Space & Innovation

What Happened to all the Saturn V Rocket Stages?

Asteroid J002E3 turned out to be the S-IVB stage of Apollo 12's Saturn V. What happen to the rest of those rocket stages? Continue reading →

On Sept. 3, 2002, amateur astronomer Bill Yeung found an asteroid. Initially named J002E3, astronomers tracked it and found that it was in Earth orbit, which was surprising. Objects within the Earth-moon system are quickly ejected, meaning this asteroid must have been a recent capture. Spectroscopic observations revealed the "asteroid" had a signature consistent with white titanium dioxide paint NASA used to paint the Saturn V rockets. Asteroid J002E3 turned out not to be an asteroid at all but the upper S-IVB stage of Apollo 12's Saturn V from 1969.

So what happened to the rest of the spent Saturn V rocket stages?

ANALYSIS: When (Part of) Apollo 13 Reached the Moon

The Saturn V was a three-stage rocket. The first stage, the S-IC, and the second stage, the S-II, both fell away once they were spent and landed in the ocean downrange from the launch site at Cape Canaveral. On lunar missions, the third S-IVB stage stayed with the spacecraft.

After a brief stay in Earth orbit, the S-IVB fired a second time to propel the spacecraft to near escape velocity on its path to the moon. Then came the transposition, docking, and extraction phase: the command-service module separated from the S-IVB then turned around to dock with the lunar module encased within it. Once the two spacecraft were docked, they would separate from the S-IVB entirely.

What happened next varied from mission to mission. On Apollo 8, the first mission to fly to the Moon in December of 1968, the S-IVB was put on a trajectory that had it fly by the moon before entering solar orbit. The S-IVB stages from the Saturn Vs that launched Apollo 10, the second mission that flew to the moon in May of 1969, and Apollo 11, the first lunar landing two months later in July, also ended up in a heliocentric orbit. Apollo 12's, as we now know, is currently orbiting the Earth.

ANALYSIS: Saturn V Also Suffered Engine Launch Anomalies

Beginning with Apollo 13, the afterlives of the spent S-IVB stages became a lot more interesting.

On April 14, 1970, Apollo 13's S-IVB became the first to be deliberately crashed into the moon; the impact and subsequent ground motions were recorded on the seismometer that the Apollo 12 crew had left on the lunar surface five months earlier as part of their Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package or ALSEP.

On Feb. 4, 1971, Apollo 14's S-IVB became the second upper stage to be deliberately crashed into the moon's surface. The impact and ground movements were again recorded by the seismometer left by the Apollo 12 crew.

ANALYSIS: NASA's Gutsy First Launch of the Saturn V

The Apollo 14 crew also left an ALSEP on the surface, which meant that when Apollo 15's S-IVB impacted the lunar surface on July 29, 1971, the associated ground movements were recorded by two separate seismometers at two different locations on the moon. This trend continued. Apollo 15 left an ALSEP on the Moon so when Apollo 16's S-IVB impacted on April 19, 1972 it was recorded by three seismometers. The crew also left an ALSEP on the surface, so when Apollo 17's S-IVB impacted on Dec. 10, 1972, the associated ground movements were recorded by four separate seismometers.

All five ALSEPs lasted longer than the single years they were designed to. They were all turned off on Sept. 30, 1977, primarily for budgetary reasons. For more detailed information on the crash sites of the Apollo S-IVB stages, including size and location of the created craters, check out this handy table.

The expended S-IVB second stage of the Skylab 3/Saturn 1B space vehicle is seen in this photograph taken from the Skylab 3 Command and Service Module (CSM) in Earth orbit in 1973. In this case, the S-IVB reentered the Earth's atmosphere, but during the Apollo era, NASA had far more exciting plans for the Saturn V's upper stages.

Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions

Sept. 2, 2011 --

In the movie "Apollo 18," lost footage taken from what was the canceled Apollo 18 mission to the moon reveals a coverup. NASA buried the mission after astronauts encountered hostile life forms on the moon. The Apollo missions captured the imagination of a generation, so it's no small wonder that fictional accounts -- such as that of "Apollo 18" -- of what happened during NASA's golden age still find new angles on a rich history. Although the Apollo program is a technological and historical legend, as with most stories of heroes and triumph, there have been some embellishments and distortions along the way. Explore the myths, misconceptions and urban legends that color the history of the Apollo missions. (And good news for space enthusiasts: We're not even mentioning the delusion that the moon landing was a hoax.)

Lunar Pathogens?

We begin with a myth of the Apollo era that was soon squashed after astronauts returned home. Prior to the first successful landing of astronauts on the lunar surface, NASA scientists theorized that their astronauts may have been contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms to which humans would have no resistance. The space agency even enforced a 21-day quarantine for astronauts returning from space. In this photo, Aldrin greets his visiting family via telephone while still constrained in the Mobile Quarantine Facility in Houston, Texas. Biomedical studies conducted following the quarantine period determined that neither the astronauts nor any of the living species that brought along on the mission, including plants and animals, suffered any adverse health effects as a direct result of exposure to lunar material.

Aldrin's UFO?

"Apollo 18" hinges on the premise that the cancelled Apollo 18 mission was in fact carried out, but covered up after the space agency discovered the presence of hostile alien life on the lunar surface. We all know that in reality Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon never stumbled onto any lunar life. But did Buzz Aldrin, as he appears to claim in this interview for a documentary, spot a UFO while en route to the moon? As Aldrin would later go on to explain following the airing of these comments, not even close. What he actually saw, which he and his fellow astronauts immediately confirmed, was "one of the panels from the separation of the spacecraft from the upper stage."

The Million Dollar... Pen?

To paraphrase an old joke: When presented with the challenge of writing in a zero-gravity environment, the United States and the Soviet Union approached the same problem in two different ways. NASA spent millions of dollars developing and testing the space pen. The Russians, on the other hand, used a pencil. In reality, the space pen wasn't developed by NASA, but rather a private company that later sold its invention to both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. A kernel of truth is hidden in this story, however. NASA originally used mechanical pencils and hired a private contractor to supply "34 units" at a price of $4,382.50 in 1965 (around $30,000 today). The public outcry against this purchase led NASA to the cheaper alternative designed by Fisher Space.

Why Was Armstrong First?

Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, followed closely by Buzz Aldrin. But how many people know the reason why Armstrong was first? In one version of events, Armstrong was selected as the first man to set foot on the moon so that NASA could symbolically convey the message that civilians would be leading the charge with space exploration rather than the military. Aldrin had a long career with the Air Force prior to becoming an astronaut. This account, however, is a myth. For his part, Armstrong had spent time in the military before joining the public sector as a civilian. So why was he chosen first? The answer is much less complicated: It was his turn to be commander after rotating through as backup commander during Apollo 8.

Popular Support?

Americans these days look back on the legacy of the space program with pride and admiration. This singular technological achievement is unrivaled to the day. Although Americans may look back fondly at that glorious era, their 1960s counterparts weren't quite as supportive. The Apollo program is widely believed to have been popular during its time, but polling data taken from the era suggest that simply wasn't the case. Throughout the entire era, surveys consisted showed that less than 50 percent of the American public favored the program. Even after Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in 1969, only 53 percent of American surveyed said the accomplishment was worth the cost, according to a report by Space.com.

What Rocket?

Could the real reason astronauts haven't returned to the moon be because NASA has simply forgotten how? According to this rumor, propagated by writers including Terry Bisson and astronomer John Lewis in his book "Mining the Sky" in 1996, NASA simply lost its blueprints to the Saturn V rockets. NASA was quick to point out that microfilm of the blueprints is still in storage at Marshall Space Center. So why can't NASA rebuild the Saturn rockets? As explained in 2009 by NASA Lunar Science Institute director David Morrison, many of the companies that manufacture the parts that made up the Saturn V have since gone out of business and the parts are no longer available. Besides, rocket technology has advanced somewhat since the Apollo era.

Tang, Anyone?

As much as we'd all like to believe it's true, NASA did not invent Tang during the Apollo missions. In fact, the instant drink mix had been invented during the 1950s by General Foods Corporation. When NASA adopted it during John Glenn's initial venture into space and for subsequent journeys, the missions popularized the product. Given the kinds of innovations NASA dreamed up during the Apollo years, these misconceptions have become common. Other developments around the same era, such as Teflon and Velcro, are also falsely attributed to the space agency.

Space Pen Savior?

Would you believe the space pen was responsible for preventing Aldrin and Armstrong from being stranded on the moon? The Fisher Space Pen folks would like you to think that's the case, but that's not exactly how it happened. When Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the lunar lander after their historic space walks, the astronauts discovered the "the ascent engine's arming circuit breaker was broken off on the panel," according to Aldrin. In other words, a circuit needed to power the engines to get the Apollo 11 astronauts off the moon simply wasn't working. To complete the circuit, the astronauts didn't use a space pen but rather an ordinary felt-tip marker.