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Home > Saturn/Apollo > Three Saturn Vs on Display Teach Lessons in Space History

Three Saturn Vs on Display Teach Lessons in Space History

Mike Wright
Marshall Space Flight Center Historian

No rocket like it has flown for more than 20 years. It was called Saturn V, and on May 14, 1973, the last of its kind lifted NASA's Skylab space station into orbit. Before that, 12 other Saturn V launch vehicles had lofted a dozen Apollo spacecraft into the heavens. Six of those missions took men to the surface of the moon. <1>

The 363-foot tall, three-stage launch vehicle produced as much power as 85 Hoover Dams.<2> Together the five F-1 engines in the Saturn V first stage produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The vehicle weighed more than 6 million pounds at liftoff.<3>

When the United States made the decision in 1961 to undertake a manned lunar landing effort, there was no rocket in the country even approaching the needed capability. On January 10, 1962, NASA announced it would develop a new rocket, much larger than any previously attempted. Fifteen days later the agency formally assigned the task to its George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where work was already underway on the smaller Saturn I and Saturn IB rockets.<4>

The Nation's space planners faced a series of complex questions in the early 1960's. They had to select the method they would use to send a man to the Moon and return him to Earth. They eventually decided to conduct the manned lunar landing mission using a lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) technique, and they selected the Saturn V as the launch vehicle for the mission. When configured to launch Apollo spacecraft, each Saturn V required three stages. These were the S-IC, the S-II, and the S-IVB. The contract to build the first stage for an advanced version of the Saturn stage was awarded to Boeing on December 15, 1961.<5> Five first stages (three for ground tests and two for flight) were fabricated in Huntsville. Boeing also manufactured the stages at Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The stages were test fired at the Mississippi Test Facility near Bay St. Louis and at Marshall.<6> The stage was 138 feet long and 33 feet in diameter.<7> The S-II stage was manufactured for Marshall by North American Aviation primarily at Seal Beach, California. Five J-2 engines with a combined thrust of 1 million pounds powered this second stage. <8> The stage was 33 feet in diameter and 81 1/2 feet long.<9> The contract for the S-IVB stage was awarded to Douglas Aircraft Company. Final manufacturing took place at a Douglas Facility in Huntington Beach, California. A single J-2 engine powered this stage. This stage was 58 feet long and 21.7 feet in diameter. <10>

The scope of Saturn management and development was beyond that of any previous technological endeavor. As many as 20,000 contractor companies across the country were involved in producing the rockets. <11> The Saturn V's crowning achievement came in July 1969 when it lofted the Apollo 11 crew on its mission to the moon.

Today three complete Saturn V launch vehicles are on public display. One is located at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas while another is at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A third Saturn V is on display at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville near the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Formal accountability for the Apollo/Saturn hardware now belongs to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington. The actual hardware, however, still resides in Florida, Texas, and Alabama where each Saturn V provides those with an abiding interest in space flight with lessons on the history of engine configuration, structural design, and more.

Frank Winter, Rocketry Curator at the NASM, conducted a survey of the Saturn V's in the NASM collection in 1987. He noted that three Saturn V's were left over after Apollo 17 in December 1972. <12> These were SA-513, used to launch Skylab; SA-514, designated but never used for Apollo 18; and SA-515, designated but never used as a backup Skylab launch vehicle.

Johnson Space Center

The Saturn V on display at the Johnson Space Center has been assembled from stages associated with all three missions mentioned above. The first stage is from SA-514 and designated S-IC-14 from the cancelled Apollo 18 mission. The second stage (S-II-15) is from SA-515 the Skylab backup vehicle which NASA did not use. The third stage (S IV-513) was originally part of SA-513, the launch vehicle selected for Skylab.<13> Unlike the three-stage Apollo Saturn V configuration, the Skylab Saturn V configuration only required a first and second stage since the Saturn V upper stage was replaced by Skylab. This allowed NASA to designate the third stage for Apollo 18. That mission was cancelled, however, and the third stage eventually became part of the Johnson Saturn V display. <14>

Kennedy Space Center

The three Saturn stages on display at the Kennedy Center are a first stage (S-IC-T), a second stage (S-II), and a third stage (S-IV-B 500F).<15> The first stage booster (S-IC-T) on display at Kennedy is a ground-test replica of an actual Saturn V booster. It was manufactured on site at the Marshall Center in 1963. Although this S-IC-T stage was described in official documents as the "All Systems Test Stage," it came to be known by those inside NASA as the "T- Bird." <16> The "T" stood for "test" but it might have stood for "thunder" in 1965 when all five of the 1.5 million pound thrust F-1 engines were static fired while the ground shook and a continuous plume of smoke and flame blasted out of the Marshall's newly constructed S-IC test static stand. <17>

Although a lack of documentation makes it difficult to confirm, the second stage of the Saturn V on display at Kennedy Space Center appears to be from SA-514, the vehicle designated to launch Apollo 18. <18> The third stage at KSC is designated as the "S-IV-B-500F." This stage was originally manufactured as the third stage for the smaller Saturn IB vehicle and used to check Saturn IB launch complex facility qualifications at Kennedy. Later the stage was modified to meet the Saturn V third stage configuration. In 1970 it was modified again, this time into the Skylab Workshop Dynamic Test Stage. In December 1970, the stage was shipped to the Johnson Center for Skylab Workshop Dynamic Testing. In June 1971, it was shipped to the Marshall Center for Skylab Workshop Static Testing. In June 1974 it was transferred to the Kennedy Center for display. <19>

United States Space and Rocket Center

The Saturn V vehicle on display at the United States and Rocket Center was not built to fly in space. Yet the role the vehicle played in the Saturn program was absolutely vital. It was designated as a national historic landmark by the National Park Service in 1987 following a study completed by Dr. Harry Butowsky, a Historian with the Park Service. Officials referred to the Saturn V as a "unique engineering masterpiece that formed the key link in the chain that enabled Americans to travel to the moon."

Taken together the three stages at the United States Space and Rocket Center comprised the Dynamic Test Vehicle. <20> Long before NASA engineers would commit to the actual launch of a Saturn V, it was imperative to determine how such a huge vehicle would vibrate when it was launched. At the Marshall Center the centerpiece for this effort was the Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand with the Dynamic Test Vehicle enclosed inside. To complete this series of tests, the three stages for the Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle were brought together at Marshall from three different manufacturing points.

The first stage of the vehicle was designated "S-IC-D." It was the first unit built by Boeing and, according to Saturn historian Roger Bilstein it gave "the company production team at Michoud some experience before starting on its first flyable booster."<21> On October 6, 1965, the S-IC-D stage was loaded on board the NASA barge "Poseidon" and shipped from New Orleans to Huntsville where it was lifted into the Dynamic Test Stand at Marshall on January 13, 1966.<22> "Fog and clouds hovered around the top of the 360- foot tall test stand most of the day while the 300,000 pound stage was being lifted from its transporter into place inside the stand, said to be the tallest building in Alabama," one observer reported. <23>

The second stage of the Dynamic Test Vehicle was designated as "S-II-F/D." After manufacture, the stage left Seal Beach on February 20, 1966, on the USNS Point Barrow for Kennedy Space Center where it was used as a facilities checkout vehicle. It left there on October 29, 1966, on the NASA barge "Poseidon" and arrived at Marshall on November 10, 1966. <24>

The third stage of the vehicle was designated as "S-IVB-D." Like other S-IVB stages, the trip from the assembly plant on the West Coast to the test sites in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana was by water to New Orleans via the Panama Canal route. From New Orleans, the stages were taken by barge up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers to the Marshall Center. The stage arrived at MSFC on January 4, 1965. <25>

The entire Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle configuration was designated "SA-500D".<26> A 10-week series of dynamic tests in the stand were conducted in early spring 1967. The 363-foot tall rocket was subjected to more than 450 hours of shaking to gather data from some 800 measuring points. A simulated Apollo capsule with the same weight and same center of gravity as the spacecraft being checked out for launch at Kennedy Space Center were placed on top of the rocket. Forces were applied to the tail of the rocket to simulate engine thrusting, and various other flight factors were fed to the vehicle to test reactions. During some of the shaking tests, the rocket moved as much as 6 inches at the top and up to 3 inches at the bottom. The tests were mandatory before the Center could certify that the guidance system would hold the rocket on course when it was launched. <27>

Other Saturn V Components
In the early 1970s NASA officials realized that it was unlikely that the Agency would utilize the Saturn stages making up SA-515, the Skylab backup vehicle. Today, the first stage of that vehicle is on display at the Michoud Assembly Facility while, as previously mentioned, the second stage is part of the Saturn V exhibit at Johnson.<28> The third stage was converted into a backup Skylab orbital workshop and placed on display at the National Air and Space Museum.<29>

The Saturn V launch vehicles on display at the Johnson Space Center, the Kennedy Space Center, the United States Space and Rocket Center, along with the components at Michoud Assembly Facility and the National Air and Space Museum each provide a different perspective on the development, manufacture, and testing of the most powerful space launch vehicle the United States ever developed.


1. For a summary of all Saturn flights see Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn, A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles, NASA SP-4206 (Washington, 1980), p. 414-419.

2. NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center, 1960-1985 Anniversary Report (Washington, 1985), p. 3.

3. Saturn V News Reference, p. 1.

4. Ibid.

5. Bilstein, p. 105-106.

6. Ibid., p. 195.

7. Saturn V News Reference, p. 2.

8. Ibid., p. 1-6.

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9. Ibid., p. 4.

10. Ibid., p. 5.

11. MSFC Anniversary Report, p. 15.

12. Letter from Frank H. Winter to Mike Wright, May 20, 1993.

13. Letter from Winter to Wright.

14. Memorandum from Frank Winter to Joe Tatarewicz, "Saturn Vs in the NASA Collection," April 10, 1987.

15. Letter from Winter to Wright.

16. Bilstein, p. 195.

17. Marshall Star, March 3, 1965; April 14, 1965; April 21, 1965, and May 12, 1965.

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18. Documentation from the 1974 NASA Authorization Hearings before the Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight in February and March 1973 notes the existence of an S-II-14 stage in storage at the Kennedy Space Center. In addition, historian David Baker also makes reference to an S-II-14 stage in storage at Kennedy Space Center. Baker's article was published in Spaceflight in 1973. Finally an apparently unpublished manuscript in the historical files at the Marshall Center is entitled "Summary of the Flights or Disposition of the Saturn Rockets." The manuscript, whose author is unknown, notes the S-II stage of AS-514 is "part of Saturn 5 on display at Kennedy Space Center."

19. Memorandum from Larry Mauk, Kennedy Space Center, to Mike Wright, "Saturn V numbers," February 20, 1992, with attachment entitled, "Stage S-IVB-500F History."

20. Letter from Winter to Wright.

21. Bilstein, p. 196.

22. Marshall Star, September 1, 1965; October 13, 1965 and October 20, 1965; David S. Akens, Marshall Space Flight Center, Saturn Illustrated Chronology, Saturn's First Ten Years, April 1957 through April 1967, Marshall History Report-5, August 5, 1968, p. 129.

23. Marshall Star, January 1966.

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24. Saturn Illustrated Chronology, p. 319; Marshall Star, March 2, 1966, November 2, 1966, and November 16, 1966.

25. David S. Akens, Leo L. Jones, A. Ruth Jarrell, History of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center from January 1 Through December 31, 1964, Marshall Historical Monograph-10, p. 74; Saturn's First Ten Years, p. 100.

26. A. Ruth Jarrell, A Chronology of the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center from January 1 Through December 31, 1967, Marshall History Report-7, p. 11.

27. Marshall Star, April 12, 1967.

28. Telephone Conversation between Mike Wright at Marshall Space Flight Center and Francis Celino at Michoud Assembly Facility, October 24, 1993.

29. Letter from Winter to Wright.