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U.S. Space and Rocket Center

The Final Mission

The building is a canvas, the rocket is the art.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration celebrates one of the greatest technological accomplishments of the twentieth century: the mighty Saturn V rocket which carried man to the Moon. In addition to providing a striking and innovative solution to house this significant artifact of America’s space program, the overall design guides visitors through the story of the Saturn V and Huntsville’s role in its development. GS&P’s museum-like solution honors the rocket in a dramatic setting and invites visitors to explore one of mankind’s greatest achievements and adventures.

How did GS&P get involved with this project?

Jim Griffo: It actually started as a transportation project in 2001. The Space and Rocket Center, Redstone Arsenal, and Botanical Gardens in Huntsville were to be linked by an intermodal facility. The actual Saturn V display building was to be an add-on, but in the end the intermodal facility became a future project, and the Saturn V building became the feature.

Keith Starnes: Once they decided to wait on the intermodal and proceed with the Saturn V building, they wanted it to be an iconic building. The rocket is actually owned by the Smithsonian, not NASA, and they required the rocket to be protected, stipulating that it couldn’t continue to sit out in the elements rusting away like it had been for the last 30 years.

How did the team alter design direction and deal with the changes?

Keith: After we bid the original project in 2005, we spent much of the year working with the owner on how to move forward. In early 2006 we met to recraft the current design into something more budget-friendly, and after the project CEO, Larry Capps, informed us of some budget changes, we proposed a completely new, one-building design. This happened literally in one afternoon’s meeting.

Jim: I think the reason we were able to hold on to the project was because we had the discipline and the talent to keep working on it even when the mission changed so drastically from an intermodal facility to a display building. It’s interesting that this was such an interdisciplinary pursuit between architecture and transportation. We were able to be a trusted advisor, and I think we helped the client out quite a bit.

It’s not often that you’re challenged to move a multi-ton rocket. Describe that process.

Keith: We first had to create a road for the heavy equipment to move the rocket from behind the existing museum into the new building. That alone was a chore. We worked with the construction manager to build three sides of the building with the roof on, but left the west end of the building open so that we could literally take stages of the rocket and back them into the building one at a time, and then finish the building around it. That was done probably at around 50 percent completion of the building. The roof was on, but the entry part of the building wasn’t complete.

Were there any special considerations for the support structures used to keep the rocket in place?

Keith: The supports were already part of the NASA equipment for the rocket. We actually moved the support structures for the first and second stages with the rocket, so the rocket never left its carriage assembly. We just cleaned it up and made it part of the structure to hold the rocket up once it was in the building.

Jim: The first stage by itself weighed 300,000 pounds, so we’re talking about a significant piece of hardware here.

Keith: The third stage has one engine in it, and it’s got some weight. The rest above the third stage is not part of the original rocket. They’re mock-ups and don’t have much weight to them compared to the other stages. We looked at the drawings for the original rocket with the structural engineer and NASA to figure out a way to attach cables and factor the weight into the load of the building.

The client wanted an educational museum experience while conveying the mission of the space program. What challenges did this present to the design teams?

Anne-Marie Gianoudis: To start, we had a very conservative budget, so we had to take into account the types of materials to use for a major tourist attraction that would attract half a million people each year. We not only had to consider wear and tear, but we also had to work with the maintenance staff to understand their preferences. For example, instead of using carpet in areas we normally would, we used rubber flooring. It had the aesthetics we wanted, and the maintenance department loved it. We also used polished concrete to create a contemporary moon surface. Again, it was that very basic utilitarian look we wanted for both the outside and the inside of the building, because the real star of the show would be the rocket itself.

What elements went into the design to create the educational museum spaces?

Anne-Marie: We used the rocket as inspiration for the exterior and interior color palette. Black and white, the two predominant colors on the rocket, translate into the building as the color of the metal panels. Different colors like red, yellow, and green from some of the intercessional parts of the rocket were used for directional colors and accents throughout the facility. The exhibit designers, Fricker and Radetsky, came in to fill in the Saturn V exhibition space with a variety of artifacts. They also came up with a floor graphic that runs the length of the Saturn V. It’s actually an educational tool that shows visitors the different stages of the rocket as they’re walking.

What was the overall goal of the interior design?

Anne-Marie: Because the rocket was in different stages, we wanted visitors to travel through the exhibit in stages as well. As you enter the building, it’s as though you’re going into space. The ceiling is black, and we used porcelain tiles and concrete flooring, again reminiscent of the moon’s surface. We also used Centiva flooring which has a mother-of-pearl look and a blue color representative of the big blue marble of Earth as it’s viewed from space. In essence, as you walk down the staircase, you leave space behind and return to Earth.

As visitors enter the rotunda, they see the painting The Power to Go by Paul Calle, one of the first artists in NASA’s fine arts department who painted and sketched many of the early space missions. The Smithsonian loaned us the painting of the Saturn V blasting off, and we worked with a wall covering company to replicate it on a vinyl wall covering and put that in the rotunda.

The auditorium is very unique. Describe some of the details of its design.

Past the lobby area, there is a 360-seat auditorium where visitors first learn about the rocket, and then enter the Saturn V building to actually see the artifact. The idea for the multicolored chairs came from our research photos in which we found pictures of people watching the rockets launch at Cape Canaveral during the ’60s race to space frenzy. All the women had on these print dresses with very vivid colors, so I tried to replicate that look using a variety of colors to resemble spectators watching a launch.

What was your concept for the architecture?

Michael Mann: Since we wanted to maintain a utilitarian approach, the portion of the building that houses the rocket is very streamlined so that nothing distracts from it. The building itself is a canvas, and the rocket is the art. There are four large windows that overlook the interstate so that the building becomes a living billboard to the city of Huntsville. At night, the building is illuminated so all passersby can see the rocket inside. Also, since it’s a north facing wall, we were able to use clear glass without any heat gain from the sun. So, especially at night when it’s lit up, it’s very clear, and you can tell exactly the content of the building, which is kind of unique for a museum.

At the very core, you were involved in preserving a significant piece of history. What part of this project are you most proud of?

Jim: You don’t get to do one of these very often, and I think the entire design team realized the significance of this artifact. It’s one of the few remaining Saturn V rockets left in the world. The whole design team treated it with respect and reverence, and really wanted to show it off effectively.

Michael: In essence, we took a large metal, pre-engineered warehouse and made it into a museum, a billboard, and an advertisement that everybody can see as they drive by. I’m proud of the fact that we accomplished something that’s important to Huntsville and for the Space and Rocket Center.

Scott Wilson: We promised them a building with tremendous curb appeal from the highway, and we delivered on that promise. I also think the new design speaks metaphorically on several levels about space travel, as well as the utilitarian nature that’s on the ground in these great facilities. We can all take great pride in the fact that we came up with the initial concepts and made them a reality. It didn’t falter or get diluted.

Keith: My dad was the chief city planner of Huntsville, and I lived there as a kid back in the 1960s and ’70s. He knew Wernher von Braun, a couple of the astronauts, and some others at NASA. So I had that tie with my dad, which was special.

We literally participated in the last meaningful activity that any human being is ever going to do with a Saturn V rocket. In essence, we put the finishing touch on the whole Saturn V program by taking the last Saturn V rocket and seeing it on its final journey. I’m really proud of that accomplishment.


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Project Info

  • Client: U.S. Space and Rocket Center
  • Location: Huntsville, AL, USA
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design
  • Services: Architecture, Engineering, Interior Design, Civil Engineering
  • Team:
    • J. Robert Murphy, Jr., AIA, LEED AP Principal-in-charge, Project Manager
    • Keith W. Starnes, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Project Professional
    • Anne-Marie Gianoudis, IIDA, LEED AP Project Professional
    • Michael Mann, AIA, LEED AP Project Coordinator
    • D. Scott Wilson, RA, APA Project Designer
  • Awards:

    AIA Birmingham, 2010 People’s Choice Award

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