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The Mighty Saturn V

Undoubtedly the crowning engineering achievement of the Apollo space program was the mighty Saturn V rocket, which stood 363 feet tall, weighed nearly 33,500 tons, and was capable of rocketing a payload of 130 tons out of Earth orbit and on its way to the Moon. To date, the Saturn V is both the largest and most powerful rocket, as well as the most powerful machine ever built by mankind, delivering a mind-boggling 7.8 million pounds of lift-off thrust.


The Saturn V project was supervised by Dr. Werner Von Braun, the controversial German scientist who developed the V2 ICBM before being smuggled to America at the end of World War II. Von Braun brought enough spare components with him to build several functioning V2 rockets for the US Army during the 1950's. Nearly all of the rockets and missiles developed by the United States during the 1950's and 1960's were in some way based on Dr. Von Braun's designs. His cooperation and leadership were essential to the development of American rocketry, and it can be argued that he truly was the "secret weapon" that allowed us to defeat the Soviets during the "Space Race."

A rocket works by ejecting a tremendous amount of mass in a controlled, direction-dependent flow. Newton's third law (action and reaction) ensures that such an ejection will create momentum in the opposite direction. The fuel is burned because combustion increases the expansion of the rocket fuel as it exits the rocket, which in turn increases its velocity and therefore greatly improves the rocket's thrust.

The main problem with building large rockets involves the weight of the rocket fuel. The bigger the rocket, the more fuel must be expended in order for the rocket to fly. This in turn means that essentially most of the payload for a large rocket will be its own fuel. Von Braun's team solved this problem by creating multi-stage rockets. In a multi-stage rocket, the first stage contains the most powerful engines and the most fuel, because the first stage must lift not only itself, but also the upper stages of the rocket and the payload. But when the first stage's fuel is spent, the first stage can be separated, leaving a much lighter rocket in flight. Consequently, the rocket engines of the upper stages do not need to be nearly as powerful, which saves considerable weight both in mechanical components and fuel.

Another problem encountered by rockets is vibration. Vibration, especially if it is amplified by the structure of the rocket and becomes mechanical resonance, can be incredibly destructive, compromising structural integrity and tearing rocket engines, pumps, and fuel lines apart. Large rockets are particularly susceptible to "pogo oscillation," so named because during pogo the fuel in the rocket begins sloshing up and down, subjecting the rocket to an effect similar to being bounced up and down on a pogo stick.

Von Braun and his team of engineers developed elegant solutions to virtually all of these problems. The Saturn V consisted of three stages: S-IC, powered by five enormous F-1 engines that together consumed 1350 gallons of kerosene and 2000 gallons of liquid oxygen per second, burning its 2200 tons of fuel in two and a half minutes; S-II, powered by five much smaller J-2 engines burning liquid hydrogen (much lighter than kerosene) and liquid oxygen, and S-IVB, powered by one J-2 engine and carrying the payload (the lunar module and the command/service module). Because of the velocity achieved by the S-IB and S-II stages, combined with the loss of their mass during separation, the S-IVB stage was capable of pushing itself and its payload out of Earth orbit and on a course for the moon. The Saturn V vehicle was also revolutionary in that it housed all of its monitoring, computing, and telemetry circuitry in two inter-stage rings between the first and second, and the second and third stages.

The five F-1 engines in the S-IC first stage included a gimbal support that allowed the thrust of the engines to be redirected during flight, thus giving the Saturn V a superior steering capability. And because the Saturn V's stages contained no more than five engines, engineers were able to solve mechanical problems with relative ease, including a revolutionary technique of injecting hydrogen into the fuel mixture via the main fuel pumps as a way to dampen vibrations and eliminate pogo. The Soviet N-1 booster, developed to carry their cosmonauts to the moon, contained thirty rocket engines in its first stage, and suffered from serious mechanical problems that Soviet engineers could never solve. All four N-1 launch attempts by the Soviets ended with the destruction of the rocket before it reached the upper atmosphere.

In all thirteen Saturn V rockets were launched: Apollo 4 and 6 were unmanned test flights; Apollo 8 - 17 were manned flights with only Apollo 9 remaining in Earth orbit (that mission tested the docking and flight capabilities of the lunar module). The final Saturn V launch blasted the Skylab station into space. Components for three additional Saturn V rockets were manufactured, and today those components exist as museum displays at the NASA space centers in Houston, Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Kennedy.

The Los Angeles Times has a good write-up about the development of the Saturn V, including interviews with many of the engineers who designed the rocket.

Here is a NASA film of the launch of the Apollo 11 Saturn V. The film begins as the rocket fuel (kerosene and liquid oxygen) begins streaming out of the engine nozzles (3350 gallons per second) and is ignited by an outboard system that resembles a 4th of July sparkler. (You can see these igniters burn very clearly underneath the Space Shuttle during a Shuttle launch). We also get good views of the numerous mechanical clamps and arms swinging away as the rocket begins to ascend. The ice forms on the rocket as the pumps begin to deplete the liquid fuel in the tanks and the outside of the rocket plunges in temperature (the same effect that causes an aerosol can to grow cold when its contents are released). Vibrations from the rocket cause the ice to fall off in huge sheets. By the way, if anyone knows how the filming inside the service tower and under the launch pad was accomplished without the film being destroyed by intense heat, I would be interested in hearing about it.


Incidentally, in what must be a major blow to conspiracy theorists everywhere (well, not really - they'll probably just claim the photos are fakes) the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has just photographed several Apollo mission landing sites, and its images clearly show the lunar module descent stages, scientific instruments, and foot paths left behind by our astronauts.


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Comments (16)

Great video of the Saturn V... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Great video of the Saturn V launch! It's like a volcano going off in an ice storm. Now that a bunch of nations are planning to go to the moon, I wonder if the six Apollo landing sites will be preserved in their pristine state, or will we see China selling Apollo moon landing artifacts on the international market?

I get to see one of those t... (Below threshold)

I get to see one of those three Saturn V's every day as I leave to go to work, truly one of the engineering wonders of the world.

Great post Michael. <... (Below threshold)

Great post Michael.

The mapping of the LM sites was eerie with 13 missing.

Also,I wonder how much of the engineering work was done with slide rules?

I wonder sometimes if the a... (Below threshold)

I wonder sometimes if the advent of massive amounts of computing power spelled the end of actual aerospace engineering. The SR-71 went from a proposal and contract signing to production in less than three years. The U-2 took about 18 months.

Designed by folks with slide rules and drafting tables - made by folks who weren't afraid to make something, break it in testing, then modify it so it wouldn't break. Now - construction only begins once all the computer simulations show no possibility of prototype failure.

Of course, there's a lot to be said for a more than adequate development budget - but take a look at the history of the ISS. A proposal for a module would be made, millions upon millions spent on computer studies about how it'd be made, shaped, constructed - then a flaw would be found and it'd all be scrapped, and the whole process started over from scratch. Only when the COMPUTER models said there'd be no problem did they actually bend the metal and make the module, then they'd have to (you guessed it) make modifications that weren't foreseen in the computer models, and then recertify everything once again. So now it's way late and way over budget.

After a while, it almost got to be a joke. Eventually, you actually have to BUILD something to see if the designs on paper work in the real world, and it's been remarkable to me that we've taken so bloody LONG to put together the ISS to even it's current limited configuration. Could we have done it faster if the engineers were much more limited in what the computers could do?

(Then again, looking at the CYA bureaucracy that's developed in NASA, perhaps it's remarkable we've got anything at all in orbit.)

Now look at the current plans to go back to the moon. There's been a lot of money thrown at Project Constellation but instead we're going with a bastardized lash-up made from Shuttle boosters? And then there'll be a schedule like THIS?

2006-2007 -- Engineering review of selected design
2009 (TBD) -- PA-1 (Pad Abort-1) unmanned pad abort test.[33]
2009 (Sep) -- AA-1 (Ascent Abort-1) unmanned ascent abort test (transonic)
2010 (Spring) -- PA-2 unmanned pad abort test
2010 (August) -- AA-2 unmanned ascent abort test (Max Q)
2011 (February) -- AA-3 unmanned ascent abort test (low-altitude tumble test)
2012 (September) -- Ares I-Y unmanned ascent abort test (high altitude)
2012 -- First unmanned flight of Orion in Earth orbit.[35]
2014 (September) -- First manned flight of Orion in Earth orbit.
2015-2018 -- First unmanned flight of Altair.
2016-2018 First manned flight of Altair.
2019 First manned lunar landing with Orion/Altair system.
2020 Review of Mars missions
2031 The Mission to Mars has tentative dates
And of course, all dates are subject to slippage, re-ordering, and revision.
So the project started in 2006 - with the first actual orbital flight (unmanned) in MAYBE 2012? WTF? Is this a program that's supposed to come up with RESULTS like getting us back to the moon? Or is it designed to be a jobs program for aerospace engineers?

I don't know what the real problem is - not enough money? Too many risk-adverse committees, looking for scapegoats to fire when something goes wrong and creating a culture where it's more important to have every decision backed by the best available computer simulations, rather than entertain the slightest bit of risk in the development process?

It makes me wonder what happened to the NASA of the '60s. It took less than 10 years to go through Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to the moon - now it takes 8 years just to get a manned rocket into orbit. Something's really wrong somewhere.

weighed nearly 33,500 to... (Below threshold)

weighed nearly 33,500 tons,
delivering a mind-boggling 7.8 million pounds of lift-off thrust

Probably a typo here. I believe its' weight was more in the ball park of 3000+ tons (making it's length AND mass equivalent to a WWII destroyer); otherwise that 7.8 million pounds of thrust wouldn't lift it.


33,500 tons would be about ... (Below threshold)

33,500 tons would be about 2/3s the tonage of Titanic.. Probably not.

As for camera shots inside? Maybe they used mirrors?

JLawson, An... (Below threshold)


And now you have this:

The only dreams left are in the private sector.

What the (bleeped) (bleeped... (Below threshold)

What the (bleeped) (bleeped) (bleeping bleep)(bleep) is THAT! DEORBITING THE DAMN THING?


I feel like Charlie Brown - once again they're yanking the damn football away!

Also,I wonder how ... (Below threshold)
Also,I wonder how much of the engineering work was done with slide rules?

All of it until Apollo 17

Michael, they used telephoto lenses to get those close ups. Some the lenses that NASA have/had can see the hair on the head of a gnat at 3 miles. Sure wish that they would release them to the photography world.

Good write up but you have ... (Below threshold)

Good write up but you have one minor mistake...

Components for three additional Saturn V rockets were manufactured, and today those components exist as museum displays at the NASA space centers in Houston, Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Kennedy.

It was 2 extras and 5 cities.

It was 3 extras by we sent skylab up on SA-513. (for all the good that did)

They mixed in some extra parts from test engines to make 3 "complete" sets and two more displays.

In addition to the cities you mention, the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans (where they build the first stage) has the S-IC from SA-515 which was the backup for Skylab. And the S-IVB stage from SA-515 is on display and the National Air and Space Museum in D.C.

Houston has the only complete set of real (non-test) stages.

Huntsville has all 3 stages (as you say) but those are all test engines... But they make up for it because about 20 years ago they installed a full scale model in vertical orientation so you can see what it looked like on the pad. Coolness.

BTW One thing few people realize....

The Saturn V was designed in Alabama, tested in Mississippi, build in Louisiana, launched in Florida and managed from Texas... The whole thing was done mostly by hicks and coonasses.

There where sub-contractors all around the country and California gets it's head nod but most of the Apollo program was all Gulf Coast states.

Why? Because we're closet to the equator.

heh good eyes Paul in Houst... (Below threshold)

heh good eyes Paul in Houston... he meant 3,350 tons of course.

Man, that's a cool video. ... (Below threshold)

Man, that's a cool video. My only gripe with Apollo 13 was the way they used swelling, dramatic music during the launch. Isn't a Saturn V lifting off dramatic enough in itself? Screw earthquakes, let's crank that bad boy up in Sensaround.

A friend of mine was campin... (Below threshold)

A friend of mine was camping with his family in Orlando back when one of those bad boys launched. He said they could hear the noise from there. Today, the activists probably wouldn't let us launch another, because it would upset the alligators.

I had the unforgettable pri... (Below threshold)

I had the unforgettable privilege of watching the liftoffs of Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 from a bit over 12 miles away on the beach at Titusville, Florida.

At that distance the curvature of the Earth would cut off a portion, except for the fact that the launch pad is placed on top of a ramp that rises about four stories and the pad itself probably adds another 10 feet or so, making the whole thing visible.

Hold your thumb and forefinger a few millimeters (or 1/8th of an inch) apart, at arms length and imagine a skinny white splinter held vertically between them. That's what a Saturn V looks like at that distance to the naked eye. A pair of 7x50 binoculars, or a 300 mm telephoto lens does a decent job of showing it.

When it fires up, it takes a full minute for the sound to reach you, and it's a low-pitched rumble that is felt as well as heard.

Something I'll remember 'til the day I die.


4. Posted by JLaws... (Below threshold)
4. Posted by JLawson | July 19, 2009 8:46 PM

Absolutely agree with your post. I worked at Boeing on RAH-66 for 18 months in 2001 - 2002. Also I was introduced to the Boeing project manager who oversaw ISS, during my tenure on Comanche.

I used to get into trouble when, after Novalogic released its version 4 of the Comanche flying simulation game, I suggested that v5 of the game wouldn't be a flying sim at all - instead, it would be a simulation of MS Project, where the "goal" of the game was to develop RAH-66 from RFI through to IOC in less than 20 years. IF you could do it, you "win". Man, you should have seen the looks I got for suggesting that one (laughing)...

To add to your comments, I'd suggest that there have been several factors which have generally screwed the military and NASA's aerospace efforts over the last 20 years; the modern emphasis on computer simulations notwithstanding:

* Increased Congressional dithering in the budgeting process (which is a HUGE problem now);
* Poor project management on both the Govt (military or NASA) and private industry (e.g., "shifting budgets to the 'out years'" and the increasing willingness for Govt project managers to cause scope creep (unfunded changes) and the industry's project managers who can't say "no"); and
* Projects that try to accomplish too many advances at once (e.g., major changes/upgrades to numerous subsystems which have unforseen complications during systems integration).

Someone once suggested that we were setting ourselves up to commit the mistake made by Nazi Germany during WWII: having the most advanced weapons systems on the planet, but too few of them to make a difference.

Behold the grand story of modern weapons (and space vehicle) development in the US:

* Someone comes up with an idea.
* Those negatively affected by the idea (the current suppliers of deployed systems or flag officers/project managers) try to squash it.
* Scope of the system is changed numerous times, in a futile attempt to manage disparate demands of budget and the political process.
* As timelines grow, development costs mushroom.
* [Optional step: if the DoD needs to "bury" costs of a project deep inside the "black" world, suddenly your "white world" project will find itself billing out silly expenses like the proverbial $500 toilet seat - rumor has it that this practice is one of the things that killed the General Dynamics A-12.]
* No one cares about mushrooming development costs *if* they can bury related work within the project used by other systems; more money means more importance/influence, and project managers on both sides of the aisle are quick to diminish development costs in terms of spread across more units - something that almost never happens anymore (last time this happened was with the F-16, and to a much lesser degree with F-15 and F-18).
* Govt project managers push scope creep by demanding additional functionality without finding the additional dollars necessary to pay for it, and industry project managers accept the unfunded changes without saying "no".
* GAO audits the project and raps everyone involved for being over budget and behind schedule (see point immediately above for main cause).
* Congress attempts to save money by cutting procurement of delivered units, without understanding or caring that in so doing, it wastes massive development dollars.
* And finally, as projects are stretched out over twenty five years from first RFI to the completion of IOC (and God help you if your project has "LRIP" inserted in the schedule, like V-22), yet more money must be spent in redesigning the system to keep abreast of changes in threats and technology.

If anyone wishes to read a case study from a historical context, where many of these problems took place, read no further than the story of the development and deployment of the ME-262 Schwalbe.

The Schwalbe was a technological marvel for its day: faster and more maneuverable than anything it would ever fight against.


By the time it was initially developed, suffered from horrible scope creep (by a political leader who was arguably going insane), and finally fielded for battle, its superior attributes were drowned out by facing dozens of enemies in the air for every single unit deployed.

Don't look now, or else (in that last comment) one day we will be looking back at the demise of the F-22 in the same way as the ME-262, if we ever have to fight China and they mass-produce thousands of crappy aircraft. No matter how good the prize fighter, he can still be bought low by a massive gang of thugs...

Paul_in_Houston and Paul,</... (Below threshold)

Paul_in_Houston and Paul,

You're right -- the "curb weight" of the Saturn V is 6,699,000 pounds, or 3,349.5 tons. I was off by a factor of 10.

Paul, with regard to the South (especially New Orleans) -- assembling the Saturn V's SI-C stage in a seaport city meant that it could be loaded on a barge and transported in the water to Florida. Thus the SI-C stage was ensured a relatively smooth ride mostly free from heavy mechanical vibrations.

On the other hand, the Soviet N-1 rocket's first stage, which contained 30 rocket engines, had to be transported thousands of miles overland by freight train. One of the reasons for the N-1's 100% failure rate stemmed from damage done to the engines by mechanical vibrations during rail transport. Even though the Soviets had an army of rocket scientists poring over the engines before launch, they never managed to find and repair all the damage.






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