#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

#BookReview – Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles

By Dr Brian Laslie

Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003. Illustrations. Notes. Sources and Research Material. Pbk. 544 pp.


This entry in our continuing series of book reviews might strike you as something a bit different from what we usually publish in several respects. First, this is an older work and originally published as part of the ‘official histories’ by NASA. Initially published in 1979 by the NASA history office, this 2003 updated version published by the University Press of Florida, was written, at its creation, primarily for an internal audience. Second, and as promised, this is the first book review in a series on Space exploration and space power. Finally, this review is inherently about a thing, and a means rather than an event or person. It is a review of technological history.

Even with fifty years of retrospective, the images of the gigantic Saturn V rocket with the Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) perched atop the three-stage rocket remains impressive. Histories of NASA and the Apollo Program tend to focus on the Saturn as a completed unit, stacked and rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) ready for transportation to the launch pad and final countdown and liftoff of the series of Apollo missions. The University of Florida Press’s and author Roger E. Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles plays this familiar tale in reverse. The book begins with the launch of Apollo 11 and the ‘fiery holocaust lasting only 2.5 minutes’ of the first stage (S1-C) five F-1 engines that included the combination of 203,000 gallons of RP-1 kerosene and 331,000 gallons of liquid oxygen.

SA-9, the eighth Saturn I flight, lifted off on 16 February 1965. This was the first Saturn with an operational payload, the Pegasus I meteoroid detection satellite. (Source: Wikimedia)

Bilstein then roles the tape back to the earliest days of rocketry before moving into the primary purpose of the book, the development of the Saturn family of rockets. This is the history of an object albeit, one of the largest moving objects ever created. Stages to Saturn is the story of the development of the launch vehicles that took man into deep space for the first time. There are hundreds of books (see our reading list) about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, but this book is fundamentally different in that it focuses on the creation of the means it took the latter program to get into space.

A note of warning for the prospective reader up front, this is not a book for the layman reader, and in all fairness, it is hardly a book for the professional historian. It is an extraordinarily technical history, what might be most justly described as a ‘dense’ read. If there is a drawback to this work, it is that one might enjoy the book more if one were an expert mechanic or an aircraft engineer, someone who fundamentally understands the way machines work. It is also as much an organisational and logistical history as it is a technological history. All, this should not indicate that the book comes across as is inaccessible; it does not. Still the reader should be prepared for some overly technical discussions of thrust chambers and cryogenic propellants.

Rollout of the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad, 20 May 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is built, not chronologically, but rather by component pieces of the rocket itself, each earning a detailed developmental history. This includes a ‘building blocks’ section which is a short history of rocketry but, thankfully, not a history of everything. From there the book details the development of the engines (RL-10, J-2, H-1, and F-1), before moving into the building of the various Saturn stages (S-IB, S-IVB for the Saturn IB and S-IC, S-II, S-IVB for the Saturn V) and finally on the management and logistics. While the development and building of the massive Saturn systems are fascinating enough in their own right, the logistical undertaking, which required ships and the development of special aircraft just to move the various stages and components to Cape Kennedy is a worthy addition to understanding of the continental network required simply to have the rocket components arrive at their destination. Bilstein ends his book with a disposition of the remaining Saturn systems (most on Static display now), but also a retrospective legacy section. It should also be noted that Bilstein includes a series of appendices covering everything from a detailed schematic of the Saturn V to the Saturn V launch sequence (beginning at nine hours and 30 minutes before liftoff) as well as R&D funding. While ‘richly detailed’ or ‘meticulously researched’ are overused in reviews, a trait myself am guilty of; they aptly apply to Stages to Saturn.

In the end, this is the story of the Apollo and Saturn programs that needed to be told. All the histories and biographies of the ‘Space Race,’ fail to rise to the level of detail and the important contribution of Stages to Saturn. It is a first-class organisational and technological history, and it stands alone as, perhaps the very best of the overall government ‘official histories.’ Historians of air and space power studies will find much to enjoy here, but also aerospace engineers. It is often said that 400,000 people helped get the United States the moon. This is the history of that rocket, but it is equally the history of those 400,000.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: Apollo 6 interstage falling away. The engine exhaust from the S-II stage glows as it impacts the interstage. (Source: Wikimdeia)