Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Saturn V: The Facilities Verification Vehicle 500F

On May 25, 1966 the first stacked Saturn V rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and proceeded at the breakneck pace of 1 mph to Pad A of Launch Complex 39.  It was designated AS-500F.

The mission: to verify the Launch Umbilical Tower/Mobile Launcher interfaces as well as the hardstand at the pad.  Tanking tests involving the loading of super cold liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen as well as room temperature  kerosene propellants would occur under pad conditions for the first time.

However, AS-500F had a secret mission too.  One that would not be revealed until years later.  The much photographed first stack would set the appearance for millions of toys, model kits, posters, and dog chew toys for decades, even when just a few minutes of research would show that the actual flying versions were different.

It is true that originally, NASA had mapped out the markings slightly different than what Apollo 4 displayed when clearing the tower.  The intertank of the first stage or S-IC was to have black stripes continuing from the RP-1 tank and around the top third of it's circumference.  But workers found that the temperatures were extreme under the baking Florida sun and plans were quickly made to paint over those areas with white paint.  This was done on Apollo 4 and 6, and explains the sightly mismatched white on the intertank.  Conventional paint rollers were employed to do this.

Further, the S-IC did not have the American Flag on the LOX tank, something that was sort of a oddity as the flag was not visible after tanking due to the ice which formed on the exterior.  Only when empty or as it rumbled upon takeoff was the flag visible.

The other major oddity was the S-IVB or third stage.  It was actually the second stage from the AS-200F or Saturn IB verification vehicle.  The markings there were partially correct for the Saturn Ib as the aft skirt was correct for some versions.  The forward area with the huge squares of black spaced around the forward skirt and tank were from concept art and didn't make it to a flight vehicle.

Lastly, the black ring with camera targets on the Service Module are unique to 500F.

So, why do a vocal minority sigh and roll eyes when photos or references to 500F appear?  It's not that they hate on it like a Skylab mutiny story but rather it's the fatigue of model companies, publishers and movie people refusing to google "Apollo 11 rocket".

Monogram and Airfix model companies in the late sixties produced Saturn V kits from these first photographs of 500F.  It's amazing that decades later, they reissue the kits with shiny new box art still referring to the old paint job, inaccurate for any flying version.  The instruction booklets are still incorrect as well.  I will give kudos to Airfix for releasing their kit with a properly scaled Apollo Spacecraft to replace the underscale version in the original kit.  Monogram, now Revell, has never done this.

Then there is the movie Apollo 13, which all space buffs, historians and Hipster love because it's OUR movie.  Dang it if they didn't nearly replicate the 500F scheme on in the Saturn V launch sequence!  Still a great movie but couldn't they have asked just one nerdy space nut about that marking pattern?  I guess not.

The 500F paint scheme is part of history and the vehicle that wore it represented our dreams for a flight to the moon.  In a difficult time in our country's history it was a hopeful contrast to other less happy events.  But sloppy research and a reluctance to accurately replicate the outward appearance of the one rocket in history (so far) that took us to the moon is disappointing.  So when we see restaurant menus adorned with 500F and new toys painted likewise, allow us to shed a tear for lack of research or just not caring about our favorite launch vehicle.


  1. I always notice this odd paint scheme on models, toys and in movies. So much for authenticity (sigh).

  2. And don't mention that none of the models first stage F-1 engines have the insulation batting fitted to the flight vehicles ;) I've lost count of the 1/144 scale resin F-1 engines I've sold :)