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Saturn the Giant
By WERNHER VON BRAUN
With the beep-beep-beep of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union had inaugurated the Space Age. It had also presented American planners with the painful realization that there was no launch vehicle in the U.S. stable capable of orbiting anything approaching Sputnik's weight.
Responding to a proposal submitted by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, the Department of Defense was in just the right mood to authorize ABMA to develop a 1,500,000-pound-thrust booster. That unprecedented thrust was to be generated by clustering eight S-3D Rocketdyne engines used in the Jupiter and Thor missiles. The tankage for the kerosene and liquid oxygen was also to be clustered to make best use of tools and fixtures availabie from the Redstone and Jupiter programs. The program was named "Saturn" simply because Saturn was the next outer planet after Jupiter in the solar system.
Gen. John B. Medaris, commander of ABMA and my boss, felt that for a good design job on the booster it was necessary for us also to study suitable upper stages for the Saturn. On November 18, 1959, Saturn was transferred to the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA promptly appointed a committee to settle the upper-stage selection for Saturn. It was chaired by Dr. Abe Silverstein who, as associate director of NASA's Lewis Center in Cleveland, had spent years exploring liquid hydrogen as a rocket fuel. As a result of this work the Air Force had let a contract with Pratt & Whitney for the development of a small 15,000-pound-thrust liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine, two of which were to power a new "Centaur" top stage for the Air Force's Atlas. Abe was on solid ground when he succeeded in persuading his committee to swallow its scruples about the risks of the new fuel and go to high-power liquid hydrogen for the upper stage of Saturn.
In the wake of Gagarin's first orbital flight on April 12, 1961, Saturn gained increased importance. Nevertheless, when the first static test of the booster with all eight engines was about to begin, at least one skeptical witness predicted a tragic ending of "Cluster's last stand". Doubts about the feasibility of clustering eight highly complex engines had indeed motivated funding for two new engine developments. One was in essence an uprating and simplification effort on the S-3D, and it led to the 188,000-pound-thrust H-1 engine. The other aimed at a very powerful new engine called F-1, which was to produce a full 1.5-million-pound thrust in a single barrel. Both contracts went to Rocketdyne.
Following up on the recommendation of the Silverstein committee, NASA awarded a contract to the Douglas Aircraft Company for the development of a second stage for Saturn that became known as S-IV. It was to be powered by six Centaur engines. On September 8, 1960, President Eisenhower came to Huntsville to dedicate the new Center, named after Gen. Georce C. Marshall. It was to become the focal point for NASA's new large launch vehicles, and I was appointed as its first director.