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The Saturn V Moon Rocket

The rocket so huge it could send men to the moon

Courtesy ASME*, photos by NASA

Click on pics to view larger images

The Saturn V carried aloft the 45-ton Apollo Spacecraft on earth orbital and lunar missions from 1967 to 1972. It also launched the 120-ton Skylab into earth orbit on May 14, 1973.

In terms of height, weight and payload, it remains the largest rocket ever built.


On April 11, 1961, Major Yuri Gagarin made his historic voyage around the world. The Soviet Union and the United States then became involved in a technical race for prominence in space. On May 25, 196, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress. His speech launched an historic challenge to technology:

“Now it is time to take longer strides... time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth... I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely... In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon, it will be an entire nation.”

When the decision to undertake a manned lunar landing effort was made, there was no rocket in the country even approaching the needed capability.

On January 10, 1962, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that it would develop a new rocket, much larger than any previously attempted. It would be based on the F-1 rocket engine, the development of which had been underway since 1958, and on the hydrogen-fuelled J-2 engine, upon which work had begun in 1960.

The Saturn V program was the biggest rocket effort undertaken in the United States. Its total cost was above $7 billion. It consisted of three stages and an instrument unit. It was 363 feet tall and weighed approximately 6.1 million pounds when fully loaded.

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The first step toward the moon was the launch of a smaller-class Saturn vehicle in October 1961. By December 1961, concepts for the C-2, the C-3, and NOVA had evolved to the Saturn V. Developmental work through the 1960s culminated in the first launch of the Saturn V on November 9, 1967. On December 21, 1968, the first manned flight (and the third launch) of the Saturn V took place with Borman, Lovell, and Anders in the Apollo 8. Two more flights carried men both around the earth and around the moon to test the hardware for the attempt at a manned moon landing.

In July of 1969, the sixth launch of the Saturn V carried the Apollo XI mission of Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin to the first manned landing on the moon. Six additional launches succeeded in achieving five more lunar landings through December 1972. The last launch of the Saturn V orbited the unmanned Skylab Workshop.

The First Stage

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The S-IC stage provided the first stage boost of the Saturn V launch vehicle to an altitude of about 200,000 feet (approximately 38 miles) and accelerated the vehicle velocity to 7,700 feet per second. It was 300,000 pounds in weight, 33 feet in diameter and 138 feet long. It was powered by five F-1 engines generating 7.5 million pounds thrust. The booster burned 203,000 gallons of refined kerosene, and 33,000 gallons of liquid oxygen in 2.5 minutes, its total burn time.

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This photo shows the first stage under test.

The Second Stage

The S-II stage provided the second stage boost for the Saturn V. This stage was powered by five J-2 engines that generated a total thrust of a million pounds. It was 33 feet in diameter and weighed 95,000 pounds empty and more than a million pounds when loaded. It burned 260,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 83,000 gallons of liquid oxygen during its 6 minute flight. At engine cut-off, the S-II stage separated and re-enterered the atmosphere where it disintegrated.

The Third Stage

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The S-IVB was the third booster stage. Its single J-2 engine was designed to boost the payload into a circular orbit on the first burn, then with a second burn, boost the payload to a proper position and velocity for lunar intercept. This stage weighed approximately 34,000 pounds dry. The vehicle was 21 feet, 8 inches in diameter, and 58 feet, 6 inches long. The typical burn time was 2.75 minutes for the first burn, and 5.2 minutes for the second.

The Instrument Unit

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The vehicle instrument unit (IU) sat atop the third stage. This unit, which weighed approximately 4,500 pounds, contained the electronic gear that controlled engine ignition and cut-off. The IU contained the guidance, navigation, and control equipment which guided the vehicle through its earth orbit and subsequently into its mission trajectory. Diameter of the IU was 21 feet, 8 inches and the height was 3 feet.

Above the IU sat the spacecraft.


The Saturn V was the first large vehicle in the US space program to be conceived and developed for a specific space exploration purpose. It remains to this day an enormously impressive technological achievement.

*The Saturn V rocket is an American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) International Historic Engineering Landmark. The text of this story appears by agreement of the ASME. Go to for more on this Landmark.

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