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Home > Saturn/Apollo > First Saturn Rocket Was Launched October 27, 1961

First Saturn Rocket Was Launched October 27, 1961

by Mike Wright
MSFC Historian

Photo: First Saturn Rocket Was Launched October 27, 1961(From 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 Saturn I.

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 in progress.

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 of thrust.

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 magazine reported.

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 thing."

The program was named "Saturn" simply because Saturn was the next outer planet after Jupiter in the solar system, Von Braun said.

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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