Fond memories of Nasa's greatest adventure

This week marks 40 years since the final manned mission set off for the moon, closing the chapter on Nasa's greatest adventure, as a new book fondly remembers.

The Saturn V space vehicle lifts off on July 16, 1969, from the Kennedy Space Center launch complex in Florida. AFP Photo / Nasa
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The Final Journey of the Saturn V
Andrew R Thomas
and Paul N Thomarios
University of Akron Press

Although the slim, fast-paced book Andrew Tomas and Paul Thomarios have written is ostensibly about so mundane a thing as the founding of a new museum exhibit, The Final Journey of the Saturn V begins almost Biblically, with a roar of thunder and a column of fire unlike anything the world had ever seen before.

It happened on the morning of October 5, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched an aluminium alloy square 56cm in diameter, weighing 83kg - Sputnik, the first satellite, which immediately began broadcasting radio signals. Professor James Van Allen, later discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belt, was on an icebreaker in the Antarctic when the news broke - his radio man picked up the signal instantly, as did amateur and professional observers all over the world. With that launch, the Soviets had effectively started the Space Race.

Once such a gauntlet was thrown down, an American response was a foregone conclusion. In the chaos of the collapsing Third Reich at the end of the Second World War, the United States had scooped up a number of leading German rocket scientists, including the architect of the deadly V-2 rockets that had terrorised Great Britain, Wernher von Braun ("While von Braun's role in the Nazi war effort was never in doubt," Thomas and Thomarios rather diplomatically put it, his "role in the eventual moon landings was indispensable." Those who might have thought that American ingenuity - and the proper amount of funding - could have done the job without the services of a Nazi henchman aren't given space for a rebuttal).

These scientists and their American counterparts had been working on rocket technology for years when Sputnik blasted off, and they went right on working, entirely behind the scenes, on launching the US's own satellites in the following years. But when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, became the first human launched into space, President John F Kennedy responded on May 25, 1961, by calling for the United States to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade. Suddenly, all eyes were on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

A "crash course" of effort and money produced the mighty Saturn V rocket, the subject of Thomas and Thomarios' book, and they're right to shine a spotlight on it quite apart from the historic mission it made possible. The rocket was, as our authors remind us, and still is, "the largest object to leave the surface of the Earth. At 363 feet in height, or over 30 storeys tall, the rocked weighed 6.3 million pounds, about the weight of 1,600 automobiles or 50 Boeing 747s". It stood six stories taller than the Statue of Liberty and was by far the most powerful rocket ever built, the four massive engines of its stage one burning through 700 tonnes of fuel in a single minute, generating

3.4 million kilograms of thrust, sufficient to lift the Apollo space module into the air at 6,100 miles an hour. After Stage 1 was exhausted and fell away, Stage 2 fired - it held more than one million litres liquid hydrogen and 329,000 litres of liquid oxygen, which could burn for six minutes. All this firepower and more was needed to send the Apollo craft on its 930,000km round trip to the moon and back. Apart from the "cacophony generated by a nuclear explosion," our authors tell us, "the rocket created the loudest sound made by human hands."

"We choose to go to the moon," Kennedy had told an audience at Rice University on September 12, 1962, and seven years later, long after he himself was gone, on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 spaceship launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida, borne aloft on the incalculable energies of the Saturn V.

More than three 3 million parts, making up 700,000 components, had gone into the rocket's construction, and as a later generation would have tragic occasion to learn, every one of those components has life-threatening potential if it malfunctions. Thomas and Thomarios are mindful of the risks in the epic story they're telling: if the rocket were to explode at or close to launch, they speculate, "the immediate area would be hit with the force of a small atomic bomb - the equivalent of one-half kiloton or about 1/26th the force of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima".

"Think what it took to accomplish America's seven manned landings," says Nasa administrator Julian Scheer, "an industrial infratructure of 25,000 companies, many of which had not previously existed; technical, engineering and scientific programmes on college campuses and in private labs; breakthroughs in propulsion, in tracking and data acquisition, in human engineering and medicine". A mind-bogglingly vast cooperative enterprise, in other words, teeming with contractors and sub-contractors and therefore fraught with potential for mistakes.

And yet, in that inaugural spaceflight (witnessed by over a million people there in Florida and by over a billion worldwide on television images conveyed by all those new satellites), there were no mistakes, no cancellations, no tragedies. Nasa and its various sub-contractors built 15 Saturn V rockets over the years, 13 of which went into space, 12 of which were used in Apollo missions - and six of those missions took men to the moon. The last Saturn V flew for the Skylab programme in 1973, and as our authors point out, "every Saturn V launch was successful. Two missions suffered in-flight problems, including engine cutoffs, but these were overcome, resulting in successful outcomes." They rightly conclude, "The flawless launch record of the Saturn V stands without parallel in the history of human flight."

That history, it should be remembered, has been exceptionally short. Only 66 years elapsed between the flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk and the landing of the Eagle landing module at Tranquility Base. As more than one pundit and science fiction novelist pointed out in July of 1969 when astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on another world, a single human lifespan could have seen the whole of avionics history, from the crudest beginnings to a previously unimaginable pinnacle.

The transcendent success of that first Apollo moon mission, President Richard Nixon commented at the time, seemed to bring the whole world together. But economic times were tough, and engineers at Nasa worried more with each mission that they were courting catastrophe. The foreward to The Final Journey of the Saturn V is provided by Captain Gene Cernan, who in 1972 became the last man on the moon (his comment, "America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny for tomorrow" was a rhetorical falling-off as well, from Armstrong's pithy "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"). Nasa faced crippling budget cuts, and mankind stopped going to the moon.

Fitting, therefore, that the bulk of this book concerns an operation not of exploration but of salvage: the painstaking restoration of a Saturn V. The job was undertaken by co-writer Thomarios, the owner of a paint company in Akron, Ohio, and it entailed complications of an entirely different and more mundane nature than any faced by Mission Control in the rocket's heyday. Wiring was frayed; paint and insulation were frittering away like pages of an old book, and continual exposure to the Florida elements had allowed a 5.5m-tall tree to grow in the rocket's interior. Thomarios' restoration crews had to deal with bureaucratic interference, mosquitoes, and even an opportunistic alligator named George. The goal was to restore and exhibit a magnificent artifact from the apogee of manned spaceflight, to have a shining-like-new Saturn V on display at the Kennedy Space Center for all its 1.5 million annual visitors a year (nearly half of them from outside the US) to see, to link them to days most of them are too young to remember.

Reading The Final Journey of the Saturn V, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that those days are now and forever over. Our authors convey that Neil Armstrong "represented in many ways the entire American programme to land a man on the moon. Not only did Armstrong have a fervent zeal for aviation," they tell us, "he had a quiet drive and stoic decisiveness. The descriptive line in his yearbook summed it up well. "He thinks, he acts, 'tis done."

Armstrong's recent death seemed to underscore the fact that so many of mankind's subsequent steps into space have been taken by unmanned drones and rovers, and the alternate possibilities themselves have fallen silent. Young people watching the ongoing spectacular success of the Curiosity Mars rover (watching it on mobile phones that have more computational power than the systems on board the Apollo 11) likely spare no thought at all to how different that mission would be if some courageous team of well-trained men and women were running the show there on the cold Martian soil.

Maybe nothing would ultimately be different. "We set sail on this new sea," Kennedy said, "because there is new knowledge to be gained" - and that's certainly the first point. But those who watched Armstrong and Aldrin joking on the moon and now can walk around the gigantic, museum-preserved rocket that made it possible, might feel a little melancholy just the same.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly