High Power Saturn V


A long flash back.....then a launch report.

( I'm not a Homer Hickam but I think he'd enjoy this.)

On a very hot Saturday afternoon in late July of 1968, I saw my first Centuri Saturn V at the local hobby store. I think it was a cluster kit.

I can remember standing there on a sidewalk that you could have fried an egg on, staring at it through the window with my mouth watering. It Must have been around 98* and 100% humidity. I lived next door to 2 brothers that were 3 years older than me, they had been into rockets for about a year and we had gone to pick up a 3 pack of engines for them. They had let me look through their dog eared rocket catalog for several days now and I had decided I wanted to buy a rocket, too.

I'd seen them fly what I think was an Alpha III the Saturday before, that I thought, must have made it into orbit because I saw it leave the pad but it never came down. The local school playground was only 2 blocks from home and it made a great place to launch. Recovery however, was another matter. They had slapped in a C and we saw it vaporize off the pad and I think I saw it start to arc but then I looked right into the sun and it was all over. Most likely it came down a block, or 2, or 10 away, but for all I know, it may still be orbiting the equator.

I couldn't wait to buy my first rocket and blow all the money I had made that week cutting grass, on something that was going to make me a part of the Space Race. The kit and a 3 pack of engines was over $5.00! That was a lot of money to a 12 year old in 1968. It would take a lot more to ever afford a Saturn V, something like $20! But I knew someday I would buy and build one. I wanted to get 3, one to learn on, one to cluster... maybe 5 engines, and one to build as a 3 stage. My friends said I was crazy. They will just crash and burn and you will have wasted all that time and money.

It just can't be done.

They had everything I needed to fly, a pad, controller and most importantly, the expertise to make it all happen. Even though my dad was working for NASA, I had little concept at age 12 of how it all worked, much less get a model to fly.

At that time, my dad was working 14-16 hours per day, 7 days per week and since we lived in Birmingham Alabama, he was always commuting between home, Huntsville and the Cape, most of it in a small plane and some times in a Lear. It didn't leave much time to go flying with me. In that time frame, I only got to see him a few hours a week, usually for church on Sundays. After I was grown, he asked me once, if I resented him for being gone most of the time when I was going through junior high and if I thought going to the moon was worth the time that I didn't have with him? Without hesitation I told him yes, I understood they needed him to get there and it was important to the country. Even though I knew there were 10's of thousands that worked to see that dream become a reality, I've always known it was MY dad that actually got us there. With a little help from Von Braun. ; )

I finally built my first rocket, I think it was an Alpha III and got to fly it Labor Day weekend. We went to the school and set up, only to find the batteries in the controller were dead. We had no money or any more batteries but then I had an idea. One of my friends stayed there with the equipment and the other went with me. Arriving at home and finding everyone gone, I borrowed a battery... from my brothers car. I didn't realize they were so heavy. My friend and I took turns carrying it the 2 blocks back to the playground. By the time we got there our shirts were covered in grease and dried battery acid. They weren't sure this battery would work since it was for a car but we decided to try anyway.

We set my little rocket up and did a count down. 5 4 3 2 1 GONE! We were astonished to say the least. All the other launches had a brief delay from 0 to launch, but not this time. It was gone almost before it was there. It streaked into the sky on a C and looked like it would go forever. It arched beautifully and had only begun to start down when the chute came out, too far away to hear it. Then it drifted.... and drifted ... and drifted completely out of sight. It was gone. I was happy and sad at the same time.

Like I said, the playground was a great place to launch, not to recover. It probably landed on a nearby roof. I don't remember how their flights went that day, just watching my first rocket float away but I was hooked and have been ever since.

Over time I assembled my own equipment, built and flew many rockets. Decades passed but there was never a time I ever really abandoned the hobby or forgot about building a Saturn V, several Saturn V's. I grew up, went to school, got a job, found I liked girls. I liked girls a lot. Finally married one that loved rocketry. Now she builds and flies too.

30 years later, 1998, on line, I picked up the last Saturn V Hobby Linc had and carefully build it. Built it stock and flew it on a D12-3! What guts! What glory! I had been told a D12-3 was suicide. The wind will rip it to shreds. It will crash and burn, everyone will die! All will be lost! It's madness! Sheer madness! It did have a close call or two but even with the bad delays back in 1999, it's still flying and still looks ok after a dozen flights.

2000, Verna picks up 3 Saturn V's from a local hobby shop. A couple for me for Christmas and one for a son. In time, we build a second Saturn V, a 5 engine cluster, later named Rocket Babe and she's a 5 engine cluster. It's a long build in unknown territory but as we from the Civilized Tribe always do, "we endeavor to persevere" and it's completed. The painting is a chore but it turns out ok.

Finally we find a few hours to fly and head out to our secret field and get set up. I'm excited but a little concerned. We've got a whole new launch system with a heavy duty pad, leads, control box and 12 volt power source.

The wind isn't too bad, about 8-9 mph and it's over cast and cool. My main concern is about all 5 igniting together. The cameras are ready too. The wind dies down and the count is 5 4 3 2 1 and off it goes! The first flight liftoff, is flawless. All 5 light and it lifts straight up on a D12-5 and 4 C6-0 boosters. Unlike the single D engine that seems to fly like molasses, Rocket Babe jumps off the pad without hesitation, with lots of noise and smoke, rising to about 200'. All seems to be going great but then, right at burn out of the boosters, the rocket separates early, while it's still climbing at a pretty good clip. It looks like it broke in the middle and I cringe watching it, praying the chutes will voluntarily open.

Screaming down in a severe arc, the 3 ounces of lead in the nose seem to be leading us into that predicted fiery crash and burn, as the chute and sling look like a streamer. I'm getting sick as the larger booster tumbles toward the ground but then just as suddenly, my fears subside. The ejection kicks out the 2 chutes of the booster, just as the upper stage chute frees itself and deploys about 50' off the ground. Both come down intact and for the most part undamaged. Only a couple of chute lines on the upper stage have pulled through the plastic. There is a ding or two on the paint but over all, Rocket Babe is fine.

We decide not to fly it again until we can figure out what went wrong and hope the video and still photos will tell us. We had a partial success, because the new pad and launch system worked fine and the lift off was fantastic. Back at home watching a very good and detailed video, it appears that everything was going well until there was a pressure build up from the C6 boosters burning through, causing an early separation. If that is true, it's a simple matter of using the same delays on all 5 engines but it will be a while before we can try again.

August 2001... in the mean time, we find out my dad, now 79, has stage 5 stomach cancer and suddenly, flying isn't so important. He chooses not to under go all the radiation and chemo and recovers quickly from the operation to remove the tumor from his stomach. We soon forget about flying all together.

Knowing he has less than 6 months to live and time is short, we prepare as best we can for the inevitable. The man responsible for my love of rocketry is not going to be with us much longer.

He does well until New Years Eve and we decide to take him to launch Rocket Babe again. We set up and prepare to go. It's late afternoon and cold about 40* but the wind is dead calm. I'm concerned he'll catch cold and in his weakening state, I don't want a family outing to cause pneumonia. He insists he's fine, cameras are in place and we continue to prepare to launch. Finally, as the sun sinks behind the hill and we're running out of daylight, the key goes in and the red light burns brightly, indicating the pad is hot.

We're ready to go. He counts it down, 5 4 3 2 1 and pushes the button. Rocket Babe responds instantly, and we watch as she burns into the twilight sky. This time we hear the engines shut down but she continues to coast upward and then I can hear the 35mm clicking away.

As she begins to arc, the ejections go in rapid fire and we hear all 5 go. The rocket separates and the crimson nylon chutes open with a snap, as we watch both sets of chutes float gently to the ground. Rocket Babe IS a success. Everyone is jumping up and down and the look on my dad's face was priceless. I asked how he liked that and he just laughed and said, "Son it was great, I bet they felt it at the Cape." It was his reference to the ground shaking for miles when a real Saturn V lifted off. He got to witness three.

2002 was upon us. It was 34 years later but we finally got to enjoy launching a Saturn together and a cluster at that. He joined his friend Von Braun, March 25, 2002.

With so many things to wrap up from taxes to final arrangements, it was about 6 months before I began to think about flying again. After stopping by rmr to lurk for a week or two, I rejoined the group and I began to think about doing that 3 stager. With 3 still in shrink wrap, Verna saw a Hobby Lobby ad for half off on all rockets, in November 2003 and picked up the last Saturn V left in the area. Having procured a kit for $45, we decided to build as soon as possible. As soon as possible would be after the first of the year. Verna was determined I'd build a 3 stage Saturn yet.

2004 began and I started scrounging up the extra parts. After many years of building, we had amassed quite a collection of scrap and spare parts, so I determined to make everything we could, from what we had on hand and broke the plastic. We got organized and were underway by the middle of the month.

Our goal was not to build the fastest or highest flying Saturn V. We wanted to make it a functional 3 stager that would allow everything to happen close enough to see and still have enough altitude to be a decent flight, AND, that could be flown repeatedly. If we were successful this Saturn V was going to be a baaaad girl!

Lots of parts, extra parts, some sanding, cutting, measuring, figuring and repeating every step several times. Construction crept along for over 3 months. We had to figure out how to cut and vent the main tube and engine tubes cleanly, where to drill vent holes in the engine tubes, how to seat the upper stage engines, recovery for each stage, how to prevent scorching of the lower stages at separation, make centering rings from scrap. Verna came up with a simple way of making the entire cluster mount for the first stage removable and it cost less than $1.00. We'd need fins for the upper stages too. The list was going to be long.

After decades of waiting and 3 months of building, experimenting and careful work, we were finally finished with our Bad Girl. It was the most special rocket I'd / we've ever built and all it needed was a special finishing touch. Thinking back to my dad flying B-17's in WWII and the nose art of the planes, I came up with an idea and Verna indulged me in it. I'd use her as the model for the nose art and get Tom Baker at Tango Papa to help out with the decals.

With everything complete, all we needed was some time and decent weather for a maiden flight. We got them both April 27th and headed to our secret test site and our first flights of 2004.

Finally, the actual flight report......................................

Setting up at noon, we were ready to go in just a few minutes. Temp was 84* sunny and the wind was gusting to about 15 mph. I was concerned about the wind but decide to try to launch during a calm period, when it almost stopped. I waited for calm and started the count down only to abort twice, when the wind picked up just as I started the count.

The 3rd time as they say was a charm. With 2 video cameras going from different angles, I made it to zero and Verna pushed the red button. Bad Girl instantly responded and jumped off the pad, as all 5 engines pushed the 26.7 ounce monster (by Estes standards) into the sky. What ever wind she encountered had little effect as she boosted perfectly straight off the 4' x 3/16ths rod. The first 2.1 seconds everything was looking great. At this point if all went well, Bad Girl would stage and all 5 engines of the 2nd stage would ignite and hopefully she would continue upward but even if all went well, I was not expecting it to continue perfectly straight up but hoped she would only fish tail a little, before continuing to climb.

At 2.2 seconds there was a brief hissing noise, that I would later learn was the one and only B4-2 engine in the 2nd stage to ignite. I was mainly concerned about this point of the flight, that the stages might hang up but the 2nd stage did separate and without much of a problem. Later, the video would show the 1st stage briefly, as it floated slowly out of the frame.

Now, I'm trying to keep my camera on the 2nd stage, not really able to tell what's happening, only that there seems to be some amount of thrust coming from the 2nd stage. If you've ever tried to video a launch, you know how difficult it is and how little you can tell about the flight while you're running the camera. I managed to stay on the flight as thrust stops and she continues on. As busy as I am filming, I know that it's past time now for the 3rd stage to have ignited and I'm following a rocket in trouble. As I'm doing my best to stay on it anyway, all the way to it's end, I hear Verna say, "something is bad wrong!"

Reflex makes me forget the camera and I have to look unrestricted. I can see the 1st stage almost down, gently tumbling on it's side, as it falls into some very high grass and weeds about 200' down range and the 2nd and 3rd stages coming down quickly 100' further down range. When I finally focus on the upper stages, they are about 125' above the ground. It looks bad and I'm waiting for the thud to come but then I hear a pop and they separate. Fortunately the only engine to ignite on the 2nd stage, is one of the 4, that had an ejection.

As I watch the 2nd and 3rd stages grow further apart and to my amazement, I see one of the chutes of the 2nd stage open and it slows considerably. It at least has a chance. The 3rd stage continues to fall but by some miracle it separates at the last possible moment and even though the chute does not fully deploy, the free tumbling halves of the 3rd stage develop enough drag to save the lower reduction portion. The nose impacts hard but the grass is high and thick and it slows it down enough that the nose of the capsule with the 3 ounces of weight in it is undamaged. Only the very end of the tube that would normally have been painted silver, is moderately compacted by the impact and the paper reduction wrap is wrinkled at the base. One of the RCS nozzles was lost but other than that, not too much damage. It could have been much worse and we could even fly it again in it's present condition but I will make the repairs needed before she flies again. There WILL be another flight. : )


While it was not a picture perfect flight, I do consider Bad Girl a reasonable success. There were many obstacles to over come and I think we have most of the bugs worked out. The damage was slight considering what we were attempting AND... we recovered 95% flight capable. Verna's removable cluster mount was a nice development.

As G. Harry stated, it IS possible to chad stage, even with motors 10.5" apart. The trick we have to learn is how to get it done 5 times simultaneously. There was no damage to any part of the rocket due to the staging that occurred. Maybe because it was only 1 engine that ignited but the thin black residue left no real damage to the rocket. I just wiped it off with a damp cloth.

While I have lots of building and finishing photos, the only lingering disappointment we have is that we lost most of the 35mm still photos of the launch. I don't know if the film was bad or the processor botched the job.

We do have a decent video but no video capture ability at this time but Verna did get some great prior launch photos of Rocket Babe's maiden launch and I'll have her post those to abmr shortly. When the video is ready it will also be posted at http://www.sears572.com.

No doubt our attempt at 3 staging is small potatoes to many and we won't win any medals for finishing but it was a blast for us to build and the realization of something I'd wanted to do since I was 12.

Sorry this was so long but over the last 7 years, I've enjoyed many hours of reading about many of the rmr regular's backgrounds and histories in the hobby. It was my hope that knowing some of the background about our history, would be a nice break from the political and OT for a few of you.