The Saturn V Rocket and Supply Chain Innovation

May 12, 2011
The creation of the Saturn V Rocket -- the greatest machine ever built -- required not just technical prowess but radical supply chain innovation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of human space flight and President Kennedy's "Moon Shot." 1961 also was the year in which the Saturn V rocket -- the greatest machine ever built -- began to take shape.

The Saturn V was, and still is, the largest object to leave the surface of the Earth. At 363 feet in height -- or over 30 stories tall -- the rocket weighed 6.3 million pounds, about the weight of 1,600 automobiles or 50 Boeing 747s. As of today, the Saturn V is taller than any building in Alaska, Delaware or 13 other states.

The rocket was the loudest creation made by human hands, except for the cacophony created by nuclear explosions. The only natural sound on record to exceed the noise of the Saturn V engines was the fall of the Great Siberian Meteorite in 1883. Small earthquakes, as high as 4.6 on the Richter scale, were registered across North America when the first Saturn V launched from Florida in November 1967.

The five rocket engines of the Saturn V's first stage were the most powerful ever built. The rocket weighed 6.3 million pounds and the Earth's gravity exerted another 1.4 million pounds of resistance, requiring 7.7 million pounds of force to launch the rocket and its payload into orbit. By comparison, getting a jumbo jet into the air requires a mere 66,500 pounds of thrust.

To house the Saturn V, NASA built the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center, which remains one of the world's largest buildings, covering almost eight acres. The VAB's four mammoth doors, 456 feet in height, are the largest ever made. The VAB had to be constructed in three stages and is large enough to hold up to four complete Saturn Vs at one time; Yankee Stadium or the Rose Bowl would fit on the VAB's roof. Due to the VAB's size, the structure is rumored to have its own unique weather patterns.

NASA and its corporate partners built 15 Saturn V rockets. Thirteen went into space. Twelve were used in the Apollo missions, 10 of which carried astronauts and six of which took men to the moon. The last Saturn V to fly was used for the Skylab program in May 1973. Remarkably, every Saturn V launch was successful. Two missions suffered in-flight problems including engine cutoffs, but these were overcome, resulting in successful outcomes. The flawless launch record of the Saturn V stands alone in the history of human flight.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Anyone who has played the MBA simulation called the "Beer Game" understands that production and order quantities rarely reach a happy equilibrium, resulting in over- and under-supply of a product. The Saturn program's dispersed research, production and testing facilities, spread all over the country, presented a major logistics and quality-control obstacle. Imagine building a piece of a puzzle at various locations and then hoping all the pieces would fit together without a problem. Chances for success seemed dependent on too many variables.

The Saturn's first stage was contracted to Boeing. The company was charged with testing and delivering a completed first stage to NASA in Florida, where the stage would be paired with the second and third stages before launch. The first stage was assembled outside of New Orleans, so every supplier had to be sure to coordinate the development, testing and delivery of its components on a very tight schedule and under meticulous specifications. There were no personal computers. Fax machines didn't become popular until the late 1970s. Researchers couldn't scan images and attach them to e-mails. The modus operandi of the era was investigation with slide rules, pencils and paper.

The coordination of the second and third stages, along with the Saturn V's computer instrumentation unit, presented similar planning and management challenges. Time was not always an ally. Perhaps there is a lesson in the Saturn project that transcends technology and engineering. Fear drives people to greatness as much as genius. Facing a future of Soviet scientific dominance, America was able to move with a purpose.

Pressure never seemed to let up. Pressure was related to the narrow window for each launch. A missed window meant a flight delay. The window could be several hours or just several minutes.

Pressure was determined by the position of the launch coordinates (Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center) and the selected moon-landing site. Pressure ruled out launching during half of a given month because the landing site had to be in sunlight for the astronaut's descent. Pressure was inherent in the Lunar Excursion Module and the astronauts' suit-design qualities that restricted available launch dates even further. Pressure was Florida's unpredictable weather making the launch window even smaller.

Supply Chain Innovations

Given the small margin of error, the builders of the Saturn V were compelled to pay particular attention to the supply chain. Not only did NASA personnel have to manufacture a massive piece of brand new technology, they also had to innovate the distribution and logistics process -- all under a very firm deadline. To verify the space-readiness of the Saturn stages, NASA floated the boosters on massive barges from the Michoud plant to the Huntsville, Ala.,test firing site, back to Michoud for redesign and finally off to Cape Canaveral in Florida. One of the barges that carried the Saturn booster was called the Palaemon for the Greek god who was the protector of ships. The barge was 180 feet long, 38 feet wide and was as tall as a four-story building.

The Palaemon was part of the NASA water-transport fleet that included three 270,000-gallon liquid hydrogen barges and six 105,000-gallon liquid oxygen barges (the fuels used by the Saturn V engines); two barges for transporting the Saturn V engines on inland waterways, called the Little Lake and the Pearl River; a seagoing vessel for transporting rockets from California, called the Point Barrow; and a number of towboats, including the custom-built Clermont, the Apollo and the Bob Fuqua. Before the Saturn rockets voyaged into space, their components had already logged thousands of miles over the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and required negotiation of the Panama Canal, the Gulf of Mexico and the Intercoastal Waterway. The waterborne routes were time-consuming, but remained the only feasible mode of transporting the larger of the Saturn stages.

Another transportation breakthrough came in the form of the Pregnant Guppy. The Pregnant Guppy was an outsized cargo aircraft that incorporated the wings, engines, lower fuselage and tail from a Boeing 377 Stratocruiser with a huge upper fuselage more than 20 feet in diameter. The aircraft had a volume of 22,500 cubic feet and was built to transport outsized cargo for NASA's Apollo program. In the early 1960s, the plane airlifted an S-IV stage of the Saturn I at a weight of almost 21,000 pounds, which at that time was the largest cargo ever transported by air. The Guppy added to NASA's transport capabilities and was critical in shrinking the delivery time of Saturn components.

The scope and magnitude of building and launching the Saturn V rocket is an example of supply chain management at its finest. Although the personalities of America's space program are better known, it was NASA's ability to harness the energies of 400,000 engineers, scientists, technicians and supply chain professionals that allowed Neil Armstrong to fulfill President Kennedy's goal of walking on the moon and returning safely to the Earth before 1970. As America looks for its next Moon Shot, we would be wise to remember how brilliant Americans can be when tasked with developing new systems and processes for previously impossible endeavors.

Contributing Editor Andrew R. Thomas is assistant professor of international business at the University of Akron and a bestselling writer. His latest book is "The Greatest Thing Ever Built: The Saturn V Rocket." He can be reached at [email protected].

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