How It Works

What was the Saturn V?

When John F Kennedy charged NASA with taking astronauts to the Moon by the end of the Sixties, they knew they’d need a rocket capable of sending the Apollo spacecraft on its way to the lunar surface. What materialised was a heavy-lift vehicle known as the Saturn V (pronounced ‘five’), a culmination of many engineering masterpieces without which the Apollo missions would never have got off the ground.

It still holds its title as the most powerful rocket of all time, and understandably so. The Saturn V was absolutely massive and could take the equivalent of ten school buses to orbit, or four school buses to the Moon. It generated more power than the equivalent of 85 Hoover Dams, weighed about the same as 400 elephants and had enough fuel to power a car driving around the world 800 times!

The Saturn V was designed by Wernher von Braun, the man behind the Nazi V-2 missile of
WWII, but who surrendered to the USA at the end of the war. The German rocketeer and his team designed the Jupiter-C rocket that took the first US satellite, Explorer 1, into space in 1958, but by this time the USSR was miles ahead in its rocket development. It was readily apparent that the USA would need a much, much more powerful rocket if it was to win the Space Race that had developed.

Come in, Saturn V, a rocket so big that Russia’s attempts to emulate it ended in failure on four separate occasions. It wasn’t a straight jump to the V, however. The Saturn family of rockets went through a number of iterations before NASA finally had a launch vehicle capable of taking astronauts to the Moon. The first full test flight of the Saturn V occurred 45 years ago on 9 November 1967 with the unmanned Apollo 4 mission and from there, the rest, as they say, is history.