The race to land astronauts on the Moon was getting tense 50 years ago this week. Apollo 6, the final uncrewed test flight of America’s powerful Moon rocket, launched on April 4, 1968. Several technical issues made for a less-than-perfect launch, but the test flight nonetheless convinced NASA managers that the rocket was up to the task of carrying humans. Less than two years remained to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal to put humans on the Moon before the decade was out, meaning the Saturn V rocket had to perform.
After the April 1968 Apollo 6 test flight (pictured above), the words of Deke Slayton (one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts) and intense competition with a rival team in the Soviet Union propelled a 12-member panel to unanimously vote for a Christmas 1968 crewed mission to orbit the Moon.
The Saturn V rocket stood about the height of a 36-story-tall building, and 60 feet (18 meters) taller than the Statue of Liberty. Fully fueled for liftoff, the Saturn V weighed 6.2 million pounds (2.8 million kilograms), or the weight of about 400 elephants.
Stand back, Ms. Frizzle. The Saturn V generated 7.6 million pounds (34.5 million newtons) of thrust at launch, creating more power than 85 Hoover Dams. It could launch about 130 tons (118,000 kilograms) into Earth orbit. That’s about as much weight as 10 school buses. The Saturn V could launch about 50 tons (43,500 kilograms) to the Moon. That’s about the same as four school buses.
On Christmas Eve 1968, the Saturn V delivered on engineers’ promises by hurling Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders into lunar orbit. The trio became the first human beings to orbit another world. The Apollo 8 crew broadcast a special holiday greeting from lunar orbit and also snapped the iconic earthrise image of our home planet rising over the lunar landscape.
The crew of Apollo 9 proved that they could pull the lunar module out of the top of the Saturn V’s third stage and maneuver it in space (in this case high above Earth). The crew named their command module “Gumdrop.” The Lunar Module was named “Spider.”
Saturn-V AS-505 provided the ride for the second dry run to the Moon in 1969. Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan and John Young rode Command Module “Charlie Brown” to lunar orbit and then took Lunar Module “Snoopy” on a test run in lunar orbit. Apollo 10 did everything but land on the Moon, setting the stage for the main event a few months later. Young and Cernan returned to walk on the Moon aboard Apollo 16 and 17 respectively. Cernan, who died in 2017, was the last human being (so far) to set foot on the Moon.
The launch of Apollo 11—the first mission to land humans on the Moon—provided another iconic visual as Saturn-V AS-506 roared to life on Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Three days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first of many bootprints in the lunar dust (supported from orbit by Michael Collins).
Saturn V rockets carried 24 humans to the Moon, and 12 of them walked on its surface between 1969 and 1972. Thirteen are still alive today. The youngest, all in their early 80s, are moonwalkers Charles Duke (Apollo 16) and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17) and Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly (Apollo 16, and also one of the heroes who helped rescue Apollo 13). There is no single image of all the humans who have visited the Moon.
The Saturn V’s swan song was to lay the groundwork for establishing a permanent human presence in space. Skylab, launched into Earth orbit in 1973, was America’s first space station, a precursor to the current International Space Station. Skylab’s ride to orbit was a Saturn IV-B 3rd stage, launched by a Saturn 1-C and SII Saturn V stages.
This was the last launch of a Saturn V, but you can still see the three remaining giant rockets at the visitor centers at Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida and at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Alabama (near Marshall Space Flight Center, one of the birthplaces of the Saturn V).
The Saturn V was retired in 1973. Work is now underway on a fleet of rockets. We are planning an uncrewed flight test of Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to travel beyond the Moon called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). “This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, EM-1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
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Art by Robert McCall.
Each year we hold a Day of Remembrance. Today, Jan. 25, we pay will tribute to the crews of Apollo 1 and space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, as well as other NASA colleagues who lost their lives while furthering the cause of exploration and discovery.
Learn more about the Day of Remembrance HERE.
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