March 04, 2002
Saturn Follies

My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. Here's one of them:

The Saturn V rocket was, and perhaps still is, the largest space vehicle ever built to be launched from earth. 330 feet (110 meters) tall, 33 feet (10 meters) in diameter. It could lift 259,000 lbs (118,000 kg) into low earth orbit. For comparison, the space shuttle, our current heavy lift champ, is 184 feet (56.14 meters) tall, 78 feet (23.8 meters) across at the wings, and can lift a maximum of 63,500 lbs (28,800 kg) into low earth orbit. The Saturn V was a giant among giants, and we shall not soon see its like again.

But the problem was that in 1967, nobody had ever seen anything like it. How do you test a rocket that, if something went really really wrong, could flatten everything in a five or six mile radius, and shatter the windows in Miami?

Well, if you're 1960s-era NASA (a place only rivaled by the old west in its "hell with the book, let's just get it done" attitude), you gas one up, trundle it out, and light the fuse. Don't bother with a cargo, since atomizing astronauts tends to generate bad publicity, just load a couple thousand pounds of concrete into the nose for ballast. Let's see what happens.

The Saturn V was, to say the least, quite a complex beast, even by today's standards. It had three "stages", sections that were optimized for the different conditions experienced in the course of the launch. Each section had its own set of engines and its own fuel supply. Three different companies were responsible for the construction: in order from bottom to top, Boeing, North American, and Douglas Aircraft. Boeing's reputation amongst the Canaveral crew was stellar... their stuff was reliable, well designed, and they were damned careful with it (perhaps a later story). Douglas's stuff wasn't as good as Boeings', but it was pretty good and again the crew's opinion, according to my dad at least, was that nobody needed to worry about Douglas.

That left North American. Conventional wisdom said the problem with North American's stuff, according to my dad at least, was that, when new, it always blew up. Not just quit, not just fizzled, but exploded in a right proper fireball. It was rumored that other engineers would bring weenies for roasting to the first launch of any new North American product just to annoy them.

North American was in charge of the second stage of the Saturn V, which put them in charge of the second-largest part of the largest rocket in the world. And of course at that point in the launch the third largest part of that rocket would be sitting right next to the second part, full of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The fireball, it was figured, would be impressive to say the least. And everyone knew that without question the thing would blow up.

Now, again, it must be said that nobody'd ever fired a rocket this big in history. They really didn't have any idea what it would do. So they did what they could to ensure proper safety, and, well, pushed the button.

The best way to experience this first launch from this distance in history is to listen to Walter Cronkite's broadcast of the event. Mr. Cronkite (who, for those of you too young to remember, was the best known TV newscaster in the country, and a huge supporter of the space program) managed to get his transmission trailer closer than anyone else's so he could have the best view of the show. In retrospect, this proved to be a not-so-good idea. NASA put the press folks a little too close to the action, and the pressure waves from the launch sucked the windows out of Cronkite's truck with a BANG. To say he was surprised and concerned was an understatement, but he was so damned excited it didn't scare him. His voice just got a little higher pitched as he described the event. I think it also peeled the roof off the vehicle, but I have not confirmed that.

That first stage, which again nobody was really too worried about, was so powerful it not only damaged Mr. Cronkite's trailer, which was miles away, it also completely vaporized the solid-gauge guard rails around the launch platform itself, as well as all the cameras meant to record the event up close. Zip. Gone. Vanished without a trace. These were big cameras! They were big enough they may not have actually vaporized, but are instead still sitting at the bottom of the swampy marshes that surround the cape, flung miles away from the launch site. The rocket is perched on the top of a concrete pad (which is still used by shuttles to this day), and the heat was so intense it turned a good two inches of the solid-concrete flame trench into glass. The launch was registered on seismometers as far north as New York City, and could be seen in Miami.

Of course, everyone that was involved in the program knew that, in spite of how impressive this all was, it was only a prelude to the real fireworks that would be brought courtesy of the North American guys. The first stage burned only for a few minutes, about the same amount of time the solid boosters on the shuttle burn, and then, empty and useless, it would be discarded. At that point, according to the press release anyway, the second stage would ignite and continue the rocket's trip to orbit.

The announcer counted down the time to this event: "three, two, one... first stage cutoff. [long pause] first stage separation [long pause]" and at this point everyone who worked on the thing closed their eyes, said prayers, and put their fingers in their ears ... "second stage ignition! We have second stage ignition!" Swear to god you can hear the surprise in the announcer's voice.

It didn't blow up. Two of its five engines didn't work, but by god it didn't blow up.

And it never did, not once in the entire program did it ever even cause trouble. The North American boys finally got it right.

Posted by scott at March 04, 2002 07:55 PM

eMail this entry!

Terrific! I remember this launch and all the things said about N. American's part, the bets that were taken and the total suprise when the monster didn't blow up.

I was too young to realize the history we were living. Also too busy raising babies, while your dad was playing "rocket man"

Posted by: Pat on March 5, 2002 10:33 AM

Hi Scott, You probably remember the story about the first man into space. At that time NASA was using the Redstone Rocket.
They had many problems, and finally felt the Craft was ready. They brought our First man into space to witness a final test of the
Redstone. They launched and, unfortunately,
it exploded. Our Astronaut turned to those around him and simply said, " Gee, I hope that doesn't happen when I'm on top of it. "

Posted by: Joe Connolly on March 7, 2002 08:02 PM

PLEASE change back to the original format!! PLEASE! PLEASE!

Posted by: Pat on August 24, 2002 03:48 AM

Really enjoyable to read your life experiences again, Hope you are well, Joe

Posted by: Joe Connolly on January 26, 2005 02:08 AM

Well Scott, the Saturn V was not 330 feet tall but actually 363 feet in height... It was able to lift 285,000 lbs into low earth orbit-not 259,000... North American had by far the most difficult and complex job of any of the Saturn V contractors with the 2nd stage (thank god for Harrison Storms)-if you have any doubt please read Angle of Attack by Mike Grey, you'll understand some of what they went through... The second stage was tested to such a high degree that they always worked perfectly in actual flight except for the 2nd flight(SA-502)which did have two of the engines in non working status-this was proved to be caused by pogo vibrations from the Boeing first stage... North American were also responsible for the best fighter of world war 2-the P-51 mustang,the largest supersonic bomber-the Valkrye and the incredible X-15- none of these ever blew up in flight and were all very sucsessful... At the launch of SA-501 (Apollo 4) Walter Cronkite was in a new building that was the size of a trailer but was not a trailer, This "permanent" building was no closer then any of the other press at this launch... The windows of Cronkites building were not sucked out however they did go through extreme vibrations that looked as though they would shatter,Cronkite attempted to stop this and was later reprimanded by the glass company engineers because the glass was designed to shake like that-holding it as he did could have caused it to shatter... Walter Cronkite was in fact showered by the ceiling tiles which literally bounced out of their frames and its also known that the roof of this structure vibrated so severly that portions of it were in fact ripping open... The CBS building Walter Cronkite was in was located 3.6 miles away from the Saturn V... The cameras used to record all Saturn V lift off events are ALL buried either underground or in distant structures-all visual feeds to these cameras are done by using a thick window of heat resistant quartz with fiber optic bundles running to the buried distant cameras... The first launch (SA-501) of the Saturn V did in fact register as far away as upper state New York and was considered the loudest man made sound ever created(except for a nuclear blast)

Posted by: John on July 27, 2006 01:39 AM

Right. Because we all know you can't rely on the word of an engineer who actually helped build the damn thing. Nope, real facts can only come from the screenwriter responsible for "China Syndrome" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

What do rocket scientists know about rockets, anyways? If they had just used warp drives, we'd all have our own personal holodecks by now!

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on July 27, 2006 11:25 PM

the 1st saturn v launch (501) was almost a complete total success. all 5 engines on the second stage did work. it was the second launch (502) where 2 of the 5 engines on the 2nd stage shut down early.

Posted by: Steve Mayo on April 24, 2008 01:48 PM

I was in the Air Force Stationed at Patrick AFB and worked out of Hanger "C" which was just inland from the light house on the Cape. At that time it was called Cape Kennedy. A shuttle bus load of us saw the launch just about 7 am on a clear crisp November morning in 67'. We jumped up on some communications line trucks to try and see the launch. We could just make out the nose of the Saturn V and when Cronkite said "we have ignition" on our little transistor radios all we could see was a lot of smoke. It seemed to take FOREVER for the rocket to get high enough to see the flames from where we were 6 miles south of the pad and clear the gantry. It was the loudest thing I have ever witnessed (save an F4 breaking the sound barrier right overhead). It broke windows in the big hanger and we couldn't belive it actually made it up far enough to light off the second stage. That launch went thru a light cloud and turned it orange. I saw few launches there but that one and the video of Cronkite announcing the launch should be on YouTube. I saw the video years ago and it looked like the roof was caving in on him. I remember newspaper articles that some folks thought it would sink part of the Cape before it would lift off.

Posted by: Mike on November 2, 2009 10:13 PM

I found a video on Youtube of the Saturn V. It is in 5 parts and very interesting. The Apollo 4 launch was the one I witnessed in 67' and is on the second or third part but the whole story is worth watching, They are all about 9 minutes each. The launch video looks a lot darker than it was that morning. I'm guessing they had some heavy duty filters on the camera lens./ms

Posted by: Mike on November 3, 2009 01:31 AM

I wish I had found this post sooner than 10 years!
I worked in the Shuttle program for 20+ years.
This post is entertaining, but has a bit too much hyperbole for my taste.
A few things need to be 'clarified' here--
Cronkite's news building was NOT closer than anyone else's-- it was at the same distance.
All news stands/trailers at the KSC press site are the same distance from the pads.
The cameras recording the event (called OTV cameras) were NOT 'vaporized'. OTV cameras are mounted in 1/2inch thick steel boxes with pyrex lenses. Several were damaged, but that's all. They continued to relay video post-launch, which indicates that most of them were working.
As to 'surprise in the announcer's voice' when the S-II ignited, this is quite false. Paul Haney was the JSC (then MSC) commentator, and he had way too much class for that sort of foolishness.
Also, the statement that '2 of its 5 engines didn't work' is also not true. The 2nd Saturn 5 launch had 2 of 5 S-II engines out, but on the 1st S-5 launch, all 5 worked perfectly for the entire S-II burn.

Posted by: Dave Mohr on August 3, 2012 06:07 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?