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A rocket that once graced TWA's office heads back to its spot over downtown.

Long before the Strip was dry-cured to its current shoe-leather state, it dreamed of being the first meat patty in space. That's why this curious cutlet's juices started flowing when it heard about a rocket ship landing soon in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

On September 1, a 35-foot rocket is scheduled to take a ride on a flatbed truck through Kansas City streets like a Soviet-era weapons parade. Its destination will be a refurbished downtown building, where the rocket is sure to be a downtown icon. That arch over on the east side of the state will have nothing on this phallic symbol.

Howard Hughes first dreamed up the rocket back in 1955 when he owned TWA. Hughes had grand ideas that his airline would someday shoot passengers into space. To promote the idea, he teamed up with Walt Disney to put TWA logos on an 80-foot rocket ship. The vessel landed smack in the middle of Disneyland when it opened that summer.

As part of the promotion, Hughes also built the TWA Moonliner II, a 35-foot version of the Disneyland rocket. In 1956, he plopped the replica onto the roof of TWA's new downtown Kansas City office at 18th Street and Baltimore.

But Hughes and Disney ended their partnership, rendering the Moonliner obsolete. The original was destroyed. In Kansas City, TWA took the smaller version off its roof and sold it to a travel-trailer company called SpaceCraft.

SpaceCraft took the rocket with it when it moved to Concordia in 1970. The Moonliner landed on the south side of Interstate 70, where SpaceCraft operated a campground. It rusted in that spot for 25 years. Weather corroded the rocket's metal skin. Even worse, birds that roosted in the cone crapped all over the thing.

In 1997, a lawyer from Columbia who collects Disney memorabilia offered to buy the rusting rocket. Oddly enough, the lawyer was Dan Viets, who is better known for his work to legalize weed.

At this point, the Strip would like to imagine that Viets filled the thing with Vancouver chronic and shot it into space. But Viets is a bit more responsible than that.

Instead, he loaded it on a trailer and hauled it to a junkyard outside Columbia where he could begin restoring it. "Believe it or not," Viets says, "restoring an old rocket is a lot like restoring an old car."

The Moonliner II was mostly restored when Viets got a call last fall from Steve Salzer, a project manager for El Dorado Architects in Kansas City. Salzer explained that the old TWA Building was being refurbished, and the plans included an exact replica of the Moonliner II.

Salzer met Viets at a gas station in Columbia and drove with him in Viets' two-tone Ford Fairlane to the junkyard. There, Viets pulled back a giant blue tarp, revealing a spaceship shining with a new coat of white paint, red stripes and TWA logos. Salzer pulled out tape measures and began jotting down the dimensions of the Moonliner II.

Salzer's design for the replica then went to the Bratton Corporation, which is assembling the new rocket at its Kansas City office. Fiber-optic lights will illuminate the portholes and cockpit. Aluminum will replace the original's steel body. And the infrastructure will have a sturdy backbone to hold it to the building, says Bratton's Todd Riggs. "We had modern technology with us this time in building it," he says. "One thing we don't want it to do is actually fly off the building."

On September 1, Bratton will strap the rocket to a flatbed and drive it to 18th Street and Baltimore, where a crane will stand by to hoist the replica to where it used to be — on the roof of the building's small fourth story. Most of the office stands at only three stories tall, so the rocket will look that much more imposing from the rooftop garden that will surround it.

When the construction is finished later this year, the building's new tenant will be Barkley Evergreen & Partners. The ad agency's president, Mike Swenson, hopes the rocket will become an icon again in downtown. But there's something even better: "There's also the coolness factor," Swenson says. "I mean, who else can say they've got a big rocket ship on top of their building?"

Cool, indeed. Until it arrives, the Strip will go back to daydreaming about being the first filet to walk on the moon.

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