Rockets are arguably the greatest engineering feat accomplished by man. The capabilities of these machines are unmatched and nothing like any other machine. Such a machine is the Saturn V (5), the most powerful rocket ever flown. The Saturn V rocket is the most complicated piece of engineering ever created. It was used by NASA to send people to space between 1967 and 1973. The Saturn V was launched 13 times from Kennedy Space Center with no loss of crew or payload. As of 2021, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status, and holds records for the heaviest payload launched and largest payload capacity to low Earth orbit of 310,000 lb. (140,000 kg), which included the third stage and unburned propellant needed to send the Apollo command and service module and Lunar Module to the Moon.
It stood about the height of a 36-story tall building; 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. To be exact, the Saturn 5 was 363 feet tall. Fully fueled for liftoff, the Saturn V weighed 2.8 million kilograms (6.2 million pounds), the weight of about 400 elephants. The rocket generated 34.5 million newtons (7.6 million pounds) of thrust at launch, creating more power than 85 Hoover Dams. A car that gets 48 kilometers (30 miles) to the gallon could drive around the world around 800 times with the amount of fuel the Saturn V used for a lunar landing mission. It could launch about 118,000 kilograms (130 tons) into Earth orbit. That’s about as much weight as 10 school buses. The Saturn V could launch about 43,500 kilograms (50 tons) to the moon. That’s about the same as four school buses.
The first Saturn V was launched in 1967 with Apollo 4. Apollo 6 followed in 1968. Both of these rockets were launched without crews. These launches tested the Saturn V rocket. The first Saturn V launched with a crew was Apollo 8. On this mission, astronauts orbited the moon but did not land. On Apollo 9, the crew tested the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) by flying it in Earth orbit without landing. On Apollo 10, the Saturn V launched the LM to the moon. The crew tested the LM in space but did not land it on the moon. In 1969, Apollo 11 was the first mission to land astronauts on the moon. Saturn V rockets also made it possible for astronauts to land on the moon on Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. On Apollo 13, the Saturn V lifted the crew into space, but a problem prevented them from being able to land on the moon. That problem was not with the Saturn V, but with the Apollo spacecraft. The last Saturn V was launched in 1973, without a crew. It was used to launch the Skylab space station into Earth orbit.
Yes, this 2.8-million-kilogram rocket could outfly a rifle bullet at full speed and would travel at 7 times the speed of sound. It used the powerful F-1 and J-2 rocket engines for propulsion, which shattered the windows of nearby houses when they were tested at Stennis Space Center. The first stage of the flight burned for about 2 minutes and 41 seconds, lifting the rocket to an altitude of 42 miles (68 km) and a speed of 6,164 miles per hour (2,756 m/s) and burning 4,700,000 pounds (2,100,000 kg) of propellant. And produced over 7,500,000 pounds of thrust, which is equivalent to the power of 30 Boeing 747 jumbo jets! And at this very stage, the rocket used about 20 tons of fuel per second. Yes, per second. With all this power, the Saturn V would reach excess speeds of 25,000 mph that is 15 times faster than a rifle bullet.
The stages are extremely crucial for any spacecraft and the Saturn V’s stages weren’t different either. The Saturn V consisted of three stages — the S-IC first stage, S-II second stage, and the S-IVB third stage. All three stages used liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer. Each stage would burn its engines until it was out of fuel and would then separate from the rocket. The engines on the next stage would fire, and the rocket would continue into space. The first stage had the most powerful engines since it had the challenging task of lifting the fully fueled rocket off the ground. The first stage lifted the rocket to an altitude of about 68 kilometers (42 miles). The second stage carried it from there almost into orbit. The third stage placed the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit and pushed it toward the moon. The first two stages fell into the ocean after separation. The third stage either stayed in space or hit the moon.
From 1964 until 1973, $6.417 billion (equivalent to $35 billion in 2019) in total was appropriated for the Research and Development and flights of the Saturn V, with the maximum being in 1966 with $1.2 billion (equivalent to $7.37 billion in 2019). Meanwhile, the upper estimate for Falcon heavy is US$90 million.
- The Saturn V remains the only spacecraft capable of taking human beings to another celestial body.
- It also remains the largest and most powerful rocket ever built with a load capacity (to low earth orbit) of 260,000 pounds.
- It went from paper design to flight in 6 years (1961-1967).
- The Saturn V liftoff was so loud that you could see the sound waves.
- It could fly 7 times the speed of sound.
A Living Legend
We might never be able to make something as magnificent and raw as the Saturn V. This did set a benchmark for how powerful rockets should be and is still unrivaled to this day. It opened a new gate to explore deep into space and put into action what humans can achieve if they work together. The Saturn V is currently on display at the NASA Johnson Space Center.