Making Saturn V, the rocket that carried man to the moon

One small step for man was made possible thanks to one enormous rocket, as our book Sun and Moon explains
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Assembly of Saturn V S-IC first stage, Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1960s. Image courtesy of NASA. From Sun and Moon
Assembly of Saturn V S-IC first stage, Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1960s. Image courtesy of NASA. From Sun and Moon

President Kennedy announced the American intention of landing a man on the moon before the decade that began in 1960 was out. Of course, he didn’t live to see the launch of the Apollo 11 mission, which took place 50 years ago today, but he did have a pretty good idea of the kind of propulsion required to send a crew far beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

“From a rostrum in the Rice University stadium in Houston on an early September day in 1962, Kennedy addressed an audience far greater than the assembled crowd and dignitaries fanning themselves under the Texas sun,” writes Mark Holbon in his book, Sun and Moon, before going on to quote from Kennedy’s famous ‘We Choose the Moon’ speech.

“‘But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the Moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300-feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the Sun – almost as hot as it is here today – and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out – then we must be bold.”

 

First Saturn I Block II rocket ready for launch, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 29 January 1964. From Sun and Moon
First Saturn I Block II rocket ready for launch, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 29 January 1964. From Sun and Moon

The speech was indeed bold, but not without some substance. “The rocket to which Kennedy referred was from the family of Saturn boosters, the first of which, Saturn I, had been launched in October 1961,” Holborn writes. “In his speech, Kennedy described the C-1 Saturn as having the power of 10,000 automobiles. By augmenting the thrust of the first stage of the rocket with a total of five engines, the C-5 rocket, known as Saturn V, became the model for the Moon.”

The C-1 developed out of ballistic missile research, some of which was carried out in the US by the German rocketry pioneer and ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun. However, its use military applications were soon abandoned in favour of space exploration, to create the kind of rocket Kennedy had described back in ’62. 

 

Wernher von Braun in front of F-1 engines for the first stage of a Saturn V rocket, US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama, 1959. From Sun and Moon
Wernher von Braun in front of F-1 engines for the first stage of a Saturn V rocket, US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama, 1959. From Sun and Moon

Indeed, JFK’s speech proved remarkably accurate. Saturn V was, indeed 363 feet tall, and built using the most advanced metallurgical techniques of the time. Saturn V’s thrust structures – the pieces held the engines in place – were among the largest aluminium forgings produced in the US at the time. The three-stage rocket, with the Apollo command module near its peak, had a thrust capacity that dwarfed earlier craft.

Today, that rocket remains the only launch vehicle to carry mankind to the moon; indeed, it is the only rocket to have propelled man beyond a low-earth orbit. 15 Saturn V rockets were built, though only 13 were flown. NASA last used the rocket in 1973, to launch Skylab, the agency’s first space station. 

Though of course, it was the rocket’s debut, 50 years ago today, when, as JFK predicted, the rocket rose from the space centre named after the president, to carry its three-man crew towards their lunar destination.

“The Saturn V rocket was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on 16 July. The first and second stages of the rocket passed through ignition and separation stages. The Command Module then docked with the Lunar Module and together they separated from the third stage. Three days after the launch, the combined craft entered a lunar orbit and made thirty further orbits. On the fourth day, Armstrong and Aldrin moved into the Lunar Module, leaving Collins in the Command Module. Their descent was marked by the complications of computer alarms and the fear of missing their landing target. They alighted sucessfully in the Sea of Tranquillity. Armstrong, later followed by Aldrin, made his descent down a ladder to the surface on 21 July.”

 

Sun and Moon

That’s one small step for (a) man, but it required one giant rocket to get there. For more on an earthly view of heavenly exploration, order a copy of Sun and Moon here.


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