The genius behind the Saturn V Rocket

The Saturn V was built with one purpose in mind: to help get man to the Moon. A new release from Haynes, Saturn V: Owner’s Workshop Manual explores the record-breaking rocket in incredible detail, from the technology that powered blast-off to its impact on space exploration. We spoke to author David Woods to find out more…


Why was it called the Saturn V?

Engineers in the US had a penchant for naming their creations after characters in Greek and Roman mythology. The team at the Marshall Space Flight Center under Wernher von Braun had already called their previous rockets names like Jupiter and Juno. They chose Saturn for a series of non-military vehicles that would be developed specifically for spaceflight. The Saturn V was a designation given to a vehicle, the C-5 which had been part of a sequence of considered designs on paper. In the event, the C-1 and C-5 designs became the Saturn I and the Saturn

What is the significance of Saturn V?

Quite simply it was the vehicle that sent humans to the Moon. To achieve that goal, it needed to be very large, extremely powerful and highly reliable. Consequently, it pushed forward the state of the art in rocket design, fabrication and operation.

What was its most innovative tech that helped it get man to the Moon?

The Saturn V’s sheer size and power made extraordinary demands of the existing technology. In particular, its second and third stages, the S-II and S-IVB, took hydrogen propulsion to a new level. The J-2 engine that powered these stages was an order of magnitude better than previous models and the lessons learned in its development led directly to the Space Shuttle’s main engines.

What is its equivalent today? Did the Russians ever have an equivalent?

The Space Shuttle’s power at launch was the same as the Saturn V’s but that system had no ability to head to the Moon or anywhere else beyond low Earth orbit. Today, there is currently nothing that quite matches the Saturn V. However NASA’s upcoming SLS will approach its capability. The Soviet Union had a direct competitor launch vehicle for going to the Moon, the ill-fated N-1. Later they created the Energia launch vehicle for their Space Shuttle equivalent, Buran.


The genius behind the Saturn V Rocket
The final manned Saturn V, prior to the launch of Apollo 17


What will the release tell us about the Saturn V? Anything new that’s never been written about before?

The Haynes Saturn V Manual takes the techniques and technology that went into the Saturn V out of the technical documents and gives it to a wider audience in a much more accessible manner. It is unafraid to explore the details of the engines, pumps, valves, tankage and guidance systems that came together to form this vehicle. In particular, it celebrates the LVDC, an IBM-built guidance computer and an often-forgotten machine that was an important stepping stone in the development of small computers. The manual describes the problems that sometimes beset the vehicle and shows how they were overcome.

Why have you changed your direction from Apollo books to Saturn V?

Since the Saturn V was a crucial part of the Apollo program, I don’t feel I’ve changed direction. Rather I believe Apollo’s launch vehicle deserved a detailed description in the spirit of the Haynes Manual very much in the spirit of the manuals I co-wrote on the Gemini spacecraft and the Lunar Rover. These are all fascinating aspects of the whole Apollo adventure.

There were 13 Saturn V’s between 1967 and 1973. How did they differ?

The engineers responsible for building and launching the Saturn V were continuously learning from each launch how they might raise the vehicle’s performance. Through the programme, propellant loads were slightly increased and the balance of their consumption improved. Engine performance rose, unnecessary ordnance removed and tank insulation reworked. At a very early stage, they stopped painting part of the first stage black as it was becoming too hot for technicians to work inside in the Florida sunshine.

What problems did the Saturn V experience during the Apollo 13 launch?

As was so beautifully dramatised in the movie, ‘Apollo 13’, the central engine on the Saturn V’s second stage cut out early. The source of the problem was subtle but a turbopump in the engine experienced cavitation (the creation of damaging bubbles). As a result, the engine began to shake violently on its mountings until a sensor tripped, shutting it down. Fortunately, the remaining four engines were able to use the remaining propellant and the stage did its job successfully.


The genius behind the Saturn V Rocket
Look out for our review of Saturn V: Owner’s Workshop Manual in an upcoming issue of How It Works


Discover more amazing science in the latest issue of How It Works. It’s available from all good retailers, or you can order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works, make sure you subscribe today!

Plus, make sure you also check out our digital-only specials, such as World’s Deadliest Animals, Book of Extreme Survival and How Drones Work, available to download onto your digital device now!

You may also like:

The Space Shuttle: How NASA’s reusable rocket was ‘beyond state of the art

How NASA will blow up killer asteroids

NASA’s Apollo 11: How the Lander Module worked