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Rocket rollout: How NASA's first Artemis Space Launch System move stacks up against Saturn V

The first Apollo Saturn V, the 500-F facilities demonstrator, and NASA's first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket roll out from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida 56 years apart. Both moves were in preparation for propellant loading tests on their respective launchpads.
The first Apollo Saturn V, the 500-F facilities demonstrator, and NASA's first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket roll out from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida 56 years apart. Both moves were in preparation for propellant loading tests on their respective launchpads. (Image credit: NASA/collectSPACE.com)

"It was a sight unseen before by mankind."

That was how NASA described the first rollout of a Saturn V rocket 56 years ago. Were it still in print today, the space agency's "Spaceport News" might use that lede again — this time for the first Space Launch System (SLS) booster (opens in new tab) following in the tracks of its Apollo predecessor.

On Thursday evening (March 17), the Artemis 1 SLS emerged from the same Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida that the first Saturn V exited on May 25, 1966. Standing close in size and riding atop crawler transporters (opens in new tab) built for the Apollo program, both the SLS and earlier Saturn V each represented a new effort to send humans to the moon, though neither of the inaugural vehicles were built to achieve that goal.

The first Saturn V, designated 500-F, was a mockup assembled to test ground facilities. Its first stage had only one mock engine out of the five that would power the later moon-bound rockets. The vehicle was able to be loaded with propellants, however, and that fueling was demonstrated as 500-F stood on Pad 39A.

Similarly, the Artemis 1 SLS was making the overnight journey to Pad 39B for a "wet" dress rehearsal, including being fueled and put through a full countdown (minus the liftoff). Unlike 500-F, though, the first SLS will not be retired afterward. It will return to the VAB to be studied and serviced so it can launch the Artemis 1 mission, sending an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a three-week trip around the moon and back.

Live updates: NASA's Artemis 1 moon mission in action

The Artemis I Space Launch System (SLS) is seen atop an Apollo-era crawler transporter and new mobile launcher on its first rollout to the launchpad on March 17, 2022.

The Artemis 1 Space Launch System (SLS) is seen atop an Apollo-era crawler transporter and new mobile launcher on its first rollout to the launchpad on March 17, 2022. (Image credit: collectSPACE.com)

"Every generation has its moment. This is going to be an incredible moment for this generation," Tom Whitmeyer, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems development, said in a call with reporters. "In this business, you get used to a certain size and scale. I think we were pretty well tuned to that during the shuttle program. But every time I see this vehicle, it just catches your breath."

Completed early Friday morning (March 18), the first SLS rollout came 11 years, 5 months and 6 days since President Barack Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which directed the agency to build the heavy-lift rocket. By comparison, the first Saturn V was rolled out five years to the day after President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Here is a look at how the first rollouts of the Apollo Saturn V and Artemis Space Launch System (SLS) rockets further compared.

Space Launch System vs. Saturn V: First rollouts
Apollo Saturn VArtemis Space Launch System (SLS)
Vehicle / Mission500-F / facility verificationBlock 1 / Artemis I
Rollout dateMay 25, 1966March 17-18, 2022
DepartureVehicle Assembly Building (VAB), High Bay 1Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), High Bay 3
DestinationPad 39APad 39B
Mobile LauncherML-1 (later MLP-3)Artemis ML-1
Crawler-TransporterNo. 1No. 2
Weight atop crawler (including ML)12.3 million pounds (5.6 million kilograms)14.8 million pounds (6.7 million kilograms)
Vehicle height363 feet (111 meters) (ML: 445 ft or 136 m)322.4 feet (98.3 meters) (ML: 370 ft or 113 m)
Distance traveled3.5 miles (5.6 km)4.2 miles (6.8 km)
Maximum speed1 mile per hour (1.6 kilometers per hour)0.8 miles per hour (1.3 kilometers per hour)
First motion10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT)5:47 p.m. EDT (2147 GMT)
Arrival at pad~7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT)~1:30 a.m. EDT (0530 GMT)
Hard down on pad~9 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT)~4:15 a.m. EDT (0830 GMT)
Total time in motion~9 hours~11 hours
Wet dress rehearsalOct. 12, 1966 (complete automatic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen [LOX and LH2] loading)April 3, 2022 (scheduled); loading propellant tanks and practice launch countdown

The Apollo Saturn V 500-F facilities demonstrator is seen from the air departing the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for the launchpad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA)

The Apollo Saturn V 500-F facilities demonstrator is seen from the air departing the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for the launchpad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA) (Image credit: NASA)

Space Launch System vs. Saturn V: Stacking history
Apollo Saturn VArtemis Space Launch System (SLS)
Mobile Launcher rolled into VABJan. 28, 1966Dec. 20, 2019
First element stacked on MLMarch 15, 1966: SI-C-FNov. 21, 2020: first of 10 segments for solid rocket boosters
Vehicle assemblyFirst stage: SI-C-F; Second stage: S-II-F; Third stage: S-IVB-F; Instrument Unit: S-IU-500F; Spacecraft Lunar Module Adapter mockup; M-11 Command and Service Module model; Launch Escape SystemTwin five-segment solid rocket boosters; Core stage; Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter (LVSA); Orion Stage Adapter (OSA); European Service Module; Orion spacecraft; Launch Abort System
Stacking completeMay 2, 1966Oct. 21, 2021
Total days to stack48335

NASA's Artemis I Space Launch System (SLS) is moved for the first time to the launchpad after departing the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, March 17, 2022.

NASA's Artemis 1 Space Launch System (SLS) is moved for the first time to the launch pad after departing the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Image credit: collectSPACE.com)

See more photos (opens in new tab) from the Saturn V and Space Launch System first rollouts at collectSPACE.com.

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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.