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Fly Chrysler to the Moon: the Saturn Rockets

JFKAfter the 1950s closed, President Dwight Eisenhower ended his eight-year term as President, and John F. Kennedy came in.

1960 brought a new sense of spirit into the United States. The election of John F. Kennedy was a narrow win for the youngest man ever elected to the White House, at age 43.

Project Apollo was a NASA-initiated program to get Man to our own moon. Werner Van Braun had been advocating and dreaming about it for many years.

The Apollo program emerged late in February 1960, while Eisenhower was still President. Like Project Mercury and Project Gemini before it, Apollo was a logical buildup, with calculated steps and associated risks. 

President Eisenhower had never decisively supported space programs. After then-General Eisenhower had personally inspected the Nazi “death camps,” he privately disdained the work of the German rocket men. He also knew that Von Braun not only had been a Nazi, but had committed acts that could be considered war crimes.

When the Russians launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, President Eisenhower felt betrayed by the CIA; as President, he had to deflect 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 to the Army for the Redstone missile system, which 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, 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 was a large, and thanks to Chrysler-developed engine clustered couplings, reliable booster for NASA. However, Chrysler could not use Warren to deliver the huge Saturn V (five) rocket that would boost Apollo out of Earth obit towards the Moon. Another place would have to be found. Von Braun, thanks to information from Chrysler, already had a place in mind.

John Kennedy 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 actually technologically challenged, and lacked the production-line ability of US manufacturing. Even as JFK took office, the missile gap was technologically 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. 

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

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 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.

In America, the Army, Navy, and US Air Force were all building their own different systems. The Soviet missile program was centralized, but Russia had no huge engine such as the (in-development) 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. Coming to flight, as it set out to reach higher speeds, it would simply burst the engine and blow the vehicle up; or cause 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.

Kennedy had slammed 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, and 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 a 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, asking for the status of the space program was. Lyndon Johnson 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 addressed a special joint session of Congress a couple of weeks later, around the same time that Alan Shepard flew the first manned Mercury mission, a sub-orbital flight that lifted him up to 117 miles above the earth, where he stayed about 5 minutes before plunging back down again.

Kennedy appointed Vice-President Lyndon Johnson as the civilian head of NASA. 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 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.

In June 1961, the month after Kennedy's speech, a Chrysler team drove von Braun to New Orleans, 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, part of a 34,500 acre land grant given by the King of France in 1723, 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.

The US Maritime Commission had seen Michoud as a site for building Liberty Ships, and the Army Corp of Engineers dug a canal for access to the Mississippi River, but had not anticipated the huge amount of fill that was needed to beat back the swamp, and the Liberty Ships contract was dropped in August 1942. An airplane plant was completed in October 1943, but by then the Army Air Forces had dropped their plans for plywood planes. The huge facility was leased to the City of New Orleans for $9.5 million for 15 years.


In January 1951, Chrysler was selected to make tank engines there. After a fight with the City of New Orleans, Chrysler’s assembly line opened in November 1951, but it shut down again 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

NASA needed to be able to get the Apollo capsule into Earth orbit for space testing, and Chrysler worked with the Douglas Aircraft Company on a smaller booster; 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 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.

Chrysler 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. Three major capsule complications occurred, all related to wiring, and all were short circuits. Chrysler's booster performed without any noted problems.

The second and third tests lifted off and the Chrysler-built boosters performed exactly as planned. The next test, AS-204, was a full mission ready test that ended with a disaster. A fire in the 100% oxygen of the capsule caused the first deaths of the American space program. From the time that Gus Grissom yelled “fire,” there were just eight seconds before no further escape efforts or human noise were heard. It took over five minutes to get the hatch open from the outside.

apollo I

The blame rested with NASA officials, who had taken many shortcuts. The capsule contractor, North American Rockwell, had submitted suggestions and written inquires about their disregard for safety. 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 to go around. Rockwell should have halted the construction of such a flawed design. 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.” 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 craft was redesigned for the safety of the men inside. 1,407 wiring connections were changed or eliminated. Fireproof materials were used, 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, and written in manuals. 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.

Meanwhile, 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. 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 Saturn V remains the single largest rocket booster ever built, surpassing Soviet efforts in their 30 engine monster. It was 363 feet long, and 33 feet in circumference, with 3 stages. The Chrysler-built first stage had five engines. By contrast, the Soviet NL moon rocket was 340 feet tall, with 30 engines, and had five stages.

Chrysler, as the prime contractor, had brought in 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.

NASA was fortunate to have chosen Chrysler Corporation as the Prime Contractor, due to its 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. Because of this, along with their outstanding, unblemished record with all the missiles that they had built, NASA adopted a test method previously untried.

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 and recommended a member of an outside contractor that was working with the USAF, George Mueller. Mueller demanded that he be allowed to re-organize NASA, and, 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” 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 had every component up and running. Later, von Braun admitted that without the “all in” concept there would have been no way for NASA to have men set their foot on the moon quickly enough.

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. It was all taped, as it was being experienced, by 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 shock waves rolled across the flat Florida landscape. Walter Cronkite was inside the CBS newsroom, four 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, 48 miles away, could hear the rumbling of the mighty Saturn as it headed, faster and faster towards space. We 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

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, (except Apollo 13), it became blasé to the American people. Chrysler had fulfilled its original contract, building 15 of the huge Stage One of the Saturn V. There were no booster failures, all the money to launch the remaining three Apollo flights had been appropriated, and the three boosters were ready.

space shuttle challengerSuddenly, President Nixon chopped it all out. George Mueller, at the spearhead of the Space Transportation System (“Space Shuttle,”) made an address in 1969 to describe it, catching Nixon's attention—possibly because it was a totally American project.

Nixon quickly assigned his Vice-President to be the civilian head of the shuttle program, as Kennedy had assigned Lyndon Johnson. Even as Nixon enjoyed all the praise of the six successful moon landings, he already meant to cut funds for NASA, using the shuttle, limited to a 375-mile orbit, to mask his intentions. By that time, Chrysler’s involvement was over; they proposed a shuttle design, but it was not want NASA wanted and may have been unrealistic.

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