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Fly Chrysler to the Moon: the Saturn Rockets

JFKThe close of the 1950s saw a changing of the guard developing in Washington D.C. President Dwight Eisenhower was ending his 8 year term as President, and John F. Kennedy was coming in.

1960 brought a new sense of spirit into the United States. It is hard to describe how the election of John F. Kennedy lifted up the whole country. It was a narrow win for the youngest man ever elected to the White House (at age 43). Perhaps his youthful looks, coupled with a young, beautiful wife, and young children, led him and the energy of the public. Dwight Eisenhower was eager to see the couple on inauguration day; he and his wife greeted them enthusiastically, looking forward to finally retiring.

Project Apollo was a NASA-initiated program to get Man to the nearest celestial body, our own Moon. This was the heart of programs that Werner Van Braun had been advocating and dreaming about for many years.

The Apollo program emerged late in February 1960 with its final development in March or April 1960 while Eisenhower was still President. Like Project Mercury and Project Gemini gone before it, Apollo was a logical buildup, with calculated steps, and associated risks, set up to gain more with each successive test of the Apollo manned capsules. 

Going forward with Apollo was by no means certain. President Eisenhower never decisively displayed support for the space programs. He never respected Werner von Braun or his German associates, perhaps because then-General Eisenhower had personally inspected the first “death camp” found by American soldiers. He privately disdained the work of the German rocket men, with too many recent memories of the Nazi atrocities. He also knew that Von Braun not only had been a Nazi, but had even committed acts that could be considered war crimes.

When the Russians launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, President Eisenhower had felt betrayed by the CIA; he took a public relations hit from Congress and the public when the Russians appeared to have achieved a huge technological lead. As President, he had to deflect the constant negative press as well as the hue and cry of the public that the United States was lacking technological leadership. Congress had not yet been given the huge bill that NASA would present to get a man on the Moon.

Apollo 18 rocket

Chrysler Corporation was still under contract (through 1961) to the Army for the Redstone missile system. The Redstone was, by this time, largely obsolete. The Army had formally notified the Chrysler Corporation that, for the first time, an extension of an existing contract would not be forthcoming. (Many of the final missiles were sold to Australia for their space missile development program, recouping some of the expenditures.)

Chrysler was also building a few Jupiter C missiles in Warren, and was able to squeeze the much larger Saturn I first stage booster into a production line there, right alongside the Redstone.  


The Saturn I missile program was a real eye opener for Chrysler and NASA. It was a large, and thanks to Chrysler-developed engine clustered couplings, reliable booster for NASA. However, Chrysler could not be expected to deliver the huge Saturn V (five) rocket that would boost Apollo out of Earth obit towards the Moon, at least not on its own. It could never fit within the Warren, Michigan, Chrysler facility. Another place would have to be found.

Committees were formed to see who could assist, keeping an anxious watchfulness that provisioning for the funding, and the political will, was to be had for continuing with Apollo. Von Braun, thanks to some inside information from Chrysler, already had a place in mind.

John Kennedy had said that America could not afford to be second in the race for space supremacy. He warned that a "missile gap" existed between the Soviet Union and the United States, and we could not be second. His run for the Presidency caused Plymouth division of Chrysler Corporation to publish a booklet in his honor, some 22 pages long.

The situation in Russia

Russia was technologically challenged by its hardware as well as its lack of engineering acumen. They also lacked the production line ability embedded with US manufacturing. Even as JFK took office, the missile gap was technologically heavier in favor of the USA, particularly in large lift boosters. It was hard for Americans to know that, given the secretive nature of the Soviet Government and the remote location of the Baikonur launch facility. 

The Russian moon rocket was a colossal beast. The Soviet designer responsible for the Sputnik rocket kept up a repeated harangue of the moon rocket, calling it a disaster, a severe setback, a wasted expenditure. Privately, he needled Premier Khrushchev to the point where he was nearly reprimanded.

rocket motors

The Soviet Design Bureau was highly classified, known as OKB-1. Located in a Moscow suburb, it didn't show on any maps. The man in charge was a gulag survivor who had been appointed a full colonel in the army. His identity became another Soviet State secret.

Russia test fired many of its captured German V-2 missiles early in 1947. Their experience was that while it might be a reliable lift body, it was not highly accurate. Out of 12 tests, only five were on target. Stalin authorized a new missile in April 1947; while it may have been based on the German V-2, this was an all-Soviet rocket.

In 1951, the Minister of Defense sent a group of the German scientists home to Germany. It took them no time at all to get in touch with Werner Van Braun in America. By 1953, all the captured Germans had been sent back to Germany. None of them were offered any work or given a choice to stay. [With large areas devastated by the war, the Soviet Union may have had a much lower opinion of Germany than the United States.]

semyorka rocket
Photo distributed under the GNU Free Documentation License

Russia had developed the R-7 ICBM, which could lift a 3.5 megaton warhead. This is what would become the Sputnik rocket. In early 1953, engineers proposed putting a satellite into orbit using the R-7. Had it been allowed, it would have really put the spurs to America, which would have had nothing to answer back until 1955 with the Jupiter C.

America lacked a central cohesiveness in their programs at the time; the Army, Navy, and US Air Force were all building their own different systems. The Soviet missile program was centralized, though their Moon Rocket program was not given the attention of military rockets. Russia had no huge engine such as the (in development) mighty Rocketdyne F-1 engine, with 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

Russia also did not know about some of the flight dynamics that were later discovered by the engineers of Chrysler Corporation when they adapted the Rocketdyne F-1 under NASA contract. One was termed the "pogo effect." The other was dynamic instability attributed to "pockets" of liquid oxygen that were like balls in the steam of fuel. These pockets would "pop" and "flare" while the flame was burning, causing uneven thrust.

Chrysler and NASA worked alongside US Air Force personnel to overcome the problems.  Russia couldn't get an engine to achieve much over 300,000 pounds of thrust, and the rocket director proposed "bundling" thirty of them to achieve the thrust necessary to leave orbit and get to the Moon.

Wernher Von Braun with F-1 rocketRussia had no concept of the dreaded pogo effect. Inconsistent fuel delivery, even minor variations, cause the engines to ebb and flow, like air bubbles in a pipe, thrusting hard, then backing out, bouncing the vehicle up and down. Coming to flight, as it set out to reach higher speeds, it would simply burst the engine and blow the vehicle up. Fuel flow inconsistencies also caused the vehicle to wobble or go off flight and destroy itself. Chrysler finally achieved control of both problems and no more of the pogo effect or fuel flow issues followed.

But in 1959, NASA had not been given a go ahead for the Apollo program. Congress had not been given a clue as to the enormity of the cost involved.

Kennedy had campaigned hard, hitting at the Eisenhower administration for the American lag in space. His "missile gap" pledge was that he would "not make American first but, first and, first if, but first, period."

After his election in 1960, JFK started to receive briefings about the state of the government. Space flight was not his priority. He was stunned to learn that the Apollo program would cost about $25.4 billion. Later, when he talked with the NASA administrators, he was given another shock — Apollo was underfunded, and needed an additional 30% increase! That was a total of $33 billion (in 2008 dollars, around $330 billion). The huge cost put Kennedy off space exploration.

JFK kept silent after taking office, until the Russians put their first man, Yuri Gagarin, in space, on April 12, 1961.

The United States was beaten. The public was set back, wondering what had happened. Khrushchev exploited the windfall. The outcry from the public and Congress landed directly at Kennedy's feet.

On April 20, JFK sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon Johnson. He inquired what the status of the space program was. Lyndon Johnson was characteristically blunt, and proclaimed that "we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving the results necessary if this country is to achieve a position of leadership." Johnson concluded that manned exploration of the moon was far enough in the future that the USA could still come out first.

state of the union addressKennedy sent a request to the leadership of Congress to address a special joint session a couple of weeks later. Around the date he requested the joint session, Alan Shepard flew the first manned Mercury mission, a sub-orbital flight that lifted him up to 117 miles above the earth, whereby he stayed about 5 minutes before plunging back down again. Shepard was hailed as a hero, which, given the state of American rockets, he was.

Kennedy appointed Vice-President Lyndon Johnson as the civilian head of NASA. Unwittingly, Kennedy had unleashed a powerhouse. Johnson leaned on everyone, with unmerciful, unrelenting pressure. After Kennedy's address to Congress on May 25, 1961, Johnson felt almost no constraints.

Kennedy announced to the joint session of his whole hearted support of the Apollo program; in part:

"First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him back safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."  

President Kennedy reaffirmed his reasoning at Rice University on September 12, 1962:

  • If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.
  • For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.
  • There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again.
  • We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

NASA and Apollo literally boomed with growth. It was stirring huge public interest, often right down to personal pride, with feelings of ownership. Werner von Braun saw the 1961 congressional speech as a total commitment and ran with it. He was visited often, and vigorously given near-interrogations by Vice President Johnson as to where they stood.

LBJ was never given full recognition for his assistance in the Apollo program. He stifled protest, twisted arms in the Senate, cajoled anger in the House, allocated funding that might have been meant for something else,  and if von Braun dreamed it, Johnson somehow got it. By September 1962, NASA was employing upwards of 250,000 people.

Chrysler Corporation had introduced Werner von Braun to the place where the huge Saturn V boosters could be built. In June 1961, the month after Kennedy's speech, a Chrysler team drove von Braun to New Orleans. They were looking at one of biggest assembly buildings that had ever been constructed. The Michoud plant had somewhat of a checkered past, but it also had 1.8 million square feet under one roof! 48 square acres, all enclosed.

The Michoud plant

Michoud was part of a 34,500 acre land grant given by the King of France in 1723. It survived the formation of the United States and the 1803 Louisiana purchase. A sugar plantation created around 1820 left two huge smokestacks in front of the huge facility, remaining to this day.

When the US entered the World War, the US Maritime Commission saw Michoud as a site for building Liberty Ships. The Army Air Force planned to build 1,200 plywood aircraft through Higgins Industries. The US Army Corp of Engineers dug a large canal for access to the intra coastal waterway of the Mississippi River out to the Gulf of Mexico, but had not anticipated the huge amount of fill that was needed to beat back the swamp; the Maritime Commission abandoned the Liberty Ships contract in August 1942. The airplane plant was completed in October 1943, but by then the Army Air Forces had moved on and their plans for the plywood planes had been dropped. The huge facility was given to the War Asset Board, which leased it to the City of New Orleans for $9.5 million for 15 years.


In January 1951, Chrysler was selected to make tank engines there. When the Korean War broke out, the Army Ordinance Board tried to pay out the lease to the City of New Orleans for the Michoud plant, but the City balked. New Orleans decided that it was desirable to retain title, so it condemned the property. The Federal District Court handed it back to the US Government on April 12, 1951; Chrysler’s assembly line opened in November 1951.

Chrysler tank engine production shut down in late 1954. After that, it was costing $150,000 a year to maintain the plant. By September 1961, Michoud was in the hands of NASA, and Chrysler began to move in (again), to be accompanied, later, by Boeing, which set up the Saturn V production area; at this point, Chrysler was building the Saturn I, the Saturn 1B, and the bigger Saturn 1-SB.

Saturn V rocket at Michoud

While Chrysler and Boeing were setting up Michoud, NASA needed to be able to get the Apollo capsule into Earth orbit for space testing, and a smaller alternative to lift the Apollo was developed. Chrysler worked with the late Douglas Aircraft Company; design study went on with both creating a whole new booster (as Douglas wanted), and modifying the Saturn (as von Braun wanted). After nearly 18 months, Chrysler agreed with von Braun, and Douglas agreed that an improved Saturn I, the S-IB, with a different engine in the second stage and improvements in the existing H-1 engine, would meet the NASA goals.

A contract to build 9 Saturn IB boosters was tied into the existing Saturn I contract held by Chrysler, which would build the first stage Saturn IB booster, while Douglas would construct the second stage. The work was quickly expanding, covering employment for over 300,000 employees, spread over several major aircraft design companies and defense contractors.

Saturn 1B
This 1963 photo shows the Saturn Instrumentation Unit mounted on a motion simulator. The conical section just adapts it to the motion simulator. The white cylindrical section is what rides just atop the S1B booster. It carries the booster's Telemetering equipment, much of which was built by Chrysler Huntsville.

Testing commenced with the Saturn I in October 1961. Chrysler delivered ten Saturn I boosters on time, with no failures. By the time that the last Saturn I flew, the production line for the Saturn IB at Michoud had been completed and the first of those boosters came off the line. Changes incorporated while the 1B was being produced resulting in a version called the S-1B which fitted more powerful engines.

Chrysler built 9 of the large IB and S-1B boosters; the first one flew on February 26, 1966, with the commencement of Apollo, designated as AS-201. There were strong indications of potential disasters in the Apollo capsule, with this first complete test. Three major capsule complications occurred, all related to wiring, and all were short circuits. Chrysler's booster performed without any noted problems.

AS-202 lifted off on August 25, 1966. It was sub-orbital, like AS-201. It flew only 33 minutes, and the flight characteristics remain classified. The Chrysler-built booster again performed with exactly as it should. This mission was out of sequence, flying after AS-203, a more limited test which also went well.

AS-204 was a full mission ready test that ended with a sad disaster that on January 27, 1967. A fire in the 100% oxygen of the capsule caused the first deaths of the American space program. From the time that astronaut Gus Grissom yelled "fire,"  an elapsed time of 8 seconds was recorded. Thereafter no further escape efforts or human noise were heard. It took over 5 minutes to get the hatch open from the outside.

apollo I

The subsequent investigation was shocking, and the blame rested with NASA officials. They had taken many shortcuts. The capsule contractor, North American Rockwell, had submitted many design change suggestions and written inquires about the blatant disregard for normal safety. The worst offense is that NASA did not have any supporting documentation to pinpoint areas where the failure might have occurred! It was repulsive and unforgivable.

There was enough blame, however, to go all around. North American Rockwell should have halted the construction of such a flawed design. Their engineers knew it. The assembly of the craft was obviously poor; Gus Grissom, the Commander of Apollo 1, had complained to the point that it was implied that, since he had “screwed up his first flight by losing that capsule, so he may just lose his position altogether.” He was uncharacteristic in his silence after that, However, when the Apollo capsule was delivered, Gus publicly walked up to the craft and hung a big lemon on it!

For over a year, the entire craft was redesigned for absolute the safety of the men inside. 1,407 wiring connections were changed or eliminated. Fireproof materials were used exclusively, including a glass based suit for astronauts to avoid static buildup. The hatch was redesigned with explosive bolts so that any one of the men inside could blow off the hatch within a second. Air inside the capsule matched sea level mixtures, instead of being explosively flammable. The build sequence and assembly were documented, blueprinted, written in manuals, and all concerned were briefed. These were so good that when the Apollo 13 capsule oxygen tank blew en route to the moon, all the recommendations to save the men came out of the associated documentation for the capsule and the lunar lander!

The Apollo space craft rebuilding did not lessen the production of the Chrysler boosters. The huge Saturn V was coming to fruition at the Michoud facility. Much of the production work overlapped as far as the Saturn boosters, in that one model started before the other model ended.

The Saturn rockets

saturn rocket engine clusterThe Saturn 1 grew out of the Redstone Missile design which had morphed into the Jupiter C rocket by 1955. The Russian launch of Sputnik put emphasis on building larger rockets. Chrysler looked at the cluster concept of single engines being connected to a common area to achieve the lift requirements; the concept looked wild, but was effective. The H-1 engines were available, saving some $100 million on development. The contract to build the Saturn 1 was signed July 29, 1958. Most personnel working on the design had nicknamed it the "Super Jupiter."

NASA announced that it had chosen the Chrysler-designed booster on January 10, 1962; it was to be called the C-5, and was tagged as the Saturn in 1963.

The design parameters were spectacular. The Saturn V remains, to date, the single largest rocket booster ever built, surpassing Soviet efforts in their 30 engine monster. The Saturn V totaled 363 feet in length, and 33 feet in circumference, with 3 stages. The Chrysler-built first stage had 5 engines. By contrast, the Soviet NL moon rocket was 340 feet tall, with 30 engines, and had 5 stages.

Chrysler, as the prime contractor, had brought in other major contractors including Boeing, Douglas, Huntsville Missile, North American Aviation, and IBM. Chrysler did not just build the rockets, though; Chrysler Huntsville also designed and built the telemetry, a fact unknown even to most of those who knew the company’s role in manufacturing.

NASA was fortunate that the huge 1.5 million pound thrust engine had been developed by the US Air Force in 1955! It was also fortunate to have chosen Chrysler Corporation as the Prime Contractor, due to its tremendous engineering depth and military-production quality. Chrysler was adept at crisis management, always able to move quickly in any direction to solve or resolve issues concerning the rocket programs. They had the "all in" mindset. Because of this, along with their outstanding, unblemished record with all the missiles that they had built, NASA adopted a test method previously untried. This was considered because of the methods that Chrysler adopted for building the rockets for ABMA and NASA.

Chrysler boosters were reliable largely because of their design philosophy; they were not overdesigned, which would have added unnecessary weight, but they were designed for redundancy if the test results revealed that any system had a statistical possibility of failure at 0.000002%. That cut a lot of development engineering out of the Apollo program. It was needed.

James Webb became head of NASA on February 14, 1961. He found an agency that was expanding so fast, that it was already beyond a single person's control. Webb found himself constantly mired in reforms, resolutions, and assertions of his authority. In mid-1963, Webb came to realize that NASA was functionally out of control. It lacked central authority, and worst of all, the appropriations were being applied haphazard. He needed to do something.

Saturn rocket telemetry products

Webb had established a good friendship with US Air Force General Bernard Shriver, who also recognized the lack of organization. General Shriver recommended a member of an outside contractor that was working with the USAF, George Mueller. Mueller did not hesitate, but he demanded that he be allowed to re-organize NASA because he found no management control anywhere he went. Within 30 days, Mueller had pushed control of NASA into three major branches, all reporting through him. He was a genius, but had no arrogance. Within a few months, he brought forth the "all in" concept of flight testing the new, costly Saturn V booster.

This "all in" or "all up" testing did away with all the smaller concepts advanced by Werner Von Braun, who advocated taking one step at a time. After a face to face meeting, von Braun had to admit that his "reasoning was impeccable, and it all made imminent sense to do."  Thus, the first test of the new Saturn V would be a "all up" test, with every component up and running. Later, von Braun admitted that without the "all up" concept there would have been no possible way for NASA to have had men set their foot on the moon within the parameters set by President Kennedy.

The first "all up" test of the new Saturn V came on November 9, 1967. It was also the first named and numbered Apollo flight. (Apollo One would come later as a memorial.)

Assembly and getting the Saturn into place took two months. Fueling began on November 6, 1967. It took 89 tractor trailer loads of liquid oxygen, 28 tractor trailer loads of liquid hydrogen, and 27 train car loads of RP-1, a refined kerosene.

No one was actually prepared for the consequences of unleashing such a powerful rocket. No one could have guessed. It was all taped, as it was being experienced, by none other than the legendary CBS news correspondent Walter Cronkite, known as the "voice of America."

At noon, the liftoff commenced. By the time the end of the powerful rocket motors passed the end of the tower on pad 39A, the entire 363 foot giant was moving at 100 miles per hour. The subsequent shock waves, without any muffling device, rolled across the flat Florida landscape. Walter Cronkite was inside the CBS newsroom, 4 miles away from the launch complex. As he was enthralled at reporting the mighty booster rising higher and higher above the Cape, the room began to shake, with loud booming, rumbling noises filling his microphone. The ceiling tiles began to fall, and he was forced from his chair to keep the windows from crashing in. The huge Vertical Assembly Building, where the rocket was assembled, was buffeted hard by the shock waves, and Launch Control shook with the vibrations of the booster. My brother and I, standing in his backyard 48 miles away, could hear the rumbling of the mighty Saturn as it headed, faster and faster towards space. It was an amazing experience which I will always be able to recall. We, the United States of America, were on our way to going to the Moon. The proof was in the huge blowtorch cutting across the deep blue sky of central Florida.

saturn rocket

One of the most famous pictures ever taken, a Saturn 4 with a clearly visible pressure ring forming as it goes supersonic out of Cape Canaveral, Florida (NASA photo).

The first test was an unqualified success.

The end of Apollo flights came with the ocean landing of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972. After being to the moon and back, safely, six times, (Apollo 13 was a different story), it became blasé to the American people. Chrysler had fulfilled its original contract, building 15 of the huge Stage One of the Saturn V. No failures of those boosters occurred. Three boosters were left over. One went for Skylab, two are used for displays. All the money to launch the remaining 3 Apollo flights had been appropriated. Suddenly, President Nixon chopped it all out.

space shuttle challengerRichard Nixon became President of the United States on January 20, 1969. He never really made his feelings about NASA public. George Mueller was at the spearhead of the Space Transportation System, or "Space Shuttle," and made an address in 1969 to describe it. That project caught Nixon's attention, possibly because it was a totally American conception and project.

Nixon quickly assigned his Vice-President to be the civilian head of the shuttle program, much like Kennedy had assigned Lyndon Johnson. Even as Nixon enjoyed all the praise of the six successful moon landings, he already had designs on cutting funds for NASA, seizing upon the shuttle as a means to mask his true intentions. The shuttle was limited to an orbit of no higher than 375 miles.

By that time, Chrysler’s involvement was over.

Go back to The Chrysler Corporation Missile Division and the Redstone missiles

Other parts of Chrysler’s space and military history

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