55 Years Ago – The Saturn V Mega-Rocket Flies for the First Time

Posted by Guy Pirro   11/12/2022 12:40AM

55 Years Ago – The Saturn V Mega-Rocket Flies for the First Time

On November 9, 1967, with the Space Age barely 10 years old, NASA took one giant leap forward: the first flight of the Saturn V Moon rocket. For the mission known as Apollo 4, the 363 foot tall Saturn V had rolled out to Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on August 26, 1967. There it underwent several months of testing including a Countdown Demonstration Test (CDDT), which concluded on October 14th, leading to many lessons learned that resulted in a fairly trouble-free countdown for the actual launch. NASA planned Apollo 4 as an all-up test flight, meaning testing all three stages of the rocket at one time, and also flying an un-crewed Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM). (Image Credit:  NASA)


55 Years Ago – The Saturn V Mega-Rocket Flies for the First Time

Fifty five years ago, on November 9, 1967, the first Saturn V rocket, carrying the unmanned Apollo 4 spacecraft, launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Scientists calculated that the noise created by the launch was one of the loudest ever on Earth, natural or man-made. The vibrations rattled the press site several miles away as the rocket cleared the launch tower. The mission objectives included testing of structural integrity of the mega-rocket, the compatibility of the rocket and Apollo spacecraft, heat shield and thermal seal integrity, overall reentry operations, launch load and dynamic characteristics, stage separations, rocket subsystems, the emergency detection system, and mission support facilities and operations. All mission objectives were achieved. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center designed, developed, and managed the production of the Saturn family of rockets that eventually took astronauts to the Moon in 1969. Today, Marshall is developing NASA's Space Launch System (or SLS, sometimes referred to as a “Saturn V on Steroids”), the most powerful rocket ever built, capable of sending astronauts to the Moon, Mars, and deeper into space than ever before.

Unlike NASA’s earlier practice of test flying each stage of a new rocket before launching a complete stack, managers used the “all-up” approach for the first Saturn V launch. This method involved testing all three stages for the first time on a single launch, including the restart capability of the rocket’s third stage, needed on later missions to send astronauts toward the Moon. In addition, they decided to test the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM), especially the spacecraft’s main engine, needed to enter and leave lunar orbit, and the Command Module’s heat shield, critical for reentering the Earth atmosphere at 25,000 miles per hour. Although Apollo 4 did not include a functional Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), a LEM test unit flew inside the spacecraft to gather loads and dynamics data during the powered flight. The test unit remained attached to the rocket’s third stage and burned up on reentry along with the empty stage.




After arriving at Launch Pad 39A on August 26, 1967, engineers put the Apollo 4 Saturn V stack through several months of integrated tests. On September 29th, they began the Countdown Demonstration Test (CDDT), a planned six-day rehearsal of the final countdown leading to launch. Due to numerous unexpected problems, which the team dealt with successfully, the CDDT did not end until October 14th. One of the major problems encountered involved the malfunction of the power-producing fuel cells in the Service Module, necessitating their replacement. Additional problems pushed the planned launch date from Nov. 7 to Nov. 9, with pre-count activities beginning on Nov. 4 and the terminal countdown two days later. Controllers in KSC’s Launch Control Center’s Firing Room 1 monitored the three-day countdown.

At 7:00 AM on Nov. 9, the Saturn V rocket’s five F-1 first stage engines roared to life, generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust, and a few seconds later the rocket began to climb slowly skyward. Scientists calculated that the noise created by the launch was one of the loudest ever, natural or man-made. The vibrations rattled the press site several miles away. As the rocket cleared the launch tower, control of the flight transferred to Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where Flight Director Glynn S. Lunney and his team of controllers monitored the flight. 

Two and a half minutes after liftoff and at an altitude of 40 miles, the first stage exhausted its propellent, shut down its engines, and separated from the ascending rocket. Recoverable film cameras aboard the second stage recorded the event, as well as the separation of the interstage ring 30 seconds later. Meanwhile, the second stage’s five J-2 engines ignited, burning for six minutes to raise Apollo 4’s altitude to 120 miles and its speed to nearly orbital velocity. At that point, the third stage’s single J-2 engine took over, burning for two and a half minutes to place Apollo 4 into a near circular 114-by-116-mile orbit around the Earth.




For the next three hours, as Apollo 4 completed two orbits around the Earth, controllers in Mission Control verified the proper functioning of all its systems in preparation for the third stage’s second burn, to send the spacecraft into a highly elliptical Earth orbit. The J-2 engine ignited precisely on time and burned for five minutes, raising the spacecraft’s apogee, or high point, to 10,695 miles. Ten minutes later, the CSM separated from the now empty third stage to begin testing the Apollo spacecraft. Less the two minutes after separation, the spacecraft fired its Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine for 16 seconds to increase its speed and raise the apogee to 11,244 miles. As the spacecraft coasted upward, it oriented itself to place maximum thermal stress on its heat shield. As it reached apogee five hours and 46 minutes after launch, an onboard camera took 715 high-quality color images of Earth. As Apollo 4 began its descent, it pointed its nose toward the planet and ignited the SPS engine a second time, for four minutes and 40 seconds, increasing its velocity to approximate a return from the Moon. The Command Module separated from the Service Module and used its own thrusters to reorient itself to point its heat shield in the direction of travel. At an altitude of 76 miles, while traveling at 24,974 miles per hour, the Apollo 4 Command Module encountered the first tendrils of Earth’s upper atmosphere, its heat shield absorbing the heat of reentry, reaching a temperature of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit while the cabin temperature remained comfortable enough for a crew. After dipping down to an altitude of 35 miles, the spacecraft used its aerodynamic lift to briefly skip back out of the atmosphere, reaching a height of 45 miles before continuing the descent. This double-skip reentry reduced deceleration and heat loads on the spacecraft. At an altitude of 22,000 feet, Apollo 4 deployed its two drogue parachutes to slow and stabilize it, followed by its three main parachutes at 10,000 feet. Apollo 4 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean 12 miles from its intended target and eight miles from the prime recovery ship, the U.S.S. Bennington (CVS-20). The capsule remained upright after splashdown. The Apollo 4’s successful mission had lasted 8 hours, 27 minutes, and 9 seconds

Within 20 minutes of splashdown, U.S. Navy frogmen had attached a flotation collar around the spacecraft. After the Bennington pulled alongside the capsule, sailors hoisted it aboard, along with the spacecraft’s apex cover that protected the parachutes during flight and one of the three main parachutes. The entire recovery operation lasted about two hours. The Bennington sailed for Hawaii, arriving at Pearl Harbor on Nov. 11. Sailors offloaded the spacecraft and technicians shut down its systems, drained all its hazardous fluids, and deactivated pyrotechnics. On Nov. 15, crews flew the spacecraft to Long Beach, California, and then trucked it to the North American facility in Downey, California, for detailed post-flight inspections. The Apollo 4 Command Module is on display at the INFINITY Center at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.




The Apollo 4 mission reinvigorated the nation’s Moon landing program, struck by the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire earlier in the year, paving the way to achieve President John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the end of the decade. President Lyndon B. Johnson said of the flight: “The whole world could see the awesome sight of the first launch of what is now the largest rocket ever flown. This launching symbolizes the power this nation is harnessing for the peaceful exploration of space.” 

Forty-seven years after the flight of Apollo 4, NASA conducted a very similar mission, this time to test the new Orion spacecraft, then part of the Constellation Program. The December 2014 EFT-1 mission launched an un-crewed Orion spacecraft atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. The 4.5-hour mission flew a profile similar to Apollo 4’s, demonstrating Orion’s space worthiness. Today, another Orion spacecraft awaits its test flight atop a Space Launch System rocket as part of the Artemis Program to return astronauts to the Moon.


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