Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”

When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in September 1962, the art of creating liquid-fueled rocket engines of any significant size was still in its relative infancy. All the rocketry and power plants of the Saturn series of rockets that would power the astronauts to the Moon were breaking entirely new ground, and such an ambitious target required significant plans to be laid. What is easy to forget from a platform of five decades of elapsed time is the scale of the task set for the NASA engineers of the early 1960s.

The video below the break is from 1962, concurrent with Kennedy’s speech, and it sets out the proposed development of the succession of rocket motors that would power the various parts of the Saturn family. We arrive at the famous F-1 engine that would carry the mighty Saturn 5 and start its passengers on their trip to the Moon at a very early stage in its development, after an introduction to liquid rocket engines from the most basic of first principles. We see rockets undergoing testing on the stand at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility, along with rather superlative descriptions of their power and capabilities.

The whole production is very much in the spirit of the times, though unexpectedly it makes no mention whatsoever of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, whose own rocket program had put the first satellite and the first man into space, and which was also secretly aiming for the moon. It’s somewhat jarring to understand that the people in this video had little idea that such an ambitious program would be as successful as it became, or even that in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination the following year there would be such an effort to fulfill the aim set out in his speech to reach the moon within the decade.

The moon landings, and the events and technology that made them possible, are a subject of considerable fascination for our community. We must have covered innumerable stories about artifacts from the Apollo era in these pages, and no doubt more will continue to come our way in the future. Films like this one do not tell us quite the same story as does a real artifact, but their values lies in capturing the optimism of the time. Anything seemed possible in 1962, and those who lived through the decade were lucky enough to see this proven.

Fifty years from now, what burgeoning engineering efforts will we look back on?

33 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System

    1. Calling Von Braun a Nazi is technically correct, but I don’t think it really captures the guy and the complex situation he was in. He was obsessively driven towards his goals in rocketry before the Nazis arrived, and likely would have accepted any patronage that allowed him to continue working. Which is ethically questionable, of course. But it’s not like he was an enthusiastic party member. Even when working to develop weapons for the war, he continued looking towards manned space flight as an end to that development with the A12 and eventually reached that goal as part of the US space program.

  1. I think the Apollo program is the most facinating thing in my lifetime.
    2 generations younger and people are thinking why fly anywhere outside the atmosphere.

    It takes a shitload of calculations to pull something like that off and they did not have computional power like we have today.

          1. One of the crazy aspects of working on early “Project Apollo” was that I, as summer help while still in high school, did not have a security clearance, and did not know what the project was until much later.

    1. Not everyone in those generations. I wish they would have continued nuclear propulsion testing–at least orbit-to-orbit, if not the crazy nuclear launch vehicles they had on the drawing board before Kennedy nixed it. They really went too far with the proposal in that case, showing a planet-killer of an Orion rocket to the executive branch. But NERVA? Could have been promising. I don’t think we’re going to improve manned space flight or get serious infrastructure on the moon with chemical propellants.

      I think the data is in and the reason we just gave up the space race is that we no longer had a strong Soviet adversary to compete against. Really sad how we just resigned ourselves to LEO.

      1. Project Rover which Nerva was part of was killed by the Nixon era budget cuts.
        The Nixon administration was one of the most harmful in history as it’s legacy still has a far reaching negative impact.

  2. I grew up in Huntsville during the 1960s and my father worked at Marshall Space Flight Center on the Saturn 1b telemetry system. When they tested the F1 engine at the Static Test Stand, it would shake the dishes in the kitchen cabinets.

  3. AIUI, during the NASA cutbacks of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s the design of the Saturn V rocket (1st Stage?) were lost or maybe destroyed. We could maybe reverse engineer one of the remaining examples, but that would be time consuming and maybe worthless considering current advances in rocketry.

      1. Exactly right — there are two things that were lost, neither of which were the actual plans. The answer in the above link gets the first. The second was the practical know-how of the engineers and technicians that actually built the thing and made it work; anything that was understood by those individuals and not formally documented disappeared as the work force was replaced with newer, equally-qualified people that could do the job, but would have to go through the process of figuring out how to get it to work without the benefit of old-timers with the acquired practical wisdom.

    1. Not “maybe worthless”, but “DEFINITELY worthless”.
      The RD-170 is over 30 years old now and it’s better in almost every aspect apart the thrust/weight ratio…better ISP, physically smaller and is cheaper to build.

      Using todays possibilities with CAD and simulation and advances in manufacturing, MUCH better engines could be designed and built.

      1. Simulators can simulate because someone did the hard yards and gathered some real data from the real world.

        If the data was wrong, so will the simulation be wrong. No matter how many simulations you run, at some stage you have to try it for real to see if what you thought was right actually was.

    2. They didn’t loose the plans but the tooling was lost or converted.
      The Saturn S-II tooling was converted to manufacture the Shuttle ET.
      The H1 engine from the Saturn IB continued to be used on the Thor Delta Rockets and eventually became the RS-27.
      They actually considered bringing back the F1 engine for use on the boosters of SLS and it would have outperformed every other option including the advanced solids.

  4. Even if one could build another Saturn the LCC (Launch control center) was a massive operation. Pad B was a copy of Pad A, often times panels were made from memory with a hacksaw, drill and some rub on lettering. I had the TV system which consisted of a camera, monitor, and ident unit. There were approx 3K cables and a 125 sheet “D” size cable diagram. Cables ran 3.5 miles in some cases and to trace a cable was a several day task because some cables burned along with monitors. Manholes needed to be pumped out only to find either he cable was not labeled or was not routed that way. The TV system was one of the smaller systems.
    The Saturn 5 was said to be the second loudest noise made by man and at 3.5 miles away at launchyour pants will be a little wet.

    1. Yes, I made a subtle reference to that book in an earlier comment. Clark assumes you know basic chemistry, and explains some of the mystery and excitement that surround the words rocket science. You’ve got to be at least slightly crazy to work voluntarily with compounds such as FOOF (yes, di-oxygen di-fluoride) or ClF3 (chlorine tri-fluoride–it will set sand, or most anything else, on fire).

      Anyone who gets excited about dimensional analysis will enjoy the Wikipedia article from which we can learn why the unit for rocketry’s specific impulse is (surprisingly) time.

  5. The Apollo Program was a GARGANTUAN effort. Not just the rockets, but the vast amount of infrastructure that had to be built. If you want the wonderfully thorough details, watch the Apollo Program Quarterly Reports. I wish I could find all of them. A few are posted on YouTube:

  6. I had the privilege and honor of working with two men that were members of the Apollo program. I actually stood under the stage 2 Saturn engine at NASA’s KSC Saturn 5 museum with one of it’s designers. This was not part of a NASA Tour – we were working at CCAFS in preparation for a launch of a spacecraft on a Titan-IV Heavy and headed over to KSC on a lunch break. Percy had the security guard at the entrance to the building make a call to a friend in the museum and we walked in like VIP’s. Percy was a humble man and would only take credit for being one of many young mechanical engineers sitting in a drafting table farm that contributed to the engine design. The way he talked about the design and the details he discussed, it was clear he was a major contributor. Percy retired as a Propulsion Engineer many years ago from the company he and I worked at.

    The other gentleman I worked with (and for) was the Responsible Design Engineer for the Lunar Excursion Module Decent Engine (LEMDE). George was not only an amazing propulsion engineer, like Percy, but also an avid fly fisherman and the best manager I have worked for in my 36 years in the industry! I heard, first hand, from George about a critical fact missing in the Apollo 13 mission history. After the initial Apollo 13 mishap, NASA had intended to use the LEMDE, using multiple burns, to bring the astronauts back safely to earth. George and his team, slide rules in hand, worked around the clock after they heard about the NASA plan to do multiple LEMDE burns and showed that if NASA had proceeded as planned, the engine would blow up. Multiple burns would have resulted in heat soak-back that would have eventually caused the destruction of the engine; the crew would have been lost in space or killed outright. This forced NASA to do a risky single burn, the result of which is now history. George gave me a personal tour of the LEMDE test stand at our San Juan Capistrano test site while we were working on a Red-Team review of a propulsion electronics failure from an industry team mate. George was one of the most knowledgeable and personable managers I have ever worked for. He retired around the same time as Percy from the same company.

    For those that find the history of the Apollo program interesting and exciting, I highly recommend that you go to KSC and pay the extra big bucks to take the side tour to CCAFS as well. I was fortunate to have access to the CCAFS tour areas without being escorted by the tour guide. Reflecting from the Apollo 1 memorial on my friendship with Percy and George, and listening to the distant Atlantic surf, I can honestly say there has never been a more memorable moment in my career. By the time I got to see the remnants of our space program in the early 90’s, they were only deteriorating concrete bunkers and piles of red-painted rust. Still, I couldn’t help but feel the energy and excitement of those that walked there before me.

    1. There’s so, so much more, much of it held only in the memories of “those who were there.” My own tiny piece is truly trivial. I did calculations, and also worked in an adhesives lab where they were developing the ablative re-entry shield. Much of the time I actually did NOTHING, sitting in the company library and reading back issues of Scientific American, mostly Martin Gardner’s mathematics column.

      Other educational stuff, too, like learning how to avoid the gold cyanide plating tank (“Don’t touch it”), and that the nearby H2SO4 tank was the antidote! (“Rinse your hand in there. It’ll get rid of the cyanide. Then put it in the running-water tank for 15 minutes.”) I didn’t touch it.

      But WE WERE THERE, even those of us who worked for contractors far away. (I was with Avco, in Massachusetts.) [LAK]’s security guard WAS THERE.

      I get hot under the collar, to no avail, when I read stories or see videos that assert that the lunar landings were faked. They’ll claim, “The flag was waving, so there was wind.” No, the flag was waving because there was no air to dampen the motion. We can all be proud of [Buzz Aldrin] for punching [name-omitted-on-purpose]. (Check out for the latest Buzz.)

  7. If forces are equal, they can not be opposite. Never ever!
    What kind of ideot ever invented such a silly phrase?
    Forces are vectors, and every force both has a magnitude and a direction.
    Even Newton must have figured that out by now.

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