Science & Technology

What Was the Saturn V? Learn About NASA’s Powerful Moon Rocket and Its Role in the Apollo Program

Written by MasterClass

Sep 3, 2019 • 5 min read

As the United States and the Soviet Union raced to put astronauts on the moon during the 1950s and 60s, NASA began testing the most powerful rocket it had ever made: the Saturn V.



What Was the Saturn V?

The Saturn V rocket was a launch vehicle built by NASA and used in the Apollo missions. It was the rocket that sent the first astronauts to the moon in 1969, as well as the rocket that launched the Skylab space station in 1973. Overall, it was launched 13 times from a launch pad at Launch Complex 39 at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and never lost a crew or a payload.

Saturn V rockets remain the largest, heaviest, and most powerful rockets ever in operation. They were 363 feet tall, weighed 6.2 million pounds when full of fuel, and could generate 7.6 million pounds of thrust at launch.

What Is the Origin of the Saturn V?

The Saturn series of rockets were designed and built at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) during the Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union were competing in space exploration and racing to be the first to put astronauts on the moon. NASA had hired a German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun, to help with the design of the rockets.

The first Saturn rockets were the Saturn I and the Saturn IB, which were both smaller than the Saturn V and used to launch astronauts into Earth’s orbit. In 1967, NASA began testing the first Saturn V moon rockets. After five test missions, on July 16, 1969, NASA launched the Saturn V moon rocket for the Apollo 11 mission and was able to successfully land astronauts on the moon.

After the first successful moon landing, Saturn V launch vehicles were used in several other Apollo missions. In 1973, NASA conducted the final launch of a Saturn V rocket in order to send Skylab, NASA’s first space station, into orbit.

How Was Saturn V Constructed?

Saturn V consisted of several different pieces that were constructed separately by contractors Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft, and IBM:

  • Three stages. The rocket’s body was built in three segments (called stages). The engines on the rocket’s stages were two powerful new rocket engines: the F-1 engines and J-2 engines built by Rocketdyne. They used either RP-1 or liquid hydrogen as fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer.
  • The instrument unit. The instrument unit was a computer housed on the third stage to control flight operations during transit.

After the construction was completed for each part of the rocket, the pieces were shipped to the Vehicle Assembly Building, the biggest building at the Kennedy Space Center, where they were put together.

What Are Saturn V’s Stages?

The Apollo Saturn V rockets were three-stage rockets, meaning that they were built in three separate pieces, each designed to burn up its fuel and then detach from the rest of the rocket during the flight:

  • S-IC first stage. The engines on stage 1 were the most powerful of the rocket stages since they had the hardest job: lifting the fully fueled rocket (at its heaviest) off of the ground. The first-stage engines lifted the rocket from the ground to an altitude of about 42 miles. Then stage 1 would detach and fall into the ocean.
  • S-II second stage. Once the stage 1 engines detached from the rocket, the second-stage engines would fire. This stage brought the rocket from 42 miles off the ground up almost to orbit. When it detached, it would also fall into the ocean.
  • S-IVB third stage. The stage 3 engines brought the rocket into Earth’s orbit and then past Earth’s atmosphere. It was the final rocket that delivered the command and service modules, plus the lunar module, to the moon. When this stage finally detached, it would stay in space or make impact with the moon.

The Saturn V rocket that NASA used to launch the Skylab space station had only two stages because it needed to launch Skylab into Earth’s orbit rather than all the way up to lunar orbit.

What Was Saturn V’s Role in the Apollo Space Program?

Saturn V was the rocket used for the entire duration of the Apollo program, both the unmanned and manned Apollo missions. Saturn V rockets were used in the following Apollo missions:

  • Apollo 4. This was the first flight of a Saturn V rocket, and it was a crewless test mission to ensure that the rocket could launch.
  • Apollo 6. This was the second Saturn launch. It was another crewless test launch, but during this mission, the rocket had engine problems during the launch and had to change course.
  • Apollo 8. This was the first crewed flight of a Saturn V rocket.
  • Apollo 9. A Saturn V rocket launched this crewed Apollo spacecraft into low Earth orbit.
  • Apollo 10. This was the last crewed test flight, launched into low Earth orbit, before launching a Saturn V to the moon.
  • Apollo 11. This was the first successful Apollo moon landing.
  • Apollo 12. This was the second successful launch of astronauts to the moon.
  • Apollo 13. During this lunar mission, an oxygen tank exploded on the service module, rendering the command module badly handicapped and causing the astronauts to make an emergency landing back on Earth.
  • Apollo 14. This was the third successful launch of astronauts to the moon.
  • Apollo 15. This was the fourth successful moon landing and the first extended Apollo mission—the astronauts spent almost three days on the moon.
  • Apollo 16. This was the fifth successful lunar landing.
  • Apollo 17. This was the sixth and last crewed landing on the lunar surface and the second-to-last Saturn V launch.

What Was Saturn V’s Role in Skylab?

Saturn V was the rocket NASA used to launch Skylab into orbit in 1973. Skylab was NASA's first space station and orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979. It included a solar observatory and an orbital workshop and was occupied by three separate astronaut crews between May 1973 and February 1974.

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