More than 40 years in the making, the Saturn V rocket was born of the worst war in history—but came of age as humanity's crowning engineering achievement when it launched the first men who would walk on the moon. This is its story.
In 1923, a prominent German physicist named Hermann Oberth a study called “Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen,” or, roughly translated, “By Rocket to Space.” That same year, another fateful event happened across the country, when a rising star in the Nazi party named Adolf Hitler suffered an embarrassing defeat in Munich as his Beer Hall Putch uprising was foiled by local authorities.
These two facts may seem tangentially related. But they would go on to shape the life of an eleven-year-old Berliner named Wernher von Braun, and in so course, spark the future of human spaceflight.
Amid the political upheaval of 1920s Germany, the seeds of what would become America’s greatest technological achievement—the Saturn V rocket that would carry astronauts to the moon—were beginning to germinate. But before von Braun could become the father of America’s space program, he’d first go by a very different title: Nazi officer.
Born from War
Wernher von Braun, the second of three children in a somewhat prominent family, already had a passion for the fantastic. Not many kids his age were reading scientific papers like Oberth’s, but von Braun had already developed a hearty appetite for such things thanks to the fictional works of his favorite writers Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Within a few years, von Braun’s passion for rocketry would result in a run-in with the law. The budding ballistics man strapped a number of rockets to his wagon, ignited them, and watched as the vehicle wreaked havoc in a nearby alley. The experiment could have been considered a success, but the police didn’t seem to think so.
“It never occurred to me,” he later , “that they were not prepared to share the sidewalk with my noble experiment.”
That little boy with a passion for rockets ascended to stardom after Hitler plunged Germany into the Second World War. Advancing the work of U.S. physicist Robert Goddard, especially his research into liquid rocket fuel, von Braun and the German rocket group in Kummersdorf, Germany (and eventually in Peenemünde), created the Aggregat family of rockets.
This groundbreaking research eventually culminated in its most deadly creation, the A4. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels would give the terrible weapon its name: V-2, with the "V" standing for vengeance. When one such rocket made landfall in London in 1944, von Braun turned to a colleague and that his rocket worked perfectly, except that it landed on the wrong planet.
Clearly, von Braun saw the space-exploration potential of his rockets early on. But as troubling as it may be that America's great Saturn V was a descendant of the Nazi war machine, the whole story is actually worse.
Wernher von Braun's rockets , an underground factory that used concentration-camp slave labor to build nearly 6,000 V-2 rockets. Thousands of prisoners died from starvation, disease, and dangerous working conditions. While he remained at Peenemünde (though he did visit Mittelwerk several times), von Braun's association with the brutal regime would leave the darkest blemish on his legacy. Future historians would argue if the famous rocket engineer was a victim of circumstance or , making a deal with the devil in search for knowledge.
Either way, the end of the war led von Braun to his fateful meeting with the United States. With defeat for the Nazis closing in, von Braun and his colleague General Walter Dorngerger ordered their crew of more than one hundred engineers to fuel their trucks with the alcohol set aside for their V-2 rockets and pack up forged documents to help get them through German roadblocks.
The trip was dicey, with the dual threats of being discovered by the Nazis or killed by Allied forces hanging over them. At one point, a driver fell asleep at the wheel, and the resulting crash broke von Braun’s arm and left a permanent scar above his lip.
Finally, once safe in a mountain lodge, von Braun sent his younger brother to find the American Army so they could formally surrender. The Americans, however, thought this man to be the famed Nazi rocket scientist was “too young, too fat, too jovial” to be their man, and it took a bit of effort to convince American intelligence officers just how momentous his surrender truly was.
No doubt, von Braun and his team could have been tried as war criminals. But the U.S. already had its eyes set on a new threat in its reluctant ally the Soviet Union. As such, von Braun's team was embraced as a means to find an advantage in the next great power struggle, a Cold War already stirring in its infancy.
The Forefather of Spaceflight
At six foot one, Wernher von Braun stood taller than most in the crowd gathered around him, but even his large frame was dwarfed by the 60-foot tube of rocket fuel and steel as it sat on the launchpad what would soon become NASA's George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
Two years earlier, von Braun, serving as the program’s chief engineer, had contracted the Chrysler Corporation to help him build what was basically an upgraded V-2 rocket called Redstone, a weapon to help end the Korean War. It was powered by a new Rocketdyne engine that offered a significant increase in payload capability, allowing it to carry a massive W39 nuclear warhead (at approximately 6,900 pounds) to targets more than 175 miles away.
Back at Redstone's launch facility, as the countdown reached zero, von Braun watched his new creation take to the sky. It still wasn't the exploration rocket of his dreams, but it was progress.
Hoping to create rockets of exploration rather than destruction, von Braun proposed launching a satellite into space in 1954. But interest was muted as the U.S., like his previous benefactors in Germany, seemed only interested in the destructive capacity of his inventions. The program was short-lived.
But that didn't stop von Braun from dreaming. As von Braun perfected payload delivery systems, he spent his free time working on books like The Mars Project, The Conquest of the Moon, and The Exploration of Mars. But from his vantage point in 1957, rockets meant for exploration remained an impossibility.
Von Braun was born into war, he’d rose to prominence in war, and he’d secured his freedom through the promise of doing more of the same.
An Unexpected Soviet Victory
It looked like a silver sphere with four long antennas extending from the back. At little more than 22 inches in diameter, it was about twice the size of basketball but weighed a hefty 183 pounds. It was a technological marvel built on compromise, and it wasn’t what the Soviets wanted. Regardless, Sputnik would go on to change the world.
Von Braun and his team weren’t the only people working on rocket technology throughout the 1950s. Unlike his Soviet predecessor Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev saw the value of a robust rocket program and he quickly set about allocating resources to his top-secret NII-4 research institution’s rocket sciences division, headed by longtime rocket proponent Mikhail Tikhonravov and bolstered by the expertise of prominent rocket scientist Sergei Korolev.
It was a Soviet victory—with American origins. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had announced America’s plans to put a satellite into orbit by 1958. By January of the following year, the Soviet government formally approved the Sputnik initiative. The Soviets had hoped to field a “sophisticated” satellite as their first foray into space travel, but the new deadline set by the American president had dashed those hopes. Instead, the Soviets decided, Sputnik would have to do.
In the minds of many, October 4, 1957, marked the inauguration of a new era for mankind: the Space Age. While few recall the half-hearted enthusiasm many Soviets had for the program beforehand, there’s no way to overstate the dramatic effect the small satellite’s radio beeps had on the world below it.
Before the U.S. could respond with a satellite of their own, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, though its similarities to the first launch didn’t extend much beyond its name. Riding inside a small capsule within the orbiter was a young Siberian Husky named Laika— the first animal to orbit Earth.
The U.S. wanted to show that they weren't far behind with the launch of their own Vanguard TV3 satellite from Cape Canaveral on December 6, 1957. What was to be a momentous occasion instead ended in failure. Just seconds after liftoff, the rocket’s engine stopped producing thrust and crashed to Earth along with any hope of stealing the Soviet’s thunder.
With Sputnik in orbit and the U.S. initial efforts a dismal failure, debate raged behind the scenes about whether a new American space initiative should fall under the auspices of existing civilian agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), or the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), or even under a military branch like the Army or the (fairly recently founded) Air Force.
By April 2, 1958, President Eisenhower sent a draft resolution to Congress asking for the formation of this new space agency built upon the framework of NACA, which already had a number of space-based initiatives under its belt. It was voted into law in July of that year and NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, officially opened its doors on October 1, less than a year after Sputnik hit orbit.
Two years later, NASA absorbed von Braun’s Army rocket-development program and von Braun was appointed the head of the Marshall Space Flight Center. The 48-year-old German rocket scientist would finally build a spacecraft that would launch mankind to the stars.
A Presidential Promise
Soon after NASA’s formation, it began its first spaceflight initiative, Project Mercury. The goal was to be the first to put a man in space, but, once again, the Soviet Union beat them to the punch with Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight on the Soviet Vostok 1.
However, this time NASA had managed to close the gap quite a bit. NASA’s Alan Shepard matched Gagarin's flight in a Mercury capsule, though the NASA expedition didn’t go as deep into space or even complete a single orbit.
By 1961, four years after the shock of Sputnik shook the world, the U.S.—and its new president— of second place:
“Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own…For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”
He would go on to state an overly ambitious goal—an American would walk on the moon by the end of the decade.
What he was asking for seemed almost ludicrous. After all, it had only been 58 years since the Wright Brothers first took to the skies in their own flying machine, but each new victory brought increasing prestige to the Soviet Union. Securing the ultimate high ground would prove that capitalism could lead to technological breakthroughs as well.
Among scientists and engineers working at NASA, however, the goal was more than daunting.
“We were struggling with Mercury spacecraft that weighed 2,000 or 2,500 pounds. [Now] we were talking about spacecraft that would be 10 or 20 times bigger,” Apollo flight director Glynn Lunney about the scope of what Kennedy announced.
“The boldness of the decision-making and the challenge that it presented to the country, and to the technical community, was just staggering to me. But we were so busy that it was ‘Well, okay, I guess we’re going to do that. So let’s get on.’”
"A Voice in the Wilderness"
While Many Americans saw a trip to the moon as the logical extension of spaceflight, the engineers at NASA were faced with some hard numbers. Satellites placed in low-Earth orbit usually stopped distancing themselves from the planet after traveling 1,000 miles or less. Sputnik orbited at just 359 miles above the Earth’s surface. Reaching the moon would mean sending astronauts 238,900 miles one way before they could even hope to set foot on the surface, and they still had to make it back.
Early proposals echoed the science fiction that inspired engineers like von Braun in his youth. These designs focused on building a single self-contained rocket that housed both a crew compartment and the propulsion systems. Rockets that would have looked right at home on the set of Destination Moon seemed logical too many, but not to NASA engineer John C. Houbolt.
Houbolt didn’t have the name recognition of von Braun, but he did have the expertise. As a part of NASA’s Lunar Mission Steering Group, Houbolt had been working on the concept of space rendezvous since 1959. When NASA’s best and brightest started pitching programs like Nova, a rocket twice as large as the Saturn V, Houbolt would not be deterred, and he wrote a nine-page proposal directly to incoming associate administrator of NASA Robert C. Seamans.
Houbolt, as “a voice in the wilderness,” made a powerful case for his lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) plan in the letter.
"Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that ing you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox," Houbolt , "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted."
The Nova rocket program would rely on scaling up existing technology, which meant the possibility of fewer surprises but guaranteed extended timelines and the need for a massive budget to construct the monstrous rocket. Houbolt’s unpopular lunar-orbit rendezvous plan, on the other hand, offered significant cost savings associated with rocket design and reduced weight carried into space.
“There was a reluctance to believe that the rendezvous maneuver was an easy thing. In fact, to a layman, if you were to explain what you had to do to perform a rendezvous in space, he would say that sounds so difficult we'll never be able to do it this century,” Clinton Bown, the head of the Lunar Mission Steering Group on Trajectories and Guidance.
Eventually, it was budgetary concerns that won out, and Houbolt’s most cost-effective strategy was adopted. From there, 20,000 companies and some 400,000 engineers were with developing the rocket’s three stages, the lander, and command module that would ultimately make the Saturn V the most powerful rocket the world has ever seen.
Flying to the Moon
With a strategy in place regarding what type of rocket NASA intended to send to the moon, there was still the lingering question of how to get it there. There wasn’t a single rocket engine in the world capable of producing enough thrust to traverse such an expansive distance, so the task fell on the Rocketdyne Division of Rockwell International to make one.
But building a new more powerful rocket engine requires far more than just making the old engine bigger. Producing an engine capable of propelling a massive rocket hundreds of thousands of miles away from the surface of the Earth would test the structural limits of the materials used in the engine’s very construction.
“A rocket engine is a controlled explosion. So there’s this tension between pushing the technological state of the art and also maintaining safety and reliability," Tom Lassman, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
A whole new engine would have to be developed: the F-1.
It had taken 18 months for the team at Rocketdyne to scale up existing fuel injectors to support the 400,000 pounds of thrust available in the company’s previous E-1 engines, and while that had been enough to convince NASA that they were capable of the job, David E. Aldrich, the F-1 project manager, and Dominick Sanchini, his chief assistant, knew that scaling up simply wouldn’t cut it to reach the F-1 aim of 1.5 million pounds of thrust for each engine.
Aldrich and his team started at the drawing board, testing previous components to their failure points and using that data to inform an entirely new injector design. Once they had that, they expanded their work to other components of the engine. Despite their efforts, concerns mounted that an engine of the F-1’s proposed size simply couldn't work. Von Braun, who was overseeing the overall Saturn V’s construction, had to write a memo emphasizing that he had faith in the Rocketdyne team, pointing out that solutions to these unprecedented problems would not be simple nor would they be easy.
It took more than a year to produce a single F-1 engine that could actually be sparked up and fired, and even that platform ran only four times for a total of just 192.6 seconds. Unbelievably, despite that short duration and a number of issues that had yet to be fully resolved, the engine was then put into production.
In order to reach the moon, the Saturn V wouldn’t house just one of these massive engines. It would need, as its name suggests, five. Each F-1 engine had a fuel pump that could move 42,500 gallons of propellant per minute, the highest thrust-rated rocket engine ever made.
In just two and a half minutes, those five engines would burn through 203,400 gallons of kerosene fuel and another 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen, producing the 7.5 million pounds of thrust needed to carry the rocket’s six million pounds just 38 miles into the sky, where it would discard those F-1s and their now-empty fuel stores with the first stage.
“That Saturn 1C stage, with those five F-1 engines, is a massive piece of hardware," , a Rocketdyne senior executive that worked on the program. “If that sucker was going to blow, it was not only going to take itself and the whole vehicle, but it was going to take the launch pad and most everything halfway back to the firing room in the explosion.
"Luckily, that never happened.”
A Combustion Frustration
Carrying that much fuel (89 truckloads of liquid oxygen, 28 trailer-loads of liquid hydrogen, and 27 rail cars full of kerosene) caused a number of problems with combustion stability. Loading a skyscraper full of highly combustible materials and then igniting one end without creating a cascading explosion that would kill everyone on board proved more difficult than simply managing fuel flow into the engine.
The sheer weight and volume of the fuel alone, when combined with the vibration created by those five F-1 engines, nearly doomed the rocket before it could ever leave the launchpad.
"They had a design for the starting sequence. I did the analysis and told them it was no good. The rocket would probably blow up,” Bob Biggs, an F-1 development project engineer at Rocketdyne.
The central fuel chamber was so large that the fuel would slosh around during operation, creating vibrations that could tear the engine apart. It took two years and 15 redesigns for the team of scientists and researchers to find a way to make the F-1 engines that powered the Saturn V fire without also tearing the rocket to pieces.
The team continued to experiment with different launch procedures that reduced internal vibrations and gave the rocket an opportunity to get underway without shaking itself apart. Like a number of other issues with the Saturn V, risk was considered a part of the job. Some potentially catastrophic concerns were never even fully resolved. The team simply kept mitigating risk factors until it seemed unlikely that the components would fail.
Testing, conducted largely at Edwards Air Force Base, was often the site of frustrated engineers grappling with what seemed like minutia in order to make the Saturn V’s massive engines fire properly. Changes were still being made to internal components of the engine until shortly before it was first expected to take to the sky.
One such issue was caused by the impeller mounted on the pump inside the liquid oxygen tank. The impellers role was to stir the liquid oxygen stored in the tank, but the component kept failing under the massive load. When the blades broke, they caused fires that put the entire rocket at risk.
"We had a half-dozen blowups. I'm not sure we ever solved that one," recalled. "We made some design changes, and the rate of failures began to go down."
Had something gone wrong, experts have estimated that the explosion would have been larger than 1,400 feet in diameter. The fireball would have burned at temperatures in excess of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a half a minute, and when it was through, there would have been nothing left of the rocket or the launchpad.
Light the Candle
The first Saturn V component to reach the newly minted Kennedy Space Center was its third stage. The smallest stage of the rocket, it arrived via a specially constructed plane called the Super Guppy, which had been purpose-built to ferry oversize cargo. Soon, the other stages began arriving by boat via the Banana River.
The components were assembled in NASA’s massive Vertical Assembly Building, which had been built to allow for the construction of the 363-foot-tall three-stage rocket. When the completed rocket was rolled out of the building and prepared for launch, neither the first nor the second stage had ever flown before.
In fact, for many of the components aboard that first Saturn V launch also served as their first test. It was a bold decision on behalf of NASA, but a necessary one if they hoped to meet their end-of-the-decade deadline for a manned flight to the moon. For von Braun, this first launch, dubbed Apollo 4, was the culmination of a lifetime spent in pursuit of the stars. This was to be his crowning achievement, provided it could fly.
On November 9, 1967, at 7 a.m. ET— more than 40 years after von Braun first dreamed of a rocket to the moon—the countdown reached zero and the candle was lit. The mighty Saturn V, mankind’s greatest engineering achievement, unleashed a massive roar, and, with it, more than 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
Miles away from the Cape Canaveral launchpad, ceiling tiles in NASA’s press facility to the floor behind Walter Cronkite and other journalists on hand.
"At liftoff, the vibration from the Saturn V showered us with dust and debris from the ceiling of the Launch Control Center, which was brand new at the time," NASA's public information chief Jack King, who served as the countdown commentator for the launch.
Dr. Hans Greune, director of Kennedy Launch Vehicle Operations, worried that the massive Vertical Assembly Building that once housed the rocket might crack under the immense release of sound and energy.
As the Saturn V’s massive form leapt from the launchpad, a new era of space exploration was born, and, with it, a new idea of what was possible. But then, to von Braun, the feat never seemed impossible at all:
“I have learned to use the word impossible with the greatest caution.”