Of all the vast range of fascinating, compelling exhibits on show at Florida’s legendary Cape Canaveral space centre, there is none as potent or iconic as the giant, upended Saturn Five rocket, the last survivor of a series that witnessed some eleven successful launches between December 1967 and December of 1972.
It’s a staggering brute to behold. At some three hundred and sixty three feet in length, the Saturn Five is composed of three stages, tapering inwards from bottom to top. Each of the five, gigantic booster engines used to hurl this enormous mass into space is roughly the size of a small swimming pool. The power contained within this long dormant craft is almost volcanic in nature.
Saturn Five was largely the brainchild of the enigmatic, controversial Wernher von Braun, the former head of the Nazi ballistic rocket programme during World War Two. Along with some seven hundred of his fellow workers, he was spirited to America after the Nazi surrender.
Von Braun- made an American citizen in recognition of his services to American rocketry- remains a hugely controversial figure, and almost certainly the only man to shake hands with both John F. Kennedy and Adolf Hitler. Yet, without his prior research and expertise, the Moon landing of July 1969, and the subsequent, follow on expeditions, would have been impossible for several decades more.
In one of history’s greater ironies, Apollo 11 would land on the Moon on July 20th, 1969- the 25th anniversary of the Rastenburg bomb plot that narrowly failed to kill Adolf Hitler. I’ve often wondered exactly where Wernher von Braun’s head truly was on that momentous day.
There’s no denying the beauty of this astonishing creation; even the petrified colossus on display at Cape Canaveral looks ready to burst into life and hurl itself skywards at a seconds’ notice. Smooth, sleek and bridal white, the beast is softened with broad black bands and giant stars and stripes, as well as the iconic USA labels emblazoned on it. As such, Saturn Five is as potent a sixties icon as the Beatles, Carnaby Street or, indeed, the ill starred JFK himself.
It’s doubly poignant that Kennedy- the man who fuelled the race for the stars more than anyone- never lived to see his moment of ultimate, posthumous triumph, when Neil Armstrong became the first of fourteen astronauts to set foot on the surface of the Moon on that momentous day in July of 1969. Von Braun, of course, did. Much of his past was vaporised into nothing in the pioneering trail of Apollo 11. The man who had Hitler’s blessing- and, indeed, active encouragement- to build rockets big enough to raze Washington to the ground became an American hero instead.
Ultimately, the programme was killed off by it’s own stratospheric price tag. In 1969, it cost a staggering $185 million to put a Saturn Five into space. That’s roughly the equivalent of almost $1.2 billion in today’s terms. And it also has to be remembered that America was neck deep in the bloody quagmire of the Vietnam War at this same time.
Be that as it may, you cannot stand and look upon this staggering, stalled space giant without feeling the most incredible sense of awe, wonder, and also reverence for the men who were brave enough to strap themselves into the top of this giant potential bomb, and hurtle into the outer limits at a speed that staggered belief. if you happen to be in the Cape Canaveral region, then the entire complex- now much more of a museum/theme park than an actual working base- is most certainly worth a visit.