Florida had Cape Canaveral, launch pad 39A, the countdown, and the liftoff. Houston had Mission Control and the astronauts.
But America’s historic moon landing program wouldn’t have gotten started and the landing wouldn’t have happened 50 years ago without another key place and the very big thing built there.
The place was Alabama, the city was Huntsville and the big thing was the Saturn V rocket. It’s where Alabama is focusing its celebration of the golden anniversary of Apollo 11, and a lot of the celebration will take place at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center under one of the three Saturn V’s left from those glory days.
The Saturn V was one of the most complex and important things America built in the 20th century. The Apollo program it supported created 400,000 jobs at 20,000 firms and universities before it was finished.
The rocket itself rivals the automobile, the telephone and the computer in terms of impact. And it wouldn’t have happened without Wernher von Braun’s German rocket team on Redstone Arsenal. It wouldn’t have been built without the thousands of young engineers, technicians and crafts people who poured into the Tennessee Valley to work at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and its contractor companies.
“When Kennedy said, ‘Can we do this?’ it was really that group of people that gave him the ability to say it was even possible,” NASA-Marshall historian Brian Odom said recently.
Huntsville had been building rockets for the Army at Redstone since 1950. Von Braun and his team go back even further to the German V-2 rocket program in World War II. When the Germans surrendered to American troops in the last days of the war, making what they said was a decision to give their technology to the West and not to the advancing Russian army, they were moved with their remaining V-2s to an Army test range at Fort Bliss, Tx.
By the time Kennedy made his commitment, the German team and its Army counterparts had fired enough rockets to know the problems ahead. They had already solved some of them.
“I think that’s really key,” Odom said. “By the time you get to the Saturn V, you’ve already learned a lot of these things.”
But how critical was what happened in Huntsville? The first stage of the Saturn V “was an in-house development, basically,” Odom said. “A lot of people forget about that. They think it was just Boeing, but it was in-house. The first three stages were built here at Marshall before the first stage gets turned over to New Orleans.”
“All of that early development is critical,” Odom said. “Without the success of that team, Kennedy wouldn’t even had made the statement. He was talking to the folks here and seeing what was possible, and landing on the moon was possible because they knew where they were going with the Saturn V by that point.”
It’s worth stopping the story briefly to remember a few of the numbers that describe the rocket. It was 363 feet tall and weighed 6 million pounds. Its five F-1 main engines could produce 7.5 million pounds of thrust. It was massive and massively powerful.
There are three Saturn Vs on display in the world today, and one of them is at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. It wasn’t built to fly, but it is a “real” Saturn V built to test the rocket’s strength. All three stages were assembled in Marshall’s Saturn V Dynamic Test Stand – the tallest building in Alabama at the time – and shaken and shoved for more than 400 hours to obtain data about durability.
The rocket changed during the Apollo program. The Apollo 1 launch pad fire that killed astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom II, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee happened because of a spark in the pure oxygen atmosphere of the capsule. That meant pure oxygen had to go. “But to fix (that) led to a weight issue,” Odom said. “It made the rocket heavier. It made it more complex.”
“You could swing a cat and hit a problem with the Saturn V,” Odom said.
The first stage of the Saturn V got everything rocket off the ground, and Odom said that is the hardest part. But getting the kick to take it into orbit was the job of the second stage.
There were problems with engine instability during ignition. There were problems insulating the liquid hydrogen fuel tanks and stabilizing the engines. The people working these problems were subject matter experts in fields that didn’t exist until then.
“They didn’t learn it from their teacher,” Odom said. “They learned it because a specific problem arose, and they had to solve a very specific issue. And they did that”.
The German management approach was to take a high-level view and trust these new experts. “If you can explain it to me and reassure me that you know what you’re doing, I’m going to trust you to know what you’re doing,” Odom explained.
Even with those first stage issues, Odom said the Saturn V’s second stage was “the thing the Russians could never do. They could never figure it out. They were not terrified of liquid hydrogen; they’d worked with it to some degree. But they didn’t know how to get the kick that you need.”
Everyone knows how the story ended. The Saturn V flew successfully around the Earth twice to test its systems and then flew six crews to the moon. No one had walked on another world before, and no one has done it since.
Today, the moon missions are history, “a dramatic storyline” in one author’s words that became intertwined with the other big narratives of the 1960s. They are a symbol of what American can do, but also oddly a reminder of what we haven’t done yet. Apollo was a pivot point and is forever an example.
“People say, ‘We can land a man on the Moon, but we can’t make a pen that won’t run out of ink,’” Odom said. “There’s something that’s almost eerie in the power behind that shift in thinking, the idea that if we could accomplish that feat, why couldn’t we use technology to do other things?”
“During the Saturn program, during the tumultuous decade of the ‘60s, there was also of this feeling, not of why are we doing that versus this, but if we can do that, how come we can’t solve civil rights issues? How come we can’t feed the hungry?” Odom said.
Looking back at Apollo like this engages the country’s problems in a different way, the historian said. It can be an inspiration that makes young people consider their own options.
“Without an inspirational program like that, they’ll go into finance or accounting or whatever,” Odom said. “And that’s cool, too. But to inspire people to solve those hard problems? Somebody in school right now is going to solve a problem that is going to impact your life because they were inspired by NASA to do something hard and being invested in something like this.
“Those, to me, are the cool things,” Odom said.
We’e celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 with stories through the month of July. You can find the full collection of stories, from AL.com staff and others, here: Apollo 11 Anniversary.