Thursday, March 21, 2019


It’s often said, especially in this era of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary publicity, that the Saturn V was created by Wernher von Braun. We hear over and over that the Saturn V, “…was the brain child of Wernher von Braun…” “…von Braun invented the Saturn V…” “…the father of the Saturn V was Wernher von Braun…” and all of that is like saying that George Washington invented the United States. In fact the Saturn V grew from the engineering and rocketry design whirlwind of mankind getting to the Moon, “…before this decade is out…” Dr. von Braun was the guy who steered the vehicle through the storm and led the team of tens of thousands of engineers, technicians and managers through the political typhoon with vision, charisma and a lifetime of desire to go to the Moon. Thus, with that myth shattered, let’s take a look at how the Saturn V actually took root and grew.

One truth in the myth about the Saturn V is that von Braun and his German rocket team did have their sights on the Moon before World War II and even during the war itself. In fact he was thrown in prison by the SS after he was overheard at a party talking about their rockets and space travel rather than the V2 and winning the war. After the war his team was brought to the United States, but again they were set to work making rockets for war. Now, however, they could openly talk about spaceflight and the Moon. In October of 1951 when von Braun attended a symposium on space travel he met with the staff from “Collier’s” magazine. That meeting resulted in two heavily illustrated articles, “Across the Space Frontier” in 1952 and “Conquest of the Moon” in 1953. Both projected huge boosters and the assembly in orbit of vehicles to travel beyond Earth. That sparked a media interest in the subject and in 1955 von Braun as well as his rocketry team member Earnst Stuhlinger and spaceflight expert Willy Ley were featured in three Walt Disney televised features “Man in Space” “Man and the Moon” as well as “Mars and Beyond.” Both of my daughters grew up watching those shows on DVD. The concept of Earth orbit rendezvous is the thread that runs through all three programs.

For the next half dozen years the von Braun team of rocket engineers, which was now heavily integrated with Americans, grew and looked toward huge rockets. In 1957 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) came to Huntsville and the seeds for an actual huge booster were planted and gave birth to two rockets which had been already simmering on the drawing boards; the Nova and the Juno V. Although the Nova began to grow under its original name, the Juno V soon became the Saturn. Additionally the Nova, although originally considered to be in 3 flavors; 37 million pounds of thrust, 22 million pounds of thrust and 12 million pounds of thrust was paired down. In fairly short order it was trimmed down to the 12 million pound thrust version using eight F-1 engines. That version was considered capable of perhaps sending a manned vehicle directly to the Moon. That version was also soon to die from its own girth. It was so large that the assembly and transportation as well as static firing of the whole first stage was simply impractical in the 1960s. Additionally, should it blow up on, or just above the pad, it could effectively destroy a large area of the space center. However, one simple decision in what method would be used to actually get men to the moon would soon spell the certain end for the Nova.

Saturn, however, was conceived in a series of much more adaptable versions- the C-1 (“C” stood for “concept”) and the C-2. The Saturn C-1 was powered by eight H-1 engines with a second stage to be added in the Block II that originally had four RL-10 engines, but was upgraded prior to the first flight version to six RL-10s. These boosters were supposed to fit the bill for the MALLIR program. What? Never heard of that? Well, it’s one of those acronyms that didn’t live long in the storm to get to the Moon. It stands for “Manned Lunar Landing Involving Rendezvous” which later became known as Earth Orbit Rendezvous, or EOR. The MALLIR acronym died in EARLY 1961. 

The C-2, whose study had begun in June of 1959, was simply a C-1 first stage with a more powerful upper stage on top. That stage was the S-II and it was the first component that would actually evolve into the Saturn V.

(By the way... some folks on Internet space sites like to fancy-up images of this proposed hardware- so they look like they're actually ready to fly. I prefer to use the original drawings from the official reports of the time)

Unfortunately the math didn’t work out and the C-2 stack proved to be underpowered for use in MALLIR. So in May of 1961 the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) at Huntsville re-evaluated the C-2 and, before it ever got off the drawing board, they decided the C-2 needed to be replaced by a bigger booster. Then gasoline was thrown into the campfire of going to the Moon on May 25, 1961 when President Kennedy challenged the nation to go to the Moon within the decade.  The following day, the C-2 was officially deleted and it was announced a month later. Now the thoughts of a bigger booster became an urgent need. Enter the next piece of Saturn V hardware- the F-1 engine. Having been in development since the late 1950s, the F-1 was a 1.5 million pound thrust engine that was at the very edge of human engineering ability. It was perfect for the next Saturn, the C-3. Although the first stage of the C-1 would continue into production as a proving vehicle for the clustered engine concept, the C-3 would have a new first stage that was 26.66 feet in diameter and powered by two F-1 engines giving it a thrust of 3 million pounds. It would be topped by the C-2’s S-II upper stage which would be expanded from 21.8 feet in diameter to match the 26.6 foot size of the first stage. Unlike it’s later years on the Saturn V, however, the C-3’s S-II stage would have only four J-2 engines and 800,000 pounds of thrust. It would also sport a four engine S-IV third stage and an Apollo spacecraft.

Once again, the numbers didn’t really crunch for a drawing board Saturn vehicle and the C-3 was found too small to do the job. It was the sweetheart of June 1961 and outmoded in December of that same year. Now a taller, more powerful launch vehicle was cooked up at MSFC; the Saturn C-4. It was a three stage monster with four F-1 engines in the first stage and the S-II second stage plus a series of upper stages known as the R-I and R-II which were supposed to serve as utility stages in Earth orbit as well as burning off toward the Moon. On November 6, 1961 MSFC directed North American Aviation, the prime contractor for the S-II stage to add a fifth engine in the center of its four J-2 engine cluster and it’s power came up to 1,000,000 pounds of thrust as it’s diameter came up to 33 feet. In spite of what you may see in some documentaries on the Saturn V that show the change from double bulkheads with the LOX tank and the LH2 tank each having their own the stage getting a common bulkhead late in its development- the S-II actually had a common bulkhead between its LOX and LH2 tanks as early as 1960. Thus this feature was not a dramatic game-changer late in the development.

Notice that in the C-3 drawing above the first stage is identified as "S-IB"... interesting eh? This image is from the document "Apollo Working Paper 1023, Project Apollo, Description of a Saturn C-3 and Nova Vehicle" dated July 25, 1961, NASA Space Task Group.

As the year of 1962 began it looked as if the C-4 was the vehicle that, along with the C-1 that could do the EOR job and get us to the moon in the decade of the 1960s. Of course… it can never be that easy.

Yet again, the math didn’t quite work out and the number of flights needed to get EOR to work was still too high. MSFC’s engineers speculated that it would take 34 C-1 Flights and 53 C-4 flights to get to the Moon by 1968 at a cost of $8.16 billion. The C-4 needed more power and here is where von Braun is said to have personally solved the problem. The question came up about back-flow of hot exhaust gasses from the four F-1 engines impinging on the big open space between the engines. The chamber temperature from a single F-1 was 5,970F and a huge amount of shielding would be needed. Reportedly it was von Braun himself who pointed to the area and said why don’t you just put another engine right there? The idea solved the under power issue and the backflow issue at the same time and the vehicle now became the Saturn C-5.

On December 10, 1962 NASA selected Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the means for getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The schemes for EOR and Direct Ascent both went into the trashcan. At that moment NASA had in rapid development the perfect launch vehicle for the LOR mode- and it wasn’t the Nova. The Saturn C-5 was the right fit at the right time. The LOR decision, however, drove a steak into the heart of the Nova booster.

The tall slender C-5 monster would first be known to many of us as the rocket that sent the GAF View-Master action figures to the Moon. It was displayed as a model whenever NASA wanted to show that we were really going to make it to the Moon. When Walter Cronkite and John Glenn did the TV news show “Four Years, Nine Months and 29 Days” on March 1, 1965 the Saturn booster model that they displayed was a C-5. It had characteristic over-sized fins, an elongated S-IVB stage and crimped Saturn Launch Adapter (SLA). It was the face of the Moon rocket even after the designation was changed from C-5 to Saturn V on February 7, 1963.

Eventually the “R” stages were deleted and the SLA was reformed to its conical shape. The red escape tower was painted white and the standard roll pattern was established. The Saturn V became then most popular and easily recognized launch vehicle ever… at least among those of us in the Apollo generation. It also got men to the Moon before the end of the decade and for three years thereafter.

Of course some of us still like to think of the old C-5 View-Master version a lot too.

By the way... for those of you who miss those View-Master first man on the moon slides... they can be found HERE

And for those of you who like Wes' writing you can check out his best-selling book APOLLO PART ONE HERE or the whole six-book series... HERE where you can get them sent to you autographed and personalized! You can get them in e-book... HERE

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