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Gunshots damage historic Saturn V rocket

The third stage of a historic Saturn V moon rocket as seen before it was damaged by gunshots on May 3, 2012, at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (collectSPACE / Jon Meek)
May 3, 2012

— A historic Saturn V rocket was damaged by gunfire on Thursday (May 3), after someone shot three bullets into the Alabama museum where the mighty moon booster is on permanent display.

The gunshots were fired just before 11:00 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) outside the Davidson Center for Space Exploration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. The shots may have been fired from a moving vehicle traveling along Interstate 565, which runs parallel to the booster's window-fronted building, according to the Huntsville Police Department (HPD).

"Preliminary information indicates that there were three rounds fired, hitting 30 to 100 feet [9 to 30 meters] apart, which leads us to believe they were fired from a moving vehicle on the interstate," HPD communications director Harry Hobbs wrote in an e-mail to collectSPACE.

"The rounds were likely fired from a rifle, judging from the velocity needed to penetrate the glass," Hobbs said.

Close-up of bullet damage to the Saturn V displayed at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Quarter shown for scale. (USSRC)

Although the museum was open to visitors at the time, no one was injured. The Davidson Center, which has housed the horizontal display of the 363-foot (111-meter) Saturn V since 2007, was closed for about two hours following the shooting.

In addition to displaying the Saturn V and other historical artifacts. the Space & Rocket Center is also home to U.S. Space Camp and serves as the visitor center for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Bullets bounced off

The Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, which is one of only three remaining, was fortunately only bruised by the bullets.

"There was no puncture, the bullets did not enter," Edward Stewart, the Space & Rocket Center's director of exhibits and curation, told collectSPACE. "They hit it and bounced off."

Of the three bullets that were fired, the two that struck the rocket hit its third stage, referred to as the S-IVB.

"In one case, the impact that was towards the [stage's] aft end, there is a very, very slight indentation in the tank wall and of course, some loss of paint," Stewart said.

"The impact on the forward end is a deeper indentation. It is among the skirting that would interface with the [Saturn V's] instrument unit, where there are ridged stiffeners," he said. "It hit on the ridge of one of the stiffeners and dented it in pretty well. As it hit a straight metal surface, when it hit and dented, the vibration caused the paint to lift away."

Aft end view of the Saturn V S-IVB stage in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration at the US Space & Rocket Center before gunfire damaged it at on May 3, 2012. (collectSPACE / Jon Meek)

The lifted paint led to the belief that the bullet had pierced the stage.

"It looks like a huge gaping hole, but what you're actually seeing is the shadow from the paint that peeled up," said Stewart.

The third bullet passed through the opening separating the rocket's first and second stages, missing hitting five large engines in the process.

"It fortunately missed all the J-2s and impacted on the far wall of the building," Stewart said.

All three bullets struck areas that were well above visitors' heads, about 15 to 20 feet (4.5 to 6 meters) off the ground on the rocket and about 35 feet (11 meters) high on the far wall.

Smithsonian's Saturn V

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum owns the Saturn V and has loaned it to Marshall Space Flight Center, which in turn has it on loan to the USSRC.

"We have seen media reports about a shooting incident involving the Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and we are glad there were apparently no injuries," the Smithsonian said in a statement in reply to an inquiry from collectSPACE. "We are waiting for officials there to provide information. It is premature to speculate on what actions might be required until we know details."

Exterior view of the Davidson Center for Space Exploration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. (USSRC)

Stewart said that they plan to consult with Marshall Space Flight Center in regards to further engineering analysis of the damage. Detailed photos of the rocket were taken on Monday to provide to the NASA center.

It is not yet clear if the shooter may face federal charges, given the Smithsonian's involvement.

"NASA investigators are involved and assisting Huntsville Police Department investigators," Hobbs said.

The Saturn V at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center was first used for vibration studies at Marshall Space Flight Center in the 1960s in support of launching the massive booster to the moon. After decades being displayed outdoors, the rocket was restored and moved into the Davidson Center for Space Exploration in 2007.

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