The Saturn family of launch vehicles was arguably the most ambitious achievement in aerospace history. From the research-and-development work of the Saturn I to still-unequaled lifting power of the Saturn V, one would think that such machines would’ve been the foundation for something far greater than merely reaching the surface of the moon.
That’s exactly what some at NASA believed as well. And then reality kicked in.
ARPA’s Objective and NASA’s Resolve
By 1958, intelligence work confirmed that the Soviet Union had developed incredibly powerful rockets capable of lifting something into orbit. Of course, a year before, the Soviets placed the tiny Sputnik I into orbit, but showed the capability of something greater.
The US Army’s Advanced Research Projects Agency was managing what little work towards spaceflight had been collectively done to-date. They authorized $5 million dollars in 1958 (the equivalent of $42 million in 2017) to the new Army Ordinance Missile Command (a group which also included a young Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, where Wernher von Braun and his team worked) to develop a rocket capable of over 1.5 million pounds of thrust. No rocket engine at the time came close to this power, so clustering eight engines would have to do.
Around the same time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was born. It had tried to gather and consolidate space initiatives and development teams from the Army and other agencies with little success until 1959, when the White House redirected key resources (von Braun and his team, in particular) into NASA’s control. Recognizing the potential of the “Super-Jupiter” project that ABMA was studying, NASA’s long-term goals in flying men into space were clearly in sync with the power of the rocket concepts that eventually became known as the Saturn family. George Low was tasked to speak with the Huntsville teams to rally them to embrace Saturn.
It didn’t hurt NASA’s ambitions that the development of a one million pound thrust engine from an Air Force project was also placed under their control.
Back then, Saturn concepts (mostly of the rockets that would become Saturn I and I-B) were based on mashing Titan missile technology with that of a new cryogenic upper stage known as Centaur. North American Aviation’s Rocketdyne division had began successful work on the Centaur’s liquid-hydrogen/oxygen engine, the RL-10, so NASA was hopeful to develop a more powerful cryogenic engine for their larger rocket upper stages.
Eventually, mostly for budgetary reasons, the idea of combining a Jupiter core with eight Redstones, using eight H-1 engines, would form the first stage of the earliest Saturn.
Mind you, all this talk to build a massive powerful rocket was done about two years before President Kennedy and his momentous speech that began the Space Race in earnest, towards a lunar landing before 1970.
Going Saturn or Nova, and the Birth of the Merritt Island Facility
There was lots of work to do after Kennedy’s initiation of the lunar landing. Rendezvous of two spacecraft, manned or not, was a head-scratcher. While the Apollo project was actually in work for a year or two before Kennedy’s speech, NASA was still debating the mode of getting to the moon (directly ascending with one very big rocket, or rendezvous in earth orbit using two rockets).
Such talk led von Braun and others to initiate the Nova project, a hypothetical rocket that could use as many as eight F-1 engines for a mind-blowing 12 million pounds of thrust to send a monolithic single spacecraft to the moon.
By the end of 1962, eyes were opened to the idea of using lightweight landers to reach the moon, and that Saturns were sufficient to make this happen. Nova was shelved.
NASA bought some property on Merritt Island in Florida, just north of the Air Force’s missile range at Cape Canaveral.
In expectation of a long-term commitment to space exploration for decades to come using Apollo technology, Wernher von Braun and others made the case that “a space program is here to stay, and will continue to grow.” The need for a vertical rocket assembly area (where stages were placed atop each other, as opposed to horizontal construction) would be justified to order to save room for multiple launch pads and rockets moving about the complex. The Vehicle Assembly Building was given a go. Construction of what was then the largest building in the world by volume was completed by 1966.
Nearby, plots to build launch pads for the larger Saturn V rockets were considered. But only two of the five plots were built, which would be known as complex 39A to the south and 39B just north of it.
The Engine Bells Toll Early for Saturn
By April 1968, only two Saturn V rockets had flown (unmanned) by the time that NASA Administrator James Webb, already noting the overall funding for Apollo begin to flatten. He believed that the new president, be it Humphrey or Nixon, would be unlikely to recommend additional funding to allow Apollo to extend its lunar missions beyond Apollo 20. The Saturn rockets were very capable but also required a herculean cash flow of millions of dollars to pay for people with specialized skill and materials needed to build, assembly and fly every rocket. Once they landed on the moon, overall interest and funding would drop faster than a spent rocket stage from the sky.
The idea for the cockeyed optimists at NASA was that the Saturns might fly for 13 years past 1968, well into 1981. James Webb had, by 1968, had denied work on development of components for two Saturn V vehicles.
Webb’s pessimism was justified. By 1972, NASA not only had to cancel three planned Apollo missions but cut back on plans for Apollo-derived projects. These adjustments were part of Administrator Tom Paine’s attempt to show fiscal responsibility in light of a new, presumably cheaper space transportation system, which new President Nixon would eventually approve.
A deputy director at NASA and others struggled to place what Saturn technology was left over into long-term storage in the hopes of flying it again. While NASA officials were confident that Saturn rockets would keep pretty well. They’d had six Saturn I-Bs in storage since 1966. The I-B could only lift a lightly-fueled Command/Service Module into earth orbit (as was done on Apollo 7) or an unmanned Lunar Module (as was done with Apollo 5), but hadn’t the power to put both in to orbit, leaving them useless for further Apollo missions. NASA would eventually fly three of them by 1974 and a final one in 1975.
Some Saturn components, however, would not fare well in the Floridian environment unless transferred (at substantial cost in transport and storage) to other facilities. There was also the matter of keeping the tools and materials needed to machine any Saturn component.
The Final Decisions
NASA was open to the idea of the use of some Saturns for some need by the mid-1970s. But no one had actually suggested any project that justified keeping them or any resources needed to keep the vehicles flight-ready.
Queries to the Department of Defense were made on whether they could find a use for Saturn technology. By then, however, the Air Force had found its own groove with multiple Titan II and Minuteman silos for the national defense. These used less volatile solid or storable hypergolic fuels that worked for immediate launch over other fuel types, were far smaller and so easier to manage. Simply put, for the military, the Saturns were overkill, even in the age of nuclear war.
In the end, the man that brought national resources together in 1958 to form the teams that built the Saturns, would also command that the Saturn program and all resources needed to maintain it be discontinued by the end of 1972. George Low, now NASA Deputy Administrator, gave the order.
The idea of saving Saturn in conjunction with STS was also put to the question. Perhaps saving the resources needed to build and use the J-2 cryogenic engines or even the F-1 engines as a lifting vehicle for the Space Shuttle concepts could work. Perhaps even a updated Saturn S-I-C stage could lift the new spacecraft.
NASA did keep a few logistical pieces of Saturn assembly in stasis while development studies on the Shuttle’s goals and needs were in process.
By 1975, the wheels of change were already in motion. The Saturn mobile launching platforms were already being disassembled and retooled for use for the Shuttle program. Design changes from the 1969 concept of a gargantuan manned winged booster that would fly back as part of a fully reusable shuttle were downgraded to a single large tank with side boosters, either liquid or solid-fueled, for lifting a smaller orbiter on its side.
As for the J-2 and F-1 engines, NASA engineers concluded that neither engine design would be adequate for the Shuttle program without a lot of redesign. The J-2’s cryogenic power of 200,000 pounds of thrust was not only insufficient, the engine could not be throttled for the Shuttle’s needs, and was too large. The J-2 was also not designed for reusability–the mantra of the Space Shuttle project.
To satisfy the need, Rocketdyne dusted off some design work on an developed concept called the HG-3 to form a new cryogenic rocket engine that was smaller than the J-2 but rated at over twice the power, over 512,000 pounds/thrust–the RS-25, commonly known until 2011 as the Space Shuttle Main Engine.
As the Space Shuttle would use only cryogenic fuels, the RP-1 fueled F-1 engine had no purpose left, save for exhibition at various museums around the country.
- Exploring the Unknown, Vol 4 (NASA History Office)