First Saturn Rocket Was Launched
October 27, 1961
by Mike Wright
the October 24, 1996, edition of the Marshall Star, published
by the Marshall Space Flight Center)
On October 27, 1961, NASA launched its first Saturn rocket, a
major milestone in the challenge to send humans to the moon before
the end of the decade and return them safely to earth.
With the space race in full swing by the end of the late 1950s,
the U.S. had no launch vehicles in its inventory that could measure
up to the lunar landing task. NASA originally envisioned a stepping
stone approach to develop a rocket for the job. The Saturn I would
serve as the first element in the development of larger Saturn
vehicles ultimately known as the Saturn IB and Saturn V. However,
the pace of the moon landing program had already made it imperative
for NASA to conduct Saturn IB and Saturn V ground testing and
development concurrently with the actual flight testing of the
The pace of Saturn development grew faster at NASA's Marshall
Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, after President Kennedy's
call in May 1961 for a manned lunar landing before the end of
the decade. NASA selected the Saturn V as the vehicle for the
manned lunar landing mission while Saturn I flights were still
The Saturn I was the first large launch vehicle designed and
built by NASA primarily for the scientific, peaceful exploration
of space. Before Saturn, NASA depended upon rockets designed for
military purposes, modified for the agency's scientific or manned
payloads. The project was initiated by the Army but was later
turned over to the NASA Center in Huntsville.
Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket experts in Huntsville
had been making advances in rocket technology since World War
II when Von Braun developed the V-2 rocket in Germany. The initial
members of the team were brought to the U.S. after the war to
work on rocket propulsion for the U.S. Army.
Working in Huntsville, Von Braun and an expanded team of rocket
experts developed the Redstone and Jupiter missiles for the Army.
After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, the Department of
Defense was "in just the right mood," Von Braun wrote,
to authorize the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville to
develop a 1.5-million pound thrust rocket booster. The rocket
expert called the Saturn I "unprecedented." By comparison,
the Redstone missile first launched in 1953 generated 75,000 pounds
The key to developing the powerful Saturn I rested on a Von
Braun innovation. To generate the thrust they needed, the rocket
engineers clustered eight modified Rocketdyne engines used in
the Jupiter and Thor missiles. The new engine was known as the
H-1. They also clustered the kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel tanks
in order to make best use of the tools and fixtures from the Redstone
and Jupiter programs.
The idea was a novel one. "His (Von Braun's) idea to take
eight Jupiter engines, strap them together and then fire them
all at once, sounded like a Rube Goldberg invention," Newsweek
Astronauts Deke Slayton and Alan Shepard, writing in "Moon
Shot," recalled fellow Astronaut John Glenn's observations.
The Army had turned "Wernher lose on some monster rocket
they called Saturn. Eight engines. Something over a million pounds
of thrust for liftoff. We could put up a Mack Truck with that
The program was named "Saturn" simply because Saturn
was the next outer planet after Jupiter in the solar system, Von
At 9:06 a.m. (CST) on October 27, 1961, the 162-foot tall Saturn
I rocket lifted off its Cape Canaveral launch pad. During the
eight-minute flight the rocket reached a peak velocity of 3,607
miles an hour and an altitude of 84.813 miles, before impacting
214.727 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.
In all, 10 Saturn I flights were conducted in a program that
started the U.S. on the road to the moon with 10 straight successes.
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