SLS vs Saturn V: the Key Differences Up Close and Personal

It doesn't matter how many people NASA's Space Launch System rocket eventually lands on the Moon. No matter whether it's 15 percent as estimated, 20, or even 30 percent more powerful than the Saturn V from the Apollo era, it spiritually replaces. SLS is bound to live in its ancestor's shadow.
SLS vs Saturn V 35 photos
Photo: Benny Kirk/ autoevolution (both photos)
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But the flip side is that the SLS stands on the shoulders of a legend. Let's take a detailed look at the key differences between the booster rockets of America's only two Moon programs, Apollo and Artemis. By most estimations, there are only around 40 or so feet (12.19-m) in height between the Space Launch System and the Apollo Era Saturn V.

The SLS measures 322 (98.1-m) feet tall compared to the Saturn V's 363 feet(110.6-m). Most people present at LC-39's press building the evening before Artemis I's first launch attempt weren't even born when Apollo was active. With no frame of reference, it's nearly impossible to visualize the height differential between the two rockets from three miles away unless you'd seen both launches in the flesh.

Of course, only a handful of people at KSC that day could lay claim to that privilege. Instead, the most significant differentiation between the two rockets, at least in the beginning, was the difference between success and failure. 'The Saturn V and the Apollo program had strong foundations in the two previous NASA manned spaceflight initiatives, Mercury and Gemini.

SLS  Rocket
Photo: Benny Kirk/ autoevolution
NASA learned enough about how the human body functioned and operated in space between 1961 and 1967 to legitimately put John F. Kennedy's greatest ambition of landing a man on the Moon before the 60s ended into the realm of reality. Gemini and Mercury were the gold standards of manned spaceflight with a nearly flawless record, few accidents, no fatalities, and perpetual overachievement of NASA's expectations.

The same couldn't be said of SLS's original design plan under the now defunct Constellation program, ended by the Obama administration in 2009. Under that program, NASA's moon missions would consist of two launch vehicles, the Ares I and the Ares V. The former was, in many respects, just a Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster with some window dressing to pass off as though it could carry the then brand spanking new Orion spacecraft prototype into Low Earth orbit.

From there, the spacecraft would link up with the Ares V cargo booster carrying the never produced Altair LSAM. When it was abundantly clear this two-booster system was flawed at best and ridiculous at worst, everything was scrapped sans the Orion capsule. As for what's under the hood, both American moon rockets packed the most impressive hardware of their eras.

The five Rocketdyne F-1 engines present in the Saturn V's first stage were the most powerful single-stage rocket engines in history in their day. They'd go largely unchallenged for the next sixty years. This first stage alone jetted 7,500,000 pounds(33,000 kN) of thrust. Two further stages fitted with Rocketdyne J-2 engines in a group of five, and then one singular netted enough power to reach the Moon comfortably.

Saturn V Rocket
Photo: NASA
On the other side, the SLS booster rocket's main engines have been the subject of constant ridicule, jeers, and mean comments from people in the media and on social media. Their biggest contention is that SLS's RS-25D main engines are derived from the old Space Shuttle. Never mind, they're wildly different and upgraded over the old Shuttle. People must enjoy shiny, new things.

Whether you agree or not with repurposing/upgrading existing flight hardware, performance figures of 8,800,000 pounds (39,000 kN) of thrust at liftoff comfortably eclipses its Saturn V grandpa. With fully loaded lifting capacities of 210,000 pounds for the SLS (95 metric tons) and 260,000 pounds (118 tonnes) in later interactions of the Saturn V, even more during the launch of Skylab. With a dry weight of 5,750,000 pounds (2,608,105.6 kg), SLS is noticeably lighter than the heavyweight Saturn V clocking in at 6,200,000 pounds (2,812,272.7 kg), owing to composite metals not available in the late 60s. Add everything up, and it's more than fair to call SLS Block I and the Saturn V dead equals. At least, until SLS Block II rolls around.

Of course, a pair of Shuttle-derived solid rocket boosters greatly aid in bumping power figures. To some, that might be like adding 95-shot of nitrous to an R-34 Skyline, but with rockets instead of sports cars. I.e., like cheating. Lest we remind you, both rockets aren't about to participate in a drag race, although that sounds amazing in theory.

In reality, that extra solid-fueled boost will help the Orion capsule greatly in bringing it to a top speed of 25,000 mph (40,233.6-kph) on its way back from circumnavigating the Moon. That's up from the Apollo Command/Service Module and LEM combination's top speed of around 17,000 mph (27,358.9-kph). Albeit with a slightly lower effective payload, at least for now. We can't wait to see if SLS Block II bridges the gap.

Saturn V Rocket
Photo: Benny Kirk/ autoevolution
Assuming all goes well with subsequent Artemis launches I through V, there'd be every reason for SLS to hold itself in just as high esteem as the Saturn V. Now then, can we finally see what the darn thing's got already? These launch scrubs are painful. No matter, a few more days won't hurt.

Check out more live coverage from the Kennedy Space Center for Artemis I right here on autoevolution.

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