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.
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.