In November 1967, with the Space Age barely 10 years old, NASA was about to take one giant leap forward with the first flight of the Saturn 5 Moon rocket. For the mission known as Apollo 4, the 363-foot-tall Saturn 5 rolled out to Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 26.
There, it underwent several months of testing, including a countdown demonstration test that ended on Oct. 13, leading to many lessons learned that resulted in an essentially trouble-free countdown for the actual launch. Apollo 4 was to be an all-up test flight, meaning all three stages of the rocket would be flown together for the first time, as well as the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM). It would be the first Apollo flight since the fire in January 1967 that took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.
Controllers in the Launch Control Center Firing Room at Kennedy monitored the three-day countdown. At 7 a.m. on Nov. 9, the five F-1 engines roared to life, generating 7.5 million pounds of thrust. A few seconds later, the Saturn 5 began to climb slowly skyward. Scientists calculated that the noise created by the launch was one of the loudest ever, natural or man-made, with the vibrations rattling the press site several miles away. As the rocket cleared the launch tower, control of the flight was transferred to Mission Control at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, where the mission was monitored by Flight Director Glynn Lunney and his team of controllers.
All three stages of the Saturn 5 worked perfectly to place Apollo 4 into a circular Earth orbit. After a three-hour coast, the third stage reignited to place the CSM into a highly elliptical orbit. The Service Module engine was then fired, first to slightly raise the high point of the orbit to 11,234 miles, and again on the way down to increase the speed of reentry to 24,917 mph—simulating a lunar return to test the all-important heat shield. Apollo 4 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after a flight of 8 hours, 37 minutes, and was soon recovered aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bennington
, having accomplished all its mission objectives.
President Lyndon B. Johnson said of the flight, “The whole world could see the awesome sight of the first launch of what is now the largest rocket ever flown. This launching symbolizes the power this nation is harnessing for the peaceful exploration of space.”
“In Mission Control, all of us felt elated as America resumed its voyage to the Moon,” added Apollo Flight Director Gene Kranz.
The Apollo 4 Command Module is currently on display at the INFINITY Science Center at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Relative size of the Saturn 5 rocket compared to other U.S. human spaceflight rockets. From left, the Mercury-Redstone, Mercury-Atlas, Gemini-Titan, Apollo-Saturn 1B and Apollo-Saturn 5.
NASA Johnson Space Center
Launch of Apollo 4 atop the first Saturn 5 Moon rocket. Image Credit: NASA
Flight controllers watch a replay of the launch in Mission Control in Houston, with Flight Director Glynn Lunney at left. Image Credit: NASA
Recovery of the Apollo 4 Command Module aboard the USS Bennington. Image Credit: NASA
Manned Spacecraft Center Director Robert Gilruth (left) and Apollo Program Manager George Low (right) inspect the Apollo 4 spacecraft after its successful flight. Image Credit: NASA
The Earth photographed by Apollo 4 from a distance of 11,214 miles in space. Image Credit: NASA
The Apollo 4 Command Module on display at NASA's Stennis Space Center. Image Credit: NASA