To the Moon: Boeing, the builder of the mighty Saturn V Apollo rocket

Our first profile in our series about the Apollo program is Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

This article was originally written in July of 2009.

The Saturn V rockets, standing 363 feet tall, were the most powerful launch vehicles ever built by the United States, and the most powerful in the world ever brought into operational status.

They were comprised of hundreds of thousands of parts and weighed in at nearly 6.7 million pounds when fully loaded with liquid oxygen/hydrogen (LOX/LH2) and liquid kerosene (RP-1) propellants.

Over 6.5 billion dollars was appropriated in 1962 for their design and construction, which adjusted for inflation, is roughly $55 billion today. Fifteen of these gigantic multi-stage rockets were constructed, with 13 launched in missions between 1967 and 1973.

Boeing's work on the Saturn first stage booster took place at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans. Parts for the booster were shipped to Michoud from the company's Wichita plant, as well as from subcontractors around the country. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing's work on the Saturn first stage booster took place at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans. Parts for the booster were shipped to Michoud from the company's Wichita plant, as well as from subcontractors around the country. (Boeing)

The manufacturing of the Saturn V was the most ambitious and complicated multi-contractor construction and assembly project ever created or executed by the US aerospace industry.

To build and design the rocket, NASA hired several large contractors in "Primary" roles. There were dozens of medium-sized or "Secondary" contractors, and hundreds of smaller contractors who supplied parts as well as specialized engineering and consulting experience to the Apollo program.

Hundreds of thousands of workers from all of the companies and NASA combined were employed to achieve the goal of a successful moon landing by the end of the 1960s, as President Kennedy had vowed the country would complete in his historic speech in 1962.

While Kennedy is often given credit for this push to the moon, the previous administration under President Eisenhower set up much of the infrastructure to enable the military-industrial complex to achieve the eventual goal, as well as having formed NASA itself.

The Primary contractors for the "air-frame" of the Saturn V were Boeing, North American Aviation and Douglas Aircraft. Ironically, through a long series of mergers and acquisitions in the aerospace industry, only Boeing remains today, holding most of the assets of those combined companies which built the rocket.


The heritage units of the Boeing company -- which today include McDonnell Douglas and the aerospace and defense units of Rockwell International -- built all the major components of the Saturn V launch vehicle, except the lunar lander. North American Aviation (NAA) and Rocketdyne, noted above, were part of Rockwell International (Illustration by Boeing)

The Saturn V rocket was comprised of 3 stages, the S-IC boost stage, the S-II Second Stage, and the  S-IVB stage, above which sat the Command Module/Service Module which carried the astronauts to the moon via Trans Lunar Injection (TLI). From the Apollo 10 through the Apollo 17 missions, a Lunar Module Adapter was also used atop the S-IVB to house the Grumman-built Lunar Module (LEM).

The rocket engines on the Saturn V themselves were built by Rocketdyne, which was owned by Rockwell during the 1960s as part of its acquisition of North American. Rockwell was sold to Boeing in 1996, and the assets of Rocketdyne were divested to Pratt & Whitney in 2005, a United Technologies company.

Rocketdyne built two types of engines for the Saturn V, the liquid kerosene/oxygen fueled F-1, and the liquid hydrogen/oxygen fueled J-2. The Command Module/Service Module engine, the AJ10-137, was built by Aerojet, whereas Bell Aerosystems and Rocketdyne built the Ascent/Descent stage engines of the Lunar Module, respectively.

The logistics involved in constructing and assembling all of the stages of the Saturn V were enormous. The most massive portion, the S-IC, was built at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, with tool machining done at Boeing's Wichita, Kansas plant.

Testing and integration of the S-IC with engine coupling were performed nearby at the Mississippi Test Operations Complex (now Stennis Space Center) in Bay St. Louis. At Michoud the S-IC was mated to the huge J-2 rocket engines which were flown in from Rocketdyne's assembly plant in Canoga Park, California, using a specially designed aircraft known as the Super Guppy.

After assembly at Michoud and testing at Stennis, the entire stage was barged to Cape Canaveral where it and the rest of the other stages, which traveled by ship through the Panama canal FOB to Florida from North American and Douglas's facilities in Seal Beach and Huntington Beach, California.

All of these stages were stacked on top of each other in the massive Vehicle Assembly Building which was constructed specifically for housing the Saturn V. The rocket was then rolled onto one of two launchpads using a specialized crawler transport vehicle/mobile launch platform.

The first Saturn V flew on Apollo 4, in early November of 1967.


Floyd Long (seated left in upper left photo) was the 1st Stage (S-IC) Supervisor for Boeing during the Apollo Program. Listen to a podcast with Jason Perlow and Floyd Long, Saturn V 1st Stage Supervisor at Boeing

Since the conclusion of the Apollo Program, Boeing's space initiatives through their Integrated Defense Systems subsidiary included essential roles as a primary contractor on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, as well as becoming a world leader in expendable heavy-lift rockets such as the Delta series through the United Launch Alliance for private and military use and an essential supplier of modular commercial and military satellites.

Without Boeing's Delta launch system and its 702 series of satellites, you'd have no DirecTV, XM Satellite Radio or Google Earth (its General Dynamics-built GeoEye-1 was launched on a Boeing Delta II rocket).

The final version of the successor to the Saturn V, the Space Launch System (SLS) -- is still very much a work in progress. Regardless of what that future NASA moon rocket ends up looking like, Boeing is the lead contractor to build much of it.

Were you or someone you know an employee of the Boeing family of companies that contributed to the Apollo program? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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