Milestones of Innovation 14: The Biggest Damn Firecracker I Ever Saw

Opinion

At exactly 7 a.m. on Nov. 9, 1967, the roof of the press viewing stand at Cape Canaveral began shaking from what was happening more than three miles from us. The sky seemed to be cracking as a gleaming 363-foot tall rocket began pushing up from Launch Pad 39 and eastward over the Atlantic. As a reporter for The Boston Globe, I was witnessing the first test of the Saturn V rocket designed to carry Americans to the moon by New Year’s Eve, 1969.

The 3,000-ton, three-stage monster stack, as heavy as a destroyer, carried clusters of bell-shaped rocket engines that were the fruit of more than 30 years of passionate engineering by Wernher von Braun and fellow space-travel enthusiasts. Now based in Huntsville, AL, they had worked on rocket development at first in Germany, including the V-2 bombardments of London and Antwerp in 1944-45, and later with thousands of American colleagues to open the path to the moon and beyond. Soon after they designed the rocket that put America’s first satellite in space in January 1958, they got going on vastly bigger rockets for adventures beyond the earth. Innovating on a macro scale, they abandoned the idea of one big rocket engine for clusters of them.

The Saturn V test was happening some 10 months after the fiery death on Jan. 27, 1967, of three U.S. astronauts, Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee, in a ground test of their Apollo spacecraft.  Dictating a billion-dollar redesign of the crew’s conical command module, the shocking accident had seemed to push the late President Kennedy’s goal of the first moon flight beyond the deadline he had set in 1961.

America was determined to send men quickly to the moon and back, to show decisively and promptly after the shock of Russia’s Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, that the U.S. retained unquestioned world leadership in science and technology. Those hopes rested on this rocket, which remains the most powerful that humanity has ever launched.

A year-long, complex argument in 1961-62 had settled on a moon-mission plan that could be carried out by a single hugely expensive Saturn V, not two as originally thought. The plan, pioneered in Langley, VA, by a NASA engineer named John Houbolt, involved breaking the voyage up into separate pieces, almost like ledges for climbing Mount Everest, where the explorers could pause, regroup, and, if there was a hitch, go back to base safely.

Different craft, such as the spindly-legged two-stage LM for landing on the moon and coming back up to the command module in lunar orbit, would perform specific tasks and be discarded. Rocket-lifted weight would be carried no higher on the mountain than necessary. The bold plan called for a new space-faring skill: carrying out rendezvous of spacecraft in orbit around the moon, which lies a three-day, quarter-million-mile journey away from Earth. To set all this in motion, the Saturn V had to achieve a whole string of fiery tasks near Earth, and in a brief time.

As in so many innovations, thousands of things had to go right with the Saturn V, in a strict, orchestrated sequence. Before the five immense, liquid-fueled engines of the rocket’s first stage, called F-1s, could be ignited came years of construction, test firings on special reservations, journeys by barge to Florida, assembly on a mobile platform in a vast, 400-foot-tall hangar, a stately crawl out to the launch pad, a three-week dry run of the countdown and mission—and a last-minute determination that the gusty winds that day weren’t too stiff to delay a takeoff.

To save precious time and test vehicles in the $20 billion program, and leave more Saturn rockets for actual human flights to the moon, the very first test was loaded with “firsts.” It was an “all up” test of the sort favored by George Mueller, head of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight from 1963 to 1969.

In the final seconds before liftoff, the five engines, each 19 feet long and 12 feet wide, began burning 203,400 gallons of kerosene with 318,000 gallons of liquid oxygen. Firing for just 2 minutes and 40 seconds and developing 3,750 tons of thrust, the F-1s carried the whole huge Saturn up to about 40 miles above the Atlantic. Explosive bolts then separated the spent first stage from what it had been carrying. Now, the second stage, a circle of five engines called J-2s developing 500 tons of thrust, lit up and, in six minutes, burned 260,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen with 80,000 gallons of liquid oxygen. This sent the remaining package to the point where the third stage could separate to travel higher.

The third stage fired twice. The 100-ton thrust of its single J-2 pushed the 140 tons of an Apollo spacecraft to about 115 miles above the surface, traveling about 17,000 miles an hour and shutting down somewhat more than 11 and a half minutes from takeoff. Three hours later in its orbit, imitating the planned schedule for sending Apollo craft off toward the moon, the J-2 restarted and sent the stage out 11,000 miles from Earth. From that point, the Apollo command capsule scorched back down toward Earth at 25,000 miles an hour–the planned re-entry speed for a return from the moon. It achieved a bull’s eye – coming down in the Pacific Ocean less than 10 miles from the recovery ship, the USS Bennington.

It all went flawlessly. Maj. Gen. Samuel C. Phillips, director of NASA’s Apollo program, could hardly stop smiling as he met the press afterwards. He said he thought the chances of meeting Kennedy’s deadline had moved “a notch above reasonably good.” There was a strong sense that the momentous effort to reach the moon and return safely was back on track. The Saturn was ready to launch 11 more Apollo missions as well as placing the Skylab “house in space” in orbit in 1973. An unforgettable course of human exploration was turning into a reality.

[Editor’s Note: This is the 14th of a series of posts about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for in the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 75th anniversary of Vannevar Bush obtaining President Franklin Roosevelt’s OK for mobilizing U.S. scientists in World War II.]

Further reading:

Victor K. McElheny, “A double jump on the road to the moon: Saturn 5 perfect on first flight,” The Boston Globe, Friday, November 10, 1967, page 1.

Wernher von Braun, “An all-up test for the first flight,” Chapter 3.4 of Apollo Missions to the Moon, https://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-3-4.html

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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