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Must read: Refurbished moon rocket unveiled at Alabama space museum

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Konrad Dannenberg helped build the Saturn V rockets that sent men to the moon, yet he's still amazed workers could move one of the behemoths indoors and make it look new after more than three decades of decay.

The job wasn't as easy as scraping off rust and slapping on some new paint. First they had to clear out raccoons, birds and opossums that were living in the 363-foot-long steel structure.

Dannenberg, 95, will be among the honored guests as the U.S. Space & Rocket Center dedicates the renovated Saturn V today, 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.

The now-gleaming Saturn V brought back memories for Dannenberg, 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.'

Once used for test firings at NASA's neighboring Marshall Space Flight Center, the rocket spent 35 years laying on its side outside the museum, 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 still 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.

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.

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, museum CEO Larry Capps said.