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Saturn V Rockets & Apollo Spacecraft | The Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever

SA-502 Saturn V Launch Vehicle for Apollo 6 LIfting Off
The Apollo 6 mission provided the final test of the Saturn V launch vehicle and Apollo spacecraft for future use in crewed Apollo missions. It launched on April 4, 1968, but was overshadowed by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. the same day.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Toledo

This is part of a SPACE.com series of articles on the Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever, the balloons, airplanes, rockets and more that got humans off the ground and into space.

The Apollo missions were the answer to a challenge issued by President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon. But just to get there, scientists had to build a powerful rocket. And to actually land on the moon — and return the astronauts safely — a new type of spacecraft had to be developed.

Saturn V rocket

NASA developed the Saturn V rocket to meet the challenge. Taller than a 36-story building (363 feet / 111 meters), it was the largest, most powerful rocket ever launched. Powered by five engines in each of its first two stages, the rocket produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. [Infographic: Apollo 11 Moon Rocket's F-1 Engines Explained]

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Three stages

The Saturn V had three expendable stages. The first two stages each had five engines that burned either a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen, or liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Each stage lifted the rocket until its fuel was expended. The first stage lifted the rocket about 42 miles (68 kilometers). The second stage carried it almost into orbit. The third stage placed the Apollo spacecraft into orbit and pushed it toward the moon. The first two stages fell into the ocean after separation. The third stage either stayed in space or hit the moon.

Fifteen Saturn V rockets were built. Two were tested without a crew. The first Saturn V launched with a crew was Apollo 8. That mission orbited the moon in December 1968. Two more missions tested the lunar landing vehicle. Then, in July 1969 a Saturn V launched the crew of Apollo 11 to the first manned landing on the moon. A Saturn V rocket carried six more missions into space. A two-stage Saturn V also lifted Skylab into orbit.

Diagram showing relative sizes of Apollo astronauts, the Lunar Module, and the Command/Service Module.
This NASA schematic details the size of the Apollo space capsules, service modules and lunar landers that would ultimately take astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Credit: Diagram showing relative sizes of Apollo astronauts, the Lunar Module, and the Command/Service Module.

Apollo spacecraft

Sitting atop the Saturn V rocket was the Apollo spacecraft, which had three components: the service module, the command module, and the lunar module.

The service module provided power, propulsion and storage during the lunar missions. It was cylindrical, and was 24.6 feet (7.5 meters) long and 12.8 feet (3.9 m) in diameter. It contained fuel tanks and oxygen/hydrogen tanks. It housed the fuel cells that provided most of the power for the crew compartments. For most of the mission, the service module and command module were attached, and the units are sometimes referred to as a single craft: the command-service module.

The command module housed the astronauts. It was 10.6 feet (3.2 m) tall and 12.8 feet (3.9 m) wide at its base. Inside, the astronauts had about 210 cubic feet (64 m) to move around in — about the space in a car's interior. The command module was the only part of the spacecraft that would return to Earth. It re-entered the atmosphere with its heat shield facing the high temperatures caused by atmospheric friction.

As the mission approached the moon, the command module separated from the lunar module. One astronaut stayed in orbit aboard the command module while the other two descended to the lunar surface. [Images: NASA's 17 Apollo Moon Missions in Pictures]

The lunar module carried the astronauts to the moon's surface. The module was 23 feet (7 m) tall and 14 feet (4 m) wide. It had two sections: the upper ascent stage and the lower ascent stage. The upper stage carried the crew, equipment, and an ascent rocket engine; the lower stage had the landing gear, lunar surface experiments, and the descent rocket engine. When the mission was over, the lower stage provided a launch platform and was left on the moon. The upper stage rendezvoused with the command module and was jettisoned after the astronauts were reunited.

– Tim Sharp, Reference Editor

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Tim Sharp, Reference Editor

Tim Sharp

Tim was a Technology Editor at nytimes.com and the Online Editor at the Des Moines Register, where he helped launch that newspaper's website. He was also a copy editor at several newspapers. Before joining TechMediaNetwork as Reference Editor, Tim was the Online Content Editor at the Hazelden Foundation. He has a journalism degree from the University of Kansas. Tim is also a self-proclaimed nerd and has won several trivia contests. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Tim on .
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