Why does it seem so difficult for cinema and television to get the roll pattern on the Saturn V correct? The most famous of the incorrectly painted Saturn V’s is from the movie “Apollo 13.” Just as in so many other screen appearances, the Saturn V is painted incorrectly for a flight vehicle (including Apollo 13). Why?
The launch of the Saturn V was unlike any previous launch task. Handling of the stages, stacking the vehicle, fueling the vehicle – all were an order of magnitude greater than anything done before. Launch Complex 39 was built specifically to launch the Saturn V.
The massive first and second stages were delivered by barge to a turning basin near the Vehicle Assembly Building, a huge boxy building with four “high bays” for building up the rocket. The third stage and spacecraft arrived by air. The vehicle was stacked in the VAB and transported to the pad on a mobile launcher containing the platform and the tower, carried on the back of a crawler-transporter.
Before anything could be launched from this brand new complex, it had to be checked out. To do so, a dummy Saturn V was built that allowed testing of the launch facilities, making sure everything was ready. This vehicle was known as SA-500F, and it is 500F that has delivered to us mis-painted Saturn Vs for nearly 50 years.
Let’s start with the first (S-IC) stage. On a normal flight vehicle, the roll pattern consists of four black stripes, at 90 degree intervals, alternating with white stripes. The stripes only extend to the top of the RP-1 (fuel) tank of the vehicle. On the 500F, the stripes extended higher, intersecting a black ring that went all the way around, just below the liquid oxygen tank.
To confuse matters a bit further, the first two flight vehicles, SA-501 and SA-502 (Apollo 4 and Apollo 6) were delivered with this same roll pattern – black and white stripes extending up to a full ring around the vehicle. Sometime between receiving the stages at the VAB and the rollout to the pad, the extensions were painted over. This alteration can be clearly seen in photographs. Apollo 8 was delivered with the first stage roll pattern that was used for the rest of the flights.
The 500F first and second stage interstage, the second stage, and the second and third stage interstages were the same as the flight vehicles. However, the 500F third stage was made for the Saturn IB, which had a different roll pattern, and the vertical red letters “USA” at 90 degrees around the stage. S-IVBs for the Saturn V were white, with no letters, and with the instrument unit painted black. Because of this difference, the pattern on the third stage of 500F is unlike any Saturn V flight vehicle.
Why does this cause so much confusion? The best we can do is make some guesses. One possibility is a 1/96th scale model kit of the Saturn V that was released in 1969, by Revell. In the painting instructions for this kit, the 500F roll pattern was specified. Since many have used this kit as the basis for details on the Saturn V, one possible source for the mistake is this kit.
Many times the Saturn V was depicted on the screen and in television in the 1967-1968 time frame using 500F footage because it was more accessible than flight vehicle footage. Because 500F was the first time a Saturn V was “all-up” on the pad, a large amount of footage was shot for press. One example is the Star Trek original series episode “Assignment Earth (1968),” which uses both 500F and flight vehicle footage.
Another possibility is the artwork released by NASA in the late 1960s that depicted the roll pattern of the Saturn V as matching 500F. Posters and artist’s depictions of flight events used the 500F scheme.
Whatever the reason for mis-painting the Saturn V, we’re left with today’s pet peeve – sometimes glorious special effects (such as in “Apollo 13”) depicting a Saturn V launch – of a vehicle that never flew.
So what happened to 500F? The vehicle was de-stacked on April 21, 1966. The first stage was sent back to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL and was scrapped. The second stage was reassigned as a dynamic test stage, sent back to Marshall, and is now on display as the second stage of the Saturn V at the U.S. Space & Rockets Center. The third stage was modified into the Skylab workshop dynamic test stage and sent to Johnson Space Center in Houston. In June 1974 it was returned to Kennedy Space Center, and its fate is not known.
Related footnote: When I was creating the Saturn I & IB DVD set, I was provided a set of footage from Marshall Space Flight Center of the Apollo 7 launch. Many of the shots on the third disc in that set came from these new transfers of footage from the Saturn IB launch for Apollo 7. These new transfers were made by Marshall as part of supplying the mini-series “From the Earth To The Moon” with footage. There were two tapes of specific material for the Saturn IB.
I had noticed a mistake during the Apollo 7 episode from “From the Earth to the Moon,” entitled “We Have Cleared the Tower.” In an otherwise nearly flawless series, there is ONE shot during Apollo 7’s launch that depicts a Saturn V – a medium shot showing the S-II stage during liftoff. I now know specifically how that happened.
On the two tapes of Apollo 7 material, there is a single shot of a Saturn V, rather than a Saturn IB. The erroneous shot is the same view that made it into the “We Have Cleared the Tower” episode. I won’t say it “wasn’t their fault,” because there’s quite a bit of difference between a Saturn V and a Saturn IB, but they were working from tapes that were assumed to be all Saturn IB footage. Such is the way these things happen.