After Hours

Geek Trivia: Five for (Saturn) five

How many Saturn V rockets have reached the surface of the moon, despite the facts that the Saturn V was the largest rocket ever constructed and that it was built specifically so that NASA <em>wouldn't</em> have to send Apollo launch vehicles to the moon?

Thirty-five years ago — May 14, 1973 — saw the end of an era: The last Saturn V rocket ever to fly was launched from Cape Kennedy. By almost every measure, the Saturn V was the most powerful rocket ever to fly. The Soviet N-1 was a bit wider, and the Soviet Energia was theoretically capable of more thrust, but no rocket has ever been taller, heavier, or pushed more payload into orbit. Perhaps most impressively, every single flight of the Saturn V was a success — no Saturn V ever failed to deliver its payload into orbit. Fairly impressive for a rocket that NASA originally didn't want to build.

The Saturn V was designed explicitly for the Apollo program, following a mission profile that NASA engineers were initially very reluctant to embrace. There were three competing plans for landing a man on the moon during the early days of Apollo: Direct Ascent, Earth Orbit Rendezvous, and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous.

Direct Ascent involved launching a rocket that would have dwarfed the Saturn V, sending the whole thing to the moon, landing it on the moon, and then dragging some or all of it back to Earth. Earth Orbit Rendezvous suggested sending two craft into orbit separately, joining them above Earth, and then going on to land on the moon. This was deemed more efficient, but technically more complicated, as no one had docked two ships in Earth orbit at the time.

Lunar Orbit Rendezvous sketched out a plan for sending a pair of docked vessels into orbit around the moon, one of which would drop to the surface and then return, rendezvousing with the half still in lunar orbit, which would then return to Earth. This was infinitely more complex than either of the other options, but was by far the most efficient, as it involved dragging the least amount of fuel and equipment into and out of the moon's gravity well. Thus, reluctantly, the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous plan won out for its energy conservation benefits.

Despite being the efficient choice, Lunar Orbit Rendezvous required construction of the most powerful rocket in human history. Moreover, even though the entire point of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous plan was that you wouldn't need to take an actual rocket to the moon, that doesn't mean no Saturn V has ever touched down on the lunar surface. In fact, several have.


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About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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