Fifty-three years ago this month, NASA successfully launched the first Saturn I Block II heavy-lift launch vehicle. Known as Saturn-Apollo No. 5 (SA-5), the mission featured the largest mass ever orbited up to that time in the history of spaceflight.
The Saturn I was a pathfinder rocket booster that ultimately lead to the development of the mighty Saturn V launch vehicle. Ten (10) Saturn I boosters were flown between October 1961 and July 1965. The first four (4) missions involved the Block I variant wherein only the first stage was powered. The final six (6) missions employed Block II vehicles which included live first and second stages.
The Saturn I measured 164 feet in length with a maximum diameter of 21.42 feet. The S-I first stage was powered by an octet of Rocketdyne H-1 engines that generated a total sea level thrust of 1,500,000 lbs. The S-IV seconds stage incorporated six (6) Pratt and Whitney RL10 engines rated at a total vacuum thrust of 900,000 lbs.
SA-5 was launched from LC-37 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Wednesday, 29 January 1964. Weighing 1,121,680 lbs at first stage ignition, the vehicle lifted-off at 14:25:01 UTC. As the first and second stages functioned in splendid fashion, the second stage successfully achieved an elliptical orbit measuring 142 x 415 nm.
The SA-5 orbited mass of 37,700 lbs was a record for the time. This payload, consisting of the S-IV stage, an instrument unit, and a modified Jupiter nose cone filled with sand ballast, remained in orbit through the end of April 1966.
The SA-5 mission was significant for a variety of reasons. It featured the first live S-IV rocket stage and was the first Saturn I vehicle to achieve orbit. It also marked that moment in spaceflight history when America finally surpassed the Soviet Union in payload mass to orbit capability. Known as “closing the booster gap”, this event was an important step in the race to the moon in which America would be the ultimate victor.