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Saturn V

This week we’re launching into space! We’re learning all about the rocket that propelled astronauts all the way to the moon: the Saturn V. Our guest, Michael Neufeld of the National Air and Space Museum, tells us all about what these giant rockets are, what they do, and why we stopped using them.

Guest bio: Michael Neufeld

Michael J. Neufeld is a Senior Curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum, where he is responsible for the rocket collection and for Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. He has written or edited nine books, notably The Rocket and the Reich (1995), Von Braun (2007) and Spaceflight: A Concise History (2018). In 2017 Secretary David Skorton gave him the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar Award, the highest research award of the Institution.

Transcript

Speaker from Marshall Space Flight Center: The life of this stage in flight will be 2 and one half minutes. After it boosts the upper stages and the three astronauts in the Apollo spacecraft to 5000 miles an hour, at an altitude of 40 miles, the booster will be separated and discarded. The upper stages then take over the mission of sending the astronauts to the moon and to outer space. The five huge engines are next installed and checked out. During the test firing the outer four engines are gimbaled to test their capability for guiding the Saturn V during an actual flight. The test time has arrived, water is run through the flame deflector to prevent its melting 5.4.3.2.1. Ignition…

MAGGIE:
Whoa, this footage from the Marshall Space Flight Center is pretty amazing. I’m not so sure I’d be able to put myself on top of this huge rocket and launch into space.

ABBY:
Yeah, I think it really takes a special kind of person to be an astronaut in the 1960s and 70s the astronauts in NASA’s Apollo Program did just that on top of this huge rocket.

MAGGIE:
In the clip we just heard, NASA was testing the rocket that would eventually send the Apollo astronauts to space. It’s called the Saturn V and is the topic for today’s episode of

MAGGIE and ABBY:

Big if True,

MAGGIE:
where I, Maggie,

ABBY:
and I, Abby,

MAGGIE:
explore the truth about big things.

ABBY:
If you like Big if True, did you know you can subscribe to our newsletter? Then you can be notified when new episodes come out along with getting some extra fun stuff.

MAGGIE:
You can sign up for our newsletter at our website, bigiftrue.abbymullen.org.

ABBY:
Okay, back to the Saturn V.

North American Rockwell artist’s concept illustrating a phase of the scheduled Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission. Here, the Apollo 8 spacecraft Command and Service Modules (CSM), still attached to the Saturn V (S-IVB) third stage, heads for the moon at a speed of about 24,300 miles per hour. The trajectory, computed from the Saturn V’s third stage instrumentation unit, provides a “free return” to Earth around the moon. NASA image.

MAGGIE:
Here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge.

ABBY:
The last Saturn V rocket was launched in 1973. How many Saturn Vs were launched total into space?

MAGGIE:
A. 4, B. 13, C. 20, or D. 28.

ABBY:
We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the show.

MAGGIE:
Our guest today preserves and studies historical rockets for his job. We asked him lots of questions, including some suggested by you, our listeners.

NEUFELD:
Hi, I’m Michael Neufeld. I’m a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

MAGGIE:
Thank you for talking to us. What is a rocket?

NEUFELD:
A rocket is basically something that can expel a mass, usually a gas, and propel itself through space. Mostly, we do that by burning two propellants. And those two propellants produce a hot gas that is expelled of the back of the rocket. But there, there are also other forms of rockets to in addition to that chemical rocket we’re so familiar with.

MAGGIE:
How did you get interested in rockets?

NEUFELD:
I grew up in the space race. So I was born 70 years ago, I was 10 years old when the first humans were launched into space in 1961. And so you know, I’m one of the people, a lot of them who got drawn into the whole idea of astronomy and space through the news of the space race.

MAGGIE:
That’s cool. What is the Saturn V?

NEUFELD:
The Saturn V was the giant rocket that NASA built to send astronauts to land on the moon. So it had one real purpose, which was to launch the astronauts in the Apollo spacecraft so that they could carry out the moon landing. Of course, that was in time for… President Kennedy’s deadline was the end of the 1960s. And so there was a real big rush on in the 1960s to build this huge rocket, get to the moon and beat the Soviets.

MAGGIE:
How big is it?

NEUFELD:
Saturn V is huge. I mean, it, when you stack it on the launch pad, it was 363 feet, about 111 meters tall. So really a significant size, that you can compare it to the Washington Monument, is it’s a significant fraction of the height of the Washington Monument.

Saturn V rocket, empty roads behind the rocket
The Saturn V rocket for the Apollo 11 mission. Flickr.

MAGGIE:
How heavy is it?

NEUFELD:
It was about six and a half million pounds when it was fully fueled on a launch pad. Almost all of that weight was propellant so it was pumped full of liquid propellant just before launch.

MAGGIE:
Why is it called Saturn V?

NEUFELD:
So the Saturn program started at the end of the 1950s. And it was part of again, the Space Race. You know, the sense of we got to catch up with the Soviets. Of course, they put the first satellite in space, Sputnik, in October 1957. Then they put a dog in orbit in November 1957. They went on so I could go on about this but bottom line, as we had to beat the Soviet, so we started by building a smaller, but still for that time very big rocket called Saturn. And then another version, the Saturn 1B. And Saturn V was essentially the fifth overall design for the Saturn series. Some of those numbers weren’t used, they were designs on paper that were thrown away. So Saturn V was the fifth major design in this Saturn rocket series.

MAGGIE:
One was Saturn V first built?

NEUFELD:
So as a result of Kennedy’s decision in 1961, that we want to send astronauts to land on the moon, they started working on how big a rocket would we need. And so it was designed in the early 60s; the first ones that were actually constructed were in 1966, 1967.

MAGGIE:
How did the builders put Saturn V together so that it would withstand being launched into space?

NEUFELD:
Well, of course, you know, it needs to be very strong, because you’ve got this huge force. In order to get a six and a half million pound rocket off the launch pad, you need more thrust in that to counteract Earth’s gravity. So it has seven and a half million pounds of thrust. And that, you had to construct these metal fuselage to be able to stand the huge forces on it as well as the aerodynamic forces of being, going through the lower atmosphere after it takes off.

REF: MSFC-67-IND-1200-56, SATURN V VEHICLE CONFIGURATION. NASA photo.

NEUFELD:

I have to explain the Saturn V is a three stage rocket. So it has three major sections. And as you, one of the propellant is used up in the first stage is thrown away. And then there’s propellant and then the second stage burns, and then it’s thrown away. And then the third stage burns and it puts the Apollo spacecraft in orbit. And then that third stage burns again to send the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. So it’s, you know, it’s made up of big sections called stages. So the first stage, which is the big one, that had seven and a half million pounds of thrust the one to lift it off the launch pad, that use liquid oxygen and kerosene. The upper stages, however, use liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. So both of those are, have to be extremely cold liquids. And you take hydrogen and you, you cool it down till it’s 423 degrees below zero. And then you can turn hydrogen into a liquid. And oxygen needs to be 297 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. And these two cold liquids are contained in tanks in the upper stages of the rocket. And they’re brought together and burned. Of course hydrogen and oxygen make water so, so you actually, when you light a hydrogen oxygen rocket, a lot of what’s coming out of there is actually steam.

MAGGIE:
How much fuel does it take to launch?

NEUFELD:
So out of that six and a half million pounds at the launch pad, probably about five and a half to 6 million pounds is nothing but propellants. So you know, it’s basically a huge empty shell, that you fill up with these propellants, you know, that they’re pumped into the wall, the rocket on all each stage of the rocket is pumped into it before launch. And then then you light that, light it off and it goes up with stages in turn. So yeah, it’s mostly an empty shell when you’re, when it’s, when it’s sitting on the launch pad before it’s tanked up.

MISSION CONTROL:
T-minus nine. For main engineer start, for engines, [cross-talk, ignition sequence of Saturn V].

MAGGIE:
Where were the astronauts?

NEUFELD:
The astronauts were at the very nose of this thing near or very near the nose of this thing. So if you’ve seen them, I’m sure, you’ve looked at the picture of a Saturn five. On the very top is a little cone. That’s where the three astronauts sat. And above that cone, you see a tower that was actually a rocket to pull the astronauts away if the rocket was going to blow up. Go off course. You had a so called escape tower. It’s actually a solid propellant rocket on top of the thing, but pull that little cone capsule away. So so they sat in the main cabin, the so called command module of the Apollo spacecraft.

A technician can be seen working atop the white room across from the escape tower of the Apollo 11 spacecraft a few days prior to the launch of the Saturn V moon rocket.
A technician can be seen working atop the white room across from the escape tower of the Apollo 11 spacecraft a few days prior to the launch of the Saturn V moon rocket. The towering 363-foot Saturn V was a multi-stage, multi-engine launch vehicle standing taller than the Statue of Liberty. Altogether, the Saturn V engines produced as much power as 85 Hoover Dams. NASA photo.

MAGGIE:
What does it feel like to be launched into space on a rocket?

NEUFELD:
Well, I mean, it was certainly exciting. And incredibly noisy, especially the first stage of the rocket, and in the atmosphere where you still had a atmosphere to transmit sound. So sound came all the way through the structure of the rocket. And also, you know, through the air as you’ll be bouncing around. So it was extremely loud and noisy and, and jittery, in the first part of the launch, so the astronauts almost have a hard time seeing their instruments during the early part. In the later parts of the launch, they say it was extremely smooth.

Apollo astronauts and mission control:
Magnificent, right, Roger 11, we’ll pass that on. And it certainly looks like you’re well on your way. Now. We have no complaints with any of the three stages. That right here we copy, no transited staging of any significance that we’re at, right.

NEUFELD:
And when they got into space, the noise decreased, and then they, and then it was very sort of more a distant rumble. Of course, another factor in this is you are being accelerated. So if you’re being accelerated, that means you have G forces port pushing down on you. So you know, during the launch, you could have the force of three to five times the Earth’s gravity pressing you into your seat, which was actually a lot better than the earlier astronaut launches, where they used smaller rockets and went faster and the G forces are even bigger. But yeah, you had to, you had to be able to withstand this force on you, it’s like a huge weight on your chest as the acceleration of the rocket pushes you into your seat. Now when the rocket stops, you suddenly go weightless. So just like that, you go from several G’s pressing down on you to weightless instantaneously when the rocket shuts off. Because now you’re in freefall, you’re actually essentially free falling through space. So for the astronauts it was often rather, is a very sudden transition.

MAGGIE:
What happens to the rocket once it separates from the payload?

NEUFELD:
So each stage is thrown away in turn. So the first and second stages, they end up re-entering the atmosphere and then crashing into the ocean. So it’s a throwaway rocket. Only recently have we begun to do more with recovering the stages of rockets and reusing them, the whole thing was a throwaway. So and the third stage, the last stage, the one that propelled the astronauts spacecraft to the moon, that was on the moon trajectory with them. And they usually, especially with the later launches, they directed it to crash into the moon, so they could create an artificial moon quake. So after the first crews had planted seismometers, so like earthquake measuring devices on the moon, they crashed their last rocket stage into the moon to try to create an artificial moon quake.

MAGGIE:
Who picks up the stages in the water?

NEUFELD:
The stages are lost. I mean, they go they crash they are they are maybe destroyed on the way down by aerodynamic forces and they they sink to the bottom of the ocean. And in fact, just a few years ago, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos paid 10s of millions of dollars to recover parts of the engines of the first stage of some of the Saturn Vs so we now own some pieces of Apollo 11’s Saturn V first stage engines and that gives us a better sense of what happened so yeah, there might have been that huge stage of the rocket the first, the first third or so of the rocket probably some pieces broke off when it was falling back in the atmosphere. And then it crashed into the ocean which completely destroyed it and some basically metal pieces sank to the bottom of the ocean. And the parts we could find, the parts he could find were basically the heavy parts of the engines because they were survived the impact more intact than some of the other parts. The tanks are like, I mean, that when that when those rocket is discarded those tanks are like gigantic beer empty beer cans, you just got this huge aluminum cylinder and it’s empty and it doesn’t have a whole lot of strength. So you know pretty much got, you know, smashed to pieces when it hit the water.

MAGGIE:
Did anything bad ever happened during the Saturn V rocket?

NEUFELD:
Saturn V had an incredibly good safety record, nothing ever bad happened to astronauts on a flight. The second test of the Saturn V had a bunch of problems. So this happened in April 1968. And the engine shut down and they had a hard time, they could not restart the third stage engine for a test. So this was an unmanned–uncrewed test. And they had a bunch of technical problems, but nothing ever, you know, went seriously bad. None blew up, which was kind of a very pleasant surprise, because if you look back to the late 50s, and the early 60s, when rocket technology was a little more new, or especially this huge, this new giant rockets were being built during the, for the Cold War for the nuclear arms race and for, for the space race, a lot of them went crazy blew up, crashed, were blown up. They were like it was a guy on the ground. There’s a range safety officer who was responsible for pressing the button to the blow up the rocket if it was going off course. All of this stuff could happen. But Saturn V was virtually perfect.

MAGGIE:
How many Saturn Vs were launched altogether?

NEUFELD:
13 Saturn Vs were launched from November ’67 to May 1973. Of course the first launches were development launches, try to just get understand the rocket. And then with the third launch, they launched the the Apollo 8 astronauts to the moon in December 1968. And then Apollo 11 was the first landing on the moon. And then, then of course, there were several landings. So there were six landings on the moon with Apollo 11, to Apollo 17. And one failure that was Apollo 13. As a movie you may want to watch or have seen maybe. So there were seven times landed in the moon, six of them worked, one of them failed. And then there was one last launch of a Saturn five. In 1973, a special two stage version of the Saturn V launched the Skylab space station, the Skylab space station was actually an outfitted third stage. And so instead of having propellant inside this third stage, it had a living area, you know, for the astronauts and had like solar panels attached to it and things so that last launch of the Saturn V put Skylab into orbit.

MAGGIE:
Why did NASA stop using them?

NEUFELD:
Well, I think two reasons or two related reasons. Number one, it was extremely expensive. So it was, you know, a billion dollars every time you wanted to launch one. And it was built specifically for the moon landings and the United States lost interest in going to the moon, clear and simple. The public didn’t want to support it. The public was no longer interested in spending the money on NASA moon landings and although NASA managed to have enough money to land on the moon six times, there was no more support for Apollo beyond that.

MAGGIE:
Did you catch the answer to our quiz question? There were 13 Saturn Vs, launched from 1967 to 1973.

ABBY:
If you want to see a Saturn V rocket today, Mike told us that you have a few options to see a deconstructed one: the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Space and Rocket Center in Alabama, or the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. By the way, that’s the Houston in the recording we played earlier from Apollo 11’s launch.

MAGGIE:
Houston, we’ve had a problem

ABBY:
exactly, only that’s from Apollo 13.

MAGGIE:
Today if you want to go to space, you’ll have to hitch a ride on a Russian rocket or fly on SpaceX. But the Saturn V will always be the very first rocket to get a person to the moon. Thank you, Mike for telling us all about these huge rockets. That’s our show for this week.

ABBY:
Have a great semester, everybody, and we’ll see you next time on another episode of

MAGGIE:
Big if True.

ABBY:
Big if True is produced by me, Abby, and MAGGIE: . Special thanks to our expert guest NEUFELD:. To learn more about him, check out our show notes at bigiftrue.abbymullen.org. Our theme music is by Andrew Cote. And special thanks to NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center, the source of the recordings that you heard of the Saturn V launches. Thanks to everybody who sent in questions for this episode. I hope you got the answers you were looking for. And even if you didn’t, thanks for listening.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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