The Saturn V

by Walter Cunningham

Although NASA is designing a new generation of vehicles to return to the Moon, it will have a hard time matching the success of the rocket that first made it possible.

It has been 39 years since man first landed on the Moon, one of the stellar accomplishments in history. Anyone past middle age can recite where he or she was on that historic day when the Lunar Landing Vehicle, Eagle, set down in the Sea of Tranquility. Three generations after the Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, we landed on another body in the universe. And now, we have raised two generations for whom Apollo 11 is something read about in history books.

Between 1969 and 1972, the United States landed on the Moon six times—an adventure in which I had the honor of playing a small part. Twelve Americans walked on the lunar surface. As astronauts, we were pleased and impressed with our role; we were the ones riding the rockets. But, we were both interchangeable and replaceable.

Fifty years later, we are planning a return to the Moon. In 2005, NASA was given a new mission:“to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond.” They are well into the initial stage of the Constellation program intended to take us back to the Moon “before 2020.” The space hardware and mission architecture of the Constellation program are reminiscent of Apollo, but will it be as successful?

We won’t know the answer to that question for at least another decade. What is different about the challenge today, other than the obvious—less money and a longer time frame? What were the key ingredients of the Apollo program? To what can we attribute our success? These are questions I’ve often considered in the years since Apollo.

In the Sixties, we were in a race with the Soviet Union to be the first to land a man on the Moon. There is no simple answer to why we succeeded, while the Russians failed disastrously. Landing on the Moon was a very complex undertaking, one of the most complex in history. I have several candidates for most valuable contribution, and they share a common denominator—people.

One factor was the creation of the race and the typical American response. Starting from behind has never discouraged Americans.

The Apollo Program included 400,000 highly motivated individuals committed to success in this historic undertaking. More important than the number of individuals, were some key architects and managers in the program. Bob Gilruth, Max Faget, Chris Kraft, Walt Williams, Wernher von Braun and his German engineers, and a few others. Many of these individuals came to the world of manned spacefl ight from the test-fl ying environment of the Forties and Fifties. They were comfortable exploring the limits of aerodynamics with the X-planes and going “higher, farther, faster.”

A critical player, making a truly unique contribution was the Saturn V rocket. It was an inanimate object without a soul, but it became a living, breathing thing when the engines were lit. It contained the energy of a small nuclear bomb. The Saturn V burned its fi ve million pounds of fuel in such a controlled fashion that it could lift six million pounds sitting still on the ground and place one quarter of a million pounds into an orbit 100 miles high, traveling 25,000 miles per hour.

We would never have made it to the Moon without the Saturn V.

Saturn V

The history of manned space fl ight is the history of building rockets to lift men off the face of the earth. The monstrous Saturn rockets were developed solely for the purpose of sending men into space. Nothing compares to them, even today. They were very complex vehicles with a perfect safety record—an amazing feat that should not be taken for granted.

In the beginning of the Space Age, the Soviet Union was way ahead of the United States in experience and they owned all the space “firsts.” They were operating at six times our launch rate and three times our spending rate.

That began to change in 1961, when President John Kennedy threw down a gauntlet, challenging the Soviet Union to a technologi-cal fi ght to the fi nish. The space race was on! It was a race for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world; which system of governance would prevail, Soviet communism or American democracy?

The Soviets appeared to be taken by surprise, but shortly thereafter, they embarked on development of their own rocket to take them to the Moon—the mighty N1.

That was on my mind last April when I was in Russia visiting the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and many of their space museums. Museum curators always emphasized the “home grown” nature of their space program. There was never a mention of the contributions of the German scientists and engineers captured in 1945, or the dozens of German rockets brought back to the USSR after the end of World War II.

I reminded them that the Russian R-1 rocket looked like a twin to the German V-2 rocket. The Russians had good rocket engineers and scientists but the Germans, with their decade of experience, laid the groundwork for the Russian space program, just as the Germans we brought to America were essential to our early efforts. The Russians eventually phased out their captured Germans, while ours became Americans and continued to work in our program for 40 years.

Today, Russia has a simple, reliable booster in their Soyuz launch vehicle. It is capable of fl ying relatively simple missions. Soyuz reliability is the product of many booster failures, including a launch abort and a pad abort. But the Russians were never successful in developing a booster large enough for manned missions to the Moon.

Saturn VTo reach the Moon, the Soviets needed a really big booster, and development of the five-stage N1 was begun at great cost to the Russian economy. The Russian equivalent of our Saturn V was built specifi cally for circumlunar and lunar landing missions. The first stage had 30 engines and a total liftoff thrust of 10 million pounds.

The Russians were under heavy political pressure to beat us to the Moon. When we received intelligence that they were preparing to fl y a circumlunar mission with a modifi ed Soyuz spacecraft on a Proton rocket, we committed Apollo 8 to fl y around the Moon after only two test fl ights of the Saturn V. To the great surprise of the Russians, Apollo 8 was a success.

In response, the Russians attempted to launch their N1 rocket only weeks later. It destroyed itself 69 seconds into the fl ight. If it had been a success, and with so much hanging in the balance, they just might have attempted to man the next one on a circumlunar mission before Apollo 11.

It’s a good thing the second attempt was unmanned, since it exploded one second after liftoff, and destroyed the launch pad. That was enough for the Russians to throw in the towel on the race to the Moon.

When they got around to the third attempt, launch control had to destroy the rocket 57 seconds after liftoff. The fourth and fi nal attempt lasted the longest, 107 seconds, before meeting the same fate. The program was offi cially cancelled in 1974.

While the N1 was establishing this miserable record, our Saturn rockets were near perfect on every launch.

Saturn VBy 1969, America was on the Moon; the Soviet Union had been trounced, both technically and operationally. We had developed complex and reliable hardware that enabled us to fl y complex missions.

In the pantheon of space hardware, the Saturn V is still in a class by itself. It carried eight crews out to the Moon. Including the Saturn 1B, Saturn rockets placed 45 astronauts safely into space.

Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon just nine years after President Kennedy challenged the Soviet Union. The space race was over; America had won and the race was called off. We now celebrate the race to the Moon for what it was, a political battle in the Cold War.

The Saturn V made victory possible. It was the most valuable player on a team of outstanding engineers, scientists, managers and yes, astronauts.

You could also say, our Germans were better than the Russian’s Germans.

We are now returning to the Moon without the mighty Saturn V. This time we will do it with vehicles called Ares and Orion.

We all wish NASA well. But I would also remind them of something Max Faget, the principal designer for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecrafts, said about a year before he died: “Someday, they are going to want to return to the Moon, and then they will fi nd out just how good a job we did.”

You may see one of the remaining Saturn V rockets at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Johnson Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, or the U.S Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.