[October 28, 1961] Heavy Lifting (Saturn C-1 SA-1)


by Rosemary Benton

It’s a great leap forward for the United States.  This morning, October 28th 1961, one can open the newspaper and learn about yesterday’s launch of the Saturn C-1.  Some of us even saw the live coverage of the launch on television, watching as the giant rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida and flew 95 miles into the air before plunging into the Atlantic Ocean.  A rocket this powerful has never been launched before, and I can only imagine that the scientific community must be trembling like the ground beneath Saturn C-1’s S-1 first-stage cluster of nine tanks and eight engines. 

It was, quite simply, the biggest rocket ever launched.  By far.

As the world reaches farther and farther past the stratosphere, I wanted to take a look into the recent past in order to better appreciate where we are today.  The development of this impressive rocket was a potent combination of money, ambition, and potential, beginning in December 1957 when renowned rocket scientist Dr.  Wernher von Braun and his team proposed the creation of a booster with one million five hundred thousand pounds of thrust – that’s five times that of the Atlas (the rocket that will take an American astronaut into orbit).  The Department of Defense listened, and by August 15, 1958 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) began work at the Redstone Arsenal to create the vehicle that would culminate in the tower of flame that lifted slowly, inexorably, from its Florida launchpad yesterday.

The initial design of the booster was something of a lash-up, fusing the liquid oxygen and fuel tanks from the Redstone and Jupiter missiles with the tried and true S-3D engine from the Thor and Jupiter missiles.  After significant retooling, the upgraded S-3D engine was clearly a new beast.  So it got a new name: H-1.  As the development of the H-1 continued through 1958, ARPA began to take a more ambitious approach to the aims of the project.  It would not be enough to develop a booster capable of propelling enormous payloads.  Instead they set their sights on creating a multistage carrier vehicle for a long term manned expedition to space.  The result was the October 1958 project tentatively called Juno V, the name indicating the booster’s kinship with its predecessor Juno rockets) based on the Jupiter missile.  The project quickly outgrew any resemblance to the Jupiter family.  On February 3, 1959 that the ARPA renamed the project after the next planet out from the Sun: Saturn. 

Saturn’s development has been nothing less than breakneck.  Dr.  Von Braun’s group at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) delivered the first production H-1 engine on April 28, 1959 and successfully tested it on May 26.  The Department of Defense prioritized the civilian Saturn.  July of that year was a particularly productive month.  At Cape Canaveral there began construction on a blockhouse for the project’s Launch Complex 34, and the Redstone Arsenal shops shifted their focus away from Jupiter rockets in favor of the Saturn project.  By the end of July, the Army Ordnance Missile Command (AOMC) was ordered to cease work on the Titan second stage boosters in favor of the Saturn project. 

NASA stepped in to assume direction of the Saturn Project from ARPA on March 16, 1960.  From the start NASA saw the three stage Saturn C-1 as a starting point in the creation of more powerful, larger vehicles.  Through April and March of 1960, success after success met the Saturn project.  As is tradition, private companies were brought on board to design and construct components of the vehicle.  Contracts between NASA, Douglas Aircraft Company, and Pratt & Whitney, were drawn up in July and August of 1960 respectively.  Douglas Aircraft Company would be responsible for the conceptualization and production of the four-engine S-IV stage of Saturn C-1.  Pratt and Whitney would produce the LR-119 engines to be used in the S-IV and S-V stages. 

As forward thinking as he is driven, Dr. von Braun had bigger plans for the Saturn C-1.  In January 1960, shortly after Convair Astronautics submitted a proposal for an S-V upper stage for the Saturn vehicle, Dr. von Braun floated the idea past NASA administration that the developing lunar project “Apollo” did not need a three-stage C-1; two would be sufficient for the early orbital missions planned for the spacecraft.  His proposal was approved, and NASA removed the S-V stage.  But the S-V stage was not completely scrapped.  In May 1961 the S-1 stage of the vehicle was modified to allow the Saturn C-1 to be a two or three-stage vehicle, increasing its versatility. 

Even before its launch on October 27th, the Saturn C-1 design was already being improved upon in the form of the bigger C-2 and C-3 plans.  In March 1961, considerations were well under way to make use of the Centaur’s LR-115 engines in Saturn C-2 rather than the more expensive LR-119 engines developed for Saturn C-1.  Fins were added to the C-2 design in order to make it more structurally sound, and the thrust capacities of the S-1 stage were reviewed for improvement.  Work continued to accelerate on the Saturn C-2 design until recently on June 23, 1961, when Dr. von Braun announced that the C-3 would hold priority over the C-2 due to the preferable use of the C-3 for the later stages of the Apollo project.

Even as the first of its family, the Saturn C-1 launch is a milestone of astronautics.  First and foremost it represents a great leap into the future of propulsion.  Developed under the guiding hand of Dr. von Braun, the The Saturn C-1 rocket itself is one hundred sixty two feet tall, four hundred sixty tons in weight, and packs one point three million pounds of thrust.  The payload of this particular rocket is 10 tons — far outstripping that of any previously launched rocket. 

More than anything, however, is the fact that the Saturn C-1 was a success on its first flight (albeit with a dummy 2nd stage — that will get tested next year).  This bodes well for future Saturn projects.  In terms of the evolution of rocket science, the C-1 has broken new ground in all aspects of rocket design, execution and function. 

The Saturn project has brought us one step closer to manned expeditions beyond orbital space. 

3 thoughts on “[October 28, 1961] Heavy Lifting (Saturn C-1 SA-1)”

    1. The best minds seem to think that first we’ll have a spinning space station in orbit before we reach the Moon.

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