As President John F. Kennedy assumed office in January 1961, the Space Race with the Soviet Union would soon move beyond a competition to place satellites and animals in orbit—plans for human exploration were well underway. President Kennedy spent several weeks assessing America's options for competing with the Soviets in space. On May 25, 1961, he announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon before a joint session of Congress. At that point, the total time spent in space by an American was barely 15 minutes.  President Kennedy's decision to land men on the Moon before 1970 required the quickest, most efficient method possible. At the center of the United States success was an integral component of landing men on the Moon: the Moon rocket.  

When the Space Race began, there was no rocket powerful enough to send a person to the Moon and back. Both the Americans and the Soviets had to develop a super-booster, or Moon rocket, and as such began their separate quests for a Moon rocket by scaling up existing smaller rockets into gigantic multi-stage launch vehicles.  

The Soviet N-1 Moon Rocket 

In the early 1960s, the Soviets began work on a multipurpose heavy-lift rocket—the N-1. In 1964, it was approved for redesign and use in the crewed lunar program.  

The N-1, seen here on the right, was a three-stage giant, with 30 rocket engines clustered in the first stage, eight second-stage engines, and four third-stage engines, plus two single-engine stages for the spacecraft payload. The airframe was open between stages to vent exhaust, because each upper stage ignited before the lower one was jettisoned. Propellants for all stages were kerosene and liquid oxygen. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution. 

The N-1 rocket suffered from critical technical problems that doomed Soviet efforts to land a person on the Moon by 1970. In the first launch attempt in February 1969, an engine fire caused the rocket to shut down and crash a minute after lift-off. The second test, in July 1969, was a greater disaster. The rocket shut down seconds after lift-off, fell onto the launch pad, and exploded. This accident destroyed the launch site and any hope that the Soviets could reach the Moon ahead of the United States. Three weeks later, the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Ten N-1s were built. Four were destroyed in failed test launches, and the others were dismantled when the program was canceled in 1974, and the Soviet crewed lunar program passed into oblivion.

The United States' Saturn V  

The United States had already developed launch vehicles for use in the Gemini and Mercury programs: 


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The Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle was used for the suborbital space flights of astronauts Alan B. Shepard, Jr. (Freedom 7) and Virgil I. Grissom (Liberty Bell 7) during the Mercury Program. The Mercury-Redstone launch vehicle was developed from the U.S. Army's Redstone missile. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

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The Mercury-Atlas Launch Vehicle was developed from the U.S. Air Force's Atlas ballistic missile. It was used in the Mercury Program Earth orbital flights of astronauts John H. Glenn, Jr. (Friendship 7), Scott M. Carpenter (Aurora 7), Walter M. Schirra (Sigma 7), and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. (Faith 7). Image courtesy of NASA.

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The Gemini-Titan II Launch Vehicle was used in the Gemini Program to boost the two-man Gemini spacecraft into Earth orbit. Ten manned missions were flown. The Gemini-Titan II was developed from the U.S. Air Force Titan II Intercontinental ballistic missile. Image courtesy of NASA.

Despite the previous successes of these launch vehicles, none of them were powerful enough to send people to the Moon. Then came the Saturn V.

The Saturn V, developed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center under the direction of former Nazi scientist Wernher von Braun, was the largest in a family of liquid-propellant rockets that solved the problem of getting to the Moon.

The Apollo 11 Saturn V on the launch pad on July 1, 1969. Image courtesy of NASA.

A total of 32 Saturns of all types were launched; not one failed catastrophically. The Saturn V was first flight-tested twice without a crew during the Apollo 4 mission and the Apollo 6 mission. The first crewed Saturn V sent the Apollo 8 astronauts into orbit around the Moon in December 1968. After two more missions to test the lunar landing vehicle, in July 1969 a Saturn V launched the crew of Apollo 11 to the first crewed landing on the Moon. 

A diagram of the Saturn V's three stages. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution. 

Saturn V is the largest rocket booster ever built by the United States. This rocket, a 3-stage, liquid-fueled launch vehicle, was designed to propel a crew of three astronauts and Apollo spacecraft on their way to the Moon. These giant rockets were used only 11 times, on Apollo missions 8 through 17 and for the Skylab Orbital Workshop. The Saturn IB, which used the third stage of the Saturn V as its second stage, was employed during the Apollo Program to launch Apollo 7. In the 1970s, after the Moon landings, the Saturn IB also was used to launch the crews of Skylab missions 2, 3, and 4 to the Skylab Orbital Workshop and the U.S. crew of Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

Want to take a closer look at how the Saturn V worked and what made it so successful? Check out this article.  

Related Topics Spaceflight Apollo program Human spaceflight Moon (Earth) Rockets Cold War
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