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.