Canceled Flights Preserved the Saturn V

By Scott Spangler on September 9th, 2019

JSC-33Acclimated to the excess of US Government agencies, learning that NASA made just enough Saturn V rockets to launch each of the scheduled Apollo missions was a surprise. If that was so, how did the Rocket Park at Houston’s Johnson Space center have the only d super heavy-lift launch vehicle? The next placard provided a simple explanation. For unexplained reasons (how about America’s Vietnam-distracted short attention span after the lunar success of Apollo 11), NASA canceled the last three moon missions.

JSC-74NASA built 15 Saturn Vs for 20 Apollo missions. The more diminutive members of the Saturn family launched the difference between the numbers. It is fitting that each of the Saturn V’s three stages comes from the rockets assigned to the canceled missions. The first stage, with its five massive F-1 engines, was to have launched Apollo 19, crewed by Fred Haise, William Pogue, and Gerald Carr. The second stage was slated for Apollo 20, the last mission. Its crew was to be commanded by either Pete Conrad or Stuart Roosa, with Paul Weitz as command module pilot, and Jack Lousma as the lunar module pilot.

JSC-86Stage three was originally supposed to push Apollo 18, with Richard Gordon, Vance Brand, and Harrison Schmitt, toward the moon. At the pointy end of the Saturn V display was Command Module CM-115, but its placards did not say which canceled mission it was supposed to fly. The first two stages of Apollo 18’s Saturn V launched Skylab. (At Space Center Houston you can walk through the Skylab 1g Trainer.) The other flight-ready stages of the Saturn siblings are combined with test and nonoperational components in the Saturn Vs on display at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida.

Rocket Park’s flight-ready relic almost didn’t survive because it weathered the elements from its display debut in 1977 until the first light of the 21st century, when the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the rocket’s official owner, applied for a grant from Save Our American Treasures, to restore the rocket and build it a weatherproof home. In its climate-controlled home, walking around the Saturn V on a hot and humid August day in Houston is a welcome jaunt that more than doubles the rocket’s 363-foot length.

JSC-90You can walk between each stage, and it would have been interesting to see what connected one to the other instead of the heavy steel lift-rings that allowed them to be hoisted one upon the other in the Vehicle Assembly Building in Florida. Really, I’m curious to see how engineers met the challenge of a lightweight mating structure strong enough to withstand the first stage’s 7.891 million pounds of thrust driving skyward not only its weight, but also the millions of pounds above it.

Another surprise was leaving over to look at the wiring and components at the top of the second stage. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t the government issue matt black boxes connected by bundles of white wire connected with canon plugs that looked no different from those in the UH-1N Huey I flew in during the early 1970s. Outside in the heat and humidity, however, is a moving visual statement of how quickly America’s space program progressed.

JSC-71Strategically placed next to a replica of Alan Shepard’s Mercury-capped Redstone launch vehicle, all 83 feet of it, is a Rocketdyne F-1 engine, which stands 19 feet tall and 12.3 feet in diameter. Shepard flew May 5, 1961. A little more than six years later, on November 9, 1969, Apollo 4 made the first unscrewed all-up test flight of the Saturn V, which was an uncompromised success. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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