Why the Saturn V rocket was black and white

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

They played a key role in the historic Apollo 11 moon landing and are prominently featured at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral. But why were the iconic Saturn V rockets given a distinctive black-and-white paint scheme?

Spaceflight historian and Popular Science blogger Amy Shira Teitel says that the looks of the three-stage liquid-fueled launch vehicle can be traced back to its German roots. Prior to his work on the Saturn V, Wernher von Braun helped develop the Vergeltungswaffe Zwei (V2) rocket, which was given a checkered pattern so that engineers could tell if it rolled during test flights.

When von Braun and his German colleagues came to the US following the end of World War II, they brought the black-and-white paint scheme with them. Their Redstone rocket (which was modified to launch suborbital Mercury missions) had alternating black and white stripes while the Jupiter (which launched America’s first satellite in 1958) was white with black stripes.

“German-heritage rockets didn’t fly again with astronauts on board until the Apollo program began launching the Saturn family of rockets” starting with the Saturn I, Teitel said. Each of the first four Saturn I flights featured “alternating black and white stripes on the first stage, a checkered pattern on the interstage, and an all-white second stage,” she said.

But issues with this scheme soon surfaced. “The fuel tanks under the black areas registered heat spikes as the paint absorbed the heat of the Sun. But these black stripes did change from launch to launch,” she explained. SA-5 featured a black nose cone, SA-6 and SA-7 each featured a black forward interstage, and the upper part of the rocket was completely white in later launches.

The next Saturn rocket, the Saturn IB, was white with black vertical stripes on its first stage during its earliest flights. Subsequent Saturn Is also used this scheme (albeit with the addition of a black interstage) until the start of the Skylab program. During those launches, the first stage was completely white in order to minimize the absorption of heat from the Sun, Teitel said.

“Which brings us to the Saturn V,” she continued. “The first Saturn V that rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building in 1966 wasn’t a flight article, it was a dummy rocket designed to check out the launch and mating facilities as well as verify checkout procedures while also training crews in dealing with the mammoth rocket. It was the Apollo-Saturn 500F.”

“This rocket was white with black stripes rising about a third of the way up the first stage and continued on the upper part of the stage and onto the aft interstage, ending at a black ring,” the spaceflight historian added. “It also had a black and white checkered pattern on the upper interstage and a black instrument unit. But that black ring caused a lot of problems.”

As it turns out, this paint absorbed too much heat from the Sun and caused the fuel tanks underneath to experience dangerous temperature spikes. As a result, the uppermost part of the black stripes, as well as the band on the first stage, was painted white on all future Saturn V’s.

This July marked the 45th anniversary of one of the Saturn V’s shining moments: the historic Apollo 11 flight that landed humans on the moon for the first time. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who along with Michael Collins lifted off on July 20, 1969, first stepped foot on the lunar surface on July 21, collecting over 47 pounds of material to bring back to Earth.

According to NASA, the Saturn V rocket was 363 feet tall, or roughly 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, and it weighed as much as 400 elephants when fully fueled for liftoff. The rocket generated 7.6 million pounds of thrust at launch, and carried enough fuel to allow a car capable of getting 30 miles to the gallon to drive around the world 800 times.

The Saturn V was developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and was first launched in 1967. The first Saturn V used in a manned mission was part of Apollo 8 in 1968, and its final launch came in 1973, as it carried the Skylab space station into orbit around Earth.

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