Lance Thompson: What Inspired My 12-Years Old Self


Kennedy Space Centre: January 2012

(This revision January 2023)


"Soon there will be no one who remembers when spaceflight was still a dream, the reverie of reclusive boys and the vision of a handful of men" Wyn Wachhorst



Space Geek


What is it that inspired me as a child?


I was born in July 1957, just before the Space Race began, in October 1957, with the launch of Sputnik-1. And only 12-years from the first manned space flight to land on the moon.


I was very sorry to hear of the death of Neil Armstrong (25 Aug 2012). As inevitable as such events are, it is testament to the increasingly distant era of mankind's greatest adventure.


It has taken until now, January 2012, for me to visit the place where it all happened.


I have edited this page several times since 2012. This current edit, January 2023, is to celebrate, finally, a return to manned space flight beyond low Earth orbit.


NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System) and Orion spacecraft will, hopefully, return men and women to the lunar surface by 2026 with Project Artemis.


The grand old lady Saturn-5 is no longer the most powerful flying machine; the SLS now holds that title. And SpaceX Starship powered, on the first stage, by 33 Raptor engines, will be even more powerful. However, there is still a record that’s likely never to be broken: The F1, with a lifting potential of 600-Tonnes per engine, will hold the record for the most powerful single chamber liquid-fuel rocket engine ever built and used.


The ‘Rocket Garden’


Project Mercury: 1958-1963


The rockets that carried the first sixteen American manned spacecraft in to space were simply those same machines intended to deliver nuclear warheads.


The first two astronauts, Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom, where boosted aloft by the Redstone missile in a Mercury capsule (right-hand side in this image). The next four astronauts, John Glen, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and Gordon Cooper were launched in to orbital flight atop the Atlas missile (left-hand side in this image).


It was probably seeing the T.V. coverage of Gordon Cooper's flight and, soon after, my being given a book on space - Timothy's Space Book - that sparked my interest.


My early interest later developed in to a passion for science and engineering.


Interesting note: at the time of these flights, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were producing the children's T.V. series Thunderbirds. Those old enough to remember the shows will notice a striking similarity of the names of the characters and the astronauts of Project Mercury!


Project Gemini: 1961-1966


After Project Mercury, which were single astronaut missions, came Project Gemini carrying two astronauts. Their booster was a Titan missile, seen in the centre of this image.


The Gemini Astronauts:


Gemini-3: Virgil Grissom & John Young


Gemini-4: James McDivitt & Edward White


Gemini-5: Gordon Cooper & Peter Conrad


Gemini-7: Frank Borman & James Lovell


Gemini-6a: Walter Schirra & Thomas Stafford


Gemini-8: Neil Armstrong & David Scott


Gemini-9a: Thomas Stafford & Eugene Cernan


Gemini-10: John Young & Michael Collins


Gemini-11: Peter Conrad & Richard Gordon


Gemini-12: James Lovell & Edwin Aldrin


Gemini was the test bed for all of the techniques and skills that would be required to get to the moon. Mercury and Gemini used launch rockets that were 'off the shelf' cold-war missiles. Still missing were the machines that would make manned flight to the moon possible. From 'Rockets to the Moon' being just science fiction, to the test launch of the most powerful flying machine ever created, took less than 6-years.



The Saturn-5 Moon Rocket


Everything about the Saturn-5 is as impressive today as it was back in the 1960's.



This image is of the cluster of five F1 liquid-fuel rocket engines, powering the first stage of the Saturn-5. Each F1, the right-hand image, (nearly 12-feet in diameter at the nozzle) was capable of lifting over 600-tonnes off the ground. Each F1 consumed over 2.6-tonnes of propellant per second. Together the five F1s could lift the all-up weight of 2800-tonnes Saturn booster, and its Apollo spacecraft, off the launch pad and propel the vehicle for the first 70-miles. With a notional fuel consumption of 5-inches-per-gallon, it was not going to win any fuel-efficiency competition! At engine cut-off the spacecraft was travelling at around 1.5-miles-per-second.


The F1 is still the most powerful single chamber liquid-fuel rocket engine ever created.


At launch, the five F1 engines together produced over 44-gigawatts equivalent to around 1-million family motorcars!


An absolutely stunning YouTube video of a Saturn-5 launch, with slow motion of the F1s




If, like me, you're wondering about the music used in this video: Baltars Dream and Roslin and Adama, both by Bear McCreary


Back in 1972 I made a sound recording (with my first cassette tape recorder) of the launch of Apollo-17. Broadcast by the BBC on the 7th December 1972, with James Burke and Patrick Moore commentating. It was the only night-time launch of a Saturn-5, and the emotional effect of lighting up the sky with a forty-four-thousand-megawatt candle is very evident in the recording. Click the video frame below to listen to the launch:








There are three unused Saturn-5 boosters; they would have been Apollo 18, 19 and 20.

At Kennedy Space Centre the Apollo Saturn-5 moon rocket is displayed as separate stages and units.


Moving along the 363-ft length of the Saturn-5


A cluster of five J2s providing the thrust of the second stage of the Saturn-5


Whereas, perhaps, not quite as impressive as the F1, each J2 produced over 100-tonnes of thrust. When these engines were exhausted the spacecraft was travelling at nearly 5-miles-per-second, and was almost in Earth orbit at a height of 100-miles.


The third, and final, stage of the Saturn-5 was powered by a single J2. This engine was fired twice: first to slip the spacecraft into Earth orbit, and second to propel the spacecraft towards the moon.


After the third stage was finally exhausted, the Apollo spacecraft had a velocity of 7-miles-per-second and was moon bound.



To put together the largest rocket ever built, you need the biggest single enclosure structure ever built. At 526-ft tall, with a volume of nearly 130-million cubic feet, the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) is a very large structure!


Now renamed the Vehicle Assembly Building, the flag is 209-ft by 110-ft, giving some scale to the colossal VAB.


We were lucky to have visited Kennedy Space Centre just as they started visitor tours of the VAB.



Launch Complex 39A: the launch location of Apollo-11.




The Apollo Missions:


Apollo-7: test flight of the Apollo Command and Service modules


Apollo-8: first manned flight to leave Earth orbit and fly to the moon


Apollo-9: test flight of the Lunar Module, in Earth orbit


Apollo-10: all but land on the lunar surface flight to the moon


Apollo-11: first manned space flight to land on the moon. Sea of Tranquillity


Apollo-12: second manned landing on the moon. Ocean of Storms


Apollo-13: near tragedy, perhaps the greatest rescue story of all time


Apollo-14: extending the science objectives near the big crater Fra Mauro


Apollo-15: with the first car on the moon, explored the Hadley region


Apollo-16: the first landing in a highland region of the moon. Descartes


Apollo-17: the last manned flight to the moon, with the first trained scientist. Taurus-Littrow



For only 17-days in the entirety of human history was it possible to look at the moon and know that people are there.






The space suit worn by Alan Shepard on the moon’s surface during Apollo-14, February 1971



Apollo-14 Command Module Kitty Hawk




Touching a piece of the Moon.





The Human Cost:


Considering the risk of early manned space flight, it is (retrospectively) amazing that NASA did not loose any astronauts during space missions until, that is, the tragedies that hit the Space Shuttle. However, on 27th January 1967, during a dress rehearsal for the launch of NASA's first 3- man spacecraft (Apollo), a fire killed the three astronauts. I clearly recall the breaking news on UK television, reporting the deaths of Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, on-board an Apollo-Saturn-1B. Their deaths led to a complete redesign of the materials, electrics and hatch of the Apollo capsule.


The launch pad (Complex-34) has been left as a memorial to the crew of Apollo-1


It is hard to imagine the effort involved in achieving John F Kennedy's commitment. There cannot be - there is not - anything else that mankind has done that can compare with the sheer audacity of achieving Kennedy's goal, in his words to Congress 25 May 1961: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."


And then on 12 September 1962, Kennedy enthused: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."


I was sorry to hear of the death of Patrick Moore. As a young lad I wrote to him on a number of occasions, and he never failed to reply. I still have the 'official' Apollo-17 lunar landing-site maps he gave me, which he used on television to describe the landing location.


It is all too easy to look back and be cynical about those days in the 1960's. But it is never cynicism to inspire a child. I would not wish to have been born at any other time in history: not 5-years later, or 10-years earlier. The space race inspired me, and it shaped me. And for that I thank everyone that was involved in its execution and broadcast.


What is it that inspires today's children?



Suggested Reading:


I have read a great many books on both the history and engineering of the 'Space Race'. If there is one book I would strongly recommend, it is "Failure is not an option" by Gene Kranz. If you want to know what it was like in those heady days, Kranz has written the definitive description. Kranz was there from the start, in the thick of it, and his descriptions of those days are vivid and exciting.


The images taken by the astronauts are, of course, very special. And nowhere are they better displayed than in the book "Full Moon" by Michael Light.


And for the engineers, I can recommend "The Saturn V F-1 Engine: Powering Apollo into History" by Anthony Young. This book is, perhaps, a little too geeky for a general readership: it gives the nuts and bolts description of the F-1.


The Archive of both NASA and The Jet Propulsion Laboratory are full of great historical information, as well as current projects.


Warner Brothers mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", presented by Tom Hanks (another self-confessed space geek), presents as close an emotional equivalent as I think it is possible to achieve that is, if you weren't there for the real thing.



(It is) Rocket Science:


The Saturn-5 was a very powerful flying machine; far and away the biggest, most powerful, flying machine ever created – only now, 60-years later, surpassed by NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). However some web sites wrongly attribute even higher performance figures to the Saturn-5: 60-gigawatts is often quoted as the power of the first moments at lift-off.


The question maybe straightforward but the answer is far from obvious, which is probably why there are so many (different) figures quoted for the Saturn-5 'power'. Any rocket is only useful if it gets off the ground. You can have allsorts of fireworks going off underneath the machine, but if the force generated is not enough to overcome the weight of the rocket it will go nowhere.


The heaviest Saturn-5 launch was that of Apollo-17 - figures taken from the Apollo-17 Press Kit:


The total weight of the rocket was 2923461kg


The total force imposed by that weight of rocket is equal to the weight multiplied by the Earth's gravitational acceleration:


Rocket exhaust force must exceed 2923461 times 9.81 = 28679152N


The force generated by the five F-1's was 34096110N, i.e. 5416958N more than the weight-force of the rocket. The rocket will, therefore, get off the ground.


Propellant discharge rate was 13200kg per second - called Mass-Flow in rocket speak - over 13-Tonnes per second: an astonishing figure!


Power in Watts is equal to the force squared divided by two times the mass-flow:


Watts = 34096110 times 34096110 divided by 2 times 13200 = 44035784739-Watts, or 44-gigawatts.


Therefore the power generated immediately at lift-off is 44-gigawatts. At the time, in 1972, this was equal to one-third of the electricity demand in the USA. Or put another way, the power of one-million family motor-cars!


The best YouTube video I've been able to find that gives some 'feel' for the raw awesome power of a Saturn-5 launch is linked below. No music, this time, just the sound of five F1 engines at full throttle!





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