Apollo 50th: My Family’s Saturn V Obsession

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The Saturn V rocket at Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX. I had to use my iPhone 8’s panoramic camera feature to get this much of the rocket in one view. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer

The Saturn V rocket: built to take us to the moon. To date it’s the largest, most powerful rocket ever built and is the only one that has taken humans out of low Earth orbit (in other words, beyond the International Space Station’s altitude).

In my family, things like this are awe-inspiring. Like my experiences in May witnessing the reenactment of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, seeing these engineering marvels reminds me of what humankind is capable of with innovation and teamwork.

I won’t go into the specs of the Saturn V; this NASA website explains it well to a middle-school-aged audience. Those who want to learn more will get a lot from the Wikipedia page, it seems well-detailed. The part I do want to explain is the allocation of the vehicles that were never launched.

Eighteen Saturn V rockets were built, in some way, shape, or form. Three were built expressly for testing, with no intentions of being launched. Two were built for space flight but didn’t get launched due to budget cuts to their intended programs. Thirteen of those 18 were launched. Of the five that weren’t used, they have been cannibalized quite a bit, with assorted stages on display at museums across the United States.

After doing a little research of my own, it seems that my family and I have seen two of the rockets still existence….plus some parts that are on display elsewhere. The first fully-assembled one I had seen was at the Apollo/Saturn V center at Kennedy Space Center in eastern Florida. My family lived there from 2002-2005 and KSC was the second most popular destination for our friends and family who came into town for visits (second, of course, to Walt Disney World). Our family has also seen the S-IVB third stage unit that’s on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Most recently, this past December we saw the Saturn V on display at Rocket Park at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

My husband (far left) staring in awe at the first stage of the Saturn V rocket. I’m kicking myself for not taking more photos that fully conveyed the size of this thing! Photo Credit: Patricia Vollmer

At both Kennedy Space Center and Johnson Space Center, to see the Saturn V rockets in all their glory, you will need to take advantage of the shuttle buses that are included with admission. The rockets are housed in buildings to protect them from the elements. Be sure to program enough time in your visit to see the rockets; I highly recommend trying to arrive as soon as the museum opens and going straight to the shuttle buses. The lines will be shortest. I know when my sons were younger that was difficult. They thought we were taking them away from the aircraft that were on display as soon as you walked in.

At Johnson Space Center my family made a point to go straight to the shuttle bus area first, and by the time we returned to the main visitor center after the tours, the lines for the buses were well over one hour long. Having teen sons made this much easier: they understand logic pretty well…most of the time.

In addition, be prepared to leave your strollers behind to get on the buses. Bring a baby carrier of some sort for the really little ones. Allow 60-90 minutes for the shuttle bus portions, depending on how much time you want to spend with the rockets. Trust me, though, it’s worth it!

Today I learned a new word: “quincunx“, which describes the arrangement of the five F-1 engines. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer

I’ll bet you’re wondering, “Patricia, you’ve seen 2/3 of the full Saturn V rockets left in existence. Do you plan to visit the last one?”

The answer is, “I’m not sure.” The third assembled rocket is on display at the Saturn V Hall at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This happens to be the home of the U.S. Space Camp, and when my sons were younger, seeing this Saturn V might have been much more likely if we hadn’t moved away from Florida when we did. My oldest son was in a gifted program at his elementary school, and during spring break each year, the gifted program 5th graders attend Space Camp. Alas, we left that community at the end of my oldest son’s 4th grade year. Huntsville’s Saturn V Hall not only has all three stages in place, like at Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers, but they also have a full-sized static display replica outside, in the vertical! GeekMom Marziah has a photo of the vertical replica in her post about attending Space Camp in 2012. Built in 1999, this structure will give guests a better impression of how tall the rocket is (taller than the Statue of Liberty on her pedestal!). The three real rockets are all on display in the horizontal, which certainly makes upkeep easier.

Speaking of horizontal, last year, around Fathers Day, my husband got the Saturn V LEGO kit, all 1900 glorious pieces of it. He built it with our teen sons, and all three of them will tell you that it has incredible detail, and, at just over 3′ tall upon completion, is quite fragile. It’s currently on display, in the horizontal, in our basement, along with his brand new Lunar Lander LEGO nearby.

Isn’t it beautiful! If your space fan doesn’t have their own LEGO Saturn V kit, what are you waiting for? Image credit: Patricia Vollmer
I think the quincunx of engines on the LEGO replica is particularly beautiful. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer.

So, to sum up:

I am definitely one for trying to check off “all the ______” in many ways. I recently was able to visit my 50th state in 2016. But I haven’t decreed to the family, “We need to see the third Saturn V!!” quite yet. However, after the research I’ve done for this little post, after learning how much more there is so see, plus Space Camp!!!!, I’m now itching to get there sooner rather than later.


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7 thoughts on “Apollo 50th: My Family’s Saturn V Obsession

  1. I have been lucky enough to see all three surviving Saturn V assemblies and many of the display parts.

    The Alabama Space and Rocket Center is a good visit. It is definitely humbling to stand under the full-stack mockup.
    In addition to the Saturn V they have their own rocket garden and one of the surviving CIA A15 spy planes (precursor to the SR-71).
    Tours include visiting the microgravity simulation facility (the big tank).

    I participated in the inaugural years of both the original Space Camp and Space Camp II. We got a different experience from later Space Campers both because they were still trying to figure everything out and because it was before the heightened security post 9/11.

    1. Greetings! Thanks for reading, and thanks for the vote of confidence about the Space and Rocket Center. If I end up in Alabama anytime soon (which isn’t out of the question, I still work for the Air Force and there’s a base in Montgomery), I will try to make my way up there.

  2. My wife and I saw the KSC’s Saturn V this past April. I was 13-yrs-old, and absolutely enthralled with manned space exploration, when Apollo 11 landed in the moon. So finally visiting the KSC, standing beneath its wonderfully suspended moon rocket, and simply being within sight of Pad 39-A (where SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy stood poised to lift off that very evening!) was a like a religious “pilgrimage” for me. Furthermore, after inspecting the mammoth Saturn V’s precise design and intricate plumbing up close, I am even more in awe of the visionary people who conceived and built it.

    Incidentally, a friend who’s visited Huntsville said she actually enjoyed that facility’s spacecraft exhibits more than those at “Kennedy.” And, now that I know another (of the very few remaining) complete Saturn V awaits me there, it’s definitely on my bucket list!

    1. Thanks for reading Steve! I do wish I could have experienced the country’s excitement during the decade of the moonshot. I don’t think there’s been national excitement for science and engineering since then….but I invite further discussion on that statement….

  3. I’ve been to KSC many times, (what they did with Atlantis is awesome), I last saw the Saturn V in Huntsville before it was moved inside, but I hear it is very nice. I hope to get to Houston someday, but Space Center Houston needs to build a permanent building to house their Saturn V! (likely one of the reasons that Houston did not get a Shuttle). My only complaint about the buildings is it is very hard to get a vantage point to take in the whole rocket, that’s why I like the mock up at US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

    I found out today that the displays at KSC, JSC, and USSRC are a mix-match of Saturn hardware (not all the same rocket)

    1. Hello Michael. Space Center Houston DOES have a building to house its Saturn V. It’s been in a permanent building since 2007. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/home/jsc_grand_opening.html

      In addition, the Saturn V at USSRC is not a mix-match, it’s the full SA-500D, which was a test unit, not meant for operational flight. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturn_V_dynamic_test_vehicle

      Regarding your thoughts about Houston not getting a shuttle to display…even though Houston didn’t get an operational shuttle as a museum artifact, they do have the mock-up shuttle Independence/Explorer from KSC after they received Atlantis, as well as the ORIGINAL NASA 905 Boeing 747 that was part of the shuttle ferry missions.

      Final cool fact, even though Atlantis is at KSC, its Canadarm is in Houston 🙂

      1. I stand corrected on the USSRC Saturn V, I did not read that in the article I linked.

        The thoughts on the Saturn V building in Houston and the lack of a flight article Shuttle is based on this article by Dwayne A. Day http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2127/1. 7 years on from the article and 12 from it’s construction what was meant as a temporary building in Houston has become permanent by default.

        Houston does have some excellent artifacts and I do want to get there and see them hopefully someday soon, but think a better job should be done with their Saturn V

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