needell needs $1.25 million in matching funds by June 30 to lock in the grant. He's $500,000 short, and "we're struggling," he says. He also figures to need an extra $200,000 to finish the actual restoration, but he's willing to worry about that later.

Huntsville, following in Johnson's footsteps, got a $700,000 grant from Save America's Treasures in 2000, and has collected $2 million in all. With that, the Space & Rocket Center plans to build the foundation for a permanent exhibit and put the rocket under a temporary shelter by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, it hopes to find $3 million more to build a glass-fronted museum and mount a restored Saturn V on a 17-degree angle "to get an idea of what it was like when it was aloft," says Whitaker, the Marshall spokesman.

Huntsville's restoration committee got Alabama to authorize a $50 "First to the Moon" vanity license plate, of which $41.25 goes to the fund. The city of Huntsville agreed to put a temporary 1 percent tax on hotel rooms.

"We're talking to a lot of people about doing the restoration, and we'll get it done," Whitaker says. "Saturn V doesn't belong to us, it belongs to the people who built it, the people who flew it, the people who saw it. It belongs to everybody. It just happens to live here."

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