December 1996 / January 1997 cover of Air & Space Magazine

Saturn Rising

The Saturn V moon rocket wasn’t built to take neglect lying down.

by Frank Winter and Scott Wirz

(Reprinted with permission. Copyright Smithsonian Institution 2001. All rights reserved.)

As originally printed in the December 1996/January 1997 issue of Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine.


This critical phase occasionally revealed unpleasant surprises. Prior to treating the first stage, a worker had made a knife hole in the 3/16-inch-thick aluminum to test its corrosion depth. The abrasive blasting revealed massive corrosion, however, and when the area was finished the hole had become large enough for three men to stand in.

Fortunately, this level of deterioration wasn’t common. There were other holes to repair, “but overall the rocket was structurally sound,” says John Lilly, a burly but gentle man known on the site for being able to fix anything. “The second stage was the one that depressed me.”

Workers repaired the aft end of stage two by encasing the skeleton-like ribs, or “stringers,” with new metal, reinforcing the section, and returning it to its original appearance while leaving the deteriorated material in place. (The work on the Saturn V was never intended to be more than a partial restoration. In a full restoration, every piece would have been removed and completely restored; a museum conservator would be apt to term our effort a “stabilization process.”)

Many of the smaller holes on stage two were in the polyurethane foam sprayed on top of the aluminum to prevent the pre-launch evaporation, or “boil off,” of the supercooled liquid hydrogen carried in one of the stage’s two immense propellant tanks. Since the foam is relatively soft, birds had pecked holes in it, just as woodpeckers had recently pecked into the insulation on the space shuttle’s external tank. When it rained, water got between the insulation and the aluminum. As it evaporated, the trapped water vapor caused blisters to form in the insulation.

There were almost 20 blisters, and they were troublesome to repair. First, each had to be surgically cut out with a knife. Then the space was cleaned and filled with an automotive-type body filler. When the filler dried, it was sanded down to the original fuselage contours.

It was painstaking work, and the huge tent was, as Lilly put it, “a nasty place” to be in. Baking soda dust from the ARMEX machines permeated the stiflingly humid atmosphere, often clogging electrical machinery and causing breakdowns. Sweat trickled down workers’ faces as hammers pounded, grinders buzzed, pneumatic guns popped, compressed air hissed, and fans constantly throbbed to keep the balloon-like building inflated.

It was little better outside in the blazing Florida sun, where plasterer Mike Ciocca made more than 80 duplicate heat shield panels for the back of stage one. The originals, which contained asbestos, had been removed earlier to comply with Environmental Protection Agency standards. Because each had had a different shape, all 80 replacements–made of plywood, Styrofoam, nylon mesh, and synthetic stucco–had to be crafted individually.

Meanwhile, we on the Museum team were busy with some detective work. The paperwork in the Museum’s archives about this vehicle was thin, and since we knew its stages had different origins, we wanted to use this time to verify their identities.

Our records indicated, for example, that the command module was one known as BP-30, meaning that it was one of the boilerplate versions used for ground tests. Confirming that, however, required climbing over the large, monkey-bar-like launch escape system tower extending from the module and peering into the module’s newly opened hatch nearly upside down. By luck, a manufacturer’s identification plate was close at hand–one of the few that was found on the launch vehicle–proving that this component really was what we had thought it was.

Sometimes we found discrepancies. The Museum’s records indicated the third stage had been a ground-test stand-in for the Skylab workshop. But Kennedy documents discovered on our last visit to the site showed that this stage was flightworthy. Possibly at one time intended for the canceled Apollo 19 mission, it was considerably different from what we had believed it was.

Once the vehicle was painted and the ends of the stages tightly shrink-wrapped for shipping, the rocket was ready to make the move to its new home. The second and third stages went first, and the two-mile trip from outside Kennedy’s monolithic Vehicle Assembly Building to the new Apollo/Saturn V Center was uneventful. Moving the first stage–138 feet long, 33 feet in diameter, and weighing 470 tons–was a different matter. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised: After all, the stage was so huge and heavy that it originally had to be transported to Cape Kennedy by barge. On this trip, the historic powerhouse had gone only a few yards when it was faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle: a six-inch-high-curb.

Loaded on a 112-wheel hydraulic transporter, the stage seemed to be going nowhere. The two vehicle’s mighty 600-horsepower engine struggled to muster enough energy to lift the colossus over the curb and onto the road. The stage refused to budge. The riggers placed logs of wood inside the curb to improve traction and create a ramp to ease it over. No luck. By now, curiosity seekers were losing their patience and thinning out.

The riggers brought in another heavy-duty truck, this one with a 400-hp engine. The two trucks were linked by cable, and an enormous concrete block was placed in the first vehicle to improve its traction. The double-truck convoy heaved until finally the giant stage edged over the barrier. The trip over the curb had taken two hours; the entire two-mile journey took 10.

Finally the stage was parked in the unfinished framework of the 450- by 100-foot building, joined by exhibits of a flight-ready Apollo Command Module, a Lunar Excursion Module, and a circular Saturn V Instrument Unit. Originally positioned atop the third stage, the unit contained the vehicle’s navigation and guidance equipment.

The Apollo/Saturn V Center, which opens to the public December 5, will also feature an authentic reconstruction of the 1960s firing room where visitors can experience an Earth-rumbling Saturn V launch, a theater recreating the sensations of the first lunar landing, Apollo artifacts such as a moonrock and a spacesuit, and a gallery of interactive displays devoted to NASA’s plans for the future.

But its centerpiece is the Saturn V, horizontally mounted on tall poles with its stages separated for visitors to inspect. As they look out from the striking metal and glass Apollo/Saturn V Center, visitors can also see the Banana River and beyond that, the launch pads. Today they service space shuttles, but a quarter of a century ago they were they dominion of Saturn Vs, poised at the start of their incomparable journeys.


The Others

Along with the recently restored Saturn V at Kennedy Space Center, two other moon rockets survive, both titled to the National Air and Space Museum. The Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle, which had been built to test the effects of the vibration of its mighty engines on the entire launch vehicle, is on display at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, adjacent to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is home to the third Saturn V. Two of its stages–the first and the third–are from the vehicle originally intended for the canceled Apollo 18 mission. Apollo 18’s second stage is on the KSC vehicle; that on the JSC rocket is from the backup vehicle for the Skylab launch.

Both Saturn Vs have been displayed outdoors for approximately the same amount f time as the KSC rocket, but no plans or funding are in place at present for similar restorations.

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