Blasting Out Of The Atmosphere

Blasting Off

To exit Earth's atmosphere, rocket technology is necessary. With each leap forward in space exploration, new rockets were required. NASA developed a series of rockets to propel our off-world voyages.

The Evolution Of NASA Rockets


Little Joe

Little Joe never carried astronauts into space. In fact, it never carried anything into space; it wasn’t powerful enough to reach orbit. Built by North American Aviation, this solid fuel booster rocket weighed 28,000 pounds, stood a shade under 50 feet tall, had a 6.6 foot circumference, and a finspan 21.3 feet across. It generated 235,000 pounds of thrust and could fire for a total of about 40 seconds. Only eight of these rockets were launched, all between 1959 and 1960, on suborbital flights designed to test the Mercury spacecraft’s escape system and heat shield.

The Little Joe displayed here is a Little Joe II rocket carrying a qualification test vehicle as its payload, a boilerplate Apollo spacecraft and launch escape system. Launched on August 28, 1963, from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, this was a test of the Little Joe rocket itself. The flight was a success save a failure of its destruct system.

Little Joe

Mercury Redstone

The Redstone, built by Wernher von Braun’s team at the Marshall Spaceflight Center, was the first rocket to launch manned Mercury missions. Standing 83.38 feet tall, the Redstone weighed 66,000 pounds and could generate 78,000 pounds of thrust. That was enough power to lift a Mercury spacecraft off the ground but not enough to carry it into orbit. The Redstone launched two suborbital Mercury flights – Alan Shepard’s May 5 flight aboard Freedom 7 and Gus Grissom’s July 21 flight aboard Liberty Bell 7 – in 1961. Unfortunately, these suborbital hops came after the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit. To match the orbital feat, NASA needed a bigger rocket.

This Redstone depicts Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 flight, which, true to its namesake, had a crack painted on its side. Though it followed the same flight path as Shepard’s flight, the spacecraft was different: it was the first to have a window. Each Mercury spacecraft was slightly different, but the biggest differences were between the suborbital and orbital models. They used different materials to cope with different flight parameters. The rocket’s markings of “MR 8” denote that this was the eighth Redstone built for NASA’s Mercury program.

Mercury Redstone

Mercury Atlas

The Atlas, built by the US Air Force, started life as an intercontinental ballistic missile before the Atlas D version served as NASA’s first orbit-capable rocket. Fueled by a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen, the Atlas stood 67 feet 4 inches on its own and 95 feet 4 inches with the Mercury spacecraft on top. It was also one of the more problematic rockets NASA dealt with in its early history; it had a nasty tendency to explode during or shortly after launch. Towards the end of 1961 when NASA decided to launch John Glenn into orbit on an Atlas, the rocket had a 51 percent success rate. But Glenn climbed atop the rocket on February 20, 1962, and became the first American to orbit the Earth. NASA used Atlases to launch its three remaining orbital Mercury missions, those of Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper.

This Atlas is modeled after Carpenter’s May 24, 1962, Aurora 7 flight. This three orbit flight was NASA’s longest to date, and nearly became its first fatality when a flaw in the attitude control system led Carpenter to overuse his fuel and splash down 250 miles from his intended landing point.

Mercury Atlas

Gemini Titan

The bulk of the Titan rockets built in the 1960s were Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles save a handful of civilian variants NASA used to launch its Gemini spacecraft. Standing 103 feet tall, measuring 10 feet in diameter, and weighing 340,000 pounds, the two stage rocket was powered by hypergolic fuels – a mix of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. Hypergolics burn cleanly, so when the Gemini-Titans launched the rockets seemed to rise on an invisible flame. Twelve Titans launched as part of NASA’s Gemini program; the first two carried unmanned spacecraft and the last ten carried two-man crews into Earth orbit. The program was a vital step paving the way to the Moon: it was the program that taught NASA how to really fly in space.

This Titan II, with the serial number 12558, is modeled after the Gemini 3 flight, the first manned mission of the Gemini program. This spacecraft’s black stripes were an attempt at thermal control in space. This flight also marked the first time a spacecraft flew without a name. Grissom wanted to name Gemini 3 “Molly Brown” after the unsinkable Titanic survivor, but NASA felt such a name wouldn’t bring good publicity.

Gemini Titan

Saturn IB

Burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and generating 1,640,000 pounds of thrust at launch, the Saturn IB was too weak to lift a whole Apollo lunar spacecraft into orbit. But it could launch the Command and Service Modules alone into Earth orbit for test missions. The Saturn IB carried unmanned Apollo Command Modules into orbit on test flights before launching the first Apollo crew – Apollo 7 – on October 11, 1968. After this first Apollo flight, the Saturn IB was put aside for five years until NASA was ready to launch another Earth orbital mission of the Apollo Command Module. On May 25, 1973, a Saturn IB carried the first crew up to the Skylab space station. The last Saturn IB launched carried the Apollo half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission. Subsequent rockets were scrapped before they were completed.

This Saturn IB is modeled after Apollo 1 or AS-204 (AS for Apollo Saturn), NASA’s first manned Apollo mission that ended in tragedy when a fire killed the crew during a pre-launch test. The rocket was eventually refurbished and used on an unmanned test of the Apollo Command Module.

Saturn IB

Saturn V

The Saturn V is the most iconic rocket of the early space age, and it remains (in 2013) the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. Standing 363 feet tall and weighing 6 million pounds, the three-stage rocket generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust at launch – enough to send the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules to the Moon. As a point of comparison, the escape tower designed to pull the manned spacecraft free of an exploding Saturn V had more power than the Redstone rocket. As the 1960s wore on, NASA fast tracked its test program for the Saturn V by launching a full rocket right away; previously engineers tested each system at a time. On it’s first flight, the unmanned Apollo 4, the Saturn V performed beautifully. The second flight, Apollo 6, had minor problems. The third Saturn V to launch carried the crew of Apollo 8 to the Moon in December of 1968. Save Apollo 7, the Saturn V launched every Apollo mission. The last Saturn V launched carried Skylab into orbit on May 14, 1973.

This Saturn V is modeled after the one that launched Apollo 14, the mission commanded by Alan Shepard, the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon.

Saturn V