Happy Birthday Saturn V, Still The Biggest Rocket of All

November 9, 1967, T-minus 8.9 seconds: Thousands of gallons of kerosene and liquid oxygen begin coursing through the giant centre F1 rocket engine: The Saturn V's ignition sequence has begun. Next, two outer engines are lit, followed 300 milliseconds later by the other two, ignited in pairs to avoid toppling the 364-foot rocket above. Nine seconds after all five engines go to full thrust, the first Saturn V rocket begins to lift from the launchpad, taking the unmanned Apollo 4 check-out module into space.

The launch was flawless. Forty-one years ago to the day, the Saturn V became the biggest, tallest, largest-payload rocket ever to be sent into space. Even more amazingly, it still is.

If you talk about the Moon landings, some people remember Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the moon, and may think of the photo of that famous footprint, or the planting of the flag. I choose to remember the rocket that enabled it all, the Saturn V, a pretty shocking mechanical masterpiece all by itself.

Nearly everything about it is monumental in scale and historic in importance:

• At 364 feet high (111 metres), it was roughly as tall as a 36-story building.

• Its launch weight of 6.7 million pounds (3,000,000kg) was equal to about 2,200 average late '60s cars.

• Its orbital payload of 260,000 pounds (118,000kg)2 is the equivalent of about 1,500 average people.

It was designed under the supervision of the rocket man, Wernher von Braun, and was chosen in 1963 from a list of potential systems proposed to make good President Kennedy's promise that a man would visit the moon within a decade.

The rocket was so very large that it required NASA to build the Vertical Assembly Building, one of the world's largest buildings. It had to be constructed in three stages, could hold four Saturn Vs at the same time, and was reportedly so large that it had its own weather systems. It's still used to put Space Shuttle stacks together, and will house the upcoming Ares series rockets too. It's also home to the four largest doors in the world.

The Saturn V's first-stage rockets—five F1s made by Rocketdyne—are the most powerful single-nozzle liquid fuelled rocket engines ever to see service. The engine bell for each was over 3.7m across. Each engine developed 1.5 million pounds of thrust, drinking over 670 gallons of fuel mixture per second: That's enough to empty your typical 30,000-gallon swimming pool in around 45 seconds. The F1 even makes the more modern Shuttle seem wimpy, since each F1 had more thrust than all three Shuttle main engines combined.

Its second-stage rockets—five J2s, also by Rocketdyne—were the largest liquid-hydrogen rocket engines in their day, and remained so until the Space Shuttle's main engines were built. The J2s were also the first rocket engines that were able to restart in mid-flight.

In comparison, America's first manned rocket, the Redstone, was about the same length as the final stage of the Saturn V. Redstone was actually less powerful than the emergency escape rockets on the manned capsule atop the Saturn V. (I suppose it's important to note, too, that those escape rockets never had to be used.) And Redstone's maiden liftoff was only 14 years before the Saturn V's, which shows the tremendous speed of NASA's rocket program in the '50s and '60s.

Here's a great comparison chart of the world's biggest and best rockets:

Even the Space Shuttle, deemed by some the most complex machine humans have yet built, doesn't compare to the Saturn V. And if you're wondering what the unlabeled black rocket in the middle is, it's Saturn V's, the Soviet N1 moon-shot rocket. This had four attempted launches, none successful. Part of this was due to lack of management and funding, but part had to do with its incredibly complex first-stage design, which required the synchronised firing of 30 separate rocket engines.

Perhaps most amazing of all facts about the Saturn V is that each of its 12 main Saturn V launches was successful. Two of them suffered in-flight problems including engine cutoffs, but the on-board computers were able to compensate, resulting in a successful mission. The rocket was even considered at one point to act as a prototype for the first stage of the Space shuttle, thereby requiring no solid-rocket boosters. If that had happened, the 1986 disaster that befell Challenger would never have happened.

There were also plans for several post-Saturn V projects on the drawing boards. The best was a super-massive variant with eight engines in each of the first two stages, capable of launching all the International Space-Station hardware to orbit in one shot. Sadly, for political and financial reasons, all variants were cancelled.

Today, there are other contenders as NASA suits up for the next moon shot. Though not as tall as its predecessor, the massive Ares V rocket, child of NASA's somewhat troubled Constellation program, is technically able to put 414,000 pounds (188,000kg) of payload into low Earth orbit.

But until the Ares V flies, the Saturn V remains king of rockets. Call me overly nostalgic (or pessimistic, seeing as Ares is well underway), but I'm inclined to think the Saturn V may well keep that title forever.

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