NASA Saturn V Owners’ Workshop Manual: 1967-1973 (Apollo 4 To Apollo 17 And Skylab by W. David Woods (book review)

Back in the early 1960s, America decided that they would need a big rocket if ever they wanted to go to the Moon. Looking at the design of the Juno that became known by its alternative name as the Saturn V, compared to other rockets, then they achieved that but it wasn’t an easy build. As described in the opening chapter, the noise it generated alone was felt taking off shook all the buildings around it.


One of the most surprising things I discovered was at the design stage of the early Saturns, NASA was considering sending two up at a time and merge them into one big rocket to go to the Moon, no doubt seeing a bigger payload going that way. When you think about it, there are elements of the film ‘Rocketship X-M’ (1950) in that, which in itself had gleaned info from the nascent NASA years earlier, although it looks somewhat smaller.

Seeing how the Saturn V rocket was developed is insightful as it shows how the scientists and engineers had to focus on getting maximum thrust but, at the same time, not destroying itself. If you ever wondered about the decorative patterns around the thrusters, then you’ll be fascinated to discover that that are used to cool them down. Equally, to stop the payload, which would include astronauts, not to be shaken to bits, helium is used to pogo away that effect by helping to absorb the energy.

Seeing the teething troubles of keeping structure integrity at very low and high temperatures was very problematic. When you’ve watched footage seeing the Apollo dribbling steam is because it needed to stop it over-flowing as the oxygen was heated up and needed to be expelled.

The importance of the gyroscope for ensuring the Saturn V faced up and didn’t wobble is clearly illustrated. More so, as the gangway fuel pipes had to pull away and not collide with the rocket as it went up. All these kinds of things are important to remember and considering the size of the payload that is taken up into space, you’ll have a serious thing about how they might have to be redesigned or follow a similar pattern to get all the parts for a spaceship for the Mars trip to be put into orbit today. I think if I was doing it, I’d use parts of the rocket, a’la Skylab, as part of its design.

It’s also worth noting and reminding that when a computer is controlling fuel release, it probably had a tiny fraction of the processing power of a modern scientific calculator. The silicon CPUs that we are familiar with today started off from necessity for rockets and when you see the specs, which like clock speed 2.048mHz compared to my current laptop’s 2.2gHz and you can see the numbers don’t even compete. If you want a real eye-opener, the three pages devoted to their computers and what they could do with 32K RAM is incredible although as Woods points out, their computers were hardly doing the same kind of work we are doing today, just implementing a few small equations.

When I saw the Apollo taking off and moving at an angle, I’d always assumed that this was something to so with the angle of the Earth and it was going up in a relatively straight line. Woods points out that this was deliberate to minimise any ‘angle of attack’ which I translate as turbulence which it certainly had enough of. Reading the information from the Apollo astronauts, every launch was a new experience, with various things changed to see if they could reduce vibration.

After the Apollo Moon missions, there had been some pre-thought as to what to do next and that was to put a space station in orbit. Seeing the early designs to give a credible gravity and you have something similar to the space station in ‘2001’ but this was quickly forgotten when the Van Allen radiation belts were considered too dangerous to orbit next to. Hence, Skylab, built out of a single Saturn V booster module was put into low Earth orbit and its three missions which are covered here. The chapter devoted to it shows all the problems that had to be resolved when it received damage and repair.

If you’re interested in NASA’s Apollo space programme, then this is essential reading as it completes the gap from Haynes other books covering the Apollo moon landings and the lunar rover. Foremost in my thoughts when reading this book was if NASA or any other country was planning a manned return to the Moon, then they would have to sort out the problems from the 1960s all over again, although with one major advantage of knowing what they are likely to be. The biggest problem, whether it’s going to the Moon or Mars is the payload is dependent on the power of the rockets boosting the modules into orbit. This book will surely give you credible discussion points as you try to figure out can it be done any better.

GF Willmetts

August 2016

(pub: Haynes. 172 page illustrated large hardback. Price: £22.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-85733-828-0)

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