The View from Apollo 4

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

The Earth as seen by the unmanned Apollo 4 mission in 1967. Credit: NASA

Apollo 4 is one of the unsung heros of the Apollo program. Launched on November 9, 1967, it was the first flight of a Saturn V rocket, the first orbital test of a Command and Service Module, and an overall vital step on the way to the Moon. What we don’t often mention when we talk about Apollo 4 is that the Command Module had a camera on board that was programmed to take a series of picture beginning one hour before and ending one hour after the spacecraft reached it’s apogee, it’s furthest point from the Earth. 

Development of the Saturn V rocket formally began on January 10, 1961. Originally called the C-5, it was designed by Wernher von Braun as a follow-up to the successful Jupiter series; the Saturn rocket was so named because it’s the next planet in the solar System after Jupiter.

Apollo 4 on the launch pad. Credit: NASA

Apollo 4 on the launch pad. Credit: NASA

When it came to his rockets, Von Braun had a conservative approach. Starting with the V-2, he’d adopted a method of testing every piece of a rocket individually and making only one change – some modification or introducing a new part – with each test launch. The idea was that if the test failed, the problem could be traced back to the one thing that was different from the previous successful launch.

George Mueller felt differently. When Mueller assumed responsibility for the Apollo program as Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight in 1963, he immediately recognized the need for a more forceful approach; there was no way NASA would make it to the Moon within in the decade if it had to test the Saturn V piece by piece. Drawing from his own experiences with the U.S. Air Force’s ballistic missile program, Mueller called for NASA to adopt an “all-up” approach to its rocket tests. He wanted von Braun to test the full rocket all in one go. The first Saturn V, he said, should be a complete rocket with a live Apollo Command and Service Module as payload so the agency could test its spacecraft in orbit.

In the end, Mueller outranked Von Braun and NASA implemented “all-up” testing for Apollo. The first Saturn V launch, Apollo 4, was a stunning success that went a long way in helping Apollo get to the Moon by the end of the decade. And the pictures that came back from the mission are absolutely amazing. 

Comments

  1. says

    When I was interviewing von Braun Team Members in Huntsville for my Thesis they mentioned how this was one specific issue that von Braun was wrong about in fighting Mueller’s all-up approach. They were cautious and incremental in making modifications and in testing them on their boosters for the reasons you mentioned. Konrad Dannenberg told me without Mueller’s more aggressive approach they would not have had the Saturn V ready by the end of the decade. Von Braun admitted Mueller was right and moved on. I was impressed in learning how von Braun had very little ego about his ideas when the evidence indicated he was wrong. He and his team were focused on the ultimate goal of landing on the moon. Mueller rightly gets credit for this risky gamble that could have literally blown up in their faces. With great risk taking came great rewards for the Apollo Program. I miss the days when risk was NASA’s business.

  2. says

    Great post, Amy. Why was the footage shaky? Was Apollo under power at this time? Or was there some kind of mechanical tracking to keep Earth in subject?

    • says

      The footage is shaky since it isn’t a video but 619 individual photos pieced together. There is no indication of the time between photos but attitude of the spacecraft could be shifting between images. I suppose additional post-processing could be done to eliminate the apparent “shake”.

      • says

        Ah… thank you for explaining that… yeah, its easy to loose sight of just how difficult an undertaking it was to run even a camera remotely in the 60s as it seems so simple today.

  3. says

    Fascinating as usual! Thank You. And thank You for pointing out and reminding to the reader the magic miraculous way both von Braun and Mueller at the end of the day worked together, in spite of their very different approaches to rocket engineering.

  4. stuyoung38 says

    Once again, Amy, you’ve popularized something which was little known. We’ve all seen the videos of Apollo 4′s Saturn V’s first and second staging events; but I never knew that the CSM was taking pictures, too! Man, we’ve got a beautiful planet!
    Just think: we’re slated to duplicate the mission of Apollo 4 next year, with the first test flight of Orion – only 47 years later! Well, we’re not actually using the same rocket to boost Orion that we’ll be using starting in 2017; but beggars can’t be choosers. At least the 2017 flight will boost Orion on a circumlunar orbit – duplicating the mission of the USSR’s Zond 5 mission – from 1968.
    Speaking of which: Happy Yuri’s Night everyone, this Friday! Party safely – if you can find a local one. If not, create your own, and register it with the international Yuri’s Night website. “Get your space freak on!”
    -Stu Young

  5. David Shomper, ex-Apollo engineer says

    I was there for the A-4 launch, but never knew about the CSM photos; cool.

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