SP-4206 Stages to Saturn




[xi] Few of man's technological endeavors compare in scope of significance to the development of the Saturn family of launch vehicles.

At the time of this writing in 1979, we may still be too close to the project to see it objectively from the perspective of history, but I expect that future historians will compare the development of Saturn to such great and imaginative projects as the building of the Panama Canal and to such latter-day technological achievements as the Manhattan Project. In terms of both vision and achievement, Saturn may surpass them all.

It was as if the Wright Brothers had gone from building their original Wright Flyer in 1903 to developing a supersonic Concorde in 1913. Unimaginable; yet in 10 short years the builders of Saturn progressed from the small, single-engine rockets like Redstone to the giant vehicle with clustered engines that put man on the moon. Our Earth-to-orbit weight-lifting capability grew in that decade by 10 thousand times.

Saturn was an engineering masterpiece. The ultimate Saturn, taller than the Statue of Liberty, had a takeoff weight that exceeded that of 25 fully loaded jet airliners, and produced as much power as 85 Hoover Dams.

The Saturn program was also a masterpiece of management. There are those who hold that one of the principal benefits this country derived from the Apollo-Saturn lunar landing program was the development of a new and extraordinary management approach through which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration directed vast human and material resources toward a common purpose. The system that was developed to meet the incredible complexities of the program, taking account of its pioneering nature and the time constraint imposed, provides a pattern for managing a broad spectrum of future technological, scientific, and social endeavors.

One of the most remarkable things about the Saturn program was its success rate. An early press release openly stated that because of the [xii] complexity of the system and the tremendous advancement in technology required, program officials fully expected half of the 10 Saturn I's launched to fail. None did. Neither did any Saturn 1B, nor did any Saturn V, either test vehicle or operational rocket-and there were 32 Saturn launches in all.

The reliability assessment of the system was such that only two Saturn Vs were launched before the third sent Frank Borman's crew around the moon during Christmas of 1968. In all, 27 men went around the moon aboard Saturn-launched space vehicles, 12 actually walked on its surface.

Close on the heels of the lunar landing series, NASA developed Skylab, the world's first major laboratory in which we could operate experiments in the new environment of space. The Saturn again played a pivotal role in this enterprise-the core component of the Skylab itself being a modified Saturn stage. Only a Saturn V could lift the huge laboratory into orbit, which, when an Apollo spacecraft was annexed, weighed 100 metric tons and was 36 meters long. The three crews, which inhabited the space station for a total time of nearly six months, were launched on the smaller Saturn IBs. The Saturn family made Skylab possible, so Saturn deserves a large share of the credit for the mission's success in establishing a broad foundation of scientific and technological knowledge.

Furthermore, we should not overlook the role Saturn played in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975. It was another Saturn IB that carried an American crew to its historic rendezvous with two Soviet cosmonauts in orbit. The reliable Saturn gave NASA every confidence that its crew could ascend on schedule following the Soviet launch half a world away and make the time-critical union of those two small objects in space. We had a high level of confidence that this, the last Saturn, would perform with the same excellence as its 31 predecessors. It did not disappoint us.

It should be pointed out that the Apollo-Saturn program was a national achievement. It has been estimated that 20 000 private firms and 300 000 people participated in the development of this system. The challenge taxed American ingenuity to the extreme. The result, of course, was that American technology made the "giant leap" referred to by Neil Armstrong. Whole new industries were born, offering products that touch our everday lives in ways we could not have dreamed of just a decade before.

We may not soon again face a challenge to match the lunar landing, and it may be some time before we mount the kind of scientific and engineering effort that gave us Saturn. Whenever that next challenge comes, we have in the Apollo-Saturn program the basic blueprint for achieving success. It not only will point the way but will also give the confidence needed to undertake new and dramatic challenges.

[xiii] Among the other lessons learned from the development of Saturn is the evidence of how much a free society can do and how far a dedicated people can go when they are properly challenged, led, motivated, and supported.

This is Our legacy from Saturn.


June 1979

William R. Lucas

Director, George C. Marshall
Space Flight Center