— Travelers often get an unexpected surprise when they enter Alabama on Interstate 65: a 224-foot Saturn 1B rocket.
Annette James of Bowling Green, Ky., said the surprise led her to stop at the Alabama Welcome Center at Ardmore last week with her teenagers to get a better look.
The Saturn 1B is Alabama tourism's iconic welcome landmark to travelers entering the state. James said it's particularly impressive against the clear blue sky and the forest that surrounds it.
As they posed for photos and read about the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, they couldn't help making another discovery: The rocket needs work. "The rocket isn't clean," James said. "And it needs painting. They should take better care of it."
The paint is faded, and black mold and algae cover the bottom. Birds use the rocket's crevices for nests, and their droppings are everywhere.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville is working with the Alabama Department of Transportation to get it pressure-washed and painted this summer. The state Tourism Department will fund the project.
"The rocket presents a great perception of our state to visitors," Space and Rocket Center spokesman Tim Hall said. "We want it to show the thrill and excitement of the state and the rocket program."
Sherry Griffith is one of five representatives of the Alabama Tourism Department who works at the welcome center. She said 1.3 million guests signed the visitors book last year, and many more make quick stops without signing.
"The rocket is like a magnet," Griffith said.
The welcome center opened in 1977. NASA donated the rocket to the state in 1979 but still works with the state on its upkeep. A fence was added around the rocket recently to prevent graffiti, officials said.